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Friday, 6 September 2013

The Goose And The Golden Egg

Got a little email from a subscriber who hasn't been using their monthly questions, so I thought I'd do a bit of a piece on it.

Here's the email:

I've recently been applying great effort to learning things I've had difficulty learning in the past, fuelled by the 'music pattern discovery' which we discussed.

I seem to have a tapped a pool of enthusiasm for things which makes things I couldn't do previously (but attempted), suddenly become the most fun and engaging experiences I've ever had.

I didn't know PHP but I wanted to, so I sat down at my PC and decided I wasn't doing anything else until I'd made something in PHP.

18-hour days of continual coding, from waking until sleep followed, and 3 days later I completed something functional that people are using.

I was so engrossed that I had no desire to do anything else whilst coding it. It was neither stressful nor boring. It was certainly difficult, and challenging indeed. So... that sorta raises some points.

I honestly find applying myself to something that I really urge to do, far more enjoyable than procrastinating.

I'm not really sure what drives the urge, but I'm certain it's something that can be honed.

Most importantly though, I'm sensing an 'unspoken effortlessness' that underlies all the effort. It's sort of like...

When you first drive a car, it's mental. Pedals, gears, wheel, mirrors. All this stuff going on and so much concentration despite moving at 2mph. Beads of sweat as you stall and roll backwards down a hill.

5 years later, you just jump in and don't even think about any of it anymore. It just happens automatically. You're like 'okay let's drive to work' and 15 minutes later, there you are.

The same applies with lots of things I can think of. Drawing, music, reading, 3d modelling, photography, football, coding. All have relative initial degrees of perceived complexity...

And yet, the more time you spend doing any of them, the more undone they become, revealing the simplicity that lies underneath.

Correct me if I'm wrong but... it doesn't just seem like an 'accumulation of knowledge' that is responsible either. It almost seems like the opposite is taking place, like the tension that mentally says 'I don't know X' is falling away and being replaced.

Not being replaced by 'advanced knowledge' (like knowing every hotkey for instance), but by a... clearer understanding. One which doesn't need every hotkey, every guide, advanced features or even an explanation.


XXXXXXXXXX

Yes, this is a very interesting email, lots to talk about here.

Firstly, it's great to see you putting this stuff to use.  The ability of human beings to develop any skill of any kind to a very high degree really is the single most powerful faculty that humans have.

We're all taught that talent is what counts, but I can honestly say that it's so massively overblown.

It's almost as if (were I to be being ruthless about it, which of course I never do) we love to think in terms of talent.  That the idea that some people are just born naturally 'good' at this, or 'good' at that is a very seductive one - especially if we feel, as we often do, insecure about our own successes... or lack thereof.

It's a great excuse when we look at someone doing something amazing - that person is talented, and so I don't need to feel like I'm to blame because I can't do this or that as well as they can.

I sometimes wish I could just wave a magic wand and just say something like "now see how massive and vast and deep that attitude dominates all of the ideas about success and excellence that we experience in our whole lives" and you all would.

Of course, that's impossible - only those precious few (yes, I'm talking to you, don't be coy) who really do take the time to deeply consider things - to work that muscle, to build that skill - are even going to be capable of that.

The killer, of course, is that we like the idea of 'talent' as an explanation for human excellence because it means we never have to feel like it's our fault that we're not that good at things...

...but....

...and watch closely, this one has a ruthless edge to it you could cut diamonds with....

...accepting that excuse cuts us off from the actual ability to ever really get good at anything.

And it really does.  People - and not just some, but massively the majority of people - never get really good at anything.  It's like an uncharted realm to them, an undiscovered country.  Few know, and few will ever know, what it's actually like to be genuinely good at something.  Anything.  Anything at all.

But of course, it's not our fault... we just don't have the talent.

The only people who ever make a difference with their lives, ever, under any circumstances, are people who discard that lie for the ridiculous and facile excuse that it is.  And it is.

And those who don't?  Well, the ruthless train just keeps on chugging, because life is not a kind place for the powerless.  People are not kind to the weak.

We drift through oceans of storied morality, tales and vignettes about how kind we are, how good we are, how decent.  But if you scratch that surface you'll find something quite different beneath - that our stories of how moral we are almost always have an eerie parallel with the balance of power in any given situation.

Everyone looks kind, all the time.  Even when people are being cruel, they'll have their moral fig-leaves, they'll have their tales of compassion.  The reality is that those who treat those weaker than themselves with genuine consideration, when nobody else is looking and when they do not have to, is vanishingly rare to a degree that is genuinely shocking when you see it from below.

And yet, to spare our blushes, we leap to an excuse that cuts us off from the most potent resource that we, as humans, have.

And you could say that it's the faculty to generate skill.  And if you're a long time reader to this blog, you'll discover that it's also (if my strange, uncredentialed, widely derided and ignored philosophical skills are to be believed) the core process that underlies science itself.

But then, really?  We're not talking about science, and we're not talking about skill.  There's another word which underlies both, which makes both possible - finesse.

Skill is finesse in a task, science is finesse in understanding.

Finesse is the key - the ability to develop finesse.

Now here's the thing.  Just as people love to think of excellence in a task as being down to 'talent', because it takes the blame away from them, there's a parallel with understanding too.

I really think it's credible that one of the main reasons - and perhaps the main single reason - why the idea of 'accumulating knowledge' is such a persistent way of thinking about understanding.

It's not that it's absent, it's there, to a degree.  There are technical things to know about any task or any subject.

But what makes you a master of it is only incidentally connected with accumulating knowledge.  What makes you a master of it is finesse.

I noticed many years ago the incredible parallels  that exist between the ways in which anyone who has achieved mastery at anything talks about what they do.  Athletes, scientists, musicians, playwrites, novelists - perhaps, God forbid, even the occasional philosopher.

It's because they're all doing the same thing.  And the same very specific thing - it's not vague or woolly.  It's the same thing that works in the same way, and no matter how much it is buried beneath excuses of convenience, it will always rise again, as long as there is even just one human left who takes an interest in actually getting good at anything, whatsoever it may be.

Finesse is zen.  It's that simple.  The trying and failing, the stepping back, the seeing deeply, the diving in deeply.

Every time you fail, you break, you fall.   But what falls?

The ego, the self.  Literally, the self breaks when it fails at something.  That's why failure hurts, it's why we run from it.

But failure gives us something - it reveals.  Failure is never random, and if it is honest failure, the fact that it is not random means that we're discovering something we do not know, and that we could not have discovered any other way.

And what happens when we 'try again'?  It's a new 'ego', a new self.  It gets thrown up, but this time taking into account that new information from the last failure.

And this goes on and on, failure breeding more sophisticated projection, more sophisticated 'selfing', if you will.

And then, after a while (10000 hours, if you listen to Malcolm Gladwell, which I do), you've done this so much that you are totally in tune with what you are doing.

You have 'hit zen'.  Not zen as the wan, empty, serene peace of the sage, but zen as in the razor-edged cut of the samurai.

You can do it with anything, and it is genuinely incredible how good people - anyone, yes, you (don't be coy) get at doing anything.

But then....

....we don't have that many 10000 hours, do we?  That's a lot of time.  A lot of time to invest.

And so we have to, as men and women, ask ourselves, if we are to take a wider concern for this world and for the future (and I hope we sometimes do) what is the skill that the world needs most right now?

How can I get the most bang for my buck?  The buck is time - you don't have forever, just one human life.

To make the impact the world desperately needs, to move beyond what it has historically meant to be a human being, to step forward into a new kind of humanity, to step past the apathy and sneers of this most cynical of ages?

Well now.  PHP isn't going to hurt.  But is it a game changer?

If you can be world-class at anything, make a world-class decision of what specific skill to take to that level of zen.

And to the subscriber who wrote this, I don't think I need to say what I'm about to say, but for anyone fresh to my work, I certainly don't mean to in any way belittle what you've done.  It's an amazing achievement - but what's more important than the results, is the process you've now got a really good handle on.

The goose is more important than any individual golden egg.

Because guys, guys, guys.  Let's not get too excited by trinkets when we're sitting on the motherlode.

I'll leave you with that to consider, and also a video.  This was sent to me by someone I worked with in the past.  He mentioned that he'd found the stuff I'd written about skill to be helpful, and very accurate to his experience, and he sent me this, where he showcases a skill he himself has developed.

One last thing.

A skill taken to the level of zen is something that can never be taken away from you, like a normal possession.  It is always there, always incredible, and always wide open as a gateway to that place whenever you want to immerse yourself in the flow of the real.

There is a world of chaos and a species in torment, howling out it's misery and damage, wallowing in superficiality because it knows no other way.

Humanity can be more.  If, that is, you are prepared to be more.  To be something greater and more difficult than you have been.  And I hope you consider what I have said here, and I wish you all the very best.

And really - it's not just the fact that this stuff can change the world, or that it's an awesome, challenging and exhilirating way to live.

It also can, on occasion, look absolutely phenomenal.

Enjoy.


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