Climbing a Ladder or Hamster on a Wheel?

Some nights, I lean back in my leather chair, swirl a glass of aged whiskey and smoke a fine cigar, and I ponder what it means to be a human being.

Ok, not really. I don’t have a leather chair, and I don’t like whiskey, and I rarely smoke cigars (and when I do, they’re never good cigars). But I do sometimes think about my maturation as a human being (or my lack thereof). Not to put too fine a point on it, but it can leave me doubting whether I’m really making any progress at all. Is my life: the skills and perspective I’m acquiring, a ladder that I’m climbing? Or am I just a hamster stuck on a wheel, stuck in place no matter how fast I run?

This question can be reduced further: Can people change, or are do they remain fundamentally the same? Yikes! And here you thought this wouldn’t be an introspective, philosophical post.

Problem is, I can see evidence both of progress and stagnation in my life.

In day-to-day existence, I feel like every moment I am superior to who I was the moment before (to borrow from Office Space, each day you see me, that’s on the most mature day of my life). Sure, there are times when my spirit is low, or I’m sick or exhausted, or under stress, but basically my default stance is that each day I become more capable. A prejudice? Sure! But I have evidence.

When I look at the code I wrote a year ago, I can clearly see ways it could be improved. I see clumsy statements that I could recompose effortlessly and elegantly today. When I look at my actions six months or a year ago, they are hopelessly naive. I wonder “Why did I take this so seriously?” or “Did I really get angry about something so stupid?” Or I think “Wow, I certainly wasn’t reading the signals right there. I misinterpreted everything!” When I re-read an email I sent two months ago, I’m embarrassed by how silly I was.

You get the picture.

But: I suspect I’m not seeing progress, just the clarity granted by distance. When I re-read something I wrote a few days ago, it usually looks foolish. But how much could I change in a couple of days?

Last year I was sorting through old scrapbooks and artifacts. I have journals I was forced to write in kindergarten (you know the kind, crayoned construction paper cover clumsily stapled over paper, inch-high child-handwriting inside). I perused ‘diaries’ that I haltingly kept when I was eight or nine.

Fundamentally, for all intents and purposes, my conception of the world was the same then as it is now. If I (shudder) re-read what I wrote when I was a young teenager, it sounds histrionic and sometimes hilariously bleak. But the questions I struggled to answer then, I still struggle with today.

With some skills, a progression is readily apparent. If I’m playing chess or starcraft, then I can see my win-loss record, or the rating of my opponent. If I’m solving a Rubik’s Cube, I can time myself. If I’m coding, it’s obvious whether my program is correct, if it’s fast, if it’s intuitive, if it has a good test suite. If I’m playing an instrument, I can become more comfortable and play fewer jarring notes. But not all skills may be judged so objectively. Writing is one example. Thinking is another.

I don’t have any answers here. I don’t know whether it’s possible to really change the most important things in your life. I suspect it is. But I also think the default assumption of progress should be examined more closely.

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  1. Debbie M

     /  February 21, 2012

    Don’t you already like some things about yourself? Perhaps you like dealing with the questions of your youth because they are interesting, even though there are no final answers.

    I think people stay fundamentally the same. Except for areas where they don’t. You CAN change, but you usually won’t.

    Default assumption of progress, though, that’s a good point. I like to think I’m always hanging on to my best traits and improving some of my other traits. But I also forget stuff. Backslide. Don’t get around to practicing certain things. Ah well, I still like the overall picture, so I’m not going to worry too much.

    • m741

       /  February 21, 2012

      Yes, I like some things about myself :). But when I see what I’ve written some time ago, I get embarrassed. And then I wonder if I’m still writing such embarrassing things, but unaware that I’m doing so. It’s a vicious cycle!

  2. Debbie M

     /  February 25, 2012

    Ah. Well, it’s a sign of progress. The good thing is that your future self will probably be more critical of today’s writing than today’s readers are. And if I’m wrong, well, it’s great practice anyway!

    Also, occasionally you get to read something old and be surprised that it’s not embarrassing at all!

  3. bravenewlife2

     /  March 20, 2012

    I think I saw two questions in your post.

    1. Do people change?

    – Of course! We change on all sorts of levels. In the very short term, we change with our emotions and situations (It seems like your examples of change/growth above were more on this level). In the longer term, we learn new skills and language and logic, and I believe this opens up new personal philosophies on our personal lives.

    2. Have you progressed?

    Obviously no one can answer this online. But I’ll get all deep with you and question whether progress really exists. I define progress as movement towards a positive and holistic end. And you can only move towards this “end” (or be aware of any such movement on the dimension of this end) if you define the end. Usually, this is defined by some arbitrary goal(s) – learn a language, get out of debt, get promoted, have kids, etc.

    As for your example questions of growth in subjective areas (writing and thinking) – I would argue that progress doesn’t exist. Evolution is more like it. It changes, it may better fit the times, but one era is not necessarily better than the next. My prime examples would be the Beatles – their 50’s songs were a helluva lot different than their 60’s songs. Which was better? It depends who you’re asking. Personally, I prefer Lennon as a solo artist above both Beatle’s eras – so in my mind they progressed. 🙂

    I wonder if you’re questions really is: Am I actively and positively adapting my actions and philosophy as time and situations change? Based on your next post (“Acceptance”) I would vote that you are.


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