I like to experiment with a couple of persistent ideas, and one of them is that of “novice gains” — that lovely, steep, atmosphere-breaking part of the curve when we try something completely new, before it plateaus out amid the much more hard-won gains of later expertise. Novice gains are the reason virtually any exercise program will work for someone accustomed to sedentation; why virtually any language program will work for someone who doesn’t speak it; why virtually any relationship feels amazing at first; and why virtually any progress in an entirely new direction takes you further, faster, than movement towards your more practiced goals.
A quick caveat: blogger/author Tim Ferris advises we all stop ‘fixing’ our weaknesses, and instead just play our strengths as a lifetime strategy. I like that, and I think you can experiment with novice gains at your leisure, while continuing to idle forward powerfully by virtue of your own inherent strengths.
In order to unlock your novice gains potential, simply think of something that’s never occurred to you before. Whoops — that’s the problem, right? It’s difficult to connect ourselves with something entirely new, through thought. Our thoughts aren’t wild mustangs, roaming the plains — they’re domesticated cattle, craving comfort and familiarity.
Instead of searching outward for a new idea, search inward for a foundational identity, and then think of its opposite, or its contrast. Here are some examples of foundational identity:
Your level of introversion or extroversion.
Your orientation towards things of the mind versus things of the body.
Your birth order, relative to siblings.
I could go on, but let’s take these. I apologize in advance for what may be slapdash treatment — I’ll just throw some spaghetti against the wall and maybe some of it will stick.
If you are an introvert, you can experience some novice gains simply by leaving the house at an unaccustomed time, for an unaccustomed reason. Introverts have a magnetic appeal; extroverts flock to them, like cash poor relatives to a wealthy cousin. As much as I hate to admit it, the occasional bump of new-person energy is a great compliment to the usual regimen of stewing in your own juices. Introverts tend to get all their social feedback from a small cast of long-term people, which is great, but there’s nothing like a stranger to acquaint you with a new, refreshing version of yourself.
I’m an introvert who likes to write, and so one social activity that appeals to me is writing out somewhere, with a cocktail. It can’t be a hectic bar, or too sedate — it has to be just right. Writing at a bar has its pros and cons — the cons being, you encounter your own point of diminishing returns quickly, as an inebriated writer, plus it’s more expensive than writing at home, but worst of all, people always assume you’re there to socialize, and that writing is simply the affectation by which you hope to attract someone’s attention. Because that’s what an extrovert would do. ‘Here’s my dumb little act; please talk to me.’ Pathetic. Anyway, in the case of you trying to get yourself some extroverted novice gains, you can count on being interrupted in this scenario, so it works.
Or go camping with a group of people, but don’t share a tent.
Here’s an idea for natural extroverts: get a go-to that doesn’t require anyone else’s participation, cooperation, or approval. I’d suggest journaling. I realized that me, telling someone else to journal, is like someone else telling me to stand out in the rain, but you can make friends with it. The issue with people, and getting feedback from them, is that you just naturally won’t be honest. Even if you think you’re being honest, there’s still an entire dimension of rhetorical strategy involved, with others. You have to consider their sensibilities, their triggers godforbid, their ability to hear things and not misinterpret you or lose respect for you or simply get confused. You have to be “right”, in a sense, when you download with others, you have to characterize your own decisions and values as okay. If you’re highly extroverted, you may not even realize how much more honest you could be, if only someone else wasn’t involved. Journaling can be so much more than surface-level mind activity, which is what interaction with others often devolves to. Write down a grievance or private opinion that you’d never, ever say out loud, and then explore it fully. Feel the illicit thrill of giving yourself real permission to feel that, or know that about yourself. Journal what you really fucking think about your family, your job, your appearance, your experience during orgasm, whatever. Tell yourself a secret; become your own shocking new confidante.
Or, if not journaling, you could go out on the dance floor all by yourself and simply dance. Don’t hold your breath for someone to join you. If you wear makeup, go out without it. If you don’t wear makeup, put it on. Whatever it is you normally perform for others by default, perform something else. Or go camping by yourself.
If you are an inner-world person, oriented to matters of the mind, do something strenuous, even dangerous, with physically higher stakes than you’re accustomed to. Volunteer with Habitat for Humanity and spend a day driving nails, or install a chin up bar in your home and work at it until you can do one good one; then sets of two good ones. Put some heavy books in a backpack and walk around your neighborhood. Feel what it feels like to be a grunt — not someone “exercising”, but someone identified with their body in a super pragmatic way. My best, and probably most often disregarded, suggestion is to take up barbell lifting. Machines and treadmills don’t take you away from your mental activity; barbell lifting does, and puts you instead squarely in your body.
If you are an outer-world, body-focused person, then reading a book is bar none the fastest way to drive your novice gains. Don’t listen to an audiobook while you do other things; sit your ass down and read a book. Not a website. Not a blog. Not the paper. Not a magazine. Not your Facebook feed. Find a book that’s at least 300 pages and read that motherfucker. It can be about anything, but the less it’s about something you’d normally gravitate to, the better. Go to Goodwill and pick one out — that’s a great way to randomize your options.
If you were the oldest sibling, experiment with not organizing everything and everyone in your life. Hang out with others and try being really passive. Someone else will step up and steer the conversation, the interaction, the activity. Imagine being that youngest, who just gets shoved into the family car for long trips wherever there’s room left over, and is totally fine with it. Watch your life go by like it’s scenery, in some sense. Receive events, people, circumstances softly, as if you are loved, valued, and cared for by people who are older and more contentious than you. Be the baby. Feel how nice that is.
If you were the youngest sibling, spearhead an activity. Throw a dinner party instead of just drifting around to ones that other people invite you to. Be in charge of someone’s birthday experience and make specific decisions about what it will and will not include. Go through your closet and remove items that don’t work anymore. Take those items to Goodwill, or distribute them to your friends. Someone can use those shoes. Stop being so passive. Plan a day, with an agenda, necessitating travel to several locations, being there at specific times.
If you are male, and the more “typically” male you are, you stand to see enormous novice gains from accessing your own feminine nature and qualities. Have a conversation with someone and offer zero advice, but thoroughly validate them. Teach someone to do something, kindly and at their pace. Make time for people and actually talk to them, sitting face to face, instead of just mutually staring at a TV or a fishing rod. Approach women without an agenda; simply enjoy their presence and then take your leave. Befriend unattractive women on purpose, and men as well. Say something unconditionally vulnerable, out loud. Make it about someone else’s triumphs or travails. Ask questions, and then ask more questions. Find a really nice oil or cologne you like, and go around smelling good for no other reason than that you enjoy it. Put a towel on the floor and intuitively stretch your muscles, just because it’s nice. Go to the pound and adopt a calm little dog, rather than a dog that shores up your masculinity. Or get a cat, and then spend a lot of time petting it. Clean your room; clean your whole house. Read a spiritual book. Stop excusing yourself from knowledge of other people’s bodily functions with the exception of sexual intercourse — if you have a female partner, take positive possessive ownership of her as a menstruating creature, with an entire reproductive system that only peripherally involves you and your dick. Become interested in her experience of her own body, above and beyond your sexual use of it. If you have kids, don’t be squeamish about their physical functions, their doctor’s appointments, their growing, changing bodies, and their need for your guidance and approval.
If you are female, and the more “typically” female you are, you stand to see enormous novice gains from accessing your own masculine nature and qualities. Practice patterns of speech that are direct and unmitigated. Stop prefacing yourself by saying “I just think that” or “it almost seems like” and just state an observation about reality, and make it contentious enough that hopefully someone will object. And then argue with their interpretation of reality. Teach someone how to do something, firmly. Reject someone’s request for help because you have another commitment, and then get another commitment — one that benefits you directly, and doesn’t involve further beautification of your external self. Be less available to people, and stop doing anything on short notice unless it really rings your bells. Open up your body language — big chest, open heart, steady gaze, chin up, peaceful hands. Eradicate nervous tics and nervous laughs. Go to a funny movie and belly laugh, in an almost obnoxious way, periodically. Stop putting your hand over your face when life causes you to form an expression. Figure out how to make yourself cum and handle it with or without your lover’s assistance. Get your hands dirty — go out and check the fluids on your car, and if you don’t know how many fluids there are to check, then figure it out. Review your car’s maintenance schedule. Open your online banking transactions record and look at it. Buy a really nice pair of socks and a really nice pair of walking boots. Leave the house with very little — some cash, your bank card, and some chapstick. Stop hauling all your shit everywhere, and stop missing entire chapters of your life because you’re too busy digging through your oversized purse. Stop sexualizing yourself online (#womenoppressingthemselves). Exercise in plain sweats, without cutesy logos about how you can do it, so you will do it, because you’re a fun fierce female. Stop having sex with men who aren’t truly on board. Get a job doing something involving manual labor or the outdoors, or volunteer in that capacity even just once or twice. Drive something bigger than you’re used to. Tie your hair back in a rubber band and wear it like that all day. Tell your kids to suck it up. Don’t answer people right away — take a second and think. Do some barbell strength training. Buy some camping equipment, or a minor amount of survival gear to keep in your trunk. Own a lithium battery drill, and at least one of each major kind of tool. Put together some shelves.
There are so many ways to access your own novice gains, and none of them represent abandoning your identity. Your identity isn’t something that can be abandoned. What we all are, and all that we are, is light — light currently shining through whatever sort of glass you mistake yourself for. You can shine your light through the glass of masculinity, femininity, passivity, activity, body smarts, mind smarts — it’s going to make you look like clear light, purple light, all-but-obscured light, stained glass art light, whatever. You don’t have to worry about being light, and light doesn’t need to perform its nature. Your areas of greatest stagnation lie in things you “are”, not things you do.