Starting from where you are
One of my most read pieces of writing is People don’t work as much as you think, in which I point out that (especially in software development, but I think more broadly) the eight hour workday is mostly a lie.
Broadly people liked this piece, but one of the more interesting responses I got to it1 is the observation that some people really do, and isn’t that interesting and how can we be more like them?
Another, seemingly unrelated, problem is that seemingly half the people I know (including, to a large degree, myself) don’t know what they want to do with their life. This is unfortunate, as I’ve just turned 40 and many of them aren’t far behind, some of them are ahead. This feels like a point where you should have some idea of that.
In contrast, many people seem to have a very clear idea of what they want to do with their life. How can we be more like them?
Standard advice is that comparing yourself to other people like this, where you look at some positive trait of theirs and ask why you are not like that, is mostly a way to make yourself miserable and anxious, but many people seem to be able to compare themselves to other people just fine without becoming miserable and anxious. How can we be more like them?
I think in all of these cases the answer starts from the same place: Acknowledging that you are not, and being able to acknowledge that to others.
The way things come to be as they are is that they have evolved that way from the way things were. If you want them to be different, you can’t just force them to be different, instead you must incrementally, step by step, move things in the direction you want to go.
This won’t always move you in the “right” direction - sometimes you’ll find you went down a dead end, sometimes you will find you went in a more interesting direction than you intended and you’ll pursue that for a while.
The reason why you need this so badly for personal development is that there’s a very simple reason that other people are better than you (at the particular things you want to be better at): They’re not you.
This means that they have different strengths and weaknesses than you, and as a result the way they got to where they are is not the way you get there. Chances are, whatever is stopping you from getting more like them in the way you want is some problem they don’t have. Alternatively, the thing that is driving them to be that way is some motivation you don’t have.2 This means that just trying to do what they do usually won’t work.3
If you’re currently plateaued at something, chances are you’re hitting some constraint. There is something that is stopping you from getting better at the thing, and if you don’t identify that constraint and try to fix it you’ll get nowhere. Probably the people who are better at it than you didn’t have that constraint in the first place, but that’s not a solution available to you, because you do have that constraint.
So, if you want to be better at something, if you want your life to improve in some way, you need to start from where you are. Find out what that constraint is, and figure out how to fix it.
This isn’t hard (but it is difficult). “All” you have to do is stop lying to yourself and others about where you are, so you can figure out the path from there to where you want to be.
Which I think is largely pushing back against something that I wasn’t saying, but never mind.
As a general rule, when you’re looking to emulate someone it’s a good idea to ask yourself “Would I want their life in order to have what they have?” and the answer is usually no. e.g. the top people in a given field are often neurotically obsessed with being the best, and so their success doesn’t actually make them happy. But that doesn’t mean you can’t learn from them. Be careful that this doesn’t turn into cope.