There’s a lesson we seem to forget as we get older. Did we learn calculus before we learned addition? Did we learn about the degeneration of hydrochlorofluorocarbons under ultraviolet light before we set off a baking soda volcano? I certainly hope not. And I would certainly hope that we don’t have those kinds of expectations of ourselves now, but it seems that we no longer know how to progress. We need success in the here and now. And this is like the millionth reason why children are smarter—at least in terms of happiness—than adults. If children don’t succeed, that’s simply how it is, and not something they must punish themselves for. They have no expectations, and no fear of failure, until they are taught to.
If you can’t teach an old dog new tricks, it’s because the old dog thinks too much about being old. If we can suspend that negative self-talk, and focus on the lessons of the youth, we will each overcome our challenges. Here are those lessons.
Practice what you know
Like the much lauded virtue of writing what you know, as passed from a seasoned writer to an initiate, this is a hard pill to swallow. We have grandiose ideas and, being human, a tendency to over reach. Writing what we know seems so limiting, and could never be sufficient.
But then you sit down amongst a circle of 20-somethings, in a room designated for business classes (because “those artsy types” are always an after thought), and you proceed to have a class on creative non-fiction. One person shares a story about being raised haphazardly by a widowed father; and another shares jokes about dead bodies, explaining that that’s the only way you can deal with being a paramedic during your mandatory public service as a Czech, and after seeing all of that destruction.
As you listen to stories, and you share your own, you learn that we all know things. If we once scoffed at the admonition to write what we know, it’s only because we devalued our knowledge.
And when I tell you to practice what you know, there are those among you who will immediately think “I don’t know how to do anything.”
By virtue of you reading this essay, you know how to read. And by virtue of you being alive in order to read this, you must do a sufficient job of meeting your needs for food and water. But I imagine that many of you have skills beyond basic survival and literacy. I imagine that some of you can dance, and that others can cook, and still more can garden. I bet some even play sports or have a knack for carpentry.
Whatever your skill set, learn to practice what you know every day. And I don’t mean as an obligation. Find what you know and enjoy doing, and do it every day. After all, why should you start from scratch when you already have knowledge in so many areas of life? Aim for mastery. Aim to do that thing better than anyone you know, or at least as good as the person who does it best.
For me, that thing is cooking. I can pull together a meal from a hodgepodge of ingredients, and with careful planning, I can construct something as grandiose as chocolate ravioli with chipotle/butternut squash filling. I can supreme an orange, emulsify a dressing, or caramelize a mirepoix.
My competence as a cook gives me confidence, and because it is something I do every day, it is a regular boost in my confidence. It is important to develop that base of confidence to draw on when trying to do new things. If we see ourselves as bad at things in general, that will carry over to our attempts to try anything new.
Back to basics
In Buddhism there are four noble truths. Numero uno? There is suffering. It sounds like a pretty bleak start, but just know that the last rule is that there is an end to suffering. Moreover, the suffering of which Gautama Buddha spoke is the same as—or, at least, includes as a primary component—the suffering of which I’ve already spoken. We create expectations that we will be particle physicists, or rock stars, or actresses. We set expectations that we will be millionaires, and drive fancy cars, and never have to lift a finger to do any “real work.”
These expectations hurt.
They never come true.
Even if we become the rock star or the particle physicist, it won’t be what we expected it to be. It won’t be as glamorous as we had hoped, or it will be, but it will come with burdens that we never wanted. Life is a balancing act. There is yin as well as yang.
And perhaps the biggest expectation of all, however, is that we will succeed. We expect our own success so much that it destroys us when we fail. And if we set our sights so high, it’s all the more likely that we won’t succeed. When we don’t, we will hurt.
So lets get back to basics.
If you’ve been practicing what you know, and you have slowly developed a mastery over it, then you should have confidence to start something new. But you are going to suck. Guaranteed.
And I don’t mean this to put you down. It’s just a matter of fact that your brain has not wired together the synapses necessary to be good at a new task. That requires repetition. Have you seen the show Bully Beatdown? The bullies are tough in their own right, but they are ineffective against someone who has actually trained in martial arts, someone who has actually developed the muscle memory and technique to aggress efficiently. The brain itself is much like a muscle, and whenever you use it in a new way, it will struggle to keep up. But as you keep doing a task, your brain will develop an affinity for it. That’s neuroplasticity at its most basic, and it’s the reason that practice makes perfect.
So, the important thing here is to get the visions of becoming a rock star out of your head. Visions of stardom are not helpful to a novice. In some Zen traditions, a master will strike a student when he thinks too much. Thinking is not doing.
Instead, start taking guitar lessons. Or, start at an even more basic level, and learn how to do things habitually (though, if you’ve practiced what you know, hopefully that will have instilled habituation in you). Learning guitar will take lots of practice, so start by doing the dishes at the same time every day. If you are capable of doing a chore every day, you’re setting yourself up to do other things every day. Why waste money on guitar lessons if you have not developed a capacity for habituation? Learn consistency first.
And perhaps guitar is too complex. Maybe starting on piano, or even on a cheap recorder or harmonica, would better teach you the fundamentals of music which you will need to learn before tackling the guitar.
The point here is to be honest about what the first steps are, and master those before moving on. “Wax on. Wax off.”
Children don’t start out as doctors, and we shouldn’t expect to pick up new abilities any differently than children do. It takes time and natural progression.
I came to realize my own failure in this department recently when I deduced that my struggle with learning Spanish had absolutely nothing to do with my inability to learn vocabulary. In truth, I don’t have that problem at all.
I’m not bad at speaking in Spanish. I’m bad at speaking. Period.
I acted when I was younger, and I’ve spoken publicly at events I’ve put on. I’ve recited poems that I’ve written, and read my stories to an audience. I rock at these things. But, in each case, there’s a script. There’s something that I’m supposed to say. In casual conversation, not so much.
It terrifies me.
So, I need to go back to the basics. I need to conquer my fear of casual conversation, especially with strangers, before I can really focus my attention on learning Spanish. It only makes sense that my fear of casual conversation in Spanish could not be remedied by more study when the conversation itself was at the root of the problem.
Using the lost framework
If you’ve followed along thus far, I’m confident that you see how these two combine.
- Pick a task that you already know well.
- Develop your competence in that task by practicing it daily.
- As you develop your competence your confidence will grow.
- When you practice a task at a high level of mastery, you will feel good.
- Use that feeling to tackle a new task.
- Start at the very basics, as a child would.
- Repeat steps 2-7.
For me, I need to focus on my writing and my cooking. I know I can do them well, but I need to ensure that I actually am doing those things well. The confidence I derive from doing a good job in those areas of my life will open up the possibility of tackling other things that I want to. But I need to start at the basics. I need to stop stressing myself out over my Spanish lessons, and start tackling the terror I feel towards casual conversation, especially with people I don’t know well (or at all). As I develop my competence in casual conversation, I will eventually be able to more successfully shift my focus back to Spanish.
In other Tao of Unfear news, my post on fearless communication has been a huge hit. I don’t even know what to do with all of the traffic it’s been receiving. I guess I just want to thank everyone who has come over from StumbleUpon, or wherever else you’ve come from. The confidence I’ve gained from that success has been a real driving force for me, and I’ve made huge gains on the new Tao of Unfear design. It’s not ready for prime time yet, but it’s getting much closer.
Oh, and here’s that story I mentioned about the Zen master striking his student, if you haven’t read it already.
Pot Lid Zen
Yagyu Matajuro was a young member of the Yagyu family, famous for the family tradition of swordsmanship. However Matajuro’s father was disappointed in his son’s tendency towards laziness and banished him from the dojo. Matajuro, his pride stung resolved to seek out a master and return as a great swordsman. Matajuro journeyed to the Kumano shrine in the province of Kii, where he had heard of a great teacher called Banzo. The monks at the shrine told him that Banzo lived as a hermit in the nearby mountains, and showed him the trail to follow. Eventually he found Banzo asked to be accepted as a student.“How long will it take me to learn swordsmanship?” he asked.
“The rest of your life,” was the reply.
“I can’t wait that long. I will accept any hardship, and will devote myself completely to the study of swordsmanship.”
“In that case, ten years.”
“What if I train twice as hard?” tried Matajuro.
“In that case, thirty years.”
“Why is that? First you say ten then thirty years. I will do anything to learn, but I don’t have that much time.”
“In that case, seventy years.”
Sensing the direction of the conversation, Matajuro capitulated and agreed to work as long as it took, and do anything he was told. However, for the first year all Banzo had Matajuro do was to perform simple physical tasks such as chopping wood. After a year of this Matajuro was disappointed and demanded that Banzo teach him some swordsmanship. Banzo merely insisted that he chop wood.
Matajuro went to the woodpile and was chopping, but inwardly he was furious. He resolved to leave Banzo the next day. But while he was chopping Banzo crept up behind him and struck him painfully with a wooden sword. “You want to learn swordsmanship, but you can’t even dodge a stick,” he said.
From that day on Banzo would creep up on Matajuro and attack him with a wooden sword. Eventually Matajuro’s senses became heightened, and Banzo had to change tactics. Now Banzo would attack repeatedly, even when Matajuro was asleep. For the next four years Matajuro had not a moment’s rest from the fear of unexpected attack.
One day, when Matajuro was stirring some food on the fire, Banzo crept up and attacked him by surprise. Without thinking Matajuro fended off the blow with the lid of the pot without taking his mind off stirring the food. That night Banzo wrote out a certificate of mastery for Matajuro.
Source: Zen Stories
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