You’ve Got To Be In It

I was reading Thomas Sterner’s follow-up to a personal favourite of mine, The Practicing Mind, purported to be the more practical edition, and I came across an idea that stuck with me.

The story centred around a golfer who had a tendency to self-destruct if she put too much pressure on herself. She spiralled into self-criticism and stopped focusing on what she was actually doing.

The exact details don’t matter, but it was the suggestion that you cannot learn unless you’re there that made the impact on me.

You can’t learn to play in high wind if the wind isn’t up, Sterner says. Neither can you learn to play in the rain if it’s not raining.

The implication was that you can’t learn how to handle the negative self-talk if you’re not actively engaged in it.

It’s the college/self-taught and university divide I used to see when I was training techs to troubleshoot. The self-taught folks, the college folks, they had hands-on experience to pull on. Faced with a problem, even one they hadn’t dealt with before, they were able to learn, because they were used to dealing with the problem as it came up. They applied a methodical approach based on what worked in actuality to fix problems. They were used to getting their hands dirty.

The university guys never did. They only ever had theory, so asked to golf in the wind and the rain, they struggled mightily, because they had only ever played in calm skies and sun.

The college folks had it a bit over the self-taught ones as well, in my opinion, because sometimes the self-taught people had to deal with situations for which they didn’t have any background knowledge. With some prior training, the college guys, though they still had to get their hands dirty, had some prior knowledge available to them.

The university folks dealt in theory, speculating about what it would take to play in tough conditions without having clue of what that meant. That’s like trying to describe the taste of something of which you’ve only ever seen a picture. Sure, you can describe a molten lava cake or a beef wellington from the picture you saw, but you don’t truly know it. You can’t speak to its succulence, its texture or the way its flavours play across your tongue.

The problem with being self-taught is that if you’re not super diligent or don’t know where to look to find the knowledge, you’re essentially able to describe the cake from its taste, but you still have to go back and reverse engineer and learn how to make it. Sometimes, if charged to do it in the moment, there won’t be enough time for all that.

At least in the college scenario, you have some basic training to fall back on. You may not know the exact recipe for the cake, but if you’ve learned the basic concepts of chemistry and techniques involved in baking, in a hands on way, you can probably figure it out.

The same is true of depression. We cannot learn how to handle our depression and indeed, how to break out of it, if we aren’t actually depressed.

We can’t know how to play in the rain if we only ever go out in the sun. Caught by a sudden torrent, we may find ourselves completely out of our element, and our entire game goes to pot.

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