Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Lay the Foundation

Since, as Jews, our whole existence is centered on progress, I heartily consumed David Brooks' eloquent observations in "The Structures of Growth."

If, as Jews, our emphasis is about becoming better, why is so much of our lives focused on the uninspiring routine? We wake up with a system, we go to bed with a system, we daven the same way every day, and the majority of our blessings are recited on the mundane, not the grand. 
In other domains, growth is exponential. In these activities, you have to work for weeks or even years at mastering the fundamentals, and you barely see any return. But then, after you have put in your 10,000 hours of effort, suddenly you develop a natural ease and your progress multiplies quickly.
Mastering an academic discipline is an exponential domain. You have to learn the basics over years of graduate school before you internalize the structures of the field and can begin to play creatively with the concepts . . .
Many people quit exponential activities in the early phases. You’ve got to be bullheaded to work hard while getting no glory. But then when you are in the later fast-progress stage, you’ve got to be open-minded to turn your hard-earned skill into poetry.
As Brooks writes, the first step to growth is hammering out the basics to perfection. Through discipline in conquering the day-to-day, we can then transcend to higher levels. 

That is why, I suppose, I am leery when someone who can't make it to shul on time insists that spiritual and mental excellence can be achieved outside the seemingly "boring" aspects of our religion. 

All those great rabbanim, the ones that we fervently invoke and admire: Did any of them, ever, sleep in? Did any of them, ever, miss davening? Did any of them, ever, not make a bracha? Did any of them, ever, speak without thinking? Did any of them, ever, ignore the "little" things?

So how can we expect to become great without conquering those "minutiae" first?
This way of thinking also makes it clear that skill acquisition is a deeply moral activity. You don’t only need knowledge about what to do; you have to train yourself to defeat your natural desires. In the fast-growth phase of a logarithmic activity, you have to fight the urge to self-celebrate and relax. In the later phase, when everyone is singing your praises, you have to fight self-satisfaction.
There are many processes to improvement, as Brooks shows. But none involve ignoring the fundamentals and still grasping achievement.

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