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The Tinkered Mind
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September 30th, 2020
There comes a moment when a child who cannot climb the stairs gets just big enough to heave consortium of limbs up on to that first step. After that, it’s game over. At least for the chronically worried parent who must now track the movement of a child up and down a dangerous set of stairs. The problem arises because the other steps are exactly like the first. If one can be climbed, then they can all be surmounted. But what if, for abstraction’s sake, we made the next step a little larger than the first, and the third a little larger than the second, and so on and so forth?
There would, imaginably be a lag between the time when a child can climb the first step and then get up to the second. For a bigger, more formidable obstacle, we must grow a bit more.
The image here is simple, and the logic requires no stretch, but as a metaphor for the obstacles that we come across in life, we fail to apply the same requisite logic. We’re somehow coddled into the expectation that adulthood should initiate like the first step in a staircase earned by age and default growth, and each step from then on isn’t harder than the last but merely a part of the grind, and this staircase will lead -inevitably- to some idealistic promised land of retirement or ‘making it’.
This escalator grind may have seemed like a sustainable metaphor in decades past when someone could do reasonably well as a ‘company man’, but every hierarchical organization has a limit to the number of steps every employee can take. Those who were or are able to ascend higher recognized either consciously or unconsciously a new level of problem to be solved. In the present day where the idea of being a ‘company man’ looks less and less sustainable, the underlying rubric of constantly needing to level-up becomes more and more apparent.
Two issues hold people back on this adventure of levelling up, and the solution to one unlocks the solution to the other. One issue is that we come up against an obstacle that isn’t an optimal challenge. It’s just too big, and too difficult to tackle, and so we stay put and settle and stagnate.
The other problem is that we stop growing by default. This is perhaps the easiest way to demarcate the border between childhood and adulthood: the second begins when growth either stops or continues only through conscious effort.
Children pick up languages with an ease that seems completely effortless, whereas adults struggle to gain even a modicum of ability with new languages. But an adult can, of course, learn a new language - it just takes a lot of conscious effort.
The experience of learning and working through difficulties goes from being a bit of an escalator as a child… straight to the sheer side of a rock face to be scaled with a huge variety of effort and skills that must be acquired and invented on the fly.
But when this difference, and the way to deal with it is honestly confronted, when a person decides to consciously push their mind through the challenges of new difficulties, then the next large step before which most people stop and stagnate begins to reveal subtle handholds, a logic of solution and soon someone is standing atop a new level of life and experience, having made an optimal obstacle out of something that previously felt like an iron ceiling.