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To inspire and to be inspired

I have had the opportunity to pursue many of my dreams and ambitions in life together with other people, sometimes with long-time friends, sometimes with new acquaintances. With time, I’ve gradually become aware that there seem to be two things that separate myself from many of the people I’ve met. I think that I have a very healthy attitude towards failure, progress and competition that helps me achieve what I want, usually with support from people around me.

I don’t claim that this is a unique ability or even that it’s special, I just feel like writing about it because what seems obvious to me apparently isn’t obvious to some people. In this way, I hope that I can shed some light on how to think about people who have acquired a skill you think is exceptional in some regard. I will also say something about inspiring others.

I couldn’t do X when I was born

It’s absolutely astonishing that people really seem to believe that skill X is something innate that the performer could do it when he or she was born. I can’t count the number of times I’ve heard people say “How can you do that?”, sometimes followed by the optional “That’s impossible!”. This can be said about anything, but I usually hear it about Chinese, diving or some basic gymnastics feat such as performing a solid handstand.

This question might look innocent, but I think it hides a ton of prejudice and negative thoughts that is stopping you from achieving whatever it is you want to achieve. To be blunt, the question is inane and the answer is obvious: I’ve practised a lot. It’s as if the person asking this question thinks that I could perform two and a half somersaults when I was born or that I could speak Chinese fluently since the age of five. This is wrong. I started learning both these things when I was around 23.

Yeah, yeah, but perhaps people are just asking this because they don’t know what to say? It’s more of a rhetorical question than a real question, you might say. I think that’s wrong. Saying “How can you do that?” implies that the connection between practice and end-result isn’t obvious, because then you would say something else. If I see someone who can do something I can’t and do it extremely well, my first reaction is curiosity. I might want to know how he or she practised or what kind of skills it involves.

People greatly overestimate the difficulty of most of the feats they consider to be impossible, and they greatly underestimate their own capacity to learn. Unicycling is a very good example. I think an average person can learn to keep their balance and move forward with reasonable confidence within only a few hours of practising.

This is not impossible. In fact, it’s really easy compared with some other things which really take time to learn. Are you surprised when you go to the hospital and the doctor is accurately able to say what’s wrong with you? Do you marvel at the fact that a bridge doesn’t fall down when you drive over it? Do you feel awe when someone repairs the plumbing in your home? Probably not. You know that the educations needed to make these things work take years to finish. No one is a born a doctor, an engineer or a plumber . If you really wanted to and had the time and the opportunity, I think most people could learn that as well.

The point is that no-one knows anything when they’re born. We learn things and we keep on learning things after we’ve grown up.

I can’t remember who said this, but someone thought that they shouldn’t broadcast the Olympic Games on TV because we never get to see the tens of thousands of hours of training that lie behind each gold medal. We watch these superstars on TV and marvel at their skill, without appreciating what it took to achieve such a high level.

Although a bit contrived, I think there is some truth in this. By watching only the perfected end-result, we create an insurmountable wall between ourselves and them. They become untouchable. They are amazing. They can do the impossible. In fact, there is no wall , just a gradual steeper slope. Everyone can’t be a sprint champion, but most people could learn to run really, really fast if that’s what they want to do.

This leads me to the second part of this article, namely how to regard people who are better than you are, how to look up that slope without being daunted by the distance you have to climb to get to a certain level. Some people look up the slope with envy, some with awe. I would argue that both of these are destructive attitudes. Curiosity and an open mind is what you need.

Learn from your superiors, teach the rest

I’m not a big fan of Confucius in general, but one sentence in the Analects is quite powerful: 三人行必有我師焉. It means that in a group of three people, there is bound to be someone who can be your teacher. In other words, Confucius says that everyone has their own set of skills and experiences that should be valued and that others should strive to learn. No-one is the grandmaster of all situations, of all trades and all walks of life. I can teach you how to learn Chinese, what can you teach me?

This illustrates a major point in how I regard other people. If I meet someone who can do something I can’t, but that I want to be able to do, I try to keep this person as close as possible, realising that this is a potential teacher. This time, I’m going to take learning Chinese as an example. When I lived in Taiwan, I usually studied with people whose Chinese was a lot better than my own (I call this the “kamikaze approach to learning Chinese“, click the link to read more about my first experiment with this). Some people wouldn’t dare to do that because they would feel bad, inferior and so on. Every time they talked to other, superior classmates, it would highlight shortcomings and failures.

Sure it would. You would never be the best in your class, but if you turn it around and look at it from the other direction, you suddenly have not one teacher in your class, but a whole group! Keeping these people as closely as possible, you learn how they learn, you study how they study. And you improve, probably much faster than they do, because they only have one teacher. Perhaps you might not feel that you’re improving that much, because you will still be far behind, but measured against some more objective benchmarks you will know that the distance is rapidly decreasing.

Learning Chinese like this is perhaps a unique situation, but I really think that Confucius hit the nail on its head with the above quote. As soon as you see someone who is superior to you, you shouldn’t see a competitor, an enemy or a rival, you should see a teacher. Perhaps he or she won’t be your formal teacher, but in your mind, think of your superiors as your teachers and everything will be a lot easier. Use them as sources of inspiration and knowledge.

Of course, it works the other way around, too. If in a group of three someone can be your teacher, it also means that in the same group, you can be the teacher of others. Teaching is an exceptionally powerful way of learning, but I feel that it’s slightly outside the scope of this article to delve deeper into that question. Just realise that in any situation, you can learn and you can teach. You can be inspired, but don’t forget that you can inspire others, too.

To be inspired and to inspire

I’ve said what i wanted to say already, but I’m going to sum things up before ending this article. Teaching and inspiring are two closely related things. If you can see all superiors as sources of inspiration and knowledge, you will advance faster than if you view them as rivals or opponents. Similarly, realise that you have your own strong sides that inspire other people. Don’t hesitate to teach others if they want to be taught. Inspiration is cyclic in its nature and should flow freely in all directions.

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  1. Alva’s avatar

    I really liked this article, since it stresses two things: fear and curiosity, at least that is what I got out of it.