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Skill Changes Everything – How to Avoid Quitting Too Soon

Dr. Richard Davidson (Ritchie) was a young Harvard graduate student when he made the trip to India for his first ten-day intensive meditation retreat. The schedule called for nearly twelve hours a day of meditation. Ritchie quickly found that instead of focusing on his breath as he was supposed to, his attention was hijacked by a growing sensation of pain in his right knee. Over the course of the first day, this pain intensified and spread to his other knee and lower back. By the end of the day, Ritchie was on the verge of giving up on the retreat.

Ritchie persevered, in spite of the pain, and on the third day, as the instruction changed from breath observation to monitoring his body, Ritchie noticed a gradual shift in his perception. The ache in his knees and back morphed from being acute pain into a mere sensation. At the same time, he began to experience a profound sense of equanimity and well-being, it was as if he had somehow opened his mind.

This feeling of well-being persisted for the remainder of the retreat and by the end, Ritchie was able to sit for up to four hours at a time, even going back for additional meditation after already doing twelve hours. And though the intensity of the euphoria waned in the months that followed, his experience was so transformative that it convinced him to devote his academic career to the scientific study of meditation.

Why We Underestimate Change

Ritchie’s story illustrates an important lesson that applies to all skill based endeavors. Namely, that we consistently underestimate the dynamic nature of our own experience. More specifically, we fail to appreciate how profoundly our experience of a thing will change as we become more skilled. Cultivating an appreciation for this can help us make better decisions about when to stick with something and when to quit.

The reason we fail to account for the dynamism of our experience because we think in linear terms. For a sense of this, please humor me by answering these two questions:  

Question 1: Do you like ice-cream, and will you like it in the future?

Question 2: Do you like running, and will you like it in the future?

Now, think for a moment, how did you answer those questions? Like me, you probably thought about your recent experiences of ice-cream or running, and with some minor adjustments, projected them forward.

We think this way because it’s useful for things like ice cream. Ice cream, like most things we do, is a largely static experience. Eating ice-cream in the future is going to be a lot like it was in the past (hopefully!).

But for endeavors that entail any degree of skill – think careers and hobbies – it is a counterproductive approach to forecasting what we’ll like and dislike. It’s counterproductive because when skill is involved our experience isn’t static. To the contrary, it is dynamic – it changes as our skills do.

How Skill Changes The Feels

We recognize that skill can account for differences in experiences between people doing the same thing. For example, imagine how it would feel to run a mile at your fastest pace.

And now, imagine what it would feel like for the world’s fastest miler Hicham El Guerrouj, to run a mile at his fastest pace.

It is, I think, intuitive that the experience of running a mile would be materially different for you then it would be for Guerrouj. And further, that it would likely be considerably more enjoyable for Guerrouj then it would be for you.

What’s less intuitive and more profound, is how our own experience of something can change through time, and specifically as our skill increases.  

For a sense of this, now try to imagine how it would feel for you to run a mile after a year of dedicated training with the world’s greatest running coach…

I know, you’d still hate it, right? But it wouldn’t be the same as today would it?

It wouldn’t. Running the mile today would be a fundamentally different experience than running that mile after a year of training and coaching. Your breathing would be different, your stride would be different, your relationship to your whole body would be different.  

Running, as you experience it, would undergo a transformation so profound that to speak of running today and running a year later as the same experience would be silly. You are doing the “same thing” but it is not the same experience.

That our own experience of the same thing can change so drastically is why endeavors that involve skill are a domain of life where our recent experiences are very poor predictors of what we’ll like and dislike in the future. This poses a challenge to the commonsense method of evaluating whether something is right for us, or not.

Traditionally, we assign a lot of weight to how something makes us feel today. Hence the saying, “You don’t know until you try”. The implication of a highly dynamic experience is that we not only don’t know until we try but we also don’t know until we’ve become proficient.

Linear Thinking’s Trap

The most common result of linear thinking is the error of quitting too early. Like Ritchie at the beginning of his meditation retreat, we allow ourselves to become anchored to our present experience and project it forward.

The reality, of course, is that generally speaking, as your skill increases the experience of something improves. Whether it’s because you win more, get paid more, or can express yourself more confidently, more skill leads to a better experience.

Graph showing skill vs joy over time. Over time more skill makes for a better experience.

And we know this – that the beginning is usually the hardest part – at least intellectually. It’s the reason parents encourage their kids to get back on the bicycle when they fall off.

But as adults wrestling with more complex skills, it’s easy to lose this perspective and in its absence, every setback feels like a failure and what is really just the beginning seems like an eternity.

Thus, we fall into what psychologists term the fixed-mindset, an essentially linear perspective that assumes we’re either right for something or not. Once we’ve adopted this mindset, quitting becomes the seemingly rational decision.

Luckily, there is a simple and effective way to counteract our tendency towards fixed mindset thinking.  

Recognize & Correct Linear Self-Talk

Among the first and most recognizable symptoms of fixed-mindset, linear thinking is our internal dialogue. We start telling ourselves things like:

“I’m no good at this.”

“I’m just not cut out to be a graphic designer.”

“I really don’t like tennis as much as I thought I would.”  

And in this way, we begin convincing ourselves that we know what it’s like to do something when in the truth is we’ve barely scratched the surface the experience.

Personally, I’ve found that the easiest way to counter linear thinking is to make small modifications to this internal dialogue. When I catch myself saying, “I’m no good at this”, I change the sentence to “I’m no good at this, yet” or “I haven’t put in the work to be good at this yet.” And I still get to be pissed off at myself but in a more intelligent way.

Silly as it may first appear, these subtle shifts in language are often enough to remind ourselves that what we’re experiencing now is only a moment in a journey. That things not only can get better but they are in fact likely to, so long as we continue to put in the work to improve.

Where To Go From Here

A highly dynamic experience is in a way antithetical to our concept of self. After all, if what I like and don’t like is highly changeable, then who am I really?  And so it’s not surprising that we’re not wired to fully appreciate our full range of possible experience.

But appreciating it may not be necessary. If we can just stop ourselves from falling victim to fixed mindset errors, then we at least retain the ability to push forward and allow the future to surprise us by being more interesting than we ever imagined it could be.




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