On Growth and Development

by F.

When I was in high school I read some stuff by Abraham Maslow on what he called “self actualization.” At the time, it really resonated and was like nothing I’d ever heard at home, from my friends, or anywhere else—this idea that people want to grow, to learn, to change juste because it feels good. I could never understand how achieving goals was supposed to be bad. It also never felt right to me that one should focus on some sort of innate, immutable characteristic—like “being gifted” or “being linear” or “being smart”—to help you achieve. That’s not very interesting: I mean, achieving is about doing, not having some special property.

There was around the same time in the culture the last vestiges of this, I guess, counterculture idea that people should “just be” and shouldn’t be striving. “Be here now.” That sort of thing. That just made no sense to me. There is nothing more enjoyable than incremental progress toward a goal, whether it’s a sport, a game—whatever. As soon as the goal is reached, guess what? You need another arbitrary goal. At least that’s the way I like to live. The goal almost doesn’t matter. But you’ve got to have one. The ultimate refutation of this quasi-religious “Be here now” idea is that religious monks (say, in Nepal) are some of the most goal oriented people you’ll ever meet. They have one goal that they focus on relentlessly: enlightenment. Their whole lives focus on that. They cut themselves off from society so they can achieve their goal. “Be here now?” Mneh. Counterculture propaganda.

Fortunately, I was good at skill sports when I was young, like skiing, and saw how one could go from being terrible at something to very good by following a simple algorithm. Once I got good at skiing, I basically used this experience as a model for almost everything else in my life. It was a great discovery. Then I did the same thing with non-physical achievements. I was a terrible student. I don’t think I ever read a book when I was a kid. Sure, I would look at the pages, but I wasn’t really “reading.” For instance, my graduating high school GPA was 2.5. On my SAT, among college-bound seniors, my verbal score was the 79th percentile. A few years later, I took the GRE. My verbal score was the 98th percentile. What changed? Some special “smartness” property? Nope. I trained. Training works. That was another experience I used as a model.

Maybe this is all explained by the fact that my mother breast-fed me regularly. (That’s one theory of why people are “achievement oriented”—sounds a little reductive.) Who knows. But I thought about all this recently when I started reading Carol Dweck’s book Self Theories: Their Role in Motivation, Personality, and Development. This book gets an Amazon rating of 5/5 stars; in reality, it should earn 17/5 stars. It’s an awesome book. Awesome. Copies of it should be air-dropped around the world. I swear, world GDP and well-being would pop if everyone took this book to heart. Even if 98% of achievement is constrained by innate characteristics, you’ve still got 2% to work with.

There are a lot of reasons people are driven to achieve—fear being, I think, a big one. But there’s also this other thing: it feels good to train toward a goal. Think of how many people run marathons for fun. Why a marathon? Because it takes a long time to train for. For a year or at least many months, you’re whole life is focused on that goal. And you can see steady, incremental progress. Yes, at the end, the marginal improvement is quite small. That’s when it gets hard to stay motivated. But what happens, I think, is that you just reorient your scale: you were cutting off 10s of minutes before; now it’s seconds. Still, there’s progress.

I can also recall the opposite tendency: self-sabotage or ensuring failure to hide low skill level. For instance, you’re afraid you’ll do poorly in calculus, so you don’t study. Then you’ll never know if you would have done badly and can more easily rationalize the failure. You can make up some story about how you “aren’t a good test taker” or whatever. Yes, some people aren’t good test takers. But you can train yourself to get better, absent some strange brain malfunction. The antidote to this approach might be something like: “Train smart, train hard, and keep training.” Why? Because it’s fun to train. If I wasn’t training, whether it be my mind or my body, I’d be miserable. (I’ve actually run that experiment. It wasn’t pretty.)

So physical training, mental training—what about emotional training? Sure. I’m convinced a person can train themselves emotionally. But you have to outsmart yourself, and in fact, your “self” is a big obstacle. Personally, I wish I didn’t have one, at least one I was conscious of. Consciousness sucks. I’m not sure what it’s good for, really. I mean, self-knowledge through introspection—watching your conscious experience—has got to be just about the worst way to train your mind and emotions. Why? Because it’s theory laden. It’s better to look at yourself objectively. It’s a bit like monitoring your weight. Yeah, you could look in the mirror everyday and think, “Am I fat?” Or you could just weigh yourself and keep records. The latter is much more reliable and less anxiety provoking, because it’s harder to deceive yourself. (“I’m not fat; I’m building muscle with weight training.” Yeah. Right.)

In the old days, self-knowledge came through mystical experiences like introspection. Those days are gone. The self is an objective entity, like your foot. But it has to be measured from the outside with reliable instruments.

Now I have to go to the gym….

(P.S. Dweck has also written a more popular version called Mindset. While I haven’t read the latter, I read an abstract and it sounded a little dumb to me, mainly because it is positioned as a business book. So, inevitably, it contains somewhat risible conclusions like “Jack Welch evinced the attributes X, Y, and Z. Because of this, GE stock rose 3,000% during his time as CEO.” Pretty unscientific. But whatever—if people get her ideas by buying this book, great.)