Although the reasons for which a person chooses to pursue a skill are complex, the fundamentals of the process of developing skills is extremely simple.
Skill development is nothing more than a continuous decision to respect the process of personality development. When we witness the end result, when we witness an act of excellence, when we witness the apex of development, we only see the performance. It is easy to overlook the way in which this achievement came into existence.
Because, today, we are bombarded from every direction with distractions and mechanisms of escape. When we are being called - or even forced - to embrace a mundane level of awareness, we cannot see the true, underlying, magnificence which the performer brings to us.
There is no substitution for awareness of the process. Without awareness of how skill development unfolds, there is no ability for an individual to push themselves into higher levels of achievement. The exception, of course, is children who do not have the biological capacity to be self-aware. They, instead, are completely at the mercy of their environments, and the directions their mentors and parents push them. Even during practice, a child is not aware of how or why they become better at what they do.
In contrast, an adult who seeks to develop a performance outside of their immediate survival needs must become self observant and introspective. People do not accumulate experience without becoming aware of - at the very least - the sacrifice of time that this requires.
Although many performers have the ability to maintain an externally calm demeanor, many struggle with complex internal challenges which are often overlooked by those around them. Even though these challenges will always create psychological tension, an individual may develop the ability to harness the ambition the tension creates.
In order to more fully understand the struggles of the performer, it is necessary to take a look at one of the fundamental concepts of Lacanian psychoanalysis - desire. Although it was Lacan who truly pushed these theories to their limits, it is Dabrowski who extrapolated on how the 'gifted' (performers) experience the consequences of the paradoxes of motivation in a more extreme manner than others.
The Paradox of Desire
In fact, the goal of Lacanian psychoanalysis is to develop a deep understanding of the sources of motivation, and accept them with full responsibility. For Lacan, the satisfaction of desire is by definition unattainable, as he explains with the concept of jouissance. From a psychological perspective, it's easy to see that humans have a tendency to pursue things with ever increasing complexity, nuance, and detail. Sports provide the clearest example here - a runner will always want to run faster, a weightlifter will always want to lift more weight, and the climax of competition is the world record, whose numbers are always becoming more difficult to attain, yet seem to expand continuously.
Developmental psychology seeks to understand and facilitate personal growth. By understanding how different kinds of people move through life struggles to achieve goals, there is sometimes difficulty describing the various dynamics which push different kinds of people into self actualization.
There is a certain set of characteristics which seem to appear within individuals who strive for peak performance, traits which distinguish them from others. Although it may be risky to create a dichotomy which generalizes people into two categories, this particular set of traits is very important for educators, researchers, coaches, and therapists to understand and conceptualize in a unified manner. This allows us to understand and facilitate self awareness within ourselves and those around us.
Performers and Non-Performers
The term 'performer' refers to an individual who actively strives to achieve mastery in one or more domains. The term 'actively' is critical because non-performers, of course, also have to learn how to do things in order to build a career, maintain social ties, and survive. However, the performer pushes beyond the requirements they face to develop skills which may be superfluous, unnecessary, and unusually demanding.
In many cases, the skills a performer seeks will have practical application. But, the performer takes the understanding to levels which go beyond the social, economic, or biological requirements they face.
Regardless of the skills an individual seeks to develop, there are underlying forces which must be harnessed for development to take place. Because modern capitalism is orients our lives around consumption, we are increasingly immersed in excellence, often without noticing. Rather than only seeing the apex of achievement - championships, concerts, innovative products, scientific discovery, works of art, and so on - an observant mind witnesses and explores the nuances of the processes which facilitate these forms of production.
The Prevalence of Collective Achievement - Standing on the Shoulders of Giants
From performances of outstanding athletic feats on television, from fine dining and fresh roasted coffee beans, from concert halls filled with orchestras and large audiences, from projections on the silver screen, from the precision of a surgeon to the industrial processes built to fuel our desires . . . today we are bombarded with images of peak performance, while our basic needs are often met without second thought.
In contrast, think of even 200 years ago, when most of a person's time was spent on raising and preparing food, repairing shelter and clothing. Even simple things like running water and electrical lights were unavailable.
(The success of sports like Formula 1 show how superfluous human achievements are numerous and becoming increasingly complex.)
Technological progress has provided a unique opportunity for us to reach new levels of individual and collective achievement. Indeed, the endless stream of outstanding media we see is living proof that today, our developmental potential has reached levels which are higher than ever before.
Management - and leadership in general - is a skill whose traits are hard to pin down. The variety of high-level characteristics an effective leader must embody is wide and diverse. But, it's not just the skills that matter - a truly effective leader must also maintain the trust of their teams, as well as work effectively with other leaders. Therefore, a world-class leader isn't just a lump sum of skills and traits. Instead, such individuals have a very particular kind of personality which affords them the ability to succeed universally while confronting many kinds of demands.
Modern scientific inquiry allows us to gain a deeper level of understanding of the personalities of individuals (2). From athletes to musicians, the relevance of higher states of consciousness is becoming increasingly clear across domains. Recent studies confirm this trend by continuing the line of inquiry into different professions - such as management.
Harold S. Harung and Fred Travis recently published a study (1) reviewing the physiological and psychological traits which distinguish mid-level managers from those in the highest realms of the profession. After discovering that the difference between top-level athletes and mid-level athletes (4), and top-level classical musicians from mid-level classical musicians (3) lies in efficient brain functioning, the scientist extended the line of inquiry into the profession of management.
Today I started practicing drums by 8 am. I spent 8 hours working on web sites for the Drupal Association and then spent almost 3 hours in the gym. I maxed out on the snatch, clean and jerk, and back squat, narrowly missing personal records on each lift. I also spent an hour in meditation to keep things smooth.
I look back over the last several months and realize that almost every day has been packed like this, although I may shift focus and spend more time on drumming, for example, on the days that I don't work online.
I've accepted that I'm completely obsessed with pushing the limits of my capacity in every direction, which putting everything I have into creating an optimized lifestyle. First it will be for myself, but eventually I know that I will be enabling others to live this way as well.
I would say that I'm sorry to the friends I've left behind and neglected. But, honestly, I've become very comfortable that my needs are complex and perhaps difficult for others to understand. My studies of personality development have taught me that there are, in fact, other people like me in the world. I've only come across a handful, and with each one of them I've dedicated every moment possible to working with them and learning the nuances of their craft.
Almost every day I experience moments of overwhelming bliss and joy - and I'm not going to hide it from you anymore. In fact, my goal is to help bring other people into this level of existence. There's no way to describe higher states of consciousness; they must be experienced by the individual themselves.
Depth of Experience VS Content of Experience
An easy way to describe 'depth' of experience is to contrast it to 'content.' Let's take a look at the Olympic Games. Although we see competitors in many kinds of sports, what is really significant is the level of achievement the competitors have reached. Sure, they have learned different skills, but they all share the thousands of hours of training, and the millions of decisions which led them up into such a high level of competition. The joy you see after a successful attempt, dive, lift, or routine does not vary between athletes.
In this example, we see the different sports as the content of experience, and the depth lies in the symbolic success of qualifying for the Olympic Games. Although the content of experience is important, it's really the depth of experience that creates the meaning.
Now, this concept doesn't just apply to sports or other competitive activities. In fact, it doesn't just apply to careers, interpersonal relationships, artistic expression, and technical skills. This idea applies to our lives as a whole. Our very awareness itself changes. As a result, we not only become happier and more successful, but we become more sensitive to the profound beauty we can engage.
"If I had to express in one word what makes their personalities different from others, it would be complexity. By this I mean that they show tendencies of thought and action that in most people are segregated. They contain contradictory extremes - instead of being an "individual," each of them is a "multitude."
- Csikszentmihalyi, "Creativity" pg. 57, 1996
In his 1996 book "Creativity: Flow and the Psychology of Discovery and Invention", Mihialy Csikszentmihalyi outlines 10 dialectical qualities which are present in creative individuals. This book is a reflection on a project he and his graduate students completed, in which they interviewed 90 people who had made outstanding contributions to their fields. Without getting caught up in a discussion of the criteria for this study, or the details involved (read the book), I present my analysis of one of my favorite sections of the book.
Creative individuals exert great energy into their work, but emphasize the importance of rest.
Maharishi also speaks of the balance of rest and activity. Personally, when I am "working," I find continuous joy - therefore my work is effortless. Of course, there are challenges and frustrations, but it's always fun and exciting. If it becomes stressful, then I either reframe my perspective, find help, or find another solution. I also enjoy about 10 hours a day of sleep, plus 40 minutes of restful meditation. The rest of the time, I'm either in the zone, or eating (really in the zone).
Today marks my 23rd birthday - and I have had quite an interesting year. There have been many changes to the external environment I'm in, but this year also confirmed the validity of the internal motivations and strategies that keep me moving forward. In the last few years, some things have stuck with me, and this year I really started to understand that these traits are a huge part of my identity. In other words, I realized that I am always able to lay the smackdown no matter who jumps in the cage to fight me.
How Do I Keep My Groove?
This year, I faced a particularly unsettling situation: I lost my grants to finish my computer science degree. This forced a dramatic change in my lifestyle, from which I have learned a primary lesson: Keep that damned groove going, and everything around you will keep dancing. Here are the things that keep my groove in the pocket.
Keeping a regular routine allows me to develop my skills in an optimized way. When I know where and when I will be doing things - every day - I can arrange my time to maximize my effectiveness. Rather than working 10 hours on a computer on Monday, sitting behind the drum set for 8 hours on Tuesday, and lifting weights for 9 hours on Wednesday, I instead integrate all of these activities into a daily routine. This is especially important while developing skill - anybody who has tried to study chemistry for more than two or three hours knows how ineffective cramming is.
Right now, my routine is daily, give or take a few hours on each task: 1-2 hours of drumming in the morning, 4-6 hours of web development work, 3 hours of Olympic weightlifting. Meditations are completed between activities, again in a routine fashion. On weekends, I spend time working on my own web projects rather than on my formal job.
One of the primary traits of higher states of consciousness described by Eastern philosophers is the experience of "inner silence." But, to normal folks living in the Western world, this idea probably doesn't really make much sense. You might be wondering "Am I supposed to turn off my brain? Do I try to silence my thoughts? Is that even possible? How can I have no thoughts - wouldn't I cease to exist?" Again, I'm going to try and clarify some sappy guru-speak to try and get this idea bouncing around inside your thick, hyper-rational skull.
Let's play with an analogy to make this clear. Everybody has experienced the dream-state level of consciousness. While dreaming, your ENTIRE state of awareness is COMPLETELY submersed within the reality of the dream. In a dream, you are totally unaware of any reality outside of what is happening in your happy little dream world. With the exception of lucid dreaming (when one becomes aware that they are in a dream), a person does not have the ability to adopt any perspective outside of whatever their dream is throwing at them. There is no concept of life outside of the dream land. You're stuck in the dream, and that's it.
Sheldon's dream land (not pictured: nude beach, giant drum set, lifting platform, laptop)
Now, think about your normal, waking state level of consciousness. In this reality, your entire state of existence is defined by the content of your thoughts. In higher states, it is possible to FILTER your thoughts BEFORE you think them. This means that you are no longer engulfed in the frantic thought-reality that most people spend their entire lives in. Later, I will describe tools which allow this process to take place.
I Just Lied to You
Well, at least about the idea that your thoughts COMPLETELY dictate your current state of awareness.