How To Be A Work In Progress.
Nothing is ever finished, but nothing is ever over.
You are a learning machine. You’ve been doing it non-stop since the moment you were born and frankly, you’ve managed some pretty amazing things. It’s safe to assume you’ve learned to read. Which leads me to believe you’ve learned to speak too. Or use sign language maybe. I’d argue that these are the most impressive feats of learning we ever accomplish. To go from absolutely nothing to the ability to say “dodecahedron” for example, is nothing short of astonishing.
The fact that you’re reading this on some kind of screen suggests that you’ve learned how to feed and clothe and generally take care of yourself which is also pretty great. Not as impressive as speech, true, but noteworthy. Even if you haven’t figured anything else out yet, the capacity you’ve already demonstrated for learning proves that you can learn anything.
It’s not all good news though. The ability to learn anything might sound good at first, but then you have to remember that anything really does mean anything. Learning can make you better of course, but it can also make you worse. Self-improvement isn’t the kind of thing you can just presume.
I mean, how hard would it be to come up with something you’ve learned which made you a worse person, or at least a less happy one (which are really just different versions of the same thing). For instance, I’m willing to bet that you’ve learned how to be distrustful, or self-centred, or judgemental. I’m not saying that you are distrustful, self-centred or judgemental, just that you know how to do them. That you’ve learned the basics.
Spend enough time learning something and eventually it becomes a habit. That’s another thing people don’t really consider about the learning process. You don’t just learn a thing. It’s not a one-and-done type of situation. Learning is doing a think over and over again, and each time you pick up something new. Each repetition is a new lesson. We get better and better at it until there’s nothing more to pick up, and then it’s a habit. But once it’s a habit, you’re stuck with it until you learn something else that works as well.
As I alluded to earlier, this is bad news for things that make you worse, but good news for things that make you better. Not only do you get better at things you learn repeatedly, you can also do them for longer. Start a meditation practice and it’s a struggle to last five minutes. But maintain a meditation practice and you can do twenty minutes in the bonk of an eye. Struggling to write 500 words a day becomes breezing through 2000. Jogging around the block becomes running a 5k. Consciously telling yourself to be kind becomes being a kind person.
The reason developing good habits seems hard is just that we stop learning too early. We act as if those first few tries are the whole thing, and we stop because it seems too hard or because we think we’re aren’t good enough (which are really just different versions of the same excuse). We treat learning as if it’s a discrete event which either happens straight away or never will. But it’s more like painting a wall. A black wall that you’ve decided you want to paint white. Maybe each coat is so thin and watery that you know the wall is only every going to be grey. But maybe you just need one more coat.