Most of our upbringing is rooted in a dynamic where our learning about the world around us is mediated by adult approval. We learn what to do and not do through our caregiver’s acceptancing of it. As a result, doing something badly must be encoded in some primal part of our brain as something to avoid. By the time we become adults, it’s ingrained in the very foundation of who we are.
Most likely, we’re not raised to know or appreciate the value of being able to be bad at something. Unless we had a parent able to distill this nuance for us, most of us grew up not knowing how to be bad at something and it being ok.
But, in an adult world, a world of sophisticated skills and abilities, there’s virtually no way to become good at something without traversing through the desert of being bad at it and not having a clue. You can’t become really fit without first being a schlub, you can’t be a great programmer without first being embarrassingly bad at it, you can’t become a talented artist without first making bad drawings.
My intuition, here, is that grit, hustle, persistence, are qualities rooted in this idea, in this ability to override the primal instinct to want to be accepted, validated, and good. Overriding it with a new kind of ability to be bad at it and it being OK. Being embarassingly bad, asking dumb questions, seeming unintelligent; until, little by little, step by step, bird by bird, it all starts to come together..
This is the antithesis of ‘Oh, he was just always so talented’; it’s the discovery that everyone who has ever done something well started, first, by doing it not well at all.
We’re all desperate to be recognized for the things we have to offer. Everyone around you is looking for the invitation you are making to them. Quite often, we’re existentially disappointed because there is no invitation. The greatest invitation is for you to say to them that they have gifts that you do not have; and therefore you need their help. That is the most powerful leadership invitation you can make. — David Whyte in the last 5 minutes of a 2 hour long conversation with Sam Harris on the Making Sense podcast.
The 7-year-old child in me recognizes that opening line; the need for recognition in what we have to offer. The primordial desire to be seen.
How easy to go about my day being the center of my world. The recognition I innately crave, and the feelings that come with it, transferred to the coworker, the boss, the partner, who at times fall short of recognizing what I'm wanting to offer.
How beautifully paradoxical, then, that good leadership is the ability to recognize the humanity in the other to the same extent that I recognize my own. To step out of my own need for recognition and allow others to come forth with their own gifts. To gift them, in return, the recognition they, too, seek.
Mr. Whyte’s words echo in my mind. Every moment, an opportunity to invite as much as I want to be invited; to recognize as much as I want to be recognized, to lead even though at times it's easier to let myself be led.
Yin / yang has proven to be a useful and visually clarifying mental model for how to approach my day.
This came out of the realization that, on a day-to-day basis, I had made ‘stress’ my baseline state. By stress, I don’t necessarily mean anxiety or crippling worry. Stress akin to that of working out where I stress my body to grow my physical ability. To always be filling every moment with just a little more. But a life solely built around growth is also a life built around stress.
This led me to instate a daily yoga practice; not as another sport but as a ritual of winding down akin to a shower at the end of the day. In yoga, I then discovered that not all practices are the same. There are yang practices that push the body to grow, and yin practices that help the body integrate. Both are practices, but each built around different principles.
This distinction, a two-type action, and the need to balance both out, stayed with me outside of yoga and it’s become a great mental model to approach my day.
It goes as follows:
1. An empty start
The day begins in an empty state. *
* On a wider scale, I just came out of yin (night-time, rest) and entered yang (day, action). But within the scope of the day, a new cycle begins of yin and yang.
2. Distinguish yin from yang moments
A morning spent only working from 8am all the way to lunchtime with no leisure and integration is an excess of yang. It is out of balance.
Seen this way, a morning of pure work makes yang look more like a monster tyrannizing yin.
3. To every action, there’s a counter-action
Therefore, a crazy morning of work needs to be counterbalanced by time away, not only from the screen, but from doing and chasing. Think of a long morning walk, time alone, stretching, or even the breaks in the pomodoro method.
4. The aim is balance
As simple as this sounds, this reframes the goal from fitting in as much as I can in the day; to being the ongoing pursuit of balance. A balanced array of both yin and yang actions throughout the day.
Just like the body can’t continuously inhale without eventually exhaling, just like it can’t keep running without eventually needing a moment of rest, just like it can’t stay awake for days on end without eventually going to sleep… or maybe it can, but at what cost?
The body, the planet, the cosmos, all seem to work in cycles. We inhale then exhale, we wake up then go to sleep, in spring everything blooms, in autumn it begins to die out.
This all sounds very commonplace. But that’s where I found the visual model of the yin and yang a useful symbol as it makes the imbalance of overly chasing growth look all the more insane. All the while, making the absence of action also seem disproportionate. This thousands-of-years-old image synthesises a lot of what we already know to be true into a symbolic compass we can carry with us in our minds.
5. One contains the other
There’s also a little hidden caveat that came to me later. Each practice, when done well, integrates the qualities and characteristics of its opposite.
To do, grow and act but with presence and calm, not in a rush, not in anxiety. To rest and decompress but with intent and discipline, not expecting it’ll happen on its own.
Just like a vase would not fulfill its purpose were it not for its empty space; just like a house would lose its utility were it not for the space inside that we inhabit, so does a day spent solely preoccupied with growth and achievement negates its own value since it steals time from integration, recuperation, which in turn reduces the mind and body’s availability for future growth.
Again, for me this is a useful image. It invites me to stretch the timeframe of my goals and daily errands. Not everything needs to get done right this second in an insane array of events. There is in fact time to take each step, learn each thing, with both presence and balance.
A simple symbol from millenia ago, tattooed on the biceps of every 90s kid, also an appropriate tool for modern life in the 21st century.
At first glance, it seems fairly obvious that if I am the customer of a product – such as the passenger of a self-driving car – said product should first and foremost prioritize me. After all, capitalism taught me that my own benefit and convenience are good, not just for me but for the whole. Every advertisement tells me that my comfort and convenience matter.
But I can’t help but feel a little sick when I take this to an extreme. Does my convenience as a customer really come above that of others? Or, more crudely, does my life as a passenger come above the life of an innocent pedestrian?
At this point, I might say that maybe we’ll only have self-driving cars once all cars are self-driven and all roads retrofitted for said technology; to avoid the predicament all together. But, if there’s one lesson the human experience has taught me, again and again, is that to every rule there is inevitably an exception; and no system is perfect. The day will come when a child will unknowingly jump onto the street and we’ll be left exactly where we started: having to encode this impossible predicament in the behavior of the car.
It seems, then, that this might be an unsolvable conundrum; since we do seem to believe that: yes, it is our right as customers to be protected; and no, our life does not matter any more or less than the life of a pedestrian.
Could it be the case, then, that certain technologies should not exist? That just because we can make them, that doesn’t mean we should. Given that the choices a computer makes are also choices made by the human who programs them, no one in their right mind could choose one life over the other.
For the sake of argument, let’s pause for a moment and consider the exact same predicament without the self-driving component. What would I do if I was about to hit someone with my car? I know I would most certainly steer the car away to avoid hitting the pedestrian — heck, I'd do this even with an animal.
And even though this might be a selfish choice — I steer the car away to avoid a deadly crash where I might die — the act itself still seems morally correct. I chose to be in the car, the pedestrian did not. I have control over the car and can turn it in a different direction to avoid hitting the other person. Is this not what most of us would do?
Could it be that this human instinct is at the heart of our question? Is the car, after all, not an extension of me and my choice to travel from point A to B?
Fair to say, this does makes for an unappealing product; a car that in all its technological glory will choose to kill its driver if need be. But if we take this idea of the car as an extension of the driver, the choice wouldn’t be the car’s but the driver's.
With this, we’ve come to what I believe is the crux of the matter: choice. If one chooses to be self-driven while reading Harry Potter and not paying much attention to the road, then that is a poor choice with potentially tragic consequences.
So, at last I come to the conclusion that maybe to be self-driven is to enter an agreement with the product, a contract, wherein one chooses to either drive the car or be self-driven knowing that the car might prioritize the innocent pedestrian.
I'd choose Socrates – even if he were to be a fictional character created by Plato. His death has an Archetypal truth imbued in it about how wrong we can be when we enter group-mind. True two thousand years ago as much as it is today in our current socio-political climate.
Yes, there are things I find him guilty of, most critically, being so hellbent on his approach to educate others through public self-ridicule. In aiming to be the ideal, Socrates failed to find a compromise that could have led his contemporaries to recognize their own limitations without it being at the cost of his own life.
But, in being the ideal, he left us a sharp example of what to be and what not to be both as individuals and as a people.
I started studying Philosophy thinking it was going to be a field of study in the way that chemistry or law are fields of study; and even though it is, by virtue of its history, it is also something quite personal to my own life. It is as much out there as it is right here..
There are some fundamental questions at the heart of Philosophy from where the entire field emerges. Questions fundamental in a person’s life — Who am I? Who are we? What is my purpose? Am I living a good life? Are we right about this?
Out of this personal disquiet emerges the mighty branch of Philosophy. By examining ourselves we inevitably end up asking questions that pertain not only to me but to Us — How do we live together? How can we be fair and just to each other? How do we continuously improve as a community?
I was surprised that Philosophy had as much to do with big names like Plato and Aristotle as it has to do with me or the guy who works at UPS. It begins out of the unrest and curiosity in the human soul from where Zen, Buddhism, Christianity, and many other wisdom traditions come from. The questions, prayers, or koans we carry with us on a daily basis as we contemplate our lives are the very same questions at the heart of Philosophy.
Where Philosophy is unique is that it asks these very fundamental questions in an almost scientific way — it assumes nothing, it questions everything. Every bit of common sense, all that we take for granted, no rock is left unturned. Philosophy is unique because in being a method, it allows for us to examine these ethereal ideas together; you and I can do it by employing the same method. It’s in that way that I say it borders on scientific. Because even though it examines the intangible it does so in a way that can be questioned and poked at by others.
In all this, what I’m left with is a feeling of incredulity. I can’t believe people go to school for this, or even do it for a living. Those very same questions each one of us carries with us every day; are also a two-to-five thousand years old field of study.
As relevant then, as it is today.