E is for Easy, effort, and expectations

Standard

This post is part of the Pagan Blog Project. It’s the second one for the letter E. It’s partly inspired by lcwards’s post on education and ego from last week, although it’s not a direct reply to it.

Someone recently said to me that some spiritual things were often pretty easy for me when I actually do them (and dare to do them). I agree that I often tend to imagine things to be a lot more difficult than they turn out to be when I get over myself and finally do them. And if they aren’t exactly easy (and not all of them were), they are still totally worth the effort. I also agree that things are often remarkably easy for me when I approach them in a playful mood. However, I find that I come across equally remarkable blocks when I try and develop some discipline and/or do things more seriously.

I’ve actually spent countless hours not doing things, procrastinating and distracting myself in whichever way was available (often by reading about other people’s experiences instead of doing things myself). I encounter a certain resistance within myself every time I’m about to practice something that’s not completely spontaneous and lighthearted. It’s true that I’ve gotten better at overcoming that resistance, but I still think I’m allowing myself to take the easy way out far too often. And why wouldn’t I, since that’s been one of the main lessons I seem to have learned: extra effort is usually not worth it. At this point, I have to take you on a quick tour through some points of my educational life to explain where I’m coming from in all this.

You see, in areas where getting better is or was important to me (e.g. writing, drawing), most of the feedback I got and get is that I’m pretty great already and that anything on top of that is unnecessary. I quickly learned that no one cared for, let alone appreciated the fact that I carefully researched even the last little date in the last little footnote of any of my academic papers. When I said that this or that piece of my writing could have been better, I was quickly assured that it still was worthy of the best grade – so why would I work harder when there was no recognition of my efforts to be gained, not to mention rewards or anything? When I said that I didn’t like this or that aspect of a drawing, I was accused of being overly critical with myself and told to be happy about my talent of which so many others apparently were jealous – so I eventually stopped trusting the judgement of others.

In short, I was torn between two very different “yardsticks” (if you’ll excuse the not-quite-accurate linear metaphor), the one that compares all of us with each other (the “universal” one, which was most often used by my teachers and classmates) and the one that compares me with myself (the “personal” one, which I’ve tried to use myself).

It was often very easy for me to get to the top of the “universal” yardstick without even trying very hard, so grades quickly lost their meaning for me, especially at university. I just became a person from whom an A was expected as the standard, both in the eyes of my teachers and my own. In fact, I eventually began to experiment to see with how little work I could still earn an A. Let’s just say it took very little work. More and more, I left things until the very last minute, until the approaching deadline created enough of a challenge to finally engage me on a level that felt right. (That pattern actually goes back to my time in school where in ninth grade or so I was once publicly praised for my homework writing and asked how long I had worked on it. I replied honestly that I had actually done it in the cafeteria in the 15-minute break before class. No, that still didn’t make anyone identify me as intellectually gifted. I had to do that mostly for myself at the age of 30.)

The exception to this rule were subjects that didn’t click immediately for me (e.g. math, sports, or music at school, or linguistics at university) and that I just couldn’t get interested in enough to try harder. At some point after geometry, math got so abstract (that is, it created no more “images” in my head and I couldn’t see any practical applications of it that I cared for) that I stopped understanding it easily. I couldn’t see any reason that convinced me that my time was well-spent at a day of swimming competitions, or any other competitive sport at that. Who cared if I sprinted a bit faster or slower, or threw a ball a bit further or not? I failed to see the importance of any of these competitions so I didn’t invest much effort into getting better in any of these areas. I wasn’t interested, therefore learning to make linguistic phrase trees or doing trigonometric functions or getting my body to move right to throw a ball further was hard. (In comparison, learning how to raise my eyebrows independently, mastering the choreography for my role in a stage musical, reading very theoretical queer theory, or teaching myself some basic SQL queries seemed both interesting and worth the effort and therefore activated my stubbornness to keep going until I had learned/understood them to the degree I desired. Just to prevent the impression that I’m basically just lazy and don’t want to work…)

My strategy of the least effort had the side effect that I eventually became convinced that if something was easy, the success didn’t count, and that making an effort was pointless because it wouldn’t be measured on the “universal” grading scale anyway. I always had a pretty good sense of how much effort I had invested in something and how “deserved” a grade/praise was in relation to that. My parents reinforced this connection, for example by not celebrating my (good, but not very good) final school degree with me (which to me was for once an appropriate relation between the minimal effort I had put into it and the result) but instead told me I could have done better if I had worked harder (which is true, at least to a certain degree).

Consequently, the only reason why I feel satisfied with my Master’s degree of a 1.0 (the best possible degree) is because I know how hard it was for me to settle on a thesis topic and limit its range and manage my time and organize my thoughts and know when to stop researching and what to include/exclude in the final paper. The thinking and writing itself was a breeze and actually fun much of the time. This thesis was the first time in my entire academic life that I ever genuinely feared I might not make it – and deeply cared about it. I handed in my paper literally ten minutes before the deadline. While I was extremely relieved and a little proud that I had actually made it, I still thought the paper itself was way below my standards. As soon as the damn thing had thumped on the bottom of the university’s mailbox, I started thinking how I could have done so much better if only I had been more organized (or had had more time)…

But I hadn’t been very organized for most of the thesis period (we get four months for writing 80-100 pages, which probably varies a bit from department to department and university to university), because I simply hadn’t learned how to organize writing a paper that I couldn’t write within a week or so. I never needed to make any long-term plans about my education, let alone stick to them. To this day, I still struggle to plan any long-term project that encompasses more than a few weeks. I have a horrible sense for how long things take and tend to vastly overestimate or underestimate the required time. Sure, I know all the theory about chopping the project into little bites and making measurable goals and allowing extra time in the schedule for the unexpected and prioritizing issues and so on. I’ve read a lot of books and articles about getting organized and stopping procrastination. I still have a hard time putting these things into practice. (Maybe I just don’t suffer enough from my current method…)

Let’s get back to the yardsticks, though. Of course my professors loved my thesis and both gave me straight A’s for it. And intellectually I knew they were right in doing so because it clearly exceeded the expectations of the “universal” yardstick. However, it still didn’t rate very highly on my “personal” yardstick. I knew this wasn’t the masterpiece it was supposed to be. I knew this wasn’t the sparkling bang to end my education with. It was a solid paper, but it wasn’t brilliant. On my “personal” yardstick, it certainly wasn’t worthy of the best possible grade. Needless to say, no one believed me when I said so. No matter to whom I confessed my disappointment with myself, they all reacted by assuring me that it had been more than good enough, that I shouldn’t be so hard on myself, and that my insistence on failing my own standards was nothing but an exaggerated drive to be perfect. In the end, I just gave up and settled on accepting the grade for the effort of organizing my thoughts and my time, if not for the actual content of the paper. (And, yes, of course that is part of the work of writing a thesis, but that’s not my point here.)

And this is how the discrepancy between the “universal” yardstick and the “personal” one turned out to be majorly frustrating when it came to subjects I wanted to work and get better at. I simply never was challenged beyond a certain one-size-fits-all limit, which unfortunately usually wasn’t my size at all. Don’t get me wrong, I do appreciate my ability to quickly pick up new things, my curiousity for a wide range of subjects, and my often rather charmingly chaotic way of delivering remarkably good stuff at the last minute without anyone being the wiser about the drawn-out period of inaction and boredom and lack of structure that came before. I’ve become perhaps a little too enamored with the “not bad for five minutes” trick (where you pull off something that gets you compliments from the “universal” yardstick and that even qualifies as “not bad for the five minutes of effort I actually put in there” on the “personal” yardstick) for my own good.

At the same time, I crave for challenges of my actual skills/potential. Sometimes I manage to set them up for myself. Recently, I’m challenging myself with somewhat repetitive tasks which I usually avoid like the plague. Drumming every morning. The “deck of the week” tarot project. Acknowledging my Ancestors via my new altar dedicated to them (not yet a regular event, but an increasingly frequent one). I still notice that I need to infuse these things with enough variety to not get bored or I won’t do them. I also try hard to take up opportunities that take me out of my comfort zone more often than not, like doing a public reading that’s not at all about my academic skills, learning enough SQL to be able to do basic requests on my own, visiting a blind woman with dementia every week for several months and finding ways to communicate with her that were mostly about my heart and not my mind, learning a bellydance choreography even if I don’t enjoy it and would rather improvise… (Of course there are also challenges I don’t set myself for the time being: learning to drive a car or singing (again) in public are two of them. But I’m pretty sure I’ll eventually face even these two “demons.”)

Sometimes, however, I secretly wish for a teacher who would for once design tasks for me that are exactly the right kind and degree of a challenge. Someone who actually cares whether I get better in terms of my “personal” yardstick, no matter what the “universal” one says. Someone who sees through my excuses and demands that I do the work required of me, even if I don’t feel like it. Someone I would respect enough to actually trust them in this process. I most often think of such a teacher in terms of my spiritual development, but I probably would have taken one in another area of life as well, assuming it was important enough to me to make the effort. Unfortunately, I haven’t met such a teacher yet in these 39 years of my life, at least not that I’m aware. Several have come close, and I’m truly grateful for them and I certainly don’t wish to minimize the benefits I get from other teaching methods. I even learned a lot of valuable things from the teachers that rather dramatically didn’t work out for me. Still, there never was an acknowledged and committed teacher-student relationship (mind you, I’m not blaming anyone here, just stating facts!). So, alas, it seems I have to be my own teacher, with all the pitfalls this brings…

Or maybe I should look among non-human entities for someone suitable as a teacher. Which, now that I think of it, may actually be one of the main reasons why I so often feel a twinge of envy when I read how this or that deity took on the education of this or that person (despite all the aspects that don’t seem particularly envy-worthy, some of which I mentioned here). My “dirty little secret” desire for someone to teach and challenge me in the right ways may also be one of the reasons why I can relate so much better to the writings of people like Raven Kaldera, Galina Krasskova, and others who insist on discipline and emphasize the hard work necessary for certain paths compared to the writings of other people who are full of gentle pats on the head, cuddly “understanding,” and permissive forgiveness for the repeated failure to stick to just about any standard. While I do better when I’m criticized in a constructive way and when I’m given reasons why I should do this and avoid that, I suspect I could still use a relatively unyielding attitude with actual consequences for any “misbehavior” than one that never tells me a harsh truth directly.

And that’s where confusion about the appropriate yardstick comes in again in yet another way. Since I’m so used to finding that the “universal” yardstick doesn’t work well for me because it leaves me seriously underchallenged and therefore disinterested and demotivated, I’ve developed a habit of skipping over the basic 101 of most things I learn. This works well in a lot of contexts, and a lot of basics can be picked up easily along the way. Sometimes I need a little bit of extra tutoring about a basic concept I have missed, which I can usually easily explain by the fact that “I didn’t learn this the traditional way from the ground up.” So I rarely look like a clueless idiot, and I usually have at least enough theoretical grasp of things to not look like the newbie I actually am. Of course I also tried the “skip the basics” approach when it came to spirituality. I dismissed the “universal” yardstick as not relevant to me and just started somewhere in the middle. When I was looking for an alternative yardstick, I turned towards people I admired, the few people whom I respected as authorities (in the sense of “I truly believe they know their stuff”), people who – by definition – were anything but beginners. It probably doesn’t come as a suprise to anyone but me when I say that only looking to the “best” of any given field isn’t a good standard for a beginner, especially one who isn’t spectacularly talented at that (really, I’m not remarkably gifted in the spirituality department). Sure, such role models work well when one acknowledges the hard work they put into where they are today and then goes on to also work hard according to one’s own yardstick. But that’s not what I did. I used the yardstick of the achievements of the “best” to measure my own baby steps and worried about my inability to be able to do at least a little bit of the same. After all, who needs intermediate steps?! And hadn’t I been able to use this strategy successfully in so many other situations?

Apparently, however, this strategy didn’t seem to work all too well when it came to spirituality, despite some “easy” successes I experienced in the above-mentioned playful mode. At some point I just got stuck because I never did the work required to develop my skills. So I’m coming more and more to the conclusion that I need to seriously go back to basics and spend some time doing things like breathing, grounding, centering, trying to connect to my Ancestors, instead of jumping headfirst into the next shamanic journey without so much as a cosmology (beyond the “core” shamanic one of Lower/Middle/Upper World) to work from. Because playful shouldn’t be the only approach I can do. And since spirituality is important to me, I am actually motivated to finally learn some discipline in this area. Paradoxically(?), one reason for my willingness to do so is that I feel I’m not doing this just for myself.

That still leaves me without a good idea of the appropriate yardstick when I want to compare myself to others spiritual-wise. But maybe the important step for now is to focus on my own “personal” yardstick and be honest with myself about my lazy/fearful excuses. I’m trying to become a bit stricter with myself because I think I need some hard limits, some challenging challenges, and – if applicable – also some pats on the back if I did well. You know, these things that many (most?) other people learned at some point during their education…

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2 responses »

  1. I loooove this essay. ;) I can relate to this in so many ways. In grade school I would get A’s in the first part of the new school year but by the middle I would be bored and getting C’s. There are other reasons for me doing that, but one of the reasons was: I was boooored and it wasn’t worth it. And in my spiritual practice, I’m being sent back to relearn the basics like energy work. So the question becomes, would it be so bad if we stopped measuring ourselves to others completely and only measured to ourselves? What would we gain and what would we lose by this? I know when I stopped measuring my “shamanism” on other’s experiences not only did I enjoy it a whole lot more but there was a huge amount of growth in what I was doing.

  2. Would it be so bad if we stopped measuring ourselves to others completely and only measured to ourselves? What would we gain and what would we lose by this?

    Those are some great questions! I think, personally, it would do me a lot of good to get back to measuring myself against myself a lot more and using the “universal” yardstick only in tasks that aren’t truly important to me and where it makes sense to not waste time with details no one but me will even notice (e.g. stopping at “good enough” at my job). It must be possible to do that and still acknowledge that not everyone is intellectually gifted (in ways that can be measured by IQ tests, which bring their own cans of worms) and therefore I’m not supposed to measure others with my own personal yardstick. Sheesh. I feel as if I have a box of measuring instruments and don’t quite know which one to use for what! Seems like I would do well to sort my toolbox here a bit better and find out the right job for each of the tools.
    Thanks for your input, it has given me more aspects to think about!

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