The Brick Walls

“The brick walls are there for a reason. The brick walls are not there to keep us out. The brick walls are there to give us a chance to show how badly we want something. Because the brick walls are there to stop the people who don’t want it badly enough. They’re there to stop the other people.” – Randy Pausch

The Experience Paradox

I used to believe that the more I did something and the better I became at it, the more I would become confident in it.

This is half true.

The other truth is that the more you do something and the better you become at it, the more you realise you don’t know and the less confident (or more aptly, arrogant) you become.

I used to think this was true only in particular areas of life, but now I realise that it is true of everything.

White Belt Punches

‘This single punch can be lethal,’ my sensei told me in my first karate class, ‘but now, your punches – all of your punches – focus on muscle alone. They are useless.’

I was 17 years old and a virgin to martial arts. I didn’t understand my sensei meant. What’s wrong with using muscles? I thought. Don’t muscles make up physical strength?

I half trusted my sensei, and half believed he was wrong. I insisted to do things my way: using muscles.

‘Relax your muscles,’ he would whisper in my ears as he passed me during practice. I would try, and then, when I didn’t get the result I wanted, use muscles again.

Over and over again, he would tell me, ‘You are doing this wrong. Look, channel your entire punch into the last moment when you release it. The beginning is always gentle, conserving your energy for the right moment – at the every end – when once released, will give you the maximum effect.’

In my head, I thought I would master the punch in a year. In reality, it took me six years before realising that I would never master the perfect punch; the punch would always be a work in progress. Even 7th Dan black belt masters, I would learn, would continue perfecting their punches, sixty years into picking up the art.

I went into martial arts thinking I would learn something cool to show my friends. After six years of karate and failing my brown belt grading once, I learned something else entirely: humility and perseverance.

I didn’t believe it then, but now I know it is true that a single punch, practised to perfection, can indeed be lethal; but it would take me 10,000 hours of practice to get there.

Experience chips away at the arrogance of naivety.

Who breaks down the walls?

When you are far away from the wall, you think that your biggest accomplishment is in reaching the wall. But when you are close to the wall, you realise your next challenge: you need to get past the wall.

You try to get past it. At first, you feel successful at doing it – the wall crumbles a little bit. You think ‘I’m getting there!’

But as you keep hitting the wall with the same strength, you find that the wall crumbles less and less. Simply hitting the wall more doesn’t help. You need to do something else entirely.

You start strategising. Perhaps if I hit the wall a bit harder it would break more? So you try. It does crumble a little more, but not enough.

Then you notice something you never notice before: there are other people around you doing the same thing. What if you could work together? Wouldn’t the combined forces be more effective than your singular impacts?

You don’t know now how to approach them. What should I say? How do I get them to help me?

You learn. You find out what they want behind the wall. You learn that not everyone is interested in working together (some think that by working together, their share of the reward will become smaller).

You learn that some people want to work with you, but only if you help them break their wall first (but that’s besides the point, you were supposed to be working together).

After a long search, you find a few people who want to work together with you and are fine with waiting until the very end before claiming a share of the same reward.

This is when you start making progress on breaking down the wall.

Interestingly, someone in your group would even suggest, ‘Why are we so focused on this wall anyway? Isn’t there any other way to do this?’

There is.

Combined, you make more progress than you initially could by yourself. So it is we, we who break the walls. However, it is you – you who must want it enough and believe that the combined power of a few individuals will be more than you alone.

This belief is the first sign of humility that must precede success. Humility – believing that you are not the best or that your opinion matters most and that you can and should ask for help – is the beginning.

Naive arrogance is the characteristic of the beginner who doesn’t understand yet what it takes to break down the walls.

Conclusion: Bring your best to the table, but leave room to improve

More than talking about anyone else, here I am talking about myself. At the beginning, I often thought that I was the secret sauce of a successful project. After seeing my arrogance jeopardise my own progress, I painfully accepted that no one is really that good. Sure, you need to have a vision and you need to lead people; but also important is the willingness to say, ‘Yes, I am your leader and I still have a lot to learn and I have a lot to learn from everyone.’

The willingness to listen to feedback and the willingness to accept help – both difficult things for ambitious types – are what will help you see the wall as it is, and see who best you can work with to break down the wall, and actually moving past the goal.

But, you have to want what is behind the wall enough.

“The brick walls are there for a reason. The brick walls are not there to keep us out. The brick walls are there to give us a chance to show how badly we want something. Because the brick walls are there to stop the people who don’t want it badly enough. They’re there to stop the other people.” – Randy Pausch

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