The Path to Mastery | Part 2: Life Is Hard

This is part two (for now) in a series of articles about life, work, philosophy, and my attempt to learn full-stack Javascript application development and Object Oriented Programming through a mastery-based learning curriculum developed by an organization called Launch School. This series isn’t specifically about learning to code. It isn’t about Javascript. I will cover those topics in detail, but what I really hope to achieve with this series is a more intimate picture of the journey: my struggles, my breakthroughs, and all the strange little twists and turns along the way through which the whole becomes greater than the sum of its parts. In short, this series is an exercise in mastery itself. It is about the journey and not about the destination…

One of the first prep tasks for Launch School is to read a book by George Leonard called Mastery: The Keys to Success and Long Term Fulfillment. It’s a quick read, self-help pep-talk type thing full of anecdotes and allegory about mastering skills. A few hours will get you through it if you read at a reasonable pace. If you skipped Part One: Launch School (still a WIP at time of this writing, I’ll add the link when it’s done), their entire schtick is a mastery-based learning paradigm. Hence, the required reading.

Despite its title, like most books of that type it’s less about some magical procedure than a prompt for reflection on some pretty commonsense ideas. I don’t mean to sound dismissive. I really enjoyed the book and I enjoyed the anecdotes from the author’s life. I also agree with a lot of what he said and found parallels in my own career journey and my continuing efforts to really master programming. So, in reflecting on the book, I decided to explore my own thoughts on the subject and what I think is a central theme to his writing, that life is hard. Or, at least, that a fulfilling one is.

Life is hard.

It’s mostdefinitelycertainlyforreal not as hard as it was for our grandparents walking to school uphill both ways in the snow writing their homework with coal on the back of a shovel, or their grandparents who managed to survive both dysentery and keeping their oxen alive while fording the river. When it really comes down to it, we’ve got it pretty good. Even the worst-off of us in developed nations are doing A-OK compared to the everyman of ages gone.

Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs

Though my allegory is admittedly hectoring, I challenge anyone to refute it. Let’s consider it, for a moment, within the context of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. Despite its antique origins (by millennial standards), Maslow’s hierarchy remains, in large part, an overwhelmingly popular model of human motivation, even today. The short version of Maslow’s theory is that needs toward the bottom of the pyramid must be satisfied before higher order needs can be addressed. So tell me, at what time in recorded history have more people had more security of basic resources or more opportunity for self-actualization?

It may feel uncomfortable to say it out loud, but it’s true. Most peoples’ basic needs are met — and when I say needs, I mean needs; not a Bentley, or a mansion, or a yacht, or fame and fortune — without major interruption or substantial effort, for their entire lives from start to finish. The majority of people (at least here in the US) aren’t in serious want of water, food, shelter, sex, security, jobs, health or property. I’d argue that most aren’t living without a fair amount of “Love & Belonging” or “Esteemeither. Yes, everyone wants more money, a bigger house, a nicer car, a Hollywood love story. But generally speaking, there’s a car in every garage and a chicken in every pot and 2.3 children if that’s what you’re into.

That’s certainly not to say that there isn’t still appalling amounts of inequality, suffering, and outright horror in our modern world even in the richest of nations. Yes, there are still concerningly large numbers of people with food, water, shelter, and medical insecurity. Yes, there is social and economic disparity in the US. Yes there are issues of personal liberties and systemic disenfranchisement. Yes, it deserves attention, but that’s not the point of this article. The point is that in a world of nearly eight thousand million human beings, we’ve largely eradicated or controlled the vast majority of threats to our basic physiological needs. We live in a world where it is conceivably possible for any random person to achieve their personal goals, or at the very least, make substantial progress toward them. We live in a world with widely available, democratized, and convenient access to unprecedented and vast amounts of knowledge, experience, and opportunity. Which, by the bye, is basically the complete opposite of the 200,000 or so years since Homo met Sapiens. (Yes, sexually unsatisfied woman in the diner; you too can now have what she’s having!) But in spite of this, I think most people would agree that life is hard.

So if our basic survival needs — and then some — are already taken care of, then why is life still so hard? Do you even agree that life is hard? Maybe you don’t. ¯\_(ツ)_/¯ that’s fine, but personally I think life is pretty damned hard. I’m also glad that it is for reasons that I will heretofore explain — most likely in vague, ambiguous circularity since I didn’t write an outline. But what, exactly, does it mean to say life is hard? It certainly doesn’t mean the same thing to everyone. I fully admit that for a portion of our global population, ‘life is hard’ actually refers to survival. But for most people reading this article, that’s probably not the case. It’s more likely life being hard has something to do with managing rent and student debt and car payments and bosses and spouses and children and so on and so forth.

So, assuming you agree with my assessment, I think we could surmise that most people (loosely speaking) are dealing with the top half of Maslow’s pyramid. This doesn’t mean that there isn’t an ebb and flow of needs. Even successful people lose jobs, suffer setbacks, and must reprioritize. In fact, it’s now more typical to think of Maslow’s hierarchy as more of an overlapping area chart as pictured below than the traditional pyramid pictured above.

Dynamic Personal Needs

We’ve transcended basic survival needs and are focused more on the upper tiers of needs i.e. community, intimacy, identity, freedom and the like. What’s most interesting in the chart above is the association of higher-order needs with personal development. And that the intensity of those needs increases while the intensity of lower-order needs decreases as we develop. And this is a good thing! It doesn’t make you small or petty or superficial to focus on emotional and social needs. It simply means that your more foundational needs are secure. I’ve always found that assertion particularly absurd — that people should feel guilty for not having “real” problems — especially in a culture (America) where the “dream” is to transcend basic need. What are “tenacity” and “entrepreneurial spirit” if not the tippy-top of Maslow’s hierarchy? They’re certainly not physical needs, or security needs, or emotional needs. In order to embody the the exceptionality of the American ideal, you must make a decision that “good enough” well… isn’t. This is exactly what I’ll focus on for the remainder of this diatribe, the tippy-top of motivation: “Self Actualization”; the yearning to be all you can be.

Complex Tasks and the Nature of Hard Things…

The beauty of doing “hard things” i.e. complex tasks, is that certain aspects or applications of any complex skill can still be exceptionally hard or “impossible” even for the well-practiced. Playing the piano competently is pretty easy. Playing all three movements of Beethoven’s Piano Sonata №14 in C-sharp Minor, Opus 27, №2: Sonata quasi una fantasia perfectly, from memory is hard. In fact, even at my most my practiced, I never got through the whole third at tempo (or without mistakes). Playing it like Arthur Rubenstein? Impossible.

I first heard this song in Earthworm Jim and asked my piano teacher what it was called and if I could learn it.

Surfing is pretty easy too. Surfing macking Pipeline…now that’s hard! Surfing it like Gerry Lopez or Kelly Slater? Maybe if I had a thousand years to practice and they both mysteriously took an arrow to the knee (but probably still a losing proposition). Then there’s places like Nazaré, Portugal which aren’t hard to surf so much due to the technical aspects of the wave as much as the adverse reactions humans seem to have with falling off of buildings and breathing under water for extended periods of time. Cue Kai Lenny featured in the video below shredding a who-gives-a-shit-how-many foot wave and kicking out with a nonchalant 360, no big deal. Right.

But I don’t play piano out of competition with virtuosos and I don’t surf to show up Slater at Pipe. I do it because I enjoy it. I do it because I find connection, identity, freedom, and creativity in it. I feel it makes me a better me. And even if surfing is not a difficult task for me to be competent at, it’s still a complex task i.e. shit’s hard, dude. Like hard AF.

There’s also a quirky side effect of building competency in complex skills that most people have experienced called the Dunning-Kruger effect. The DKE describes the rapid growth of competency that most people experience when learning a new task, followed by an even more rapid deflation of confidence as the learner starts to grasp just how difficult mastering the task is. The more complex or larger the skill domain, the more pronounced the distribution of people along the swoop and; incidentally, the more obnoxious and arrogant the denizens of Mt. Stupid seem to be (as an aside: this skill gap in complex domains is what gives rise to the popular theory in programming of ‘10Xers’).

We’ve all been the fool on top of Mt. Stupid more often than I’m sure we care to admit. In fact, many people’s experiences with skill development stop right there. They never go further for any number of reasons. What immediately comes to mind is the contestants on American Idol whose confidence far outstrips their talents. Imagine the cognitive dissonance of thinking that singing is “your thing” and ending up on the worst-of-the-worst American Idol highlight reel. There’s a reason why modesty and humbleness are often associated with wisdom. Such practitioners know enough to know there’s even more that they will never know. Put another way, think back to your college days (or maybe you’re there right now). Is it just me or does a lot of academia feel more-or-less like the Everest of Mt. Stupid? A logjam of self-important, elitist climbers shouting barely-informed opinions in each other faces like they’re the first to unearth some cosmic, axiomatic truth? I know more than a few people who would agree with that analysis for some of the opinions I held in my twenties. Now that I think about it…that seems to describe the entirety of the American conversation at the moment…

The perils of never descending Mt. Stupid

And that’s not to say that college is a waste of time, or that college kids are permanently stupid. College is very useful. Its purpose is to expose students to a wide variety of domains and help them start to form their own opinions. A diploma shows employers that you’re teachable, if nothing else. You started at 0, you’re now at 1. Don’t get me wrong, college kids are dumbasses. But for most of them, it’s temporary. Mt. Stupid is the first leg of the journey of mastery. It’s more about recognizing that you’re there and that theres much more ahead, instead of becoming King of the Idiots.

Acolytes who make it past the giddy heights of Mt. Stupid and choose to continue the journey to mastery will inevitably come upon the Valley of Despair. Even though these travelers are far more skilled and experienced than their alpine brethren, they’ve now begun to see the sheer magnitude of the domain space and are susceptible to getting hopelessly lost in this swamp of sorrows. The dreaded lich king Imposter Syndrome lurks around ever corner, stalking our hero and raising legions of self-doubt and criticism from the dead, attempting to suck the acolyte’s motivation from their very marrow. There’s a particularly good explanation of imposter syndrome linked here by technologist, cartoonist, and all-around-smartypants Russell Munroe. If you’ve never checked out his works XKCD (that’s XKCD 1954 pictured) or What If? they are worth a look!

So how do we avoid being king of Mt. Stupid or getting hopelessly stuck in the Swamp of Sorrows like poor Artax? Shit, now I’ve gone and made myself sad…😕 🙁 ☹ 🥺 😭️

The answer, it seems, is remarkably simple (but that’s just because I’m also really smart, like for real): consistent, repeated, and progressive effort. Ta-da! Why was Arthur Rubenstein such a master of the piano? In large part it’s because he played the damned thing just about every day for his entire life. I took an hour piano lesson every… fucking… week... for 12 years. And that hour lesson meant many more hours of practice. It was rarer for me to not play the piano on a given day than to play it. It was pretty hard to not get kinda OK at it. At the beginning, I sucked at it just like everyone else. Well, not really. I finished a year’s worth of instruction in eight weeks but don’t tell anyone because it kind of ruins my point.

Anywho, like I was saying, Arthur Rubenstein played the piano for over 80 years. Kelly Slater logs more hours in the barrel in a year than I will in my lifetime. That surgeon that took your tonsils out? She went to school for a decade to learn how to do that and no it wasn’t her first time doing it. She says that to everyone and it still isn’t funny. Yes, there is a talent component. Yes, some have more ability than others…uh-huh…yeah, I hear what you’re saying…that too. But whatever your justification for why you can’t, it’s probably bullshit. Because if you think Tiger Woods hasn’t shanked more shots than you’ve even taken you’re a fool.

When goal orientation comes to dominate our thoughts, little that seems to really count is left. During the usual nonplayoff year, the actual playing time for a National Football League team is sixteen hours. For the players, does this mean that the other 8,744 hours of the year are “in between”?

— George Leonard, Mastery: The Keys to Success and Long Term Fulfillment

Just because you don’t see the effort doesn’t make it magic. The overnight millionaires or instant successes are myth. On those rare occasions when the stars do align and the universe bestows truly divine gifts on mere mortals it’s a fluke. Life’s not fair, stop pouting. Life is hard, get over it.

Point is, everyone had a coach who said “practice makes perfect” or maybe like my swim coach, yours said “perfect practice makes perfect”. For all intents and purposes, they were right. Being “good” at things means putting in the time to do them poorly. A lot. And if your only reason for doing Some Thing™ is to one day be be amazingly good at Some Thing™ because all the Cool Kids® are good at Some Thing™, I hate to break it to you but you’re probably never gonna be one of the Cool Kids®. In all likelihood either you or the Cool Kids® are going to move on to Some ThingElse: The Sequel long before you get there. Probably both.

You already knew this intuitively. We talk about ‘tiger moms’ and ‘dance moms’ pushing their children to breakdowns and watch movies like Varsity Blues and G.I. Jane about forging your own path (yeah I know I’m aging myself but it’s not my fault all you Zoomers want to watch is movies about comic book characters and wizards). Being great at something takes dedication and sacrifice. It is known khaleesi. I can’t take credit for this epiphany, I’m simply regurgitating what other, smarter people have already said. But why should that diminish anything? Isn’t that kind of what we do? I didn’t write the Moonlight Sonata, I just learned how to play it. I didn’t invent Javascript, computers, or the concept of programming them but I get paid handsomely to know how to do it. I didn’t coin the word regurgitate. Some Thing™ to think about.🤔

Okay so life is hard. Learning things is hard. Practice makes perfect. So what? What does it all mean? What’s your point? Joke’s on you, sucker! I don’t have one!

If at First You Don’t Succeed, Just Accept That You’re Mediocre and G̶K̶Y̶ Err…Wallow in Self Pity…

There is one theory that resonates with me in particular. It’s from polarizing Canadian psychotherapist Jordan B. Peterson (I warned you! It’s literally half the screen. Right there. And if you’re on mobile it was BEFORE I even said ‘Jordan B. Peterson’. Yeah. That’s right. You have nobody to blame but yourself.) which he discusses at length in his Psychology 434 lecture Maps of Meaning: The Architecture of Belief (viewable in full for free via that link). I’ll spare you all the gory details, and I promise I’m not going to get into all the identity politics stuff that he’s notorious for. But it centers around his theory of dominance hierarchies. Essentially, hierarchies are the way we organize our world and combat chaos. It goes something like this:

Jumping both feet into Chaos is akin to fighting a dragon naked. It’s impossibly overwhelming. You will perish. So we create these little psychosocial systems of order in which we gain skills. As we climb to the top of those hierarchies, we look inevitably toward the larger mountain behind, gaining skill and experience (i.e. weapons and armor) in our never-ending battle against the dragon. The meaning of life, therefore comes from increasing amounts of responsibility.

There, I just saved you 17 hours of watching him psychoanalyze Disney’s Pinnochio to a class of undergraduates. Yeah…I know. I have weird hobbies. Another, more practical summation is provided by NYMag in this OpEd about his popularity.

Peterson’s basic points are that life is hard, you will suffer, and in order to handle that suffering, you will have to be prepared. Preparing means taking responsibility for yourself. That’s hard, too, so you may try to avoid it. You may use all manner of evasions and rationalizations to convince yourself that things will sort themselves out on their own, or that others will bail you out, or that if they don’t, it’s their fault and not yours. But that’s a lie. So stop lying. Accept responsibility for your fate. It’s a harsh line of thought. It’s also good practical advice.

Put another way, life is hard because we make it hard. Hard is satisfying. Hard gives us a sense of accomplishment and apparently we really give a shit about accomplishments, even if we pretend we don’t. If we don’t accomplish things, then we make excuses to save our fragile egos. Growing up is hard; here’s a cake and some presents. Finishing, let alone excelling, in school is hard; here’s your summa cum laude diploma. Making rent is hard; yeah sorry, no sticker for that one besides not being homeless. Relationships are hard; umm… yeah, relationships are just hard. Jobs are hard. Buying a house is hard. Raising kids is hard. Sometimes, even just getting out of bed is hard! The point is, you’re gonna struggle. Embrace the suck. Or don’t and spend your time making excuses and getting high.

In any event, it seems to make sense. Anecdotally at least. Plenty of rich people are miserly, penny-pinching assholes. Plenty of poor people are genuinely happy and exceptionally generous. There’s also plenty of happy rich people and plenty of miserable poor people. Some people handle terminal cancer with graceful poise while others handle minor inconveniences with the poise of an over-tired toddler (I’m looking at you, Karen). Even some of those who seem to “have it all” do inexplicably stupid and self-destructive things over-and-over, apparently determined to throw it all away on “tuition” payments according to the Venmo transactions. And then, on the other hand, there’s Tom Hanks…

Everybody likes Tom Hanks. And if you don’t…lets be real, you probably suck.

So it’s certainly not pure economics, or social status, or intelligence, or talent that leads to living a fulfilling life, let alone an easy one. Life. Is. Hard.

“No shit.” I hear you saying right about now. “Who cares?”

I guess I do. Don’t you? Maybe just a little? If the answer is that life is, by nature, difficult then I suppose we should care to figure how how to make the most of it. Carpe diem (seize the fish for those who don’t speak Latin). Smelling the roses. Embracing the suck. Worse yet, maybe the key to fulfillment really is mindfulness…

There is no spoon. Wait a minute, is that Tucker Carlson?!

I guess the point of this is that there is no point… just an endless journey toward an unknown end. So I maybe it’s more of an active choice to not be a nihilistic asshole¯\_(ツ)_/¯

I don’t know that there is truly a path to accomplishing fulfillment. Achieving enlightenment or Nirvana or Zen. And if there is, it certainly isn’t easy. Just look at the folks that seem to be doing the best job of getting close: the lamas, the gurus, the warrior monks in their mountain temples. Or maybe for you it’s the billionaire titans of industry, star athletes on the bleeding edge of human physiology, or once-in-a-generation thinkers. Maybe it’s Spoon Boy. Regardless of who, specifically, melts your proverbial butter Spoon Boy et al work their asses off. You think it’s easy bending spoons? You think that’s air you’re breathing?

In all seriousness, I think that we — as human beings — recognize the value of adversity. I can draw no other conclusion than that we are hard-wired to revel in overcoming challenges, albeit some more than others. Why else would we all root for the underdog? Ru-dy! Ru-dy! There I go dating myself again. JFK put it pretty spot-on in his address to Rice University.

“We choose to go to the moon. We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win…”

— President John F. Kennedy, Rice University; September 12, 1962

Taken out of context — as it usually is — that famous line serves as an inspiring call to action and a canonical proof on the importance of tackling hard problems with gumption, tenacity, and good old-fashioned American ingenuity (a.k.a. 400,000 people and $192 billion adjusted for inflation). But if you haven’t watched or read it in its entirety it’s a far deeper (and far more inspiring) speech that touches on deep topics like the search for meaning and the fundamental nature of humanity.

Surely among the greats of oratory, but damn, John. Who the hell taught you how to say ‘decade’? And couldn’t anyone come up with a better catch-all phrase than ‘and the other things’?

It also touches heavily on the importance of Why. Humans have an obsession with Whys. Whys are important. Whys have driven us individually and as a species throughout history and they will continue to drive us into the far future. The question ‘Why’ has given us everything from religion to the Higgs boson. I have my own Whys for this endeavor. I want to work at Google. I want to be CTO of a tech start-up. I want to build my own company around the application of an idea. But there are plenty of ways to do that without being a master software engineer. In all fairness, I’m probably already skilled enough to do at least one of those things. But why do I want to do any of those things in the first place? Because I’m passionate about software development. But why am I passionate about software? Because of the career I’ve built over the last 10 years. But why did I start that career? Why Javascript? Why any of it? Because…why? because…why? because…well, just because. It’s turtles all the way down.

Why is a powerful tool, but sometimes the more important question is “Why not?” When George Mallory was asked why he wanted to climb Mount Everest his answer was simply “because it’s there”. Google likes to call that a “bias toward action” and JFK even referenced it in his speech (the Mallory thing, not the Google thing, just so we’re clear).

Many years ago the great British explorer George Mallory, who was to die on Mount Everest, was asked why did he want to climb it. He said, “Because it is there.” Well, space is there, and we’re going to climb it, and the moon and the planets are there, and new hopes for knowledge and peace are there. And, therefore, as we set sail we ask God’s blessing on the most hazardous and dangerous and greatest adventure on which man has ever embarked.

Well…Javascript is there, and I’m going to climb the shit out of it.

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