Optimal Configurations

Imagine you wanted to create a stack of solids that was as high as you could make it but only one solid wide. Therefore, each subsequent block you add to the structure must be place on top of the previous block.

Furthermore, you have a choice of blocks: spheres, cubes, rectangular prisms, pyramids, and cones. You can use whatever combination of blocks that you desire.

What do you build?

Evidently, you’d attempt to build your tower with blocks that create a stable platform for the next block. This means you’d use the cubes and rectangular prisms to build your tower.

Let’s up the stakes a bit more: you need to reach one metre high and have the structure be stable for at least ten seconds.

Now suppose someone else is attempting this task, but started later than you. To make up time, this person grabs whatever is available right in front of them. Instead of using only the cubes and prisms, they use all the solids. Somewhat amazingly, they still succeed in temporarily creating a tall tower using spheres and cones, faster than you finish your tower. They smugly smile while you look on in shock, but before the ten seconds is counted, the fragile equilibrium that was established vanishes and the structure crumbles to the ground. You laugh and shake your head, finishing your structure and wondering how this person could be so daft.

However, this situation can be seen all the time in those who are trying to be the best they can in their craft.

Instead of building the best structure possible by using the best components, they simply try to go as grand and complex as possible. The thinking goes: my components don’t matter if my tower can be as tall as the other person’s. This phenomenon is only quickened by the comparisons to people that are “already there” (where you would like to be).

While true, the result of this kind of thinking manifests itself like in the example above: the tower is indeed tall, but its structure crumbles almost immediately. The components used were not the best ones that could be used. If we want to have long-term improvement, this is a problem.

When we jump straight to the result, we disregard the components that lead to the result. As a consequence, less thought is put into using the best components possible and more towards improving quickly. While results may occur in the beginning, it will become apparent that this person isn’t quite as good as the established expert with years of experience.

Furthermore, there is usually a lack of thought into the configuration of the training. This means that sound principles of training can be forgotten in lieu of “quick fixes”. Again, while these may prove effective in the short term, they aren’t sustainable solutions.

Another thing that this lack of forethought creates is bad habits. I don’t care how “good” your performances are, if you have bad habits they will affect your potential performance. Maybe you don’t care, but usually people want to get as much out of themselves as they can, and bad habits can inhibit this goal. Bad habits mask weaknesses that should be addressed.

Optimal configuration of your training is a difficult, but worthwhile, task. It can be frustrating when you compare yourself to others who seem so far ahead of you, but you need to focus on what you are capable of now. Being truly good is a result of correcting weaknesses and optimizing your training. By doing this beforehand, it can help you avoid the long process of de-training bad habits and forming good ones.

Yes, that means you won’t be riding a skyrocketing improvement curve. But in the long run, you’ll be structurally sound in your training, and will be like the tower or cubes and prisms.

Stable and strong.

Balance

Are your goals taking up all of your waking hours?

Do you have enough time to just sit, doing nothing?

These are the types of questions that must be answered, and reviewed often. It’s just too easy to fall into the whirlwind of life and forget our reasons for doing what we do. It’s a subtle shift, happening over the course of weeks and months. But suddenly, you find yourself stuck in a series of tasks that seem to never end. What was once a craft that you enjoyed now seems like another box to check.

The key to stopping yourself from just marching on and overloading yourself with your goals is to actively reflect on what you are doing, and how you are giving yourself a balance in your activities. It may sound obvious, but without balance you are on a collision course for burnout. It’s as simple as that.

Therefore, you need to remember that going about your day and fulfilling all of your tasks in order to accomplish your goals can lead to a state of zombie-like consciousness. This is where the love for your craft can be lost.

Don’t let it come to that. Regularly reflect on what you’re doing, and why you’re doing it.

Failure

One of the most difficult things in life to get used to is failure. And yet, we seem to be in regular meeting with it, as if it’s some old friend that we’re trying to avoid but just can’t seem to shake.

To make matters worse, failure is seen as terrible in society. With the amplification of those who succeed versus the dampening of the many more who fail, the signal that is broadcast to the world is that failure isn’t acceptable. Unless, of course, it is part of a success story.

This dance with failure is a strange characteristic of our world. The ones who succeed are able to talk about their failures openly, without fear of being shut out. Why? Because they then succeeded. That’s the only difference between those who failed and those who succeeded.

Furthermore, as a result of trying to compartmentalize people, we characterize people as a “success” or a “failure”. We latch on to the most important thing they are known for, and then we build a persona of them based on this failure or success. As such, we commit two very big mistakes. The first is that we treat those who succeed as complete successes. In other words, an extraordinarily gifted physicist must have had a good grapple on everything in their life.

On the other hand, we do the exact same thing with those who fail. For them, they lose the chance of being heard (at least to a similar degree as the successes). One failure seems to equate to a lifetime of failure.

It’s as if we’re playing a game in which one miss makes us lose, without any chance for redemption. What we’ve done, essentially, is lose our ability to critically look at people and separate their achievements from their failures[^1].

This becomes a problem when it influences how we feel about failure. First and foremost, failure should be about learning something new. When we fail, we have done something that is incorrect. Therefore, the best thing we can do from failure is to learn what we did wrong and correct them for next time. Failure should lead to learning.

But what actually happens is that our society stigmatizes failure so much that people want to avoid it at all costs. Because the consequences of failing can be so harsh, we try to insulate ourselves from anything that can lead to failure. Over the long term, this leads us to “play it safe”, instead of taking risks that could lead to bigger payoffs.

If you want to see this in action, just look at the students who have the highest grades in a class. Chances are, they won’t participate as often when a teacher asks a new and challenging question. They won’t venture an answer, for fear of getting the answer wrong and looking unintelligent. Even with the potential payoff of answering a question right and looking better, these students shrink back from wandering into the unknown. And if this kind of behaviour can begin so young at school, there’s a large chance that it can have further ramifications later on in life.


As we can probably gather, failure is framed as a sort of contradiction. If you want to be successful, there just has to be some story of failure nestled within it. Many of us would even go so far as to say that success is meeting failure after failure and still pressing on.

However, the other side of failure is that those who fail aren’t included in the conversations that we have within social realms. Failure isn’t talked about. It’s almost as if it’s a sort of taboo. We implicitly acknowledge that failure is there, but we do our best to hide it. Only when it leads to a success story do people want to hear it. As such, we rob ourselves from seeing the full image of what happens while we struggle to create and do the best work that we can. It begins to shape our behaviour, making us attempt to avoid failure whenever we can, even to the detriment of large potential payoffs.

Evidently, we are missing a huge opportunity here, and it has to do with not pushing our boundaries. We don’t do it for a simple reason: pushing ourselves is uncomfortable. It’s much easier to stick with what we know we are good at than to go and attempt something new. The former has a reliable track record of being easy to complete, while the latter is different and scary. Therefore, it’s almost unreasonable to expect us to choose the route of trying new things. But, as we all agree with yet never actually do, pushing ourselves to the prospect of failing is a habit we should do more often.

It’s easy for me to write these words, but it’s much more difficult to actually live by them. That’s the challenge we face all the time, and it never gets easier. In fact, that’s the whole point. If it were to get easier, than that would be a signal that you aren’t pushing yourself enough anymore. A greater challenge would then be in order.

Now, I’m also not trying to say that you should go and look to fail. We should always try to do our best, no matter if it is our first or our hundredth time doing a task. Instead, what I am proposing is to go with the ideas that make you excited, regardless of the chance for failure. If you want to try a new art form or a new sport, you shouldn’t stop yourself from trying it because of the small voice of fear in your head that says you might fail. You’ll feel the fear, of course. We all do, every day. However, if you can train yourself to realize when this is happening, you can catch yourself and reflect on what you’re considering. Honestly, is the only reason you’re hesitant about a wild idea is that it seems like you’re likely to fail? If it is, I’d suggest reconsidering your decision to turn down the idea.

The fear of failure is not a good reason for stopping ourselves from doing things that we are passionate about or interested in. Instead, we should use this as a barometer for actually acting on the idea. If the best reason we can find against an idea is that we are fearing failure, than we don’t have enough reason to stop ourselves from acting on the idea.

We may not enjoy failure, but it is practically an inevitable occurrence in all of our lives. The only way to stop ourselves from failing is to stop challenging ourselves, and I think we can agree that this goes directly against those who want to be lifelong learners. It’s fair to then say that learning basically implies the greater possibility of failure. It’s impossible to bypass this.

If we want to learn, we have to accept failure. There’s no negotiation on this point. Once we realize this, we can use the fear of failure to our advantage. Instead of being paralyzed to inaction when this is the only thing stopping us from acting on an idea, we can reflect and know that the possibility of failure is not a good enough reason to give up the potential benefit of doing the things we love.

When the fear of failure comes, reflect on it instead of letting it paralyze you. From there, you’ll be able to do the things that our interesting to you, despite the fear of failing that is ever-present.

[^1] Obviously, this depends on the type of failure or mistake that is made. However, people live long lives and mistakes are made. If we can never look past the failures of others (no matter how long ago), we are setting ourselves up to be a society that is very cynical and unwilling to let people fix their mistakes.

Reliance on Motivation

If you want to a task done, there are two different methods you can rely on. Of course, there’s the method of waiting for motivation to strike. In this situation, you only begin working on the problem when you feel like it. In other words, you wait for inspiration to strike.

The flip side of that method is the one of routine. For this one, the key part is that you’re showing up to do the work independent of your mood towards it. This means you aren’t waiting for a large amount of motivation to tackle the situation. Instead, you’re doing the work because that’s what you’ve trained yourself to do, whether or not you “want to”.

Both methods can work, but the former results in much less work being produced. When you have to wait for motivation to come, it is easy to continuously put off doing the work because you just “aren’t in the right mood”. If you work on a routine, however, you’re showing up to produce because it’s a habit, not because you feel like it.

Therefore, the distinction between these two methods is that one has you practicing a lot more. Sure, you may not have “perfect” days that you may expect from someone who waits for strong motivation to strike, but let’s be honest: Those days are few and far between, and so we need to still find a way to do the work that matters. The most critical time is when you don’t feel like continuing.

Reliance on motivation can produce good work, but it’s not nearly as effective as relying on showing up every day, regardless of your motivation.