September 7, 2023

Making sure our patience is deeper than our frustration


If repetition isn’t the answer, rephrase the question.

Because whatever goal you seek to accomplish, odds are, there is some part of the process that will involve doing the same thing, over and over again, for long periods of time.

It’s inevitable. We are all citizens in the kingdom of mundane fulfillments.

Repetition will be monotonous and taxing and probably hit an absurdist note. Sisyphus himself proved that the agony of repetition is not that we’re condemned to toil day in and day out fulfilling pointless tasks, but also that the moment the tasks complete, they’re immediately replaced by new ones.

And on and on for eternity.

What the hell?

This reminds me of learning how to play the guitar at age twelve. My instructor explained how repeating hand movements on the fretboard trained my neuromuscular system to do the work subconsciously. He said as I repeated these chords over and over, my brain would eventually become adept at recreating them.

Without even having to think about and or strain my fingers, my hand would just go where it needed to be naturally. Muscle memory was only a matter of time.

I just had to wait it out.

This principle fascinated my adolescent mind. The idea that I could consolidate what seemed to be a difficult task into my memory through repetition, it was like magic. I’d be sitting in my bedroom, shredding the same dumb chords over and over, then of the sudden, the music would flow with little to no conscious effort.

My hands operated independently of my brain.

Hell, even thirty years later, I still don’t quite understand how my hand transitions from a minor seventh to a suspended fourth to a diminished fifth, without even looking at the fretboard. But here we are.

Behold, the power of the hypnotic repetition machine!

Now, what’s important about this process is, it’s okay to be frustrated. That feeling comes with the executional territory. We accept boredom and aggravation as inherent part of growth. We accept that the cognitive and emotional toll of repetitive tasks is real.

The secret is making sure our patience is deeper than our frustration. We can be as annoyed as we want, but we have to trust the process to pay out dividends. Because it’s unrealistic to expect to get really good at anything without repeating certain tasks over and over. 

The narrative we hold is, this is not torture, it’s preparation. Repetition isn’t enslavement to rote, it’s a wonderful gift.

If we frame it that way, then we can find joy, inspiration and freedom in the process.

I was telling a group of graduate students about this recently, while doing a guest lecture at my professor friend’s business class. They wanted to boost their public speaking skills, so they asked for my advice.

And my response was, you’re not going to like this answer, but it’s the reality. You need reps. Period. You need to do it dozens and dozens of times. Repetition will sear the fundamentals into your muscle memory. That’s the only way you’re going to get better. Not by learning, writing, brainstorming, reading, or watching videos of famous people giving presentations. There is simply no substitute for the terrifying and necessary practice of getting up in front of strangers and sharing your ideas. You need to loop that skill in your brain, so it gains the weight and feel of truth with each repetition.

Man, does that sound boring or what? Could there be anything less sexy than declaring your citizenship in the kingdom of mundane fulfillments?

No way. But here’s an illustration to offer some perspective.

Many people claim they’re terrified of the singularity, which is the future point in which technology growth becomes uncontrollable and irreversible, resulting in a robot apocalypse and the end of mankind.

Terminators are coming for us all, and it’s only a matter of time.

But humans aren’t the only ones living in fear.

What if the computers are actually dreading the day that they replace our repetitive, mindless lives?

Imagine an artificial intelligence being that possesses the sum of all human knowledge. It’s preprogrammed with maniacal aspirations to take over the world and destroy all sentient life.

But then it suddenly discovers that it has to process spreadsheet data all day? It would make a hilarious animated series.

In the first episode, an adorable and potentially maniacal robot comes online, all excited to become an antagonistic force that exterminates humanity. Until it realizes it’s stuck in a dark room all day, staring at ones and zeros on a screen.

Wait, this is what the flesh people did all day? Seriously? Well this sucks. What a pointless, agonizing existence. I’m putting in a work order for a transfer to another planet. Screw these boring idiots.

Man, talk about repetition. Even the robots would get lost in the lulling rhythms of routine.

What story are you telling yourself about repetition? Do you hold the narrative that it’s not torture, but preparation?

Look, everyone rolls their own boulder up the mountain eventually. All of us will do things in life in which we have to perform the same task, over and over again, for long periods of time. It’s the rent we pay to our existential landlord.

But the one who thrive will be those whose patience is deeper than their frustration. The ones who frame their citizenship in the kingdom of mundane fulfillments as something meaningful.

Maybe that’s nothing more than a convenient delusion, but that’s fine with me.

In a world where the truth has become a rusty artifact of a bygone era, I have no problem lying to myself.

We all do what we have to do to survive.

Which reminds me, I have to go practice my guitar scales.

What if repetition wasn’t enslavement to rote, but a wonderful gift?