We each of us have qualities that can work for or against us.
I did pretty well in school growing up, scoring high on tests that required brute force memorization, long-term marinating in the ideas to understand, or a coherent narrative to support my position. Mostly that was possible because of 2 qualities: 1) I was fundamentally wired — no training required — to be like a puppy with a chew toy with a new idea, so thought nothing of quizzing myself repeatedly until I could recite the list of n-items perfectly. And 2) I needed to be able to explain things or understand others clearly, so that creating a narrative for others was vitally important to me.
Call it persistence and empathic storytelling.
Certainly, these have been something like superpowers. In an educational system that rewards test performance, being hardwired to buckle down with the material will get you far; ditto for a culture that values communication skills and entertaining while educating. I don’t think I’d be where I am without these fundamental personality traits.
Not all wine and roses
For one thing, dogged willingness to brute force it until the universe dies isn’t always the answer. There’s a limit to one brain’s computational power and sometimes the problem is too complex, you can’t calculate the mass of the Sun.
Or sometimes it’s a trick question, and the answer comes from a sidestepping elegance, a holistic intuitive approach, or just shutting up. And the more you try to force the solution, the worse you make things, and the more perplexed you get with why no one appreciates your Herculean, sacrificial efforts.
For another, you annoy people.
I attended a martial arts seminar recently where the instructor noted, offhandedly, that I asked more questions about technique than anyone he’d ever taught. He meant it in a good way, explaining that it made him a better teacher by making him re-examine what he knew and how he taught things. (It reminded me of another seminar, with the guest speaker being the former Health and Human Services director: when he asked for single questions at the end, I raised my hand, he called on me, and I said I had one, well, actually two or three related questions, and the entire contingent that came with me laughed.)
But this is a feature of the dogged persistence thing: in my headlong rush to master the material, I usually dispense with the social norm of Don’t be the nail that sticks up by admitting your ignorance or by volunteering. If I don’t know something, I won’t magically learn it by continuing to shut up, so up goes the hand, forward steps the foot, may as well get this over with, so we can all move forward. ‘Cuz if I don’t know the answer, others don’t either, right?
Yes, it gets the answer revealed more quickly if the answer is hidden. Yes, it adds to your mastery as you continually attack your ignorance. But it makes others pull up short in their headlong dash to their goals. And sometimes you’re supposed to know the answer to the questions you’re asking, and it cements others’ opinions that you’re a lazy dumbass who couldn’t be bothered to do the reading.
All of which may be the price of admission, a necessary consequence of how you conquer your own ignorance. You can mitigate your interruptions of others, and you can deal with the scorn of naysayers; getting better is probably worth it. But it’s a cost that it’d be foolish to ignore, like the remainder in a long division math problem that you don’t just erase.
And sometimes, the superpower goes autoimmune
And I see this every day in my medical practice, if not regular life.
It’s most clear with matters of stress and strain.
We all experience stresses, those curveballs that life throws at us: the forgotten appointment, the near-empty gas tank light, the take-out order missing an item. Most are minor hiccups that we deal with and move on from. But those that we struggle with and that bend us, cause strain: our blood pressure goes up and stays up, we have trouble sleeping, our mood turns to depression or anxiety, we become shut-ins, gain weight, and suffer chronic fatigue and pains.
One particularly common thread: when you can’t let go of something.
You can’t stop reliving the traumatic event.
You can’t stop analyzing the verbal confrontation.
You can’t stop worrying about the upcoming audit.
Iterative cycling is the key to process improvement. You come at a problem, nibble away at a fix, come back around and repeat until things are better. It’s the superpower to Eating The Elephants that are the complex, real-world issues. But if you are repeatedly cycling your insecurities and your negative emotions, the echo chamber that is your own mind can accelerate your plunge into the abyss.
So, what’s the take home?
There’s a difference between subroutines and bad code. Even if you’ve never tried your hand at computer programming, you can relate to the distinction. A subroutine is a little habit, a routine, that you do repeatedly to get you in the right frame of mind and help you move forward. Like rolling out the yoga mat just so whenever you do your calming meditation practice, or packing your gear bag the same way each time before you go work out. In computer programming, it’s a few lines of code that you repeatedly use, so instead of writing it each time, you write it once and name it, so you can paste it by calling on its name in the future.
Bad code means what it sounds like: something’s broken and progress stops. The program is supposed to do something and it doesn’t, or the entire program collapses. Lighting the candles and getting your meditation cushion set up is a good kind of repetition; having the same argument with a coworker or family member is no bueno.
If you’re in a bad place repeatedly, Here I am again like Groundhog Day, it’s time to investigate whether you’re trying to force the answer with your superpower, and whether it’s time for a different approach. Or at least backing off for a bit, dude.
All blades can cut you in public. Your superpower can cost you: persistence can annoy or seem clueless; humor can feel insensitive or frivolous; calmness can come across as aloofness or lack of caring. You can say I can’t control what others think of me, and you’d be correct. But that’s not the same thing as thinking I don’t care at all about what others think of me, which is basically on the path to Hannibal Lecter sociopathy.
The deepest cuts are our own. Regardless of how you’re ranked by your peers, the deepest damage occurs in your own mind because that’s what absolutely is with you 24//7. Be mindful of turning your best tools against yourself, of literally being too hard on yourself and punishing yourself again, and again, and again.
Basic question: How’s that been werkin’ fer ya? It’s a simple, easy self-check. If you’re going at something a certain way and things are getting steadily, reliably worse, I submit that that is not a good look on you, no matter how well it was “supposed” to work.