Sit in class all day. Do homework. Study all night. Regurgitate the information on a test. That pretty much sum’s up my educational experience through the end of college. Insert whatever subject matter you want. Insert whatever standards you want.
The military was similar in many regards. Your career track has some choice but it’s not a blank canvass. People often make the mistake of thinking that the military will make a person disciplined. That’s not true. Like any work situation, some people will come in with lots of self discipline and others will come in with none. Some people will come in with lots of maturity and 30-something year old people will be the most immature human beings you’ve ever met. The imposed structure of military service creates the perception that the military makes a person disciplined.
Existing in a structured environment, over long periods of time, creates conditions where one can potentially see the value of delayed gratification in the short term, for the sake of long term benefits. The military does this. School does this. A good family and home environment does this. I say ‘potentially’ because a person my see the imposed structure of an institution as oppressive, severely limiting indulgence into novel things, and stifling creativity. This is often my frustration when I look back on my education but I’m starting to rethink this criticism.
After the military, I had to learn how to be self-directed at a much higher level than ever before. The tasks of figuring what I needed to learn, how I wanted to apply it, what results I desired, and what results I was willing to tolerate, was my responsibility. I needed to curate and create my own educational experience in context with the aspirations I had for my life. I’m still doing that today. This was a time when my life was a blank canvass and I could create whatever I wanted.
I think my frustration with my educational experience comes from a sincere desire to help kids avoid some of the pains I went through as I came into adulthood. Pains that came from realizing I had made faulty assumptions about life. Of course, this seems silly as I type it. Having our assumptions upended, facing reality, and taking responsibility for that knowledge, is a large part of my philosophy on developing resilience. As I said last week, we tend to want to make the next generation better. Again, what do we mean by ‘better’? My goal is to help others become more resilient. Much of my own resilience has come through inoculation by painful life events. Events where I had to learn to create structure where there was none. I had to self-direct. I had to create.
By necessity, school has to impose constraints. There has to be a schedule and a routine. However, what is not readily apparent to the young mind (at least not to my mind) is the fact that novelty shouldn’t be mistaken for creativity. Novelty is about constantly seeking new things. Creativity is about doing a new thing. Creativity involves lots of self imposed constraint. In June of this year I will have been a writer for 8 years. When I started, I was not fully aware of how difficult the craft of writing actually is. If one supposes to become a writer, which our society generally views as a creative endeavor, one has to understand the value of showing up to the keyboard or notepad, day after day after day. Just like showing up to school regularly. If you’re going to get better as a writer, you have to search for and appreciate nuance in your writing, rather than chasing novelty.
To bring something into existence that wasn’t there before… to bring into reality something that was formerly, only in our minds… to me, this is the act of creating. Again, the difficulty of adulthood is learning to self-impose constraints in an intentional manner. There’s no longer a teacher, a school, or parents imposing those constraints. Of course, as adults we also have to decide what it is we want to take a risk at creating. To say yes to a particular version of life means saying no to an infinite set of other versions.
The older I get, the more I value my ability to focus on a task for long periods of time. It’s an intensely valuable skill. It allows a person to decide what direction they want to travel in and stay on that path. It’s a skill that’s needed for the process of creation. Our educators have a tall task in front of them because I don’t know if you can really teach kids how to be ready for that blank canvass called ‘The Rest of Your Life’. How do you get kids to conceptualize ‘the rest of your life’ ? I’m not saying it’s impossible. I’m trying to teach it and it is not easy.
It’s been my experience that it’s difficult to get adults to face ‘the rest of their lives’. As an adult, unless you have the responsibility of a child early on, there’s no imposed structure. As a human organism we feel like experiencing novelty. We feel like getting take-out instead of cooking. We feel like doing nothing as opposed to exercising. We feel like being drunk or high, as opposed to facing our problems. As humans we also clearly want the experience of creation. We want the health and financial stability created when we cook our own meals. We want the freedom of movement and energy created when we exercise on a regular basis. We want the sense of victory created when we overcome a vice like alcohol or drugs.
To create anything of significance we’re going to need those same show-up-everyday-and-grind-it-out skills that we employed as kids in school. However, as an adult, the immediate future is always a blank canvass. Structure is not imposed on us. We decide what we create and we self-impose the constraints. If we’re going to be free people, then we have to accept this responsibility.