art, choices, decision-making, impact

Step 238: Virtuous Feedback Loops and Doing What We Do Well (and Love)

“In the last analysis, the individual person is responsible for living his own life and for “finding himself.” If he persists in shifting his responsibility to somebody else, he fails to find out the meaning of his own existence.” ~ Thomas Merton, Trappist monk, poet, and author

My Uncle Tom sent me this quote just as I was online researching virtuous feedback loops, an operations term that describes a system that is built to educate itself by doing the very act it was created to perform. (There really is no end to my nerd-dom.) With virtuous feedback loops, a system constantly learns and improves. It’s a technical paradigm that at its core supports the old adage of “practice makes perfect”, at least “practice makes better.”

I thought about how we build systems into our lives that function as virtuous feedback loops. Certainly music, sports, the arts, and cooking are examples of these loops – we improve these skills just by practicing them, learning something from each new shot we take at it. Except when we hit a wall. Improvement ceases, we get stuck, and then grow to hate the activity altogether.

I was a saxophone player when I was in school, and I was truly mediocre. I would practice and practice and practice and really never make any great strides. I finally got so frustrated with the lack of progress that I decided to be a jazz fan and turn my artistic energy toward writing, design, and business (which, yes, is most certainly an art). It was a wise choice on my part. I’ve turned out to be a much more productive and happier writer, designer, and business woman than I ever would have been a jazz artist.

We have only so much energy and years to while away on this planet. Thomas Merton implores us to take a look at our lives from our own perspective, not anyone else’s. Take stock of what really matters, what we love to do, and where we can be useful, and action against that. Build virtuous feedback loops in our lives that do what they’re meant to do – help us get better at something we’re meant to do. I wasn’t meant to be a saxophone player. And as disappointed as I was to realize that at the time, I’m glad I didn’t spend years trying to hack away as a mediocre musician.

That move took some serious serious self-analysis and more than a little humility. I had to let go of what I loved but couldn’t improve so that I could find a new happiness and passion. I had to quit to succeed. Sometimes that happens, and it’s okay.

So if you find yourself stuck in a rut, working at something that just isn’t improving and that you’re actually growing to dislike as a result, then maybe it’s time to find a new passion, one that you can improve upon as you practice. Just make sure that if you do get a new dream, you’re the one making the choice. This is your time after all, and you only get one chance to be you.