Why is it that I always learn more poorly when preoccupied with the awareness of overarching, long-term, daunting, seemingly unreachable goals? Why does this awareness impair my ability to retain information and learn efficiently in the short term?
It’s as if I’m climbing a mountain or a steep cliff. Looking up at the top – so far away – weakens my knees and makes it impossible to take the next step. I get dizzy, and stop moving.
When I’m pursuing an interest as a hobby – with no intention of necessarily turning it into a career – I actually pick it up faster and eventually become more skilled and comfortable with that “hobby” than I typically do with a trade or skill I’m attempting to master for a living.
Perhaps the awareness that there’s more “at stake” if I “fail” in my career-focused pursuits actually causes me to behave more timidly in my experiments, practice, and projects? Perhaps I’m more afraid to “break things” when there’s potential future livelihood at stake?
Perhaps I’m concerned about sullying my Github account with unusual or potentially “junky” coding projects, so I refrain from trying anything new or interesting or different (i.e. breaking things), in case a future potential employer will notice that I’m a ruthless coder who has no qualms about employing haphazard coding practices?
Yet this fear and timidity keeps me from acquiring new skills, deepening my reserves of knowledge and experience, and from sharing with others the things I’ve tried and learned – and failed.
The cure is creating an inner environment that fosters creativity. Creativity is related to exploration and learning. As long as we are being critical, we are not creating.
The great thing about “hobbies” is that they free us up from the perceived need to be critical of our work. Hobbies allow us to break free from those chains and truly explore.
You can’t make things unless you break things.
How is a cake baked?
By breaking the cleanliness and pristine appearance of your kitchen and clothes – covering them in flour and dirty dishes. Yes, you just broke something. Congratulations. It was a necessary sacrifice for the end result, the finished work of art.
How is a house built?
By sawing wood. Breaking.
How is an argument won?
One of two ways.
By fearlessly and ruthlessly dissecting the opponent’s viewpoint and arguments so that an appropriate counterargument can be created. Or, by breaking your own pride and choosing not to press the matter. In different situations, different actions are called for, but they always involve breaking, whether inward or outward.
Creators are breakers. They aren’t afraid to get messy.
As long as that critical inner voice is examining, challenging, and questioning all your thoughts and work, you’ll be poring over old pieces of information and old ways of thinking, trying to fix things from the past. Edit, revise, delete.
But when you’re caught up in the flow of creativity and unfettered learning, you’re not thinking about the past or what went wrong or should have been. You’re in the present. You’re going along for the ride, wherever it may take you. And you don’t care where it takes you or if you’ll get messy, because anywhere you go, you’ll learn something.
We learn things the most effectively when we get messy doing them. When we have tangible results and reminders of our adventure. When we make a mistake, or take home a “souvenir” from our “field trip”.
But the only way to get messy is to stop trying with every mite of ourselves to prevent that from happening.
I picked up the piano somewhere around ages 10-11 – with no particular intent (IIRC) of turning it into a career. I fell in love with it and for years, often dedicated hours a day or week to practice.
But it didn’t really feel like practice. I was just having fun.
No goals in mind, beyond discovering and understanding more deeply a subject with which I was smitten.
And the more I’ve learned in recent years not to beat myself up for mistakes I make on the piano, the more creative I’ve become when I play.
Last year, when I was trying to learn coding quickly enough to become “employable” within a few months, I completely burned myself out. I was so preoccupied with a daunting goal – and so aware of how far away I was from reaching that goal – that I became more stressed and struggled to think clearly. (I was also still eating foods to which I’m sensitive, which was making me sick and hampering my processing/memorization ability.)
I am surrounded by friends and family who are highly skilled and gifted as engineers. It is easy, when surrounded by such kickass prowess, to unfairly compare yourself to that level of accomplishment and skill, and to expect yourself to reach a level of competence and knowledge within months that has taken them years or even a lifetime to acquire.
When making such a juxtaposition, you begin to view yourself as a pebble surrounded by boulders, and wonder how you will ever “measure up” or succeed like that. (Comparison is a nasty game to play, for all parties involved.)
I have a tendency to idealize other people and their qualities (and/or to disparage my own abilities and level of accomplishment while comparing myself with them). Sometimes, I only see the positive in other people’s lives and stories, forgetting that it likely took them a lot of crying, falling, and bleeding to get where they are.
And for sure, some people – including most undoubtedly many among my friends/family – seem to just have a knack for engineering. In addition to that, many of them had an earlier start in this field than I did (Not only chronologically, or in terms of years, but also in terms of age). This does not, however, mean that it’s impossible to learn engineering or programming later in life (if 24, almost 25 can be considered “later”).
It is helpful to remember that it took them time to get where they are now, even if they were always talented, and excelled in their craft at an early age. If they started learning at five, or ten, or fifteen, and are where they’re at now professionally (and are all older than I am) – then I have a lot of years to make it where they are. That is actually encouraging.
In this light, my overwhelming feelings of inadequacy and futility begin to look a little stupid and myopic.
Frustration is normal. Feeling frustrated does not mean that you will be unsuccessful, or that accomplishment is impossible. Frustration is something that we all experience. It is what we do with it – or in spite of it – that predicts our future.
Many who hear me play the piano today do not know that when I was about eight, my mom was trying to teach me the piano, and I was extremely frustrated. Frustrated to the point that I ran away to my bedroom, crying. Declaring that I would never learn the piano.
Two or three years later, I picked it up like a long-lost friend. Or a novel stranger.
And my romance with the piano has never died. (Though I haven’t given it enough love lately.)
In fact, today, I consider piano to actually be one of my stronger skills.
“Success” doesn’t happen overnight. And the road to it isn’t as seamless as most of us think.
What we see – when comparing ourselves to others – are the certificates, the diplomas, the credentials, the titles, the job offers, the promotions, eloquence, flow, smooth execution, sales, growth, profit.
What we don’t see are the 10-20 years sprinkled and stained with long nights, setbacks, “failures”, moments of feeling like a failure, moments of slacking, brain “deadness”, confusion, “dumb” questions, tears, sweat, inward or outward cursing, “dumb” search engine queries to solve problems, and the aid or burden of people – friends, family, professors, mentors – who pushed them in the right or wrong direction. The people who supported and encouraged or sabotaged and encumbered them. We don’t see what they struggled through, in order to become who they are today.
Instead, we see the finished, polished, sharp product that emerged from the flames.
And we assume that that’s how they always were.
That they were never rugged, rough, unpolished, raw, “purposeless”, like us.
We assume that they started out polished, and that consequently, there is no hope for us, because we cannot start out like that.
It’s normal to stumble. To “fail”.
It’s normal to have off-days where you’re just in a funk and don’t feel like you’re getting much done, even though you try to put in the effort. You’re not always going to feel the things you want to feel (a “sense” of progress, accomplishment, smartness, or excellence). But that doesn’t mean action and change aren’t taking place.
In fact, if you’re always feeling “smart” or “competent” in your work or studies, then you’re in the wrong place.
As long as you feel inadequate and lost (but not quite hopelessly so), you’ll keep trying to become qualified for the job. You’ll keep searching and studying and desiring to learn. You’ll stay far away from complacency.
And yet, at the same time, if you feel too inadequate and lost – and beat yourself up for being so – you’ll also get stuck in the swamp of complacency that way.
In the end, then, it’s important to be aware that there is much we don’t know. It is important to feel inadequate, but also to realize that everyone is inadequate in some fashion – in different areas at different times of their life. It’s important to realize that this is normal.
Once we can reach this realization, we can stop expecting the unrealistic of ourselves. We can stop being critical of ourselves and our work, afraid to fail, break things, or get messy. And that’s when we actually start making things and learning.
This is why, when pursuing “hobbies”, I’m actually free to learn and create more effectively. I view failure in this arena as acceptable, because there’s no career or future at stake. Failure is “normal” or “okay”. Or maybe more accurately, there is no such thing as “failure” in this arena. Failure does not exist, because there is no one and nothing to fail. There is only ground to be discovered.
On the other hand, when there is the perception of someone or something to fail…
…It’s like the problem you encounter when you’re around other people and trying to read fast, or type quickly. You can barely read at all, or you make more errors while typing.
…Or like when you’re trying to sleep. You’re so busy overthinking sleep, and analyzing how you’re going to fall asleep, that you hamper the natural flow of actually falling asleep.
Why do our thoughts interfere with our ability to act, learn, read, type, or fall asleep? One would expect that “thinking harder” would tend to yield the desired results more than “not thinking”.
We think that by just thinking harder, we can more effectively control our situation. Learn more quickly, fall asleep sooner, play the piano faster.
I’m currently teaching my neighbor piano. One thing she’s shared with me is that when she stops “thinking” about how to play and just “does” it, she plays better (and I would agree – this seems to be the case).
I’ve found the same thing myself.
It is only when we stop thinking about the sheet music, the finger placement, the duration of the notes, that we actually play them correctly.
It is only when we stop thinking about typing – and controlling others’ opinions of our typing – that we type at our normal level of speed and accuracy.
Only when we stop thinking about sleeping – and about controlling our sleep patterns – do we fall asleep naturally.
In essence, it is only when we let go our sense of (or desire for) control that we actually regain it.
When we compare our situation to what isn’t – to someone else, or a place at which we haven’t yet arrived, or a quality to which our work doesn’t measure up – we’re looking at the top of the mountain. But seeing how far we have to go just disorients us, and we lose our footing. We lose control.
If you’ve climbed a mountain before, you’re probably familiar with how the “top” seems perpetually elusive.
And our future and goals are that way. There’s always more to add. More to learn. More to achieve. If we keep our eyes on what “should be” or what currently “is not”, we will become discouraged, disoriented, and dizzy.
If we fail to focus on the present, we prepare ourselves to fail.
We must redefine success as learning, living, loving, and laughing in the moment. Success is not somewhere in the future. Ultimately, it is not found in a paycheck, a career, or a title. Success is enjoying the journey, and learning in every moment.
The future will take care of itself, if we embrace the journey in front of us, break things, and let go.
Note: I’m not saying don’t work hard, have plans, or care about doing anything with your life. If you don’t do any of these things, life will throw some extra challenges your way. But I think you already know that’s not what I’m saying in this post. 😉 This is just a disclaimer.
Thanks for reading. <3
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