By Vega Subramaniam
Mala had a revelation recently that drastically shifted how she thought about personal growth.
For most of her life, Mala’s been a rule-breaker. When she was young, one of her uncles attempted to impress upon her how important it was, when you were first learning, say, a musical instrument, to just practice techniques over and over again until you’ve mastered the fundamentals. Only then, he said, could you engage in improvisation and creativity with skill and artistry.
That poor man did not know what he was stepping into. By that time, Mala had read Deschooling Society and had concluded that any attempt to impose rote learning on students (think “wax on/wax off”) was the blighted path toward turning children into robots. Rather, Mala argued, we should be free to experiment, to try things out before or instead of learning the basics by rote, to just play around. She absolutely resisted the idea that rote learning had any value and was absolutely committed to the idea that the best way to learn was by playing around.
It’s been a blessing and, more to the point, a curse, to be so committed to doing it her way and forever bucking against rules and routines in the name of creativity and exploration. To be clear, Mala’s not happy with resisting rote learning always and on principle. She is clear that these “Rebel” traits don’t necessarily serve her mission, goals, and aspirations. Indeed, for much of her adult life, Mala saw her seemingly congenital inability to establish consistency, do something over and over again for its own sake, just follow the rules, as a personal flaw that demonstrated her moral failings as a fully-formed human being and grown-up professional.
And then she had the aforementioned revelation, which changed everything.
Here’s the revelation—and can I just say how often the most mundane events lead to the most profound insights? But I digress.
It occurred to Mala recently that in at least one arena of her life, she did have a system that she adhered to religiously: to wit, loading the dishwasher. Yes, correct. In the arena of loading the dishwasher, she has Rules. A place for every dish, and every dish in its place. The small spoons go here and here only. The katoris go in this column and this column only. And so on. She’ll even rearrange things that I’ve loaded if they’re not in their appropriate place.
And she does recognize the benefits of this Rule-following. She can grab all the spoons at once and place them in the drawer all together. She can grab all the katoris at once and pile them easily into the cupboard. And she recognizes that once you have that body memory, it doesn’t take that much effort anymore to do. Again: wax on; wax off.
And it occurred to her that if she could habituate herself to conform to Rules in this arena at least, then it must be true that she could habituate herself to rules in other arenas of her life as well.
And that, friends, was her revelation. That she wasn’t a fundamentally broken human, that she’s not as incompetent or unable to change as she’d berated herself for all these years.
I take enormous inspiration from all of this. One of my personal demons is my penchant to run away from difficult tasks. Let me rephrase that, taking a page from Mala’s revelation: I have a deep perception of myself as someone who runs away from difficult tasks. It is true that I am capable of being timely, getting things done, moving projects forward, meeting deadlines, being responsive—all good things. But there is a block when it comes to tasks where I have to get up and move against my will or that require me to look something up or that have no deadline and can therefore be ignored throughout the entirety of time itself, though if I actually did them, they would make my life extraordinarily better in one split f*ing second!
But the reality is that there are arenas in my life where I do accomplish difficult tasks. One arena is when I am in pure service to someone. One thing I hate is city driving. I would rather take a full hour to drive to a metro stop, take the metro, and walk several blocks in the pouring rain than drive 20 minutes to the same urban destination. But if a friend in the city needed to get to a medical appointment and didn’t have transportation? I’ll drive, no question. I’m not saying this to brag; I’m guessing that you’d say the same thing. There’s something about service that brings out the best in almost all of us.
My point is that I am capable of not running away from difficult tasks. My mission, should I choose to accept it, is to, like Mala, notice when I’m doing the thing that I believe I’m not capable of, and then copy-and-pasting the underlying algorithm to the rest of my life.
And you? What do you not think you can do—that you actually do do? And are there ways to replicate the underlying algorithm into the rest of your life?