Learning What Not To Do


There are undeniable advantages in going first. Whether you’re the first kid in class to present his project, or the maker of the first smartphone, pioneers possess the ability to set standards. They face the freedom of zero or flexible expectations. Pioneers can relax a bit, knowing that there’s a greater tolerance for error.

Growing up, I often took advantage of being first. I suppose this is natural for the oldest child, but even in school or in sports, there were many quantifiable advantages to being first that I saw. Emphasis on quantifiable. I had a proclivity toward results -- the more immediate the better. Immediate gains, limited though they might be, were gains nonetheless.

I had the nasty habit of being what Josh Waitzkin refers to in The Art of Learning as an entity theorist. Entity theorists, Waitzkin explains, tend to have the mindset of being innately good or bad at something. They know their strengths and they play to them.

They also tend to lack resilience. They cannot, as Waitzkin says, invest in loss. Entity theorists like me avoid what they don’t perceive themselves to be good at because the pain of defeat shatters them. I usually chose to go first because it increased my odds of looking favorable in the teacher’s eyes and consequently, getting the A that I wanted.

Learning theorists are the opposite of entity theorists. Waitzkin explains that they tend to have the mindset of, “I won because I work hard.” Or, in the face of failure, “If I want to win next time, I need to work harder.” Innate ability is less important to them. Learning theorists believe any skill can be acquired with a long enough timeline.

Looking back on my school days, the learning theorists tended to present toward the back half of middle. They had the benefit of learning from my mistakes and of the others that followed. Yes, they still wanted to win the A grade, but they were motivated by something deeper: mastery. They were more motivated by learning the incremental steps and processes that make excellence, though they might not be aware of it.

As I’ve aged, I’ve steadily transformed myself from an entity theorist to a learning theorist. There has been nothing better for this than Brazilian Jiu Jitsu. The mindset is serving me particularly well in my work. A prime example showed up this morning on the digital front page of the New York Times.

Data has never been more valuable. It’s awfully tempting to develop some busch league weather app in order to siphon location data to the highest bidder. The easier path is a temptation that Google appears to be wrestling with daily basis. I’m old enough to remember the days of Google’s internal “Don’t be evil” slogan. Well, it’s officially gone from the company’s code of conduct. I suppose caving to a historically oppressive government’s censorship needs precludes a company from being evil.

Here’s where being a learning theorist pays off: We have ample time to study the mistakes of others, learning what not to do. Whatever advantage is lost in not being first can be gained by learning what not to do. The examples abound, we just need to tune in and not be so hyper focused on immediate results.

Finding and Following Your Personal Legend


I am my own worst saboteur. But I’m pushing past it.

My new job title feels overblown, but I claim it anyway: CEO. It’s been a long, difficult journey to get here. I’m now a small-business owner, entrepreneur, captain of my ship, and also chief cook & bottle washer.

My desire to do what I consider to be meaningful work has been alive since I realized my occupational purpose in college. But I stalled, delayed, and intentionally detoured. It was easier at the height of the Great Recession to become a copy editor than it was to work a beat as a reporter. It became a pattern for the years to follow as a professional: pursuing what was expedient, not what was meaningful.

Only now, though, do I realize that the biggest saboteur of my dream of a meaningful career was me. Paulo Coelho’s The Alchemist crystalized it for me.

“To realize one’s destiny is a person’s only obligation,” the King of Salem tells the young shepherd, Santiago.

I had ignored my destiny, or what Coelho calls a Personal Legend, because I didn’t believe in what I had to offer to the world. I didn’t believe that I was good enough, smart enough, hard-working enough, or capable enough to go out on my own and survive.

Learning from a conscious competitor

I’m fortunate to be surrounded by some remarkable people, one of whom is my jiu jitsu instructor, Emily Kwok, who recently took home another world championship. She had mentioned to me some time ago that The Alchemist was one of her favorite books and I made a mental note to read it. When she won the gold a few weeks ago, I texted her and told her that she is the ultimate badass, and that it was inspirational to watch her pursue her own Personal Legend.

At the time, I was unaware of just how much of her own self doubt she had to overcome to get to that point, a topic which she explores in this inspirational post. Even world champions, it seems, have their own brushes with self doubt and self sabotage. Her words made me realize just how much damage I had done to myself.

It took a year for me to finally step out on my own professionally, and it was a difficult year. I had a full-time job that was reasonably demanding, plus the task of getting my company off the ground. For better or worse, I allowed myself no wiggle room in my training schedule either. But when I finally took the leap into self-employment, I was surprised.

“And, when you want something, all the universe conspires in helping you to achieve it,” Coelho writes.

I’m not entirely sure if the universe is playing an active role here, but all I can say is that as soon as I left my job and ventured out on my own, opportunities began to appear, one of which is so awesome it still doesn’t seem real to me. It seemed like by deciding I was good enough, and by shifting my mindset from scarcity to abundance, the entire weight of the universe -- or at least my little corner of it -- shifted. I had and have momentum. The setbacks, so far, are just that -- setbacks.

I know it won’t always be like this. I know there will be, as always, struggle. But I know now that I’m good enough and I’m worthy. And I know that no matter what happens, it’s all pushing me toward my Personal Legend.

Of interest