How long does it take to read a book?
What about writing a book?
How about learning a language? How fast, just guess, can you learn a language?
Unless you’re learning how to boil an egg, whatever it is you want to learn is going to take time. This seems obvious. But the idea that we can shortcut the learning processes proliferates.
How many advertisements, youtube videos or blog posts do you read that promise a hack? A solution in 30 minutes or less? A way to learn something while in your car, on your way to work?
You know what I’m talking about. “Learn Spanish while driving to work” “Write a novel in 30 minutes a day.” “Learn banjo in your sleep.”
Now, don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying there’s NO value to these hacks. I DO work on my Spanish during my commute. But have I mastered a foreign language while I’m trying not to run into oncoming traffic? No, I have not.
It does make me wonder. If we added up all the time people spent fucking around, trying to short cut or hack their lives. If we took all that time and counted it. How much would there be? What could they have accomplished if we could reclaim it?
Here’s the deal, kiddos. EVERYTHING YOU WANT TAKES LONGER THAN YOU THINK.
It’s Hofstadter’s Law. “It always takes longer than you expect, even when you take into account Hofstadter’s Law.”
Yeah, self recursive. Deep.
And you know what, there’s nothing wrong with that. That’s one reason that learning and doing complicated stuff is so meaningful! But we’ll get to that.
For now, just know that anything worth doing takes time. There’s no way around it. It’ll eat up all those precious seconds. And there’s not a goddamn thing you can do about it.
Well, mostly nothing.
Time and Its many problems
So I’ve been rambling on a lot about time lately.
Here’s the hot take.
Time is a scarcity. I know that. You know that. Yet I keep writing about it. I even have a whole system devoted to getting as much out of it as you can.
And I’m not alone. Books, programs, and systems fighting the unending march of time abound. Go check out Amazon. Books on time management, productivity, sleep optimization. They’re there.
And why? Because you only got so much time. And when you’re out of it, there’s no more to get!
It’s a scary situation. You’ve got this great big complex of a world waiting for you to discover. But with each passing second, it gets closer and closer to being yanked out from under your feet.
I know. Dark.
But it’s our minds that make it dark. There’s nothing to be done about what it is. It just is what it is. It’s our mindset that’s the problem. This mindset of scarcity. It drags us into fear and panic. That is to say, we drag ourselves into fear and panic!
And that panic makes us look for easy ways out. We search and search for optimization. For a more efficient way to get things done. A hidden trick that’ll let us capture those extra seconds. So we dig. We dig for that special hack that’ll take us to the promised land where we can learn and master new subjects as quick as we can think up a new challenge to tackle.
But is that what really happens?
You would assume with all these “get (rich, smart, deep) schemes” we’d all be amazing Renaissance people. I mean, hell, if I can learn French in 30 minutes in my car, we should probably all be polyglots? I mean, how many languages are there? I have a 30-minute commute every day, so I should be able to learn 5 a week!
But that never happens.
Instead, we spin our wheels doing nothing, achieving nothing.
I mean, sure. Maybe we develop a passing knowledge of something. Enough to answer a Jeopardy question or ask for a beer in French. But that’s not what we’re really after.
What we really want is depth. Something to sink our teeth into. Something meaningful. Something fulfilling. Something we can be proud of.
The problem is that takes time. Probably more than you want it to give it.
And so we come to this idea of mastery.
But what is mastery? If you’re me, you’re probably thinking of the old guy on the mountain in some 1970’s kung fu movie.
But that’s not what we’re going to be talking about today. Go watch Enter the Dragon when we’re done.
So instead, picture yourself playing a beautiful sonata on the piano or making casual conversation with a pretty lady in French.
Is that mastery? Maybe closer, but still not there.
The person most associated with our modern idea of mastery is writer and educator George Leonard. He wrote a great book called, Mastery: The Keys to Success and Long-Term Fulfillment.
It’s a good read.
In it, Leonard draws on his experience practicing Aikido (getting closer to that kung fu movie) and how his practice led him to a new idea of mastery.
He defines mastery as “the mysterious process during which what is at first difficult becomes progressively easier and more pleasurable through practice.”
Leonard’s focus on process and pleasure make his definition interesting. It runs counter to what springs to our mind when we think of master: which is more or less some form of proficiency.
Instead, his definition focuses on progression. He cares about learning and the fulfillment you can derive from that learning.
Hot damn! I like it!
The reason I like it is that it spits in the face of the panic mindset. Those “learn Spanish in 30 minutes,” Or “get abs in 8 minutes a day,” can go to hell!
Well, if you’re with Leonard, the point of life isn’t obtaining the skill (knowing Spanish or Aikido). The point is the process by which you acquire the skill. The point, or the value of the skill, is the practice of learning.
The Secret Life of Process: aka reframing your outlook on skill acquisition
There are many flaws in the ‘get rich quick’ schemes outlined above. The obvious one is that you can’t get rich quick. Not legally, anyhow. But that shouldn’t be surprising to anyone.
The not so obvious one is the way it preys on our scarcity instinct. This is the mindset problem I talked about above. But it’s an important point.
The mindset is why we keep spinning around that hamster wheel. The mindset is the reason we put faith in these flawed systems. And the mindset is why we end up achieving nothing.
The power of Leonard’s idea of mastery is that it frees us of this mindset.
Instead of focusing on the need to KNOW Spanish, we reframe the activity as the need to engage in LEARNING Spanish. Instead of focusing on the kung fu master who can beat up all the bad guys, we reframe to how the kung fu master focuses and works his practice daily.
Since the mindset here is all about the pleasure of the process, we can free ourselves of whatever we think the most optimal outcome will be.
This mindset shift makes sense if you think deeply about our motivations.
You think you want something. You think you want skills, outcomes. But do you?
Does a writer write because they want a book? Does a football player play football because they want to be a winner?
Well sure they do, you say? And I guess, yeah, those are motivating factors. But I don’t think they tell the whole story.
I’d argue that people write because they enjoy the process of writing. And football players, well they play because it’s fun to play the game. That’s at least what drove them to the process in the beginning.
I can’t find the source, but I once heard a saying that you can’t be a painter if you don’t first love the smell of paint.
I think that about sums up my argument here.
But if that’s not enough to seal the deal for you, take this into account. Focusing on the process of learning liberates you from the oppressive fear of time. You no longer need to conquer knowledge. You simply need to cultivate a love of learning and innate curiosity, which is probably something you already have.
Congrats, you’re a master!
Process is power
There is evidence that when we reframe our goals as a journey instead of an outcome, we get a better result!
I’ve written about this before in my post, performance vs learning goals. In it, I talk about Daniel Pink’s book “Drive: the surprising truth about what motivates us.” (BTW, strongly recommend that book).
In it, Pink breaks goals into two categories: learning goals & performance goals.
Learning goals are just what they sound like: they’re focused on learning. They celebrate the process and promote development. So a learning goal might be, “improve my guitar playing.” Or it might be, “Learn how to paint the perfect flower.”
On the other side are performance goals. These are all about achieving something with a skill set you already have. These are all over the place at work. You might have a goal like “increase sales by 10%,” or “optimize processes by 15% over the quarter, etc.”
Pink favors the learning goal (obviously). He believes framing our goals as learning goals allows us to harness the power of our inner motivation. He goes on to say that doing so gives a person space to explore creative and unique solutions. Whereas goals aimed at outcomes, or performances, tend to lead us towards shortcuts.
And this shouldn’t be surprising. No one wants to learn Spanish in 30 minutes because they think it’ll be a good time learning 10,000 words in half an hour. They take that course because they want to KNOW Spanish in 30 minutes. So at minute 31, they can talk in Spanish.
The problem is if you want to KNOW Spanish, you have to motivate yourself to walk down the long road to fluency.
Pro tip: you can’t learn Spanish in 30 minutes
And why. Because learning something complex TAKES A LONG TIME.
What’s the point of this. To demoralize you? To let you know your goals are miles down the road. No. And if that happened, I’m sorry. But for real. They are.
This point of this is to warn you of how our minds can trick us. Those of us that are super motivated to explore this crazy world are even more susceptible. We want so much to know, so much to explore, and we know we only have so much time.
Get rich, learn quick, hacks, whatever, can be super helpful on our road to knowledge. But, they can also prey on our scarcity instinct, and ultimately knock us off the path.
Just like dad told you, there aren’t any get rich quick schemes. Trust me, I’ve looked. There are only people working your fears to trick you into buying a lie.
The good news is there is a path that can lead to success and fulfillment: the path of mastery. It won’t help you learn Spanish any faster, but it’ll make it a lot easier to stomach as you go.
Everything worth doing is going to take you longer than you anticipated, and that’s fine. Learning a language takes a long time! And that’s fine. Writing a novel, or more importantly, becoming a good writer, takes a long time. Fine. Getting abs, probably going to take more than 8 minutes. Again, fine.
My advice. Be thoughtful and realistic about your goals and motivations up-front. And then, enjoy the process of learning and practicing. In the end, it’s the work you put in, not the outcome, that will keep you coming back for more.
So maybe for today, try forgetting about your destination, and just enjoy the ride.