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November 20th, 2020
Our most fantastic forms of entertainment entail a radical expansion of human agency. These are the heroes and villains who can simply do more because they have capabilities beyond the normal person. As a species, we just love to imagine what we could do… if. “If only” is the name of the game, and it’s a game that we’ve been playing since childhood. From that young vantage point adults are the original superhero simply for the fact that they are orders of magnitude more capable, just as a run of the mill action hero is compared to a normal adult. If only I were older, then I’d be able to do this and that. However, we don’t ever seem to grow out of the stage of if only. We are always imagining and pining for a new level of capability, and as our own agency plateau’s hard, it can -for some- be even more intoxicating to live vicariously through the flimsy fantasy action stories that populate the silver screen.
Such stories are unfortunate and deceptive in two ways: often a superpower is accidentally acquired, or thrust upon an unwilling and unwinding individual who is now burdened with the awesome power of radically expanded agency, or a montage glosses over the important lesson of acquiring a superpower. The first one bares little need for further bashing. It’s the equivalent of winning the lottery, whether it’s because of a spider bite or some military test or just being born that way. If anything, such ‘origin’ stories only play into the talent myth: you’ve either got it, or you don’t. Which is a really unfortunate amount of bs when paired with a person’s capacity for growth and change.
The second is the montage. There’s the iconic getting in shape montage, like from the Rocky movies where a tremendous amount of time passes in just a few dozen seconds and it’s during this time where all the boring but very important training, learning, growing occurs. Intellectually the montage makes sense, but viscerally it doesn’t: we understand abstractly what’s required to level-up, but we don’t have any feel for the tedium, headache and sense of endurance required to make it through a real life montage.
Our entertainment sourced from superpowers ironically handicaps our ability to actually make the long trek to acquire one by making it look quick and easy. Real superpowers, that is the sort of rare human ability that some people actually do have that leave the rest of us to marvel at require absurd amounts of time and consistency. These are people who win gold metals at the olympics, or the best performance musicians in the world, writers, artists, coders. The best of the best of each field certainly looks like they have a superpower when placed next to someone who hasn’t put in the time required to level-up in such ways. But for these people, the montage was many years long, and there was no spider bite or radioactive exposure - just boring work, most often. It’s a bit ironic that the process of gaining more ability is often inversely correlated to how boring that process is. A newb coder who manages to get Hello World to show up on the screen is probably has a far more exciting experience then the moment when a more experienced coder finally gets Gunicorn and Django wired up correctly to get a project that took months to build to finally appear on the screen.
The world of entertainment is a flashy quick-fix dopamine trip. In a tiny fraction of a single day we see our protagonist go from normal run of the mill person to exceptionally able planet-saver. So of course we go buy a lottery ticket. Even Batman had the head-start of a fantastic fortune, which seems to have enabled him at least the freedom to go develop some skills - whatever those actually are.
Where most people plateau to the norm, some people do the insane thing of chipping away at the same skill or project repeatedly, over and over, hoping for a different outcome. This has an eerie and unfortunate resonance with the odd modern definition of insanity, that is: doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result. The difference is that any individual plugging away day after day with the same thing isn’t actually doing the exact same thing. Subtle changes are occurring, but they’re unnoticeable, and only become apparent after a great deal of time when the compounded effects of many small changes seem to suddenly come together.
We sort of all understand this. But we don’t seem to know it. We get it abstractly, yes, if you want to be really good at something you have to do it a lot for a long time. But to know something is different than mere understanding. Knowledge is understanding in motion. To really know something you understand is to act upon it and add to the felt experience of living through a functional form of that understanding. It’s when the vicarious is replaced with the visceral. And then perspective changes. Understanding, knowledge, and feeling fuse through memory, and then it becomes like many other human milestones we try to describe to younger people who have yet to have the experience it: you got to do it to really understand.
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