Friday, 28 December 2012

On the vital importance of tenacity

I have said that often, the actual difficulty of attaining a goal is incomparably less than what one believes it could be. In many, many cases, the difference between success and failure is neither superhuman exertion, nor a mystical fluke of fortune, nor a genetic advantage over others (except perhaps in the world of elite sports), nor even a high pain threshold. If there is one quality I have observed in others, and endeavoured to nurture in myself, that is perhaps the most crucial ingredient in the recipe for winning, it is persistence.

To be sure, some of us get it right the first time. Good for them; expending energy on getting jealous about it is not going yield any advantage whatsoever. Better that you apply the same effort to getting back on task and simply trying again.

Before exploring this topic in further detail, I’ve decided to get the reality check out of the way. In my opinion, it is just as important to accept the unavoidable risk that one will die trying, as it is to doggedly keep fighting for one’s dream. Tenacity is not a guarantee of success -- but statistically speaking, I am reasonably sure it is the one factor that tips the odds in an overwhelming majority of cases.

It is unwise to delude oneself in either direction; as always, I believe that a lucid appraisal of the task at hand is the first and most vital step towards completing it. There is no reason to dwell on the risks -- all we need to do is come to terms with them. And now we can return to the more inspirational aspects of this issue.

The first of these -- and one that I always find reassuring -- is the fact persistence often does not manifest itself as a refusal to be defeated by repeated failures. If one wishes to become a virtuoso musician, for example, it simply takes many, many regular small efforts over a long period of time to make one’s dream a reality. This form of tenacity has a very well-known name: we call it practice, and it is the epitome of taking innumerable small and determined steps towards one’s goal. In perhaps 30-50% of all instances, this class of persistence is all one needs to ensure success.

I have been close friends with several people who have had drug problems and other major issues that in reality, were not as straightforward to correct as simply playing scales to a metronome. But their ultimate successes have become a source of undying inspiration for me -- as well as a beautiful illustration of how crucial it is to persist in one’s efforts. Because that was the only common factor in all their diverse struggles.

I’ve watched people relapse so many times into a range of destructive situations or behaviours. Despite succumbing time and again to their circumstances or their own shortcomings, their underlying goal was to one day leave such things in the past forever -- and eventually, sometimes after a matter of years, they won. It was because they kept trying -- again and again, they collected themselves and returned to the fray, and in the end, it was their enemy that proved weaker.

I was thinking to cite my own past problems with alcohol as a case study, but instead I have something a little less clich├ęd to share with you. As a notorious perfectionist, I have faced a great deal of what might be called opposition from people whose advice I trusted, often being told I was being too hard on myself, or that I had reached an acceptable level of success in whatever crazy scheme I was working on.

If memory serves me, every single time I followed this advice and stopped striving for perfection, I ended up bitterly dissatisfied with the result. I eventually learned my lesson, and adopted the approach that once I have embarked on a given project, I will not let it go until I am truly happy with it -- or until I have proven to myself that I have reached the limit of my abilities. (Even if that limit falls short of the vision I had conceived of.)

This often means I will scrap all the progress I’ve made on said task and go right back to the drawing board, take a more successful direction than the previous one, and keep revising it and returning to it and bothering it and improving it and worrying away at it until the reality matches the dream. Near enough may be good enough for some, and I respect that choice. But it is not good enough for me.

I am not about to suggest that you should take on my own value system -- my only hope is that you will take heart, when you are beset by the inevitable procession of obstacles that hinder any meaningful undertaking.

On the song ‘Madagascar’ by Axl Rose, there is a sample of Martin Luther King saying, “Sometimes, I feel discouraged,” among other poignant expressions relating to his dream. It breaks my heart that he was one of the heroes who did indeed die trying. Yet his legacy is immortal -- and one facet of that legacy is the inspiration to keep on fighting for what one yearns for, no matter how elusive it may appear, no matter how many times one is knocked down or is led astray from the path by one’s own imperfections as a human.

To me, King’s confession of his feelings is a beautiful crystallisation of the argument for persistence. Today, almost half a century after he spoke these words, we can indeed sit together at the table of brotherhood, and justifiably say we are free at last.

The same indomitable spirit exists in all of us. All we need to do is invoke it -- then feed it and sustain it, in just the same way as it breathes life into our dreams.

Thursday, 13 September 2012

The relative nature of difficulty

I have mentioned already that I can share with you the tools that will enable you to make your dreams come true. While I would be the first to stress the importance of retaining a degree of common sense about what truly is at the negative end of the possibility spectrum, there is an extremely dangerous and somewhat paradoxical problem with such prudence.

Having an inaccurate idea of a given dream’s position on that spectrum -- when one believes they are simply applying common sense -- can push it right off the scale immediately. I find it terribly exasperating that so many wonderful pursuits are considered prohibitively difficult and therefore never attempted -- rendering them impossible -- when in reality, they are not only well within the realm of achievability, but also require very little actual effort to attain.

I have previously explained why I believe the issue of whether something is possible or not exists as more of a spectrum than a switch that can only be set to ‘on’ or ‘off’. This fluid range is further confused by the issue of difficulty -- and the perception of difficulty can be as formidable a barrier to the realisation of one’s dreams, as the misconception of impossibility itself.

It is vital, then, to remember that in the vast majority of instances, the only significant obstacle between a wish and its fulfilment is the chasm between what is actually real, and how that reality is perceived. This is true of both difficulty and possibility, however the former issue is a much slipperier reptile of the mind to pin down. This is not only because of the extent to which it is a matter of perception, but also because the measure of effort required to overcome it is as subjective, and varies as drastically from individual to individual, as the experience of pain.

A memorable way for people to demonstrate brute physical strength in a spectacular fashion is by towing large aircraft with the aid of a harness attached to their body. This is an excellent model to use when discussing the concept of difficulty and the nuances I hope to explore.

If you look at the comments for this video, you will notice that there are people displaying exactly the kind of behaviour I was describing earlier. Although the youngsters calling this post a fake are probably just trolls, I am sure that if you started telling people you’d seen a human being towing a 187-ton aircraft without assistance, one of them would express a similar sentiment soon enough. And as an aside, I would never undermine the validity of a thoughtful person applying their intellect to question information that seems suspicious to them.

In any case, I think most people would agree that towing an aircraft is a difficult feat, and this facilitates its use in arriving at a definition of actual difficulty itself. I would suggest that the difficulty of a task can be quantified by two variables: firstly, the amount of effort required to achieve it, and secondly, the degree to which the task is unpleasant or distressing.

It is important to note that with this definition, I am focussing on the mechanical difficulty involved, not the perceived difficulty. It is already complicated enough when something that is barely even troublesome at all can be thought to be so difficult that it becomes impossible. Factoring in the mental anguish caused by one’s own misconceptions affects the distress variable and confuses the practical (if simplistic) issue of ‘measuring’ difficulty.

Let us return to the plane-pulling concept. We have seen a person do this, so we can reasonably believe it is not altogether impossible. What if the plane involved was much smaller -- for example, a 600kg stunt plane? I’ve moved one of those myself; it required a fair degree of effort, and towing it the whole way from the apron to its place in the hangar left me out of breath. However, that was the extent of my troubles. It was not an upsetting experience, and the exertion required was quite easy to estimate beforehand.

This is a straightforward example of physical difficulty. Another might be swimming underwater for further than a few metres without an air supply. On the other hand, tasks such as making a decision that causes another person to suffer are significantly more complicated and spawn innumerable additional variables. Then there are activities that require great skill in order to be executed at all, such as performing microsurgery or playing a musical instrument to a virtuosic standard. All of these examples fall into the category of being genuinely difficult.

In the last two cases, it is neither the ability to exert great force nor the resistance of intense discomfort that result in such a high score on the difficulty scale. It is the amount of effort required to attain the relevant skills, spread over a period of years. This in itself is a crucial concept to remember, and can also be applied to our aircraft analogy. For argument’s sake, let’s say that in absolute terms, the amount of effort that must be made to become a microsurgeon is comparable to that required to move a 187-ton aircraft 8.8m on level ground. (In reality, I’m sure pulling the plane is much easier, but please bear with me so that I can make a point.)

There is no doubt in my mind that it is physically impossible for me to tow a C-17, considering my current level of fitness -- or lack thereof. But I am equally certain that I could tow a two-seater, single-engine aerobatic trainer the same distance, 300 times. Realistically, the task would take me at least a day, and I would be terribly sore afterwards. But the central issue is, that I would have exerted the same total quantity of effort, even if it was distributed over a full day instead of 90 seconds or so.

By the same token, if I decided to break Reverend Fast’s record, and spent a few years strengthening my musculoskeletal system to the point where I could match this power output, I’m quite confident I could tow the C-17 for 10m or more. Perhaps not on my first attempt. Perhaps I would have to start with prime movers and work my way up to 737s and such in order to develop my technique. But as long as my health prevailed, I would achieve this goal eventually.

It is worth specifying that this interpretation of difficulty functions well when applied to issues that an individual can personally achieve and control. As soon as the end goal becomes dependent on the behaviour of others, new variables are introduced. However, if the efforts required to achieve that goal can be broken down into their most basic constituents, the same basic principles usually apply.

I plan to write more about the implications of difficulty eventually, as well as offering strategies for overcoming that most fearsome chasm that tends to separate one from the fulfilment of one's dreams -- the abyss that exists for most people between perception and reality.

Monday, 6 August 2012

The spectrum of what is possible

The general consensus among most people is that there is a very sharp line of demarcation between the possible and the impossible.

I have a different view of the situation. While I would be the first to say some things are categorically possible, and others categorically not, I think of these as opposite poles of a spectrum, rather than a switch that is either set to ‘on’ or ‘off’. I will concentrate on what I believe happens at the extremes of this spectrum in a future entry; for now, it is the varying colours of possibility that I wish to explore.

At the ‘simpler’ end of the spectrum -- the lower frequencies, if you will -- there is the issue of individual perception being significantly at odds with the true nature of things.

In my opinion, the way in which most people view the world is more often than not a complicated pastiche of things they have been persuaded to believe, as distinct from a careful and personal investigation of their own experiences. There is invariably some component of their native, untainted psyche woven into that melee of other people’s ideas, but this is normally a very small and meek aspect of their personality as a whole.

So it follows that from the outset, the idea of what is possible or otherwise is not related to something that one has actually attempted, but is based on a majority view of what ought to be possible. People talk themselves into believing that it is impossible for them to stop smoking, impossible to visit a distant country, impossible to achieve some random objective, not because it actually is. They arrive at this conclusion because it is distilled from factors they have found palatable in the collected opinions of those who have influenced them.

The idea of what is possible or not is further coloured by what might be called expert opinion. Someone who has demonstrated their authority in a given field, and who has been proven correct in many past situations, is taken very seriously as an indicator of possibility -- and rightly so. However, nobody gets it right 100% of the time, and most experienced specialists make a point of mentioning that some event has a high likelihood or probability, but is not an absolutely definite diagnosis.

Lord Kelvin’s infamous skepticism of heavier-than-air flying machines is a well-worn cliche illustrating how even a very successful man of science can have a confounding inability to conceive of what is possible. Especially considering his work in the field of thermodynamics, it is so disappointing that he was unable to extend his imagination to the behaviour of objects moving through air. But then, it is always easy to say a solution is obvious if it is revealed prior to the problem.

Further along the spectrum is the issue of accepted research. Most of what people consider to be 'established facts' about the world are based on conclusions reached through peer-assessed studies; in most cases, these studies provide useful and applicable insights into what can or can’t be done. However, history continues to be rewritten as new discoveries are made; sometimes this is because new technology allows a more accurate view that shows previous interpretations of results to be erroneous. In other cases, it is because the system that was studied has evolved in some manner, and behaves differently to the way it used to.

In other words, something that was once scientifically proven to be impossible is now accepted as a factual reality. My favourite example of this concept is the issue of neurogenesis: when I was in university (and this is really showing my age), it was extensively believed that at a certain point in development, brain cells stop dividing. I was shocked and amazed several years ago to learn that this once-untouchable dogma was no longer in vogue, and the number of brain cells in certain patients was shown to increase under given circumstances.

But even in the face of all scientific certainty, individual phenomena have taken place -- and continue to take place -- that completely contradict what ‘should’ be possible. Most often, these well-documented events are related to mind-boggling stories of survival. I appreciate that in a situation such as Joe Simpson’s self-rescue as recounted in Touching the Void, the bottom line is probably that his body simply contained enough of the requisite molecules needed to sustain life. However there are countless situations in which people have been on the brink of death from cancer or injury, and these molecules were seconds away from being fatally depleted. Despite this, they made a recovery described by their physicians as miraculous.

So one of the pervasive colours on this spectrum is related to the fact that even escaping from certain death is possible -- although it is certainly not common.

There is also the issue that what is impossible now, may be possible later, or pending some other dependent variable. There is no way I could physically run a marathon tomorrow, however I am sure it is something that would be well within the realm of possibility if I applied myself to the requisite training. So it follows that if nothing else, possibility operates as a four-dimensional construct: a much more complex proposition than simply ‘yes’ or ‘no’.

The subject of quantum physics brings with it a whole army of further complications. At the scale of subatomic particles, it is quite routinely observed that an object can exist in two places at the same time. It is also well-established that when a pair of objects (ranging from photons to quite large molecules) is separated, one reacts instantaneously to the condition of the other, even when the distance between them is so great that any information transmitted from one to the other would have to travel much faster than light to effect the observed change.

I am not about to start arguing that the quantum-level behaviour of particles is necessarily a valid model for what happens in the macro-scale physical reality we directly perceive with our senses. This is the state of existence that I refer to as the Newtonian world, because Newtonian physics is such a useful tool to describe its behaviour and make predictions about it.

The issue of whether something is possible or not is influenced by a staggering diversity of variables. I believe the most meaningful of these -- in no small part because it is the only one we can really affect -- is our own ability to make decisions.

To be sure, there are countless choices we make that still fail to change a situation from its impossible condition. However, I believe that there are equally countless possibilities that we fail to choose, because we believe they are outside the realm of possibility itself.

It is my earnest hope that I can furnish you with the inspiration to reconsider your own position along the spectrum of what is possible.