Stairway to heaven

How we learn and develop expertise or mastery and the difference between specialization and generalization are important questions. Evolution is the process of change over generations. The steps or stages, when observed over a short period of time, seemingly invisible. Each evolutionary phase builds on the one before, and then… there are leaps. Our inner guru develops in the same way, one step after another building a greater and greater understanding. We build our knowledge in different areas and domains. Our life experience is ingested and digested and used as fuel for growth. Our curiosity drives us to learn more and more in a kind of slow vertical ascent, and then we leap. The hunger to know more is hardwired into us so we accumulate general knowledge as we climb the stairs of our destiny.

Personal evolution is a series of successive steps and short-term achievements.

Specialized knowledge is gained by stopping at each stair or step to collect greater information, to build domain expertise – whether it is music, mathematics, business or theatre. Gaining this horizontal knowledge requires practice and patience and, while deeply satisfying, it slows our climb initially as we spend time accumulating this specific knowledge. And yet these stops are necessary in the pursuit of mastery or greatness. Successful people scale many mountains in their lifetimes, but they do them one at a time. Edward Teller, the physicist (and ‘father’ of the hydrogen bomb) was also a gifted pianist. His voice or personal expression may have sounded very different in each of his domains but his approach to each craft, whether science or art, was very much the same. His unique voice was expressed similarly in two completely different mediums. His mastery or success was the result of his commitment to baby steps, to the smallest detail of the art or project at hand. Malcolm Gladwell, in his book Outliers, says that it takes about 10,000 hours of practice for success in any field.

If we have achieved or mastered one thing well, then we are more likely to be able to master something else. Our tendency is to learn to do things in a way that has worked for us before. I am sure that Dr. Teller was playing the piano before he was ever making plans to develop fusion-based weapons! His success in physics, therefore, was modeled on his early success in learning to play the piano. He did not set out to be a successful physicist. Success found him, again and again, by virtue of his commitment to short term goals and his patience and dedication. Scientific experiments, in fact, are a perfect example of a series of successive steps and short-term plans. The result of one leads to the next test and possible success or failure. The focus is on gaining as much useful information as possible from the experiment. Science and medicine are filled with stories of accidental results that have changed the world and cured disease.

Constructing a project, a piece of art or a symphony, is much like building a high rise. The taller the building the bigger the foundation needed. A tall building needs a foundation that is both deep and wide, horizontal and vertical. As in life, there are no short-cuts. If we try to skip three or four steps we are likely to fall. Our experience, strengths and knowledge are our foundation. The heights we are able to scale depend on both our foundation and our reach. The steps we take create our stairway to heaven.

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