The Art of Continual Self Development

I sat in a camping chair within the base of a wide valley in North America – the towering dark shape of austere, snow capped mountains just a fringe to the infinitely vast ocean of stars above. The warmth of the campfire playfully singed my legs, the cool of a clear, open night sky gently resting on my face as I stared upwards.

In that moment, facing a sea of stars, the question echoed into my ears as though from far away:

“What do you want to achieve in 5 years time?”

The question, coming from my Grandpa – a man no stranger to the idea of life goals and a particular fan of the ‘Bucket list’ – was a culmination of discussions we had throughout our trip around the canyons of Nevada and Arizona. There seems no time or place quite like a star filled night of deep calm in the great outdoors to consider such a question.

Nothing new under the sun

In Douglas Adam’s Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, the deadliest, most feared weapon in the universe is a device that reveals to its victim in one dreadful moment the endless, vast and incomprehensible universe in all it’s glory – and then reveals to the victim their own size and importance within it. The terror of true self importance tortures and destroys the mind.

Although a real moment of clarity, such as standing under a clear open night sky, might only happen a few times in your lifetime, in our current breakneck paced digital lives we risk taking ourselves extremely seriously, especially if never taking a step back from the screen 15 inches from one’s face.

Life to the fullest

So far one might be forgiven for thinking me a miserable, self-loathing creature – I do not believe this to be the case! I believe whole heartedly in the intrinsic value of every human life – to the extent that we are made for a purpose by design – but also that I am special to the same extent that 6 billion others sharing this planet also are.

The tension between that moment of dreadful realisation as to our genuine, truthful stature within the physical universe, and a knowledge of our own self worth and intrinsic value, I believe, is a good place to begin when contemplating our own goals in life and self-development.

Performance is the tip of the iceberg

I’ve heard it said on several occasions that it takes at least 10,000 hours to become truly skilled at something – whether learning to play a music instrument, coding, knitting or learning a language. (I believe the origin of this theory is Malcolm Gladwell –

In my day to day business (Novo) this helps me to justify the value of what I offer to my clients.

For example, as a musician, it is clear that a 1 hour long concert does not actually take 1 hour of the musicians time. Thousands of hours of preparation are required to bring the musician up to the point that they are skilled enough to perform that concert – this is where the value is, and in paid work this, in fact, is what one is being paid for.

If we break this down into one goal, for example, “I want to learn to play a musical instrument”, then using this guideline of “10,000 hours to skilled” is helpful for working out the likely investment needed in time, and therefore helps one to be optimistic but still realistic about that goal.

If ones five year plan includes to learn a musical instrument, breaking down 10,000 hours into 5 years of work would be over 5 hours a day – every day – but this is to get to what we might term skilled. Not many of us can commit to that sort of time in learning any skill, unless it is directly used and nurtured throughout ones working day.

One, five, ten

Plans of one year and five years are a good place to start – one year, like committing to a new years resolution, is easy to imagine (in your mind’s eye) looking back in just a years time and seeing progress in an area.

The five year plan is wider, often grander, and can often seem out of reach – but it’s important to realise that without stated goals one will rarely get there by accident.

The ten year plan is usually pretty optimistic, and if one reviews goals written ten years before this tends to reveal more of a change in character and values over those ten years than anything – which can be a helpful exercise – much like reading one’s journal from years before and often feeling the embarrassment of what felt so important at another point of life.

One goal or many?

My personal strategy is to have several skills that I am aiming to improve at any one time – I always have musical aspirations, then photography / video skills and often improving in business is something I actively look at.

The choice really is this: to focus truly on one or two goals, reducing the amount of time before seeing them come to fruition, OR to spread the goals, inherently increasing the amount of time until reaching skill or mastery of a subject, but potentially inviting variety and therefore reducing the risk of stagnation, lack of interest and eventual abandonment.

Little and often

In order to achieve any goals, my belief is that the most important thing is to chip away at something, little and often. In the excellent film, “The Shawshank Redemption”, Andy Dufrane (Tim Robbins) spoiler alert scrapes his way through a thick prison wall over a period of 25 years (lucky he was never moved to another cell in that time!), eventually crawling his way through it to freedom. In the same way, a seemingly insurmountable task can be achieved within a small amount of time that adds up daily.

It is comparable to hiking a mountain, head bowed low in concentrated effort, staring at the ground. It is only when one starts to near the top and you lift your head to look around – at that moment – then you will realise just how far you have come.

Just look up

Before considering ones goals and dreams for the coming years, I would encourage one to step outside and look up into the sky (a night sky full of stars is particularly effective). Take stock of your place in this world. Breathe deeply. Then take time to plan your goals and break them down into realistic, bite-sized, daily steps.

Fail hard

It’s my aim that this article should be an encouragement to continually learn – it is better to start now with little steps than to never reach your goal. However – I think it’s also key to not stress out about it. Remember the journey is just as important (if not more so) than the destination – so just go for it.

On a course I studied they introduced the idea of “failing hard” – that anything worth doing is worth putting so much into that if you fail it will be spectacular. This seems odd, but the idea is that it is only with this amount of passion and effort that anything of full worth will be achieved.

So try, fail, get up and try again!

Do you have goals in life for the next few years? Have you written them down? How do you plan to achieve them? Leave a comment below, I’d love to hear from you!