(last updated on April 29, 2014)
Last week I made the connection between how I “drive” myself poorly with how unskilled drivers run terrible laps at the local Go Kart track. My expectation was that the vehicle–myself–is infinitely fast, instantaneous in response, and indestructible, so I mash the pedals and jerk the steering wheel expecting to excel at what I do just because I’m doing it aggressively. So I hit the barriers on the curves, skid out, am ultimately disappointed with my performance because I’ve not learned to recognize the limits of the vehicle. However, I know that a skilled driver can exact a thrilling experience with the same cart and track, because he/she knows how to drive to the limit: they’ve studied the dynamics of the track and know the parameters of the cart; their performance appears unworldly to us noobs. Our expectations, as drivers both of go-karts and our own lives, are out of whack with reality.
So how did our unrealistic expectations come to exist? I blame the instant-fix mentality that pervades our daily lives, catering to our appetite for gratification now. I suppose it’s not really our fault, as instant gratification is wired into our primitive brains; the idea that things can and should be powerful and easy has been a long-standing technological trend. We love the idea of wielding magic wands, guns, and iPhones; we just need genies in bottles, infinite rounds of ammunition, and server-side programming to complete the fantasy. In the case of the iPhone and thousands of other amazing products, that fantasy is our reality.
The Industrial Revolution taught us that hard work can yield to the efficiencies of mechanical mass-production, and in the subsequent shift to the consumer-driven economy we’ve been conditioned by advertising that we should benefit from this. The emphasis has shifted to granting us incredible powers over our lives, so long as we constrain our actions to that which technology and commerce has been able monetize. And advertising reinforces this message of push-button, wipe-on wipe-off ease. We have a plentiful supply of magic bullets supplied to us by hucksters, and we’re all too willing to believe that we’re capable of directing our fire with competence.
I’ve been noticing over the past couple of years just how impatient I am, and I had adjusted my productivity strategy to include more instantaneous feedback to help maintain motivation and interest in longer-term tasks I treated my lack of patience as character flaw inherent to me, and figured it was easier to just work around it. “I’m not great at being mindful and being focused”, I told myself.
I thought I had an intellectual understanding of what that was, but in reality I didn’t; I confused the results of mindfulness and focus with knowing what it was. My attempts to be mindful consisted of removing distractions, simplifying and shortening task lists, and telling myself that it was OK to do so. I attempted to work within what I thought I could muster, and to some extent it did work in that I felt better because I’d lowered my standards. But this is not elevated consciousness; it’s working within what I thought I could do. And although this has led to an increased sense of well-being, lowering my standards is a cop-out no matter how I spin it. If I’m not making the changes I desire, I am really just coping with my lack of fulfillment, telling myself that it doesn’t matter as much as I thought. On the race track, this is the equivalent of driving very conservatively and slowly, making sure that I do not exceed the safe speed and stay within the boundaries. As a result, I can finish the lap instead of wiping out, and I’m alive to tell the tale. Don’t get me wrong…finishing anything is awesome. It just isn’t as awesome as going fast and looking good while doing it. I don’t think anyone who has a dream really wants to settle for doing things half-way, except in a world where expectations are kept low. Bah!
I want to be able to set my expectations high.
I assumed that maybe my goals were unrealistic, and scaled them back. But perhaps that view is too simplistic. A more satisfying model of productivity would incorporate realistic expectations with constant feedback as the high-performing vehicle that we want to be. To deny this desire is to just lie to ourselves. The secret to getting there is to consider what it takes to become a master driver, the mind that guides the actions that extract the pleasure in performance. The limits exist, but perhaps I can make better use of them. So I am redefining mindfulness to mean responding well to the sensory inputs related to whatever task is at hand. And I am redefining focus to being able to consistently detect the conditions of the environment such that I can anticipate what needs to be done. These are skills that I know can be trained in an environment where the number of sensory inputs are high and tangibly-effective process is available; there is no helping it. It comes down, I suspect, to the ability to perceive the inputs in the first place, and then having the guts to push them to see how the next set of inputs will change.
I suspect a lot of our productivity challenges are related to the difficulty in learning how to see.