A thousand degrees of freedom

The hard part of learning anything new is that as soon as you take your first couple steps, you’ll inevitably find that there isn’t a singular path to go down. Instead, a thousand different branches veer off in every imaginable direction from the starting point of any new and exciting thing.

And the feeling of being lost in the wilderness before you even get started…it’s overwhelming. It is this fearful moment that tells you to stick to what you know–to resign yourself to making incremental improvements well within your comfort zone.

There is a voice inside that urges you to venture out beyond the horizon, but also a cold and howling wind that keeps you close to home.

If you do choose to venture out into the unknown just a little bit, I hate to say it, but it gets worse before it gets better. You take a few steps down any one of the paths, and you’ll find that each leads to a thousand more branches!

Upon discovering that terrible truth, you’d be foolish not to simply turn back, to head out of the woods and back to the safety of home. And so many do. I’m sure you have at some point in your life, and I know I have, and I still do from time to time.

But one thing I’ve discovered is that if you go down a few more paths, at first you’ll see more of the same–each branch leads to a thousand others, and the space appears to be infinitely deep. But then, sooner or later, you’ll come across a footstep in the dirt and recognize it as your own.

The more you walk, the more you’ll keep coming across more intersections that you’ve already passed through before. But each time you make your way through these familiar waypoints you will arrive with the knowledge and resources you gained from walking the alternate paths that pass through them from different angles.

Do this enough and you’ll begin to also see that of the thousand different starting points you initially identified, the loops that pass through them are not totally unique and unpredictable, but instead composed of a handful of basic patterns that are just recombined to create a wide variety of different configurations.

As you get to know the individual patterns, you can start to predict how those patterns interact with one another. This helps you feel familiar, even in unfamiliar territory, even though each new path still surprises you with its richness and variety.

This is the essence of what real learning looks and feels like at a very deep level.

But it takes getting lost in order to find your way to this particular epiphany.

NOTE: I’m currently (intentionally) getting lost myself, as I explore the world of indie product development.  If you’re interested in coming along for the ride, and you’d like to try out a tool that helps you build health and happiness through better daily routines, please join the Drumbeat Routines beta program. A limited number of spaces are available between now and September 15.