the only way to learn

In college, while I was still a music major, I took a class on quantum physics and relativity.  The material was abstruse, the lectures utterly incomprehensible, and I had no idea what was going on.  I had no idea what I was supposed to be learning or how I was supposed to learn it.  In the second week of the course the professor said: you will each be assigned a chapter, and next class you will teach that chapter to everyone.  I was terrified.  I was being thrown into the ocean when I didn’t know how to swim and simply told: you must swim.  So I did, and afterward I felt that it was the only way I could have learned.

I learned how to climb mountains the same way.  The first time I stood at the bottom of a ridge so steep and jagged with boulders that I knew climbing over it was impossible, I was told: we are going to climb straight up.  My reaction: there’s no way.  There was no way I could pull myself over those boulders, the size of small cars, while carrying a 40-pound pack on my back.  The top of the ridge seemed miles away, and then what would I have to descend on the other side?  But I climbed to the top.  And then looked down to face a slope so steep and covered in snow that it would be impossible to descend.  I would surely be pulled sideways by my pack until I fell and struck the islands of sharp rock at the bottom.  But a lightning storm was coming, and I had to descend.  So I did.  And I knew that if I’d had time to think about it, if I’d been told step-by-step how to do it, I wouldn’t have learned.

I’m facing some difficult projects at work and some annoying situations in life right now.  I feel way over my head, but I think the problem is that I’m not in over my head enough.  If there’s any chance of learning, if there’s any chance of getting things done, it can’t just be hard.  It needs to be impossible.  Otherwise I won’t be scared enough of the water to swim, I’ll just be scared enough to be overcome.


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