How do we grow?

It’s an interesting question. One filled with debates over ‘nature’ vs. ‘nurture’ and good old-fashioned hard work vs. natural ability. Like all things the truth is probably somewhere in the middle, but two books, The Art of Learning: A Journey in the Pursuit of Excellence by Josh Waitzkin, and Mastery: The Keys to Success and Long-Term Fulfillment by George Leonard, teach what I believe is the most sustainable path to true excellence.

I recently started the LaunchSchool program to re-develop my skills as a programmer from the ground up. I originally questioned whether going back to school was really the best use of my time… after all, I’m doing well in my career, why rock the boat? The answer, core to how I’m approaching my studying, is what Waitzkin’s renowned Tai Chi teacher William Chen referred to as “investment in loss.” The idea is to allow yourself to be thrown about, in Tai Chi’s case quite literally, in order to lose old habits and reinvent yourself through the learning process. Waitzkin eloquently likens this to the life of a hermit crab:

The hermit crab is a colorful example of a creature that lives by this aspect of the growth process (albeit without our psychological baggage). As the crab gets bigger, it needs to find a more spacious shell. So the slow, lumbering creature goes on a question for a new home. If an appropriate new shell is not found quickly, a terribly delicate moment of truth arises. A soft creature that is used to the protection of built-in armor must now go out into the world, exposed to predators in all its mushy vulnerability. That learning phase in between shells is where our growth can spring from.
- Josh Waitzkin, Art of Learning

Our current knowledge and expertise is our shell and we need to go out and explore in order to refine our skills and grow. Only through that process can we ever hope to achieve true mastery.

Serendipitously, his approach perfectly matches the message of a book that is a part of LaunchSchool’s curriculum, George Leonard’s Mastery. Leonard echoes many of Waitzkin’s teachings, specifically calling on us to ‘embrace life on the plateau’:

How do you best move toward mastery? To put it simply, you practice diligently, but you practice primarily for the sake of the practice itself. Rather than being frustrated while on the plateau, you learn to appreciate and enjoy it just as much as you do the upward surges
- George Leonard, Mastery

Life on the plateau can be frustrating, especially if you have expectations, as expectations are a double-edge sword. On the one hand goals and aspirations can be a great source of motivation, on the other they can be the source of disappointment and doubt if things don’t progress exactly as planned.

It may be best to just keep your head down and keep working, and hopefully one day when you look up you’ll have achieved things you wouldn’t have even thought to dream of when you started.