I’m not writing this post as an attempt to share my knowledge on how to be a renaissance man, this is coming from my fascination with people who manage to master multiple crafts.
By no means am I a renaissance man, but I do have a strange fear of being pigeon-holed into one spot which I believe has given me the drive to develop myself in multiple areas. I’ve always enjoyed being able to do many different things and when I see other people who have that same ability I can’t help but to want to know how they do it.
When I was younger, older folks would always call me a jack-of-all-trades. I’m not sure if they were insulting me or complimenting me, but I’ve always been interested in what turns the “jack-of-all-trades” into the “master-of-all-trades”. Perhaps it’s impossible, but one particular person who I believe got pretty close was a true genius, Leonardo da Vinci.
While he is most known for his paintings, da Vinci studied more than just painting. He was a student in sculpting, architecture, anatomy, zoology, physiology, astronomy, geography, naval warfare, philosophy, writing, music, and engineering. Most people just spend their lives doing one thing, but this guy dedicated himself to learning everything he could about everything he could.
Personally, DaVinci is a huge inspiration to me. I believe that human beings have immense potential and da Vinci is one of the few people in history who actually brought it out. He showed me that people are capable of being well versed in anything, we never have to commit to knowing just one thing. This gives me a feeling that’s like a perpetual renewing of life — knowing that tomorrow always contains something exciting and new.
I believe the foundation to unlocking our miraculous potential is outlined fantastically in Michael J. Gleb’s book How to Think like Leonardo da Vinci: Seven Steps to Genius Every Day. These steps are known as the Seven da Vincian Principles and these principles lay the foundation for da Vinci’s incredible ability to learn so deeply.
The 7 da Vincian Principles
This is an insatiable curiosity. Not only will having an insatiable curiosity reveal to us the path of mastery, but it’ll always reveal new paths to explore. We can always keep discovering.
I attribute much of the success in my life to having an insatiable curiosity. It’s what birthed all of my passions as well as laid the foundation for most of my relationships.
This is testing knowledge through experience. Learning is fantastic, but sometimes we’ll learn inaccurate information. The easiest and cleanest way to separate the wheat from the chaff is to put it to the test in a real-life scenario. Everything we learn has to be battle-tested. Sometimes ideas are great in theory, but true and good knowledge works through experience. We can use our curiosity to learn large amounts of knowledge and we can test our findings out in the field, so to speak.
This is a continued refinement of the senses. We must constantly be refining how we sense. Over time, our typical five senses (hearing, touching, smelling, seeing, and taste) become less sharp unless we intentionally stimulate and use them. This can extend far beyond our five senses, expanding into our senses of other non-tangible things. Focusing on refining our business, social, or artistic sense could also lead to unlocking human potential.
Thankfully now we know enough about people to know that refining our sense is as simple as “use it or lose it.” Continuously challenging our senses inherently refines them and in the struggle of that challenge, something beautiful is born.
This refers to a willingness to embrace ambiguity. The older I get, the more I see this to be necessary to grow in any capacity. Before we can be masters, we must be fools and to be a fool is to live with ambiguity. When we first start something, we have to accept that something is just unclear and that’s okay. We have to be okay with a certain level of the unknown in order to expand ourselves. Learning is converting the unknown into the known and that can only happen if we accept the unknown for what it is.
This is also true with art. When we start an artistic project, we don’t exactly know what it will become and we need to allow the project to grow through the ambiguous stage.
This is to develop a balance between art and science. This is probably my favorite principle. I see art and science as the two forces that drive humanity forward. One makes life worth living and the other makes it better – you could make a compelling argument for either and that is what I love most about it.
Artsy types that shut out the world of science are closing themselves off to a world of infinite beauty and wonder and the same is true with ultra sciencey types who shun art. Great art is a science and great science is an art and to be apart of both worlds is one of the best parts of being human.
This is cultivating fitness and poise, which comes with the acceptance we are a human animal and not a machine. We have physical needs that must be met and cultivating that within us is beneficial everywhere else in our lives.
A healthier body does more. In a day it can make more decisions, take in more information, learn more, share more, create more, and make more connections. With fitness comes poise and with poise comes more accurate and precise actions. Developing grace is developing awareness and intentionality, two crucial traits for mastery.
This is recognizing and appreciating that all phenomena are connected. Let me just say that taking the time to see the interconnectedness of the universe is the definition of inner peace. But it’s much more than that too, it’s also a way for us to understand the world around us. To understand me is to understand others and to understand others is to understand me. Seeing the connections between subjects that may seem like polar opposites like philosophy and mathematics gives a richness to life that I’m not skilled enough to capture in words, but it’s something like being present to the miracle of existence.
When I’m present to the connection of existence, I have an appreciation for all that is and all that is not. We can see a pattern of the planets in a solar system that’s similar to structures at the atomic level and it’s amazing to observe. Each piece is in its place, doing what is it supposed to, like music or mitosis. Understanding that all things are connected also gives us frameworks to explore new crafts and subjects. Discovering that connection is invigorating.
Each of these principles makes up the larger foundation on which we can develop our skills and ourselves. Developing each of these principles strengthens the others, as well as evolve every other part of our lives.
Thank God, we have access to this kind of knowledge and that people before us took the time to write it down. But it’s not like da Vinci made these rules and lived his life by them. He was living a certain way and discovered the principles as he developed himself so that others may be able to get a glimpse into his mind.
I suggest living out just one day with these principles in mind and see how you like it. We can try anything for a day.
“If you look for truth, you may find comfort in the end; if you look for comfort you will not get either comfort or truth only soft soap and wishful thinking to begin, and in the end, despair.”
C.S. Lewis (1889 – 1963)
We love to look for comfort, but seeking out comfort can lead to taking shortcuts and avoiding challenges. The comfortable path enables us to practice habits which reward instant gratification and that prevents any long term goals from ever coming to fruition. This isn’t to say that the way to success is paved by only misery and suffering. There is a balance to be found between living a comfortable life and living a meaningful life. That balance could never be achieved if one was aiming at comfort, but it could possibly be achieved through aiming at truth. Finding the truth gives us a realistic view of what is required for success and only there it is possible to make peace with the high price success and meaning demands. Living a significant life is expensive, and the price can only be paid if we know it exists. That price of meaning lies in the truth but is masked by comfort. The unfortunate part of it all, is that humans have a need to be comfortable. It feels so good, and on some level makes life worth living all on its own.
It’s worthwhile to chase truth because it will make us smarter, tougher, more creative and dangerous. If we know what is true and share it correctly with others, then they will give us money and opportunities. The pursuit of truth will give us access to unlimited worthwhile experiences. We will become the beings which shapes the world around them.
Chasing comfort is terrible because we stop failing and when we stop failing, we stop learning. We can think of being comfortable as being in an environment in which everything is acting as we expect. While that sounds like a great place to be, the problem is we never need to learn anything if everything is working out exactly as we expect. If there is no mismatch between the actual environment and our expected environment, then our brains find no use in learning something new. Why bother? Everything is working perfectly. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it amiright? But when we dwell in the realm of order we don’t fail and because we don’t fail, we don’t learn. If we don’t learn, then we can’t become the people we want to be. I go more in depth on this in my post about The Power of Failure. Humans are creatures of necessity and we only learn something new if we need to, so if everything around is is perfectly fine then there is no learning taking place.
Be mindful of when you want to take the comfortable path. It’s probably going to take you the long way and make your journey more difficult. I know this all too well from personal experience. When making decisions, I find it worthwhile to evaluate my own intentions so I don’t change my behavior solely because something is comfortable. I change to be effective, not to be comfortable because I believe the comfort will come as a byproduct of being more effective.
I really learned this lesson a few years deep into my college career. For a long time, I was a chronic procrastinator and I would always wait until the last minute to do my assignments. I remember back in middle school, whenever I would get a huge project assigned I just automatically thought that meant I was going to be miserable the night before it was due. Eventually, I decided to try things differently three years into college. When I got assignments I would do them the day they were assigned with the same tenacity and velocity that I would have if I worked on it the night before it was due. It was extremely uncomfortable at first, but I stuck with it for a month and found that I had way less stress and was more comfortable than I would have been if I focused on my momentary instantaneous comfort. I had years of experience with putting assignments off until the last minute and I was familiar with how prioritizing comfort felt, but that month felt so great that it was enough incentive to kick my chronic procrastination habit for good! Like everyone else, I am human and I will procrastinate occasionally, but I know first hand the value of not procrastinating. Nowadays, I never procrastinate projects that are important to me. The clear mind I have when I don’t procrastinate in conjunction with the additional time for revisions is a sure fire way to perform better with less stress.
The easy way out often leads back in.
The Last Man vs. The Superman
“Too many people believe that everything must be pleasurable in life, which makes them constantly search for distractions and short-circuits the learning process.”
Robert Greene (1959 – )
In Nietzsche’s relatively poetic Thus Spake Zarathustra, a prophet named Zarathustra preaches to people in a town regarding his own wisdom accrued from his careful reflection upon a mountaintop. He delivers a powerful, but ill received, talk about the ways of The Superman and The Last Man to a crowd awaiting a performance of a tightrope walker.
The Superman-Last Man dichotomy is a huge idea but I want to highlight a few characteristics of each and how it explains our proclivity for comfort. The Übermensch, also translated to Beyond-Man or Superman, can be thought of as the man who is dedicated to the goal which he sets for himself. *Disclaimer: Nietzsche believed that men could create values for themselves and while this can be true for some men, it is not true for all so when I suggest that we should strive to be Übermensch, I mean that we should strive in a way that benefits ourselves, our families, and our communities.* I think Kyra explains the The Superman fantastically in her post when she said “all about challenging the status quo, and truly thinking about life beyond what he is told. The Superman goes on the tedious journey of creating a work that will outlast his life.” On the other hand, The Last Man is named appropriately so because he who lives like The Last Man will be the last of his kind. The Last Man takes no risks and engrosses themselves with distractions such as fancy careers, the latest social event, and happiness to avoid seriously thinking about the meaning of these things. The Last Man pursues only comfort and security, consumes more than he creates, and never challenges the axioms of his time. The Last Man resents his suffering and seeks to alleviate it while the Superman takes in his suffering and channels it into something more.
Appropriately enough, the tightrope walker is the only one who was receptive to the message Zarathustra was putting forward. Nietzsche did a fantastic job dramatizing the dichotomy of The Superman and The Last Man by juxtaposing the tightrope walker with the crowd. Not only was the tightrope walker the only person who understood the message, which suggests he’s closer to manifesting The Superman than anyone else, but he was already demonstrating the characteristics of The Superman by being the one who is giving the performance to the crowd.
Zarathustra describes man as “a rope stretched between the animal and the Superman-a rope over an abyss” and I believe that’s an accurate representation of existence of human beings. We are constantly trying to regulate and integrate our animalistic (Last Man-esque) tendencies by striving to bring out the best in ourselves and if we choose not to play that game, then we end up in an existential abyss where we are susceptible to pathological ideologies.
We either walk the tightrope or we get swallowed by pure chaos. Most of us choose to walk the tightrope, but the inconvenient truth is that walking towards The Superman end of the rope is a difficult endeavor. It’s much more comfortable to drift towards The Last Man end and it’s useful to keep this in mind. The choices we have to make to walk towards to Superman are always going to be difficult but that is the price to create something of worth and operate at the edge of your abilities. It’s painful in the moment, but something worthwhile always comes out the other side. Walking towards the Superman is like sitting on the edge of order and chaos, but we are imposing our will on the chaos we encounter and creating order of our own accord. This allows us to create and design the worlds we want to live in, but it comes from resisting the urge to drift towards The Last Man.
Life is tough and part of what makes it tough is being aware of our relative presence in the universe and the inevitable demise of ourselves and all of our loved ones. However, in a certain light death can seem like a sweet release from an exhausting existence so it’s not the only one to blame for the inherent unfair suffering of life. From a Piagetian perspective, babies initially don’t understand much about how to operate in the world, but over time they accommodate and assimilate new information to expand their sphere of competence. The steps of development can look something like: we think we understand, we realize that we don’t understand anything, we learn something new, we think we understand again, we repeat. Our lives are made up of times in which the world makes sense to us and our current frames of understanding are sufficient to operate powerfully in the world, and there are times when the world shows us it’s true complexity. In the times we are present to the complexity of the universe, we suffer. We realize our inadequacies, our insecurities, and vulnerabilities. This cycle is painful, but it’s built into life as we know it and it’s how we learn. Now, this isn’t to say suffering is the ONLY way to learn. We also learn to satiate curiosity but that can be in itself is dangerous.
The combination of all of these things contributes to what is known as the inherent suffering of life. It’s hard to be human and we all have different ways of dealing with it. The Norwegian metaphysicist Peter Zapffe categorized how we deal with the inherent suffering of life in four broad categories: isolation, anchoring, distraction, and sublimation. The first three are characteristic of Nietzsche’s idea of The Last Man, while the fourth, sublimation, is characteristic of the Superman. Keep in mind that these methods never solve the problem of the inherent tragedy, but simply repress our awareness of it.
Zapffe’s 4 Methods of Repression
Have you ever looked at all the stuff you have to do and get really sleepy? That initial reaction to the tragedy of life is our proclivity towards what Zapffe refers to as Isolation. Zapffe defines isolation, in the context of a method of repression, as “a fully arbitrary dismissal from consciousness of all disturbing and destructive thought and feeling.” Other examples of isolation include hitting the snooze button to stay in bed longer, keeping yourself away from things that scare you, or keeping your ears away from opposing views. Isolation is comfortable, it keeps us warm and justifies our preexisting ideas, but it’s dangerous. When we isolate ourselves we stop encountering the natural chaos of the universe and that prevents us from learning and learning is something we want to do, it gives us the tools we need to not suffer more than we already do. The key to learn more is to throw ourselves into challenging, complicated, and unknown situations. To hell with isolation!
Little kids are an interesting phenomena to observe because despite their lack of knowledge of the complex world around them, they manage to survive. How? The tragedy of life doesn’t hold back just because someone is a child but what the child does is combat the complexity of the world with the aid of an adult. The kid explores the world with their simple understanding and they are able to do so because the real complexity of the world is mediated by the more complex understanding of the adult. Since this is a winning strategy, the child learns to develop a want for adults to handle difficult and complex situations. The child uses the adult as a wall the protect itself from the overly complicated parts of existence and this “wall” is known as an anchor. The best part is that adults never stop doing this just because they “grow up.” They shift their anchor to something else like their childhood home, neighborhood or nation. Zapffe defined anchoring as “a fixation of points within, or construction of walls around, the liquid fray of consciousness…the happiest…protection against the cosmos that we ever get to know in life.” Anchoring explains how people can drift towards gangs or radical nationalist groups. It also explains people’s desire to cling to what they know. The unfortunate side effect of anchoring is similar to isolation – you cling to your walls, you stop encountering the unknown, you stop learning, you suffer more. It’s easy and comforting to cling to what we know, but it’s treating the symptom and not the disease. If we release our anchors, we can learn more things and become more competent and that competence will spill over into other parts of our lives.
Distraction is usually the preferred form of repression from people who often find themselves bored or those who feel like they need to “burn time.” Both of these characteristics are actually desires for existential distraction masqueraded as innocuous states of being. Zapffe defines distraction as “A very popular mode of protection [where] one limits attention to the critical bounds by constantly enthralling it with impression.” Modern technology is proof that Zapffe’s speculations of distraction being a popular option was correct. Our streaming services, social media, video games, and cell phones are just a few examples of modern tech that rewards us for distracted thinking and condition us to expect continuous information input. This isn’t a critique of modern technology, it’s just that these particular characteristics of modern technology were created by us to fulfill our desires for distraction. Our need for distraction is so deep that we’ve built machines that rewards us for not thinking about the inherent suffering of life. On a personal note, distraction drives me crazy. It’s such a plague to everything beautiful about human beings. When we ignore the distractions of this sort, we create something truly special.
Personally, I’m always at war with the side of myself that wants to drift towards The Last Man and it takes a tremendous effort to overcome it but the unfortunately reality is that people usually aren’t checking their own tendencies and allow their distraction to inhibit others. You see it in mindless entertainment, insatiable consumption, insufferable parties, and fake performances. Distraction is destructive but the payoff is massive – given we’re distracted properly. If we’re distracted, then we don’t have the burden of thinking about the tragedy of life, but we lose the ability to see life for what it truly is, in all it’s beauty and catastrophe and this blindness prevents us from bringing fourth our Jungian Self.
So what happens if isolation, anchoring and distraction aren’t enough? Zapffe describes a fourth method in which one transforms the problem into purpose. This is known as Sublimation. It is what people inevitably do when the other three methods aren’t sufficient. In an essay he wrote which regarded the four methods of repression, he says “the present essay is a typical example of sublimation. The author does not suffer. He is filling pages, and is going to be published in a journal.” I say that is a perfect example of sublimation. Sublimation is characteristic of The Superman, as mentioned above, because in order to create something that may outlast you, you must channel the inherent tragedy of life into something other than complete despair and anxiety. In order to create, we must sublimate. Sublimation can also be defined as channeling the energy from an inappropriate urge to an appropriate urge. In this case, the impact that the tragedy of life has on us can be channeled into something that can help others deal with the tragedy as well (an appropriate urge) rather than using it as an excuse to shoot up a school (an inappropriate urge). This is where creation is born. Creation can be seen as internalizing the world around us and transforming the parts of suffering into something novel and good. I like to think that I practice this with my blog, music, lesson plans, and my other creative endeavors. After all, most of my passions came to be because I was trying to deal with suffering and had a desire to alleviate that same suffering for others.
A fascinating feat of creation is that our creations are made by us but they take a life of their own once they are out in the world. Jawed Karin, Steve Chen, and Chad Hurley had no idea what they were really creating when they founded YouTube. Sure, YouTube is a place to upload videos but now that it’s out in the world it’s become much more than just a space to share videos. YouTube has become the modern Library of Alexandria, it’s the modern Gutenberg printing press but for the spoken word rather than the written word. Creations become something else as they live their lives and it’s impossible for us to know exactly what that is at the time of inception. All creation shares this peculiar characteristic – to come into a life of its own and impact the world in it’s own manner. The best part is that all human beings have this capacity and it is the best solution to repress the tragedy of life. We momentarily diverge our attention towards from the horrors and simultaneously create something which may contribute positively to the human experience.
We have a tendency towards comfortable things, and while the comfort can make life worth living, there is an expensive price to be paid for chasing what’s comfortable. When we are uncomfortable, we learn and when we learn, we don’t have to suffer more than we already do. Being comfortable stops us from expanding our spheres of competence but it also robs us of the highest potential within ourselves. It feels good to be The Last Man, but we will be the last of our kind if we give in to these tendencies. Strive to be the Superman, avoid all distractions, sublimate your tragedy, dive into the unknown, create something better for the world. That something can take the form of anything we please.
“We often expect progress to be linear. At the very least, we hope it will come quickly. In reality, the results of our efforts are often delayed. It is not until months or years later that we realize the true value of the previous work we have done. This can result in a “valley of disappointment” where people feel discouraged after putting in weeks or months of hard work without experiencing any results. However, this work was not wasted. It was simply being stored. It is not until much later that the full value of previous efforts is revealed.”
The Expectancy Curve
In James Clear’s fantastic book Atomic Habits, he explains the idea of the expectancy curve. I think it’s a great tool to overcome imposter syndrome or any other form of the attack. The expectancy curve helps us keep going by giving us a frame to understand our insufficiencies.
Whenever we learn something new, we expect our progress to follow a straight line but in reality our progress is more parabolic. This results in a period of time when we are performing at a lower level than we’re expecting. This time period is called The Valley of Disappointment and it’s duration depends on the skill and how much deliberate practice we choose to put in.
When we feel like we’re underperforming, it’s easy to feel like we aren’t “meant” to do that new thing but all we need to do is stick with our newfound skill until we reach the critical point. The critical point is where the level of our skill matches our expectations. When we reach the critical point we stop suffering from imposter syndrome, feel more confident in our abilities, and (most importantly) keep developing our skills.
Most people stop cultivating their skills when they’re in the valley of disappointment but the ones who make it to the critical point can start to reap the benefits of their faith, consistency, and hard work.
I’ve seen this play out in a number of skills but I found this especially true in music production, hurdling, and cooking.
It can take weeks, months, or even years to get to the critical point. When I first took up music production, I was told that I would have to practice producing for 5 years before I would be able to compose, mix, and master a song from start to finish.
This was me kind of understanding The Expectancy Curve and The Valley of Disappointment years before I could articulate it. The idea of The Valley of Disappointment and taking 5 years before I could complete a song gave me a longer time frame for proficiency. This longer time frame is what made it easier for me to cut myself some slack. That freedom to make mistakes helped me grow. I always thought that made me a little insane but [Kobe Bryant] talks about having the freedom to make mistakes and how that leads to accelerated growth too.
This isn’t to say that The Valley of Disappointment isn’t a tough place to be. It’s easy to think all the work we’re putting in is futile and insane but it isn’t. The work we put in while we’re in the valley is exactly what gives us the ability to move out of it and enjoy the fruits of our labor later on. Deliberate practice is never wasted effort. Our efforts compound over time and this is especially true with skill development.
It’s difficult to move past The Valley of Disappointment but I do think as we learn more we find peace in our insufficiencies. The more I learned about music production, the more I realized that the experienced producers who said music production had a 5 year valley of disappointment were right. The more I learned, the more I realized how much I didn’t know. (Which totally applies to everything btw)
“Be not afraid of going slowly; be afraid only of standing still.”
The whole idea is to stick with things for a while. Ask people in the field how long it took them to feel comfortable and confident in their position. I remember an ER doc saying it took him 10 years before he felt like he reach his critical point. Proficiency take time.
I find that knowing The Valley of Disappointment exists helps me get through it. The upset is temporary and I know I’m right around the corner from being a badass.
“There are two kinds of failure. The first comes from never trying out your ideas because you are afraid, or because you are waiting for the perfect time. This kind of failure you can never learn from, and such timidity will destroy you. The second kind comes from a bold and venturesome spirit. If you fail in this way, the hit that you take to your reputation is greatly outweighed by what you learn. Repeated failure will toughen your spirit and show you with absolute clarity how things must be done.”
Robert Greene (1959 – )
Failing is one of my favorite things to do. My students always think I’m crazy for believing this. I haven’t always had a great relationship with failure and still to this day there are times when I wish she was never around, but failure is our most honest teacher and a natural part of learning.
Somewhere along the way, humans decided that failing is bad and wrong. We teach our youth to avoid failure at all costs, that failure is the antithesis of success, or failure makes you feel terrible and that is why we should avoid it!
All of that is hot garbage.
Failure is honest. Failure is accurate. Failure teaches us lessons that we are less likely to forget. Failure is power.
When my students attempt active recall questions, I’ve noticed an interesting phenomena – when they miss things they are less likely to miss a similar type of question later. I’ve even found this true for myself too. When I was studying for the MCAT, I would do practice questions with multiple parts. I had an easier time remembering the parts I got wrong and the parts I initially got right, I ended up getting wrong later! It’s almost like I needed to fail to remember.
I’ve read somewhere (I’ve spent days trying to find the source but alas, I failed) that people are 7 times more sensitive to negative stimuli than positive stimuli. Which makes sense because we tend to remember our critiques more than our praises. But that had me thinking-
Why are we more sensitive to negativity than positivity?
I believe it’s an evolutionary process. We are walking through unknown territory and we experience something negative, we learn quickly to adapt and survive. Whereas, if we experience something positive, the stakes aren’t as high so we don’t learn as fast.
Failure feelings like a threat. Like a real threat. To our brains, failing our self administered tasks is like having our hand touch a hot stove. We learn quickly not to do that thing anymore.
“Failure had better be an option, because whether or not you consider it an option, it’s going to happen! If you go through life with the philosophy that “failure is not an option,” then you’ll never have any good opportunities to learn.”
Jeff Olson (1958 – )
When we fail at something, the probability that we will fail in the same way is pretty small. So in a sense, everytime we fail we get better. We learn what not to do, which is a lot more useful than we like to acknowledge.
What excellent feat has occurred without failure? When we watch professionals play sports or politicians give speeches, we don’t see the hours of failure that have happened in the background. Just because we see the shiny finished product, doesn’t mean that they were always that way. In fact, if you ask them, I’m sure every single successful person will tell you that they have failed more times than they succeeded.
“Mistakes and failures are precisely your means of education. They tell you about your own inadequacies. It is hard to find out such things from people, as they are often political with their praise and criticisms. Your failures also permit you to see the flaws of your ideas, which are only revealed in the execution of them.”
Robert Greene (1959 – )
I believe desirable progress is based off two things:
Identifying what needs to improve.
Acquiring the skills or knowledge required to improve.
Failing reveals to us exactly what needs to get better. The rest is education and deliberate practice. Failing is half the battle. Whenever we’re learning something new, we fail in all sorts of ways, but how we fail is an insight into how we succeed. It’s like trying to complete a maze; it’s not very likely that we are going to get to the exit without hitting a dead end. Once we hit the dead end, we try a different route, and if we hit another dead end we try another route until we reach the exit. We cannot discover what to do without discovering what not to do.
“Would you like me to give you the formula for success? It’s quite simple, really. Double your rate of failure.… You’re thinking of failure as the enemy of success. But it isn’t at all. You can be discouraged by failure—or you can learn from it. So go ahead and make mistakes. Make all you can. Because, remember that’s where you’ll find success. On the other side of failure.”
Thomas Watson (1874 – 1956)
In order to accept failure gracefully and learn as much as we can, we must detach our identities from our successes or failures. When we fail, we are not failures, we simply did not take the actions necessary for the desired outcome to manifest. By the same token, when we succeed, we are not successes, we simply took the actions necessary for the desired outcomes to come into being. Failure and success is simply the difference between executing necessary actions and not executing necessary actions.
Our failures are stepping stones to mastery and temporary defeats.
“Every adversity, every failure, every heartache carries with it the seed of an equal or greater benefit.”
Napoleon Hill (1883 – 1970)
Defeat is not realized until we stop getting up. We decide when we are defeated, no one else does. Whenever I’ve failed in the past, I can always find an exact moment when I admitted defeat. There is always a singular moment in time when I decide that I had enough of whatever challenge is in front of me. When I admit defeat, I stop learning because I stop finding my inadequacies. Failure is what shines the light on what needs to be improved.
“I began to understand that the goal of psychic development is the self. There is no linear evolution; there is only a circumambulation of the self. Uniform development exists, at most, at the beginning; later, everything points toward the centre. This insight gave me stability, and gradually my inner peace returned.”
Carl Jung (1875 – 1961)
Circumambulation – the act of moving around an idol – in this case the idol is our maximally developed selves, also known as the Jungian conception of the self. The Self is different for each person, which makes sense to me because no one has the same genetic make up. It’s almost like The Self is a metaphysical representation of our biological dispositions.
I find the idea of circumambulation to be pivotal in understanding the power of failure. Circumambulation of the self is the idea that all of the smaller skills we develop ourselves in is actually apart of a bigger, centrifugal development. Each of these skills is obtained by traveling, so to speak, to all of the far corners of our minds. The Self is our maximally developed selves potentialized in the future and circumambulation is our journey of manifesting this self into actuality.
It’s kind of like this – we develop a bunch of smaller skills, and at first this feels like a linear progression, but as we go through life we start to see the skills pointing towards an ideal.
Learning about circumambulation freed me up in so many different ways because I was worried that I had too many different interests and developing myself in too many different things will prevent me from manifesting my Jungian Self. The best example of this was when I was repressing my love for music because I felt like it didn’t fit with the skills I needed for medicine. Now that I see it is the culmination of all of these skills that will bring about my best self, I feel free to pursue all of my interests wholeheartedly.
Jordan Peterson beautifully outlines the circumambulation of the self and how it relates to failure in the video below.
Jordan Peterson always says the fool is the precursor to the hero and I believe that makes a lot of sense because the one who is willing to make mistakes ends up learning the most, and learning is what’s necessary to save everyone from the malevolent forces of chaos. We see it all the time in movies. The main character is usually seriously flawed but grows over time and that’s where the richness of the story lies. Ash is the worst Pokemon training of all time, but that’s what gives the story room to breathe. The same case is true with us – we are flawed beings, but our admission of our flaws and the strive to improve these imperfections is what embodies our life with meaning.
Robert Greene also references circumambulation in his book, Mastery, but not explicitly. Robert talks about all children having inclinations. These inclinations are strong unexplainable interests that a child develops early on in life. As they get older, they tend to ignore these inclinations and pretend like they aren’t important. Greene suggests adults to do deep reflection to revivify that lost child within them and lean into their inclinations for that is where people will find the skills necessary to be their best. I believe the skills we need to manifest the Jungian Self are found in developing our inclinations.
When we try something new, we are usually very bad at it, but over time we get better. At first it may seem like these things are disconnected by as long as we are developing our inclinations (as defined by Greene) then we will see that all of our development aims towards a central ideal.
“Knock me down nine times but I get up ten, bitch.”
Cardi B (1992 – )
As mentioned earlier, we are only defeated once we stay down but sometimes our failures may throw us off course. Sometimes when we’re knocked down, it takes some time to reorient ourselves again. When we fail, we have to take stock of where we are in relation to our goals. We can’t simply get back up and start moving again. We want to get back up, get back on the right path, then start moving again. We have to consider course correction when we fail. We did not succeed for a reason and it’s important to figure out why and how we move forward without experiencing that specific failure again.
The power of course correction is really laid out in the Apollo mission to the moon-
“On its way to landing astronauts safely on the surface of the moon, the miracle of modern engineering that was an Apollo rocket was actually on course only 2 to 3 percent of the time. Which means that for at least 97 percent of the time it took to get from the Earth to the moon, it was off course. In a journey of nearly a quarter of a million miles, the vehicle was actually on track for only 7,500 miles. Or to put it another way, for every half-hour the ship was in flight, it was on course for less than one minute. And it reached the moon—safely—and returned to tell the tale.”
Jeff Olson (1958 – )
Most of the time the rocket was off course, but that didn’t matter because they still made it to their destination with continuous course correction. It doesn’t matter how often we fail, as long as we are constantly trying to get back on track. The astronauts on the Apollo rocket didn’t think “Oh no we’re off course now! It’s too late! It’s all screwed up! I can’t believe we let this get off course! Let’s just quit!” They simply acknowledged the failure and readjusted their actions accordingly and by doing that enough, they ended up on the moon!
We can see the same thing happen with sports too! Kobe Bryant had a terrible first season of basketball. When he first started, Kobe was horrendous but after he failed he took a step back and figured out exactly what he needed to work on to get his game better. He course corrected and developed The Mamba Mentality, which I think is one of the most powerful perspectives to take on.
Failure doesn’t have to be something that we desperately try to avoid. It teaches us what we need to improve and offers us opportunity to grow. Coupled with ideas like the Circumambulation of the Self and Course Correction, failure can be seen as an exciting phenomena of life. Many of my students think I’m insane for loving failure, but am I really?
“The future belongs to those who learn more skills and combine them in creative ways.”
Robert Greene (1959 – )
A lot of people I talk to are familiar with the 10,000 hour rule – it takes 10,000 hours of dedicated and deliberate practice to obtain mastery of a given skill, but not as many of us are familiar with the 20 hour rule.
According the Josh Kaufman’s The First 20 Hours, it only takes 20 hours of dedicated and deliberate practice to learn a new skill. We don’t need 10,000 to learn something new and learning a new skill doesn’t have to be a huge commitment. 20 hours is all it takes.
Success in any field is simply learning a specific combination of skills. This means that success anywhere is just a few sets of 20 hour intervals. We can fast track our way to stellar performance by deconstructing the things we want to do into their individual skills.
The combination of all of our skills will be our arsenal to solve problems that we encounter through life. Our skills are what we sell to employers and what we implement to impact in the world.
Success is great, but that’s not the best part. Some of the skills you learn in one place can count towards the success in another. I refer to these skills as metaskills. This means that once you learn one thing, learning other things consequently becomes easier.
I noticed this after I became a proficient musician. Some of the skills I developed to become a musician were also necessary for learning other things, like being a good student, tutor, or EMT. Being a good student also helped me become a better music producer. This is because when I was developing myself as I student, I was developing skills like:
independent thought habits
embracing my uniqueness
and many more..
Which can all be used in other areas of life. So as I got became a better student, I became a better everything because. Use The 20 Hour rule to develop your metaskills and see how success in one domain is similar to success in another.
Some people say it gets more difficult to learn things as you get older, but I think thats wrong. If we spend our time learning the metaskills, learning new things actually becomes easier over time.
Some other metaskills I’d recommend focusing on are:
learning to say no
decision making (Click here to understand our decision making process more)
scheduling (Click here for tips on developing scheduling)
I try to make a little time every day to develop my metaskills, even if it’s just 5 minutes. 5 minutes every day for a year is 30 hours. How do conquer the world? One skill at a time.