Developing New Skills
In the previous article in this series I explained how it is that you learn what experiences to fear and avoid. But you don’t just run away from all your problems. Most of the time you address and solve them. This is how you mature and grow.
So how does your mind overcome fears and aversions?
Facing and Overcoming Fears
In part 3 I explained how every one of your aversions was created by another, deeper fear or aversion. Your aversion to public speaking is rooted in your fear of being socially embarrassed.
However, the above assumes that every attempt at public speaking must end in embarrassment. But the evidence shows that many public speeches end in a feeling of pride, leadership, and connection with your audience.
What makes these cases rise above the baseline of failure? How do such cases become exceptions?
In the case of public speaking, you can turn a failure into a success by being prepared, knowing your audience, relaxing your muscles, or practicing. These and other actions increase your chances of a positive outcome. You can think of each of these as a skill.
A skill, in this sense, creates an exception to the rule. The ‘rule’ is that all public speaking must end badly. The exception says “all public speaking must end badly, unless…”. Skills are how you turn a bad situation into a good one. When friends and mentors give you advice on public speaking, or on any other challenge you might face, they are trying to pass on the skills needed to turn a potential disaster into an achievement.
As another example, climbing rocks is dangerous, and something you should generally avoid. But rock climbing with the right equipment and preparation can be rewarding. Your additional preparation and knowledge convert an averse situation into an achievement.
A Deeper Motivation
Both these examples hint at an underlying question: what exactly are you trying to achieve with a public speech, or with rock climbing? Why do you even attempt these in the first place, if they are so prone to failure?
Your earliest motivation to speak in front of friends probably stemmed from wanting to feel pride, or a desire for social standing, or for leadership. This seed prompted you to present in front of others. That is, before you found out how embarrassing it could be. A few bad experiences, and you quickly learned that debilitating lesson. The worst part of those bad outcomes is that embarrassment is the exact opposite of what you hoped for when you took the challenge on.
The same can be said for rock climbing. Though the initial motive differs from person to person, one motivation is to gain a bedrock of personal accomplishment, the belief that you can achieve something if you put in the effort. To fall, hurt yourself, and therefore fail, gives you the exact opposite feeling.
The fact that they are opposites is no coincidence. If you label the deeper motivation underlying one of your drives as the “parent” and the motivation it generated as the “child”, you can connect a parent with its child as in the diagram below:
The item in red is what you try to avoid. The one in green is what you are aiming for. The green cancels the red. When you are asked to give a speech, and you are unprepared, you feel an aversion to going on stage since the result is likely embarrassment. But add in some preparation, a familiar audience, and a belief in your own skill, and that aversion goes away.
Skills Arise From a Moment of Insight
The moment in which you create an exception to a general rule is a moment of insight. It feels like a light has turned on in your mind, clearing out large swaths on dust. You feel like you’ve not only solved your immediate problem, but you also realize that you could solve many other problems with this same insight.
I refer to these exceptions as skills since they let you face the cause of your aversion in a constructive way. Their presence turns a bad situation into a good one, a situation you can’t handle into one you can. In fact, they are the very reason you can handle it. They are the extra steps that you must take, or the information you need to succeed in your goal.
Think back to the public speaking example above. A person who is able to neutralize her aversion, who knows that being prepared makes her better able to give speeches, would be at an advantage over someone who didn’t know that. The latter would either run away from the situation, or else she would try and fail, not knowing there was a way to solve her difficulty.
Here are some other examples of aversions and how they can be overcome:
A difficult to understand topic ⇨ confusion
A difficult to understand topic + seek an explanation ⇨ mastery, understanding
Strong emotion ⇨ overreact, public shame
Strong emotion + self control ⇨ earn respect
Notice that in each case the additional skill doesn’t erase the original aversion. When you practice self-control, you don’t remove your strong feelings, you simply earn respect for staying calm under pressure. Finding an explanation for a tricky algebra problem doesn’t make algebra inherently less difficult, it only makes you better equipped to understand it. Every skill is a constructive way out of a stressful situation.
How You Use Skills
Skills are general motivations rather than specific actions. Their benefit is that they give you the ability to handle specific cases as they come up. They help you “make the right connections” in the moment. The previous two sections of this article described how you create a skill. Once you’ve created one, you can use it to generate useful thoughts and actions on the spot. Let’s look at how.
As you saw in this article, anything that gets you away from an aversion causes you to learn something new. That is, you learn a new action or a thought. This is because the action or thought solved a problem. Until now, ‘solving’ a problem simply meant removing the aversion, i.e. the stressful thought or sight. For public speaking, the only solution then was to avoid public speaking altogether. But with a skill you can address the problem without running away.
Below is an example that shows the steps by which a skill creates a new thought. Assume for this example that you are averse to public speaking unless you are prepared, in which case you feel confident. Consider these events, in order:
- A teacher assigns you the task of explaining a difficult topic in front of your class
- Explaining it involves public speaking, and that causes a feeling of aversion
- While thinking about this assignment, a friend offers to listen to you rehearse and help you practice
- Rehearsing and practicing will make you feel prepared and confident
- The thought of being prepared neutralizes the original aversion, i.e. public speaking
- Your mind automatically creates a thought connecting (1) to (3)
- Thinking about explaining the topic in front of your class automatically brings to mind practicing in front of your friend
The process is the same as what happens when you remove a cause of stress, as explained in this article. The only difference in this case is that the problem or aversion is actually a part of the solution. You no longer avoid the problem, but face it and deal with it.
“The best way out is through” — Robert Frost
Some skills are so common and frequently used that you don’t even notice you’re using them. The ability to learn someone’s name is a skill, as well as learning where the washroom is in a building, etc. They are just not particularly complicated skills. Regardless, any response outside the ability of a newborn baby is a skill, since it must be acquired later in life.
In the next section you’ll see how you can apply this to create thoughts, by considering two general types of thoughts: knowledge and intents.
Part 4: Defining Skills
Are you also interested in applying Artificial Intelligence to human creativity, human understanding, even human values? I’m looking to connect with others who have a similarly ambitious vision of the future of A.I., whose goal is to tap the full creative potential of human intelligence through software.