Friday, September 16, 2016

Progress: It's Always Harder Than You Expect

Man who stand on hill with mouth open will wait long time for roast duck to drop in. - Confucius
We have a vague idea that progress looks something like this,

Climbing the side of a mountain, reaching the peaks, trudging forward, ever progressing towards the goal.

Every day you look back and get a gratifying sense of accomplishment at the heights you've achieved. And then look forward to the dizzying heights ahead, and be inspired and challenged.

If you were to graph how people view progress, it would look something like this,
The slope of the line is determined by the effort that one makes. Sure, this is unrealistic, you can't always expect to go up and to the right. Some days you're lazy and stop putting in as much effort.

But the key is effort. If you don't see results, then most likely effort is missing; you don't want it bad enough.

This is the fallacy about progress that we subscribe to.

The truth about progress

Instead of thinking of it as climbing a mountain, think of progress as building the mountain,
The initial time is spent laying down the foundation. Effort is spread thin and progress is slow. But as you near to the top, things start begin to come together, fall into place, and you seem to be accelerating towards your goal, with less and less effort each time.

If graphed it would look like this,
The slope of this curve isn't effort, instead it's the accumulation of knowledge, gained from effort. It is the wisdom that you have attained through trial and error.

When we look with envy at successful people, what we're seeing are those near the top of their mountains. To us, everything they do seems effortless and natural, we're in awe of their magical abilities, their god-given talents.

In contrast, the people who are still toiling away at the foundations of their mountains are pitiful failures. They don't seem to be going anywhere despite how hard they're trying, and we wonder if they should give up already.

Yet even they are the lucky ones. Sometimes the mountain cannot be built, despite how much effort is spent. Here is an example of what it is like for the rest of the 90% that will fail utterly,
This is the painful reality that most of us face when we try and do something different in our lives. It either seems pointless because of how slow progress is, or it seems impossible because we can only get so far.

The dysfunction

Our species have been progressing for thousands of years. We are at the current heights of achievement, thanks to the foundations laid down by our ancestors. It's easy to lose sight of how difficult things can be, when everything around us seem to be so magically simple. A little bit of effort here and there, and we are flying through the air, talking to strangers instantly across the world, and making money while sitting at home.

Because our concept of progress has become dysfunctional, we have lost sight of how things actually work. We're disconnected from the massive effort it takes to do anything, so our expectations are free to float around in fantasy land. We demand all sorts of wonderful results from the minimal of efforts.

This has made it more difficult for the ones who are still toiling away at their mountains. The effort and accomplishments are underestimated, the expected results overestimated. They are viewed as stick-in-the-muds, branded as people with a negative attitude. Always "complaining" about how difficult this or that is, how you have to be careful all the time, how you have to have concern.

Keep on keeping on

Despite the hardships, the reward of having built the mountain will always remain, the accomplishment cannot be diminished. It is an objective reward that can't be taken away from you. The mountain itself can be taken away though, life is unjust sometimes. But the fact that you built that mountain will always be yours.

I'd rather be in the shoes of Steve Jobs the morning after he was fired from Apple, rather than be in the shoes of someone who has never tried, doesn't know, and can't appreciate.

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