399. Total Immersion

January 7, 2015

To insist on adherence to the rules of logic and reason at all times leads us astray. At the core, we are neither logical nor reasonable. We are what we are, doing the best we can to put pieces of the mind puzzle together however they might fit. If we don’t give ourselves to solving that puzzle by its own dictates, we’ll never impose a solution that fits from outside. Too much of our most intimate mental makeup marches to a series of different drummers, with beats that change and never settle down into a regular rhythm. Imposing a certain order on what we allow ourselves to think encases the mind in cement.

But the mind is not a rigid thing. It is a fluid organ that shapes itself to the demands of the moment. That is the genius by which we have survived all these millennia, not by being “right” and “proper,” but by adapting to the situation we are in. By detecting the structure of unique moments of history from inside our personal experience of those moments, not by imposing a predetermined structure from without.

As with our thinking, so in our acting do we need to prepare ourselves over the years by practicing the moves that are important to us. The best method is total immersion in what we want to do, trying it over and over again. Nothing worth doing comes easily. Practice is the secret of success. Not good looks. Not youth. Not luck. Not money. Not connections.

Practice.

We often give credit to talent and gifts, but the secret of talent and gifts is disciplined hard work. Think of Fred Astaire rehearsing fourteen hours a day to appear effortlessly graceful. We have to train our bodies, arms, hands, and fingers to do what we want. Mind over matter. Which is the true challenge we face. Make that mind over muscle—and tendon and joint and bone. Our minds and bodies are made to do the work, and to sharpen our performance through years of dedicated practice.

It helps if we break our task into stages that build one on another. Which is the nature of projects. We can’t tackle every challenge all at once. The recipe for successful action is to break it into sessions for working on one thing at a time. When we get good at one subroutine (in Tai Chi, say), we move to the next, rehearsing earlier ones as we go, adding new moves every day until we become masters of the whole. Then we move on to the next scene, paragraph, chapter, or movement of whatever we are engaged in building or perfecting.

Projects are a means of achieving concentration on one part of a complicated process after another, and concentration is of the essence in directing our full mental attention on both perception and action at the same time, that is to say, on our engagement with a particular activity.

Projects are behavioral units in which energy is consistently directed toward attaining a particular goal.

I have made over eighty PowerPoint presentations, each aimed at a particular audience to achieve a desired effect. Some I have made in a day, others have taken me months to perfect. Each slide has its place in the series so it adds to the plot by which the overall show builds to a fitting finale.

Each such presentation is the result of a project to which I give my focused attention to the same program over time, with frequent breaks lasting hours, days, or weeks between sessions. Eventually I finish a given show and move on to the next.

Heavy Metal

Heavy Metal, Bar Harbor, Maine, USA

One show I call “Heavy Metal” was built from photographs of cast-iron drain and manhole covers on the streets of Bar Harbor. Some castings were made in Portland, Maine, others in Canada, France, or India. It took me several weeks of patrolling the streets on the lookout for variations on my theme. When the lighting was wrong, I went back several times until it was right (showing the texture and design of the metal to good effect).

Fungal underworld

Hidden habitat of fungal underworld

My wanderings may have appeared random, but each foray contributed to the overall effect, and eventually I judged the project finished, then moved on to the next—the secret underworlds beneath caps of mushrooms, stems of trees in the Acadian Forest, estuary wildlife, horseshoe crabs, eelgrass meadows, and so on. Each show resulting from a project of concerted effort assembled over time.

 

Solo horseshoe crabs

Two solo horseshoe crabs pass side-by-side

Advertisements

(Copyright © 2009)

 

Is human achievement due to innate ability (talent) or training and practice (hard work)? Daniel J. Levitin reports findings from research on that question in his book This is Your Brain on Music (Plume/Penguin, 2006; see Reflection 54: Books About Consciousness):

 

The emerging picture from such studies is that ten thousand hours of practice is required to achieve the level of mastery associated with being a world-class expert—in anything. In study after study, of composers, basketball players, fiction writers, ice skaters, concert pianists, chess players, master criminals, and what have you, this number comes up again and again. Ten thousand hours is equivalent to roughly three hours a day, or twenty hours a week, of practice over ten years. . . . [N]o one has yet found a case in which true world-class expertise was accomplished in less time. It seems that it takes the brain this long to assimilate all that it needs to know to achieve true mastery (page 197).

 

So practice does make perfect—deliberate, attentive, conscious repetition of routines until they belong not only to the likes of Mozart, Rembrandt, and Einstein, but to the rest of us as well. It’s not just a matter of putting in the time. The quality of that time is crucial to success. We must turn our passions into disciplined behaviors through strict concentration. That’s what it takes to build strong neural connections in our brains sufficient to turn the off-the-shelf model we start with into a customized brain suited to the challenges of today’s world. To realize our personal dreams, there is no substitute for concentration and hard work.

 

The secret to becoming an expert is motivation. To do better than we have done in the past, we’ve got to devote a good part of our conscious life to achieving our goals—whatever they might be. We can’t buy or rent success, or leave it to others to acquire for us. Life is a meaningless abstraction until we decide what we want our life to be. That is the first issue, which sets us off in a particular direction. Then the question arises, are we willing to do the work? We can’t know until we try. We’ve got to push ahead from where we are to see where we end up. It may not be the achievement we planned, but if we put in our ten thousand hours, we will be somewhere at least, far beyond where we started out.

 

Which sounds like the standard pep talk you’ve heard a thousand times. Hang tough, you can do it! But now we are beginning to understand how dedicated passion and conscious attention can, in changing our brains, change our lives—and change the world. To develop skills, timing, judgment, and knowledge, we have to do whatever is required to build specific patterns of nerve connections in our brains. Whatever we do to our brains, they will do for us on demand. That is the amazing secret of human experience. Treat our brains in humdrum fashion, our brains will see to it we lead humdrum lives. Challenge our brains to do all they can, they have no choice but to return the favor in kind.

 

It’s not how we treat others, it’s how we treat ourselves that is the key to success. Expect little—that’s exactly what we will get. If we ask for the moon, we must build that moon crater-by-crater over time into our brains; then when we ask, there it will be.

 

When we meet someone and ask what they “do” we generally imply “for a living.” But in getting acquainted, what we really want to know is, have they put in the necessary ten thousand hours of exercising their body and brain? If they’re young, what are they working on? What is their bliss, their passion? Apprenticeships and grad school take ten thousand hours. Ten thousand hours flipping burgers leads to a burger-flipping life, perhaps eventually as a store manager or franchise owner if they dedicate their hearts and brains to getting ahead.

 

In my life, I have put in my ten thousand hours three times over: as a photographer, a teacher, and now a writer. I have reinvented myself each time to move into a more direct relationship with the world I wanted to live in. Each time I went back to Go and started over. I never got $200 for the effort, but went to the bottom and worked my way up. My first job in each field paid $5,000 a year in the currency of the day. Which sounds self-defeating, but I was changing with the times, so explored unknown dimensions of myself as they emerged in my awareness.

 

I have often claimed that consciousness has been selected for to give us a tool for working our way out of those tough, unanticipated situations we get ourselves into. In the old days, growing up to reproductive age used to be the problem, and then surviving long enough to help our children reach that age.

 

Now that we in the developed world are born with a cultural quilt around our shoulders, we are likely to take raising families and having grandchildren for granted as if they would be ours as a matter of course. Our life challenge then becomes, what are we going to be when we grow up so we can have the wherewithal to support the comfortable lifestyles we aspire to?

 

Fireman? Astronaut? Rock star? NASCAR driver? Consciousness has evolved to enable us to set goals such as these. And beyond that, to work our way through the arduous training sessions and hours of practice that will modify our bodies and brains accordingly, putting our goals within reach. Once appropriately stimulated, our brains will give us the skills to match our performance to our desires, enabling us to get close to what we hoped we might become.

 

Day by day, consciousness enables us to grow up. To survive in this world. Which is no mean accomplishment, given the hazards surrounding us on all sides. Consciousness would be our most prized possession, if only we didn’t take it for granted—as if growing up is ours by right and not something we have to make happen.

 

The world is full of people who have every sort of advantage—and waste them all by not doing the work of learning how to turn them to good use. They don’t put in their ten thousand hours. Or if they do, it is on high living, recreation, and entertainment. Or on sticking to outmoded ways. They shape their brains to their inheritance, not the promise of the future, so rely on the generic brain model they were given, which is more adapted to the world of 50,000 years ago than the challenges of today. Ice-age brains are good for dealing with ice ages. The W model might be good for highly privileged cave dwellers, but as we have seen over the past eight years, our basic equipment is no longer adequate to the life situations we encounter in today’s modern world.

 

Our skills and brains require updating. Which is where consciousness must be put to good use. Global warming, sea level rise, economic collapse, eternal warfare, overpopulation, overconsumption, wastefulness, militarization, power reserved to the wealthy for their own benefit—there’s got to be a better way. A spectrum of better ways.

 

The global situation requires each of us to put in a minimum of ten thousand hours in bringing our personal consciousness and skills up to the standards required if we are to contribute to the world we actually live in, not the fictionalized world featured in mythology, many schoolbooks, and the entertainment media.

 

¦