A Lesson in Challenging Yourself

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There are analytical, methodical people in the world and then there are creative, imaginative people. I’d say that I sway more to the latter. My passion for reading and learning is really quite overwhelming, as my husband would probably say, but it’s something that makes me tick. It is that desire to learn that makes me yearn to be better with numbers and more systematic in my thinking. Unfortunately,  I know I have to work much harder at that than I do at writing a blog, for instance. 

Preparing for my recent travel to Dubai (which is approximately 48 hours of time to sleep/read/journal/etc.), I picked up a book called Moonwalking with Einstein by Joshua Foer. It’s all about the practice of memorization and remembering, which is something I’ve been a bit fascinated with since watching the last season of Sherlock. You know that “memory palace” that Sherlock Holmes often reaches into to uncover one of his cases? This book dives into that magic art and science of our brains, and more interestingly divulges that it doesn’t take a special person with a certain IQ to remember everything, or even memorize the order of a deck of cards, or 24 decks of cards for that matter. Anyone can remember by simply learning how to use a “memory palace.” 

This fascinates me because there are really endless ways to apply a great memory to everything we do in life. Whether it’s being able to quickly make decisions based off past strategies and outcomes at work or it’s being able to master a round of golf by remembering shots you’ve taken before and applying them to your current situation. Heck, this could even help with remembering more about the people and experiences you encounter every day. My mind has really been reeling around this topic for quite some time, but alas, just reading this book won’t do much for my improvement. 

So, I found it interesting that one chapter in this book is called the Ok Plateau. What Foer describes as the OK Plateau is a third stage in the process of learning a skill called the “autonomous stage.” It is in this stage that where  someone finds they don’t improve anymore at a skill, be that an athletic endeavor, learning a new language or even becoming an expert in their field. Foer says the Ok Plateau is “the point at which you decide you’re OK with how good you are at something, turn on autopilot, and stop improving.” 

The only way then to get over this plateau and continue improving, is to challenge yourself. He actually uses a golf example to explain this concept. His father has golfed for years, decades even. After just a few of those years, he stopped improving. His scores never lowered and yet he continued to play golf and even continued practicing. But, it was what he was doing while practicing that really mattered. Every time he picked up a golf club, he just did what he was comfortable with. He would putt into the same tin cup in his basement without ever giving himself new challenges to conquer. It was a plateau both mentally and physically, but very much so a plateau caused by one’s own actions. 

Sometimes, it can feel like outside forces are causing us to never get better at anything we do. It can feel like the world is against us in some way. Foer decidedly takes this concept, with some helpful advice from a researcher on expertise, and uses it in favor of getting faster at memorizing strings of numbers and decks of cards. Using a metronome to time each card he memorizes, he pushes himself to points of failure. Then, he tries again, and again, until at last he sees improvement. We can use this same principle to improve our golf games. Strategies we choose  may differ, but if we can find ways to push ourselves beyond the norm and be OK with failing rather than staying stagnant, we could see dramatic improvement. 

Whether it’s for the art of memory or the game of golf, pushing oneself to higher standards takes a lot of work. In reality, this book is a wake up call to those who believe that learning something new and actually mastering it can be easy. I’ve certainly learned that while it’s easy to pick up this book, learn about creating my own memory palaces to store ideas and concepts and even to-do lists, the practice of becoming better at it takes a lot of effort. But, it is the best things in life that are  worth working for. 

Imagine remembering every vacation you’ve taken with your family. Imagine remembering every movie or book quote that has stood out to you and being able to reference those in every day life. If you’re reading this blog, you’re probably crazy passionate about golf, so imagine remembering every shot you’ve ever taken on a golf course, the course conditions, the lie, the approach you took. How can accessing so many more memories change your life?  Personally, the art of memory is an endeavor that holds a lot of power and is incredibly important to my career and my fulfillment in life. But, perhaps, if you take anything from the lesson Joshua Foer has learned during his journey of becoming a memory champion, it is to challenge yourself in ways you haven’t before because you are capable of so much more than you could possibly even fathom. 


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