When I was in college, I was miserable at waking up on time. My roommates knew this, and had a fair amount of fun at my expense–I tolerated this, precisely because I was so in need of desperate help waking up. I don’t remember every instance, but I do remember being woken up by a half cabbage, and another time, dry erase markers. (The business end of both the cabbage and the markers.)
Parenthetically, I can think of few ways to wake up that are more terrifying than being cabbaged. (Take a half cabbage, and press it against the bear face and feet of the sleeping person. It is a most unsettling experience.)
The reason I mention this is because I’m now a little better at waking up. Cabbage isn’t as noteworthy as progress.
For some reason, being extreme has helped me: I wake up at 4:00 am, and go to bed around 8 pm. It’s a fun thing to brag about a bit, but the truth is that I suspect that I’m not very good at being responsible about going to bed on time–going to bed at 8:00 is easier because it is harder. I have to make a clearer choice. It’s easier to be successful when I have to make a harder choice.
It’s also worth noting that I take a little bit of pride in being weird. That little bit of pride would probably be a sin if it didn’t make me so much more productive.
But I digress. The point of this post isn’t what has made me improve, only that improvement is possible, and that I’ve made some; and that the improvements that I’ve made have been as a result of my efforts to improve. (It seems self-evident that it is possible to achieve goals, and that achievement comes as a result of effort, but in recent days I’ve seen some self-evident things questioned. As such, I’d like to lay down that I think we can grow, but only if we really try.)
I have the good fortune of believing that this life is a mere snippet of a longer drama–one that extends both to before this life, and after. This has a direct impact on my goal-setting, and my intent to improve, for a number of reasons:
- Given that I have an eternity to improve, I’m not frightened of a slow pace of improvement. In algebra terms, the first, most important thing, is the sign of the slope of my graph. It is more important to be improving than to worry about not improving fast enough.
- Given that I have an eternity to improve, I’m not worried that I won’t reach a particular level of excellence. I practice the piano and speak other languages without much shame, precisely because I figure that I’ve got an eternity to improve, and I’d rather start now. (I’ve heard, for example, that it takes 2 million mistakes to learn a language. On this basis, I’m a far better chef than most–because I have far more mistakes already under my belt!) In algebra terms, so long as the slope of the line is positive, even a tiny positive slope is sufficient if the x axis extends sufficiently.
- God isn’t busy. Given that I have an eternity to improve, I am worried about prioritizing what I improve at, because I am the product that most needs improving. God is not one who has enough capacity to do everything that can be done in one instant–He is one who has the capacity to choose what He does in one instant that leverages an infinite amount of glory from even the smallest moment. Example: I suspect that I will only have a chance to be a father to these children of mine once, and I intend to make it count. As such, I will dedicate myself more intentionally to excellence in fatherhood than I will to excellence in picking online cat videos. God doesn’t check twitter. I see no evidence that He eats apples faster than we do–but I’ll bet He has found a way to enjoy them more than we do. (There’s more here that I’d like to write about: The great explosion of data in the last several years has outstripped our ability to categorize and filter the best from the worst. The market demand currently is not for more information–it’s for ways to use data in ways that are more curated.)
- Given that I have an eternity to improve, I intend to get better at improving, and that means trying to improve at new things to learn the ropes of improving across various disciplines. For this one, I will appeal to a calculus reference–not by way of illustration, but because I can think of no other way to explain with the elegance needed: it is the derivative that matters in the long run, not the slope; it is the rate of change of the rate of change that makes this life rich. Eternity is a long time, but this is the training ground, and nothing more fits my conception of eternity than learning to progress at a continually increasing rate.
When I was in college, I completed a project–to the best of my ability, mind you–that I am no longer proud of. I look back on it with some embarrassment, given how much I’ve learned since then. (To be frank, I look back on most things this way. This improvement stuff is one of the only ways I have to look back on my life without suffering heart palpitations. The other is to stop thinking about my performance (which is ultimately selfish) and instead to focus on the people I interacted with–and hopefully helped.) I am in a healthier place now, however, given that I have finally figured something important out: every mistake we make is just the first half of the before-and-after photo, and God is the photographer. Or, in other words, we are always in the form of a rough draft, and God isn’t interested in mere editing–He isn’t merely fixing a jot here or a tittle there; He is giving us the pen, and asking us to learn to make of ourselves a masterpiece.
I am currently in the process of losing weight, and I’ve finally realized that my shame at taking those initial pictures has changed to pride–precisely because of the contrast. The worse the initial ability, the better I will feel over time.
And this is why I write. Because I’m not good at it, and I don’t feel any need to be. I’ll get better. And I’m not subjecting anyone else to it, and I enjoy it, and it helps me think about the things that matter most. And because the more awful I am now, the more pride I will take at being excellent later.
Recently, I started a goal to have a set routine. I initially tried making it a simple routine–marginal improvements. That never worked for me. I had to do something that was joltingly different in order to see success. So I wake up at 4:00, and go for a run, and lock my work office and read and study, and I practice the piano daily. And my life has been richer for it.
And now I plan to add something else to it: no less than once a week, I will write something on this little blog. It’ll all be rough drafts. Everything is rough draft. But I’ll enjoy it, and I’ll get better at it over time.