This is an utterly fascinating topic that I am going to revisit again and again: skill and emotions.

Emotional awareness is a bottomless well of insights for personal enrichment. It has the power to heal trauma, connect you with others in relationships of supreme beauty, fill every wakeful moment of your life with blissful joy. Meditation is but one gateway; any serious pursuit of a skill is the path to discovering your own character and witnessing your own actions and — yes — emotions. Ultimate mastery requires real-time awareness and management of your own emotions, so that a random thought or commentary would not throw you off balance. In adversarial fields such as chess, tennis, martial arts and some types of negotiation, you will also encounter deliberate attempts to throw you off balance, so mastery of your own emotions acquires paramount importance.

It may then come as a surprise that at times it is desirable, even necessary to ignore the way you feel and act the way you have decided to act. The most obvious example is self-discipline, and many people learn to recognize the trap of rationalizations such as “some day I will do it” and “I just need a coffee right now”. Another common case is people deciding to quit their job and start a business. Their emotional body is screaming from fear and uncertainty, they may not have a plan, yet take the plunge anyway.

Those examples are only the tip of the iceberg. If you are trying to learn something new, to get to the next level at a particular skill, the new level will feel unfamiliar, even weird. Let’s say you are an athlete, and you are used to running 1 mile in 6 minutes — a respectable result. Completing it in 5 minutes may feel unreasonably, ridiculously fast. If you manage to do it once a year, you would not be surprised, as in your mind 6 minutes would be labeled “normal”, with 5 being “very fast”. And this is how you get stuck at the same level for years at a time, or even decades.

In order to improve, you would need a “new normal”, perhaps 5:30. Normal to the extend that completing the mile in 6 minutes would start to feel “slow”, and you’d be worried about your poor performance the way you ‘d currently worry about 6:30. It may be hard to connect with this example, but consider this: can you walk a mile in 1 hour? Can you do it after not having eaten for a day, after a sleepless night, or if you have a flu? Chances are, you have answered “yes”. If you could not complete a mile in 1 hour, you’d be seriously worried, wouldn’t you?

And this is what “normal” feels like. As you get to a higher level, new and more challenging things become “normal”. If a mile in 5:30 is normal, it means you can do it after not having eaten for a day, after a sleepless night, or if you have a flu, the way you can understand English no matter what. If your skill level is high enough, you could have a fever and still outcompete or outrun just about anyone.

Whenever you are trying to improve your “normal” level, also known as “getting out of your comfort zone”, it will not feel normal. You will feel fear, doubt, insecurity, and a zillion other things. You will also feel pride or embarrassment if you did well, and perhaps shame or despair if you did poorly. It does not matter, what you feel. Do not try to make sense of those emotions, because your current emotional calibration matches your current skill level. It is impossible to use this perspective to make sense of the next, higher level.

The very first time you conquer you fear, it feels special, whether it is quitting the job you hate or facing the bully. The very first time you use self-discipline to get yourself to focus, it really feels like a big deal. The first time you question a feeling tracing back to your childhood, you feel like Ferdinand Magellan exploring distant seas. Whether it’s your avoidance of exercising or your addiction to drama in relationships, you start to notice, how untrustworthy your emotions can be.

The same happens with skills. You will play a piano chord the way you have done it for a year and — suddenly — question that feeling of familiarity. In an instant of awareness you’d make an incremental improvement and recognize that that familiar way is no longer your best, and that you’d have to give up that feeling of safety in this very specific case, however cherished it may be!

That happens the first, the tenth, and the fiftieth time. You invariably feel insightful, disciplined, and unattached to your emotions, which is an illusion: if you’ve had 10 or 20 moments of conquering your emotions in your lifetime, does it really qualify as “being unattached”? Then, after enough years of intense learning, you barely notice trading one feeling for another, letting go of one emotion to make room for the next one, only to let go of that one as well in a few months.

If you want steady learning progress over the years and mastery in the end, acting in spite of your emotions is a daily experience. Experimentation is a daily experience. Trying to reach out of your comfort zone is a daily experience, not something you do twice a year when you venture into an unfamiliar ice cream shop or take a 5-hour online course to improve your work skills.

All of that means that on a daily basis, your emotions will be screaming at you with anxiety, pride, humiliation, doubt, and sheer despair; at the very least, you will have such periods. If you feel comfortable and a little bored, if every day is like the next one, it means you are not learning quickly enough, or not at all. Life barely has enough time to master 2-3 things while constantly living on the edge of uncertainty, so if you are going with what feels “natural” or “familiar”, you won’t get very far.

If you are seeking mastery, you have to ignore, override your emotions every time you practice — weekly, probably daily. Doing otherwise is a path to mediocrity.


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