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Look closer, don't try harder

Mulray was fitter and stronger than me by a long way. He exercised at the gym, he did weights and he ran. I was going through a period of doing no more exercise than walking and a little gardening. I wasn’t inactive, but I was far from being the fitness fanatic that Mulray had become. One day, we found ourselves at a children’s party. The father of the bithday lad- a class mate of my son and Mulray’s daughter- had rigged up a thick climbing rope from a high tree branch. The kid’s eventually tired of swinging on it and I saw Mulray make an experimental effort at climbing it. He got a few feet off the ground and seemed to get stuck. Then he dropped lightly to his feet. “It’s virtually impossible, climbing ropes,” he told me. I couldn’t help myself. Without a word I shimmied up that rope right to the top, hauled myself up to the branch looked around as if enjoying the new view (it wasn’t bad) and then slid hand over hand back to the ground. I hadn’t climbed a rope in twenty years. Mulray muttered that I must have ‘strong arms’. I told him that his were almost certainly stronger than mine. But that didn’t matter- climbing ropes is a matter of co-ordination, not strength. I said I’d show him. He watched, then he had a go. I then saw his problem. He didn’t realise you just gripped for a few seconds with the hands, enough to get a foot grip. Then you pushed, again for just a concentrated moment, so that your hands could slide up. You’re never in a static position, gripping with your hands and feet and PULLING yourself up as if doing a chin-up. Except that’s where he kept finding himself. His whole perception of rope climbing was that it was ‘difficult’- and that it looked like doing a pull-up, which is one of the harder things you can do in a gym. And each time he failed he told himself off for not having ‘enough strength’.

It was a challenge to try and teach him how to climb the rope. First I told him to lose any idea of hauling yourself up. Think of pushing yourself up with your legs. The hands are just to stabilise the procedure and to hold you in place for the brief moment when you move your legs up to a new gripping position. I then told him to imagine climbing as about switching as efficiently as possible with as little lag as possible between hands and feet. With these two images in mind- using legs to push and climbing as a dynamic switching from hands to feet and back again, he was – after a few days – able to learn how to climb a rope.

When we approach a new enterprise we often have a wrong perception of how difficult it is. We often compare it to something simpler else that looks similar- but may well be very different, may well be harder. We often get ourselves into ‘static’ situations. For example insisting that you have a clear guarantee of profits before starting a new business, when in fact all businesses are dynamic enterprises where results aren’t obvious until you are actually trading. This leads to all sorts of chicken and egg situations- but instead of avoiding these and sidelining them we should realise they are the NORM. People moan and say you can’t get a job without experience, and you can’t get experience without a job. This kind of seemingly closed loop describes real life, not some career guidance counsellor’s fantasy. Of course you can take a course to break the vicious circle, but that it is only one of many ways in- after all everyone else somehow managed to get a job despite the same handicap. One of the most successful people- in the wider sense- I know is a film location scout. This is a very specialised and fascinating job- and there are no courses and jobs are never advertised. He told me that after leaving university- where he studied English and got a poor degree because he wasn’t very interested- he decided that finding film locations would be a great job. He told me that he spent over a year finding the right person and the right way into the business- finding someone who would take him on as a ‘runner’, a menial assistant- yet also give him a chance later. He didn’t send off hundreds of applications- only one. But he did his research first- and he started from being an outsider with no contacts.

We are trained at school to look for static situations and identify them as ‘the truth’ or as a truthful representation. We are trained to sneer at or laugh at or raise an ironic eyebrow at closed loops- ‘you can’t get an agent until you’ve published a book, you can’t publish a book until you have an agent’, ‘you need confidence to make a sale, but only a sale will give you confidence’, ‘to make money you need money’- the list is long, maybe endless, because these closed loops are the closest we can get, without lengthy explanations like this one, of depicting the intractable and even mysterious nature of a dynamic situation from the static perspective of a short sentence or two.

One way of ‘trying too hard’ is to use a static representation as your guide- and then simply bust a gut ‘trying’. In the job/experience situation this would be sending out hundreds of applications. Instead, you have to embrace any ‘closed’ dynamic representation and use that as your starting point. That’s the REALITY. Then look for ways to get a small grip, a way to catch hold somewhere of the whirling embrace that is a dynamic situation. It often bewilders beginners in any field that the ‘turning up is 75% of success rule’ should hold. They think that ‘talent’ or ‘hard work’ should be pre-eminent. But these are static concepts. Turning-up is a dynamic concept. It implies performance over time. And that is what counts.

Mulray tried to climb the rope with a static image in his head. Instead of really looking closely at what people did when they climbed, he looked for a static image he could embrace. Looking closely at any human activity gives all sorts of clues to the dynamic reality. Once he had a DYNAMIC image he succeeded. By embracing contradiction, revelling in incongruity, seeing paradoxes, we can train ourselves to see dynamic reality more easily. You can then begin to work out a strategy to get on board whatever you seek to do. One very good source of stories and jokes that represent exactly this are the Mulla Nasrudin stories as retold by Idries Shah- all available on Amazon.

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