NC Weekly 9: The real fountain of youth – Why not knowing and changing keep us young.

(Note: This post was initially published as part of my newsletter. )

A couple of days ago I started “drawing”.

Drawing is a big word, I’d say I started looking at drawing as a way to improve my thinking and how I perceive reality (some great exercises here).

I remember drawing when I was very little, probably in primary school, when I was 8 or 9. From what I can recall I was pretty good, especially with portraits. I used to draw classmates and I was astounded at how I was apparently able to convey some very subtle details of their expressions in my sketches.

Somewhere along the way all of that got lost and I never really got back into drawing.

Then by studying my personality type (INFJs are pretty visual types) and by stumbling on the work of artists like Austin Kleon and Tom Gauld, something clicked and resonated.

So I thought, why not explore drawing! The best part is that it got me back into beginner’s mind for the very first time in a while. Up until now I always tried learning interconnected skills, so that I could take advantage of what I knew and use it as a springboard towards a related skill.

But with drawing it’s different.

First it involves using my hands, which as far as work goes I’m not used to doing outside of using the computer. Second it’s something I can’t really learn by reading or talking to someone. I have to go through the work and practice it on my own. This process made me think about what the real barriers to learning any skill are and how to overcome them.

Why learning something new is a challenge

When it comes to learning, there’s a simple reason why we struggle. We don’t know. (Duh!)

Not knowing can quickly spiral into a slippery slide, down into a dark and hollow pit. Hence, why most of the times, we give up and forget about learning that new skill, language etc.

I ended up into that dark and hollow pit more times than I want to admit. And in retrospect what got me there were two things…

1) Imposter syndrome: prevents us from thinking it’s possible

Imposter syndrome is when, even if you’ve gained expertise, you feel like a fraud.

I think of it as having just climbed a huge mountain and suddenly the top of that mountain gets covered in fog and clouds. As a consequence, when we see the next mountain in front of us and turn back, we forget how tall the first one was. That’s why the second mountain scares the shit out of us. Because we forgot what we’ve already achieved to get there.

So we start thinking we can’t do it.

2) Dunning-Kruger effect: messes up our perception

The Dunning-Kruger effect, says that incompetent people don’t know enough to know what they don’t know. On the other hand those who do know, think that they don’t know enough. This leads to poor performers overestimating their abilities and to high performers underestimating theirs.

The way I see it, is like if the high performer, the person who has more knowledge, has a broader view of the valley from the top of the mountain. She knows how long she still has to go to reach the next summit, which often seems longer than it actually is. On the other hand, the poor performer or the beginner, only sees what’s right in front of her and has no clue what’s ahead.

In both cases our perception of reality is messed up.

The Dunning-Kruger effect is so true that we’re not even sure we know the real meaning of the Dunning-Kruger effect!

What these two principles suggest, is that when we don’t know the full picture, we get stuck into a cycle of suspended animation. We hibernate, we stop growing, we stagnate.

How to fight mental hibernation

In order to avoid getting stuck in this loop, we have to somehow blindly accept change and reframe it as awesome and necessary. It’s awesome because it pushes us outside our comfort zone, it excites us and, let’s face it, not changing is boring. It’s necessary because it makes us more complex human beings.

Changing and becoming more complex, is essentially what keeps us young:

A large and growing body of research suggests that biological complexity diminishes with aging, as various tissues and organs, and their communication pathways, gradually break down. The fractal-like networks of tissue in our brains, bones, kidneys, and skin all lose structural complexity as we age.

The good news is that we may be able to slow, or even reverse, some of the complexity loss that comes with getting old. Aerobic exercise and resistance training, for example, have been shown to increase heart rate complexity. The Chinese practice of tai chi, which combines physical movement, breathing techniques, and meditation, has a similar effect on postural control.

Constantly learning and embarking on new, unexpected adventures is the real fountain of youth and growth. The challenge is that often we don’t know how to drink from it.

Seth Godin says:

Learning makes us incompetent just before it enables us to grasp mastery. Learning opens our eyes and changes the way we see, communicate and act.

Take for example what this guy said about AirBnB in their first ever online review:

Do you think he knew what would happen in the next couple of years? Today AirBnB is valued at $26 billion (and that’s after dropping 16% due to Covid-19). He probably wasn’t open to seeing the change in the distance.

Let your ideas take the wheel

If there’s a way I learned to be more open to and accept change, is to let my ideas guide me with no preconceived plan. A bit of hope in the process doesn’t hurt. If Stoic philosophers liked to remind themselves the they were all gonna die, I like to remind myself as often as I can, that I don’t know anything.

That’s how I stumbled on drawing and why I’m taking it up with an open mind and absolutely no goals.

I love what Dave Chapelle says on Jerry Seinfeld’s show Comedians In Cars Getting Coffee:

Chapelle: It’s like the idea says “get in the car.” And I’m like “where am I going?” And the idea says “I don’t know. Don’t worry, I’m driving.” And then you just get there. Sometimes I’m shotgun. Sometimes I’m in the f — ing trunk. The idea takes you where it wants to go. And then other times there’s me — it’s my ego, like, “I should do something”.
Seinfeld: “I should be driving.” That’s not good.
Chapelle: No, cause there’s no idea in the car. It’s just me. That formula doesn’t work.

Austin Kleon uses a prayer:

Go ahead, get in the passenger seat, say a little prayer and get your hopes up. Trust that your ideas will lead to the next big step, even if you have no clue what that is. The important thing is that you accept it will be a big change.

To have hope, you must acknowledge that you don’t know everything and that you don’t know what’s going to happen. That’s the only way to keep going and the only way to keep making art: to be open to possibility and allow yourself to be changed.

From the book “Keep going” by Austin Kleon.

Here are this week’s top finds:

Written

Why MasterClass Isn’t Really About Mastery

  • Speaking of learning, this article goes into what makes Masterclass so special among all online courses. Reason why inspiration is often as important as the actual skill., especially when getting started.

Audio

The Tim Ferriss Show: Hugh Jackman

  • Loved this podcast episode. Hugh Jackman is way more than Wolverine. Great if you’re interested in meditation, journaling and exercising.

Video

Eurovision song contest: the story of Fire Saga

  • This week just to change things up I wanted to recommend a movie. Watched this yesterday and it was fun as hell, plus great soundtrack. And Will Ferrel is a hero.

Thought bubble

Have an amazing week!

Chris