Learning from the nadir

I’ve talked before about traps: how to get into them, what they might look like, and even how to get out of them. This little story is about the developmental potential of traps.

To frame the story, I will draw another two-by-two. The axes signify our awareness of our limitations and our capacity to overcome them. To make things a bit more interesting, I will also turn this two-by-two 45 degrees clockwise, because I want to map it to another framing: the hero’s journey.

The axes form four quadrants that loosely correspond to the key segments of the hero’s journey. 

In the top quadrant, we are the happiest and perhaps even bored. We aren’t aware of any of the limitations that hinder us and we feel generally content with our abilities.

It is that boredom that gets us in trouble. At first reluctantly, but eventually with more gusto, we engage with a challenge and traverse into the right quadrant. This quadrant is characterized by weirdness. Campbell points out all kinds of odd stuff happening to us, from being visited by a quirky wizard to being tested in ways that make us unsure of ourselves.

In the right quadrant, we aren’t yet aware that the challenge exceeds our capacity to overcome it, so things feel bizarre, random, and generally not right. We might start a new job with enthusiasm, and after a few meetings, have our heads spinning, encountering unexpected politics and/or gargantuan technical debt: “What did I just get myself into?”

Eventually, as we puzzle things out, we arrive at the nadir of our journey, the bottom quadrant. We become aware of the fact that we’re in way over our heads. We are aware of our limitations and do not yet have the capacity to overcome them.

The bottom quadrant often feels like a trap. My colleagues and I sometimes apply the word “infohazard” to the insightful bits of knowledge that finally clear our vision and thrust us into this quadrant. It almost feels like it might have been better if we didn’t acquire that knowledge. Yeah, the previous quadrant was super-weird, but at least I didn’t feel so deficient in the face of the challenge.

This quadrant is also the most fertile ground for our inner development. When we have the right mindset, the awareness of our limitations creates a useful observation perch. Only when we are able to see our own limitations can we contemplate changing ourselves to overcome them.

This is not a given. Way too commonly and tragically, we never get to occupy this perch. Falling into the vicious cycle of not-learning, we form an inner false loop inside of our hero’s journey, spinning round and round inside of the bottom quadrant, and truly becoming trapped.

Whether we grasp onto the perch or not, one thing is guaranteed. The bottom quadrant is full of suffering. Even when we believe we’ve learned all there is to learn about self-development, and have all kinds of tools and tricks (and perhaps even write about it regularly) – the moment of discordance between what we’re seeing and what we believe will be inevitably painful.

It is on us to recognize that this pain can be processed in two ways: one is through the habitual entrapment of the not-learning cycle and the other one is by choosing to learn like crazy. Hanging on to a dear life to the perch of observation and examining our beliefs and recognizing flexibility in bits that we previously thought immovable.

Only then can we emerge into the left quadrant, where we are both aware of our limitations, but now have the capacity to overcome the challenge – and bring the boon back to the land of living, as Campbell would probably say.

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