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.

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