I have been skiing since the age of three. While I only ever dabbled in competitive racing for a couple of years as a young teenager, skiing is something I’ve got a feel for – that is, I can do it to a pretty high standard without really having to think about it very much.
Similarly, when I teach, I have a feel for audiences. I can somehow intuitively sense when they need to get out of their heads and into the moment, and conversely when it would be helpful for them to stop getting caught up in their moment to moment experience and take a 50,000 foot overview of what’s really going on in the big picture. It’s not that I plan it out cognitively; it’s just that it’s obvious to me in real time what needs to happen when.
But when I join my wife for a Tae-bo class, I rarely make the journey down from my head into my body. Self-consciousness reigns supreme, and the odds of my kicks and punches fitting seamlessly in with the music are similar to those of a stopped clock or broken calendar app telling the correct time and date. I know all the right things to do – but getting my body to do them is a constant battle.
This points to the difference between the two primary learning goals we can bring to any life endeavor. In each field of study, we can put our time and energy into “exam prep” – learning the right answers to pass a real or imaginary test; or we can put that same time and energy into getting a feel for how things work.
To better distinguish the difference between “exam prep” and “getting a feel for it”, imagine you had to navigate your way through a large building blindfolded. You’re given two choices. Choice one is to do your best to memorize a map of a building before entering it. Choice two is to be guided through the building by a trusted friend in a game of “warmer-colder”.
While memorizing the map could theoretically be helpful, it leaves you dependent on both the accuracy of the map and the accuracy of your memory. It also leaves you at the mercy of anything which might have changed between when the map was made and the moment you’re actually in the building.
By way of contrast, the game of warmer-colder is only dependent on the degree to which you trust your friend. While you may bump into a few things along the way, you’re pretty much guaranteed to get where you’re going if you keep playing until the end.
When it comes to our own lives, most of us spend the vast majority of our time doing exam prep. We read books and blogs, listen to podcasts, and go on trainings not to find our own best path through the maze of life but to try to memorize how someone else claims they did it.
Yet we are all designed to be “unconscious competents” – that is, to learn by feel, not by rote. Babies learn about life at a rate of knots that seems staggering to us old dogs trying to learn new tricks, and they do it without stacks of books to guide them or standardized curriculum to test them.
As Mark Twain said, “If people learned to walk and talk the way we teach them to read and write, everyone would limp and stutter.”
Which leads us, in my mind, to two important questions:
How does the warmer-colder game work in the bigger picture of our lives and who’s the trusted friend guiding us?
In other words, when it comes to leading a happy, fulfilling and contributory life, what constitutes warmer and what constitutes colder? How do we know what to listen to and what to listen for?
While I’m tempted to say “play with it and you’ll get a feel for it over time”, it also occurs to me to share a few pointers from my own life experience in hopes that it will encourage you to get into the game more fully in your own…
1. Let your feelings guide you, but not in the way that you think
There’s a tendency I notice in my clients and students to ignore their in the moment feelings and attempt to follow an external compass or map. That map may take the form of a moral code or personally chosen code of conduct. It can also take the form of a “right way to live” that has been passed on to us by people we care about and/or think have the right answers based on their own certainty in expressing those answers to us as truths.
Others go in almost the opposite direction, worshipping their emotions as though they were omniscient deities, forced into reaction by emotion or paralyzed into inaction until they “feel like it”. But the kinds of feelings that reliably guide you exist independent of your mood or emotional state.
To get a feel for the difference, try this exercise from the new edition of Supercoach:
Follow the Flip
Here’s one of my favorite ways of demonstrating to yourself that underneath the noise of your thinking, you already know what to do.
Think of a decision you’d like to make. It can be as seemingly inconsequential as where you’ll have lunch today or as important as which person you’ll marry or which career path you’ll take. You’re going to make this decision in the next 60 seconds.
Now, take out a coin and decide which of your options corresponds to ‘heads’ and which to ‘tails.’
In a moment, I’m going to ask you to flip the coin. If it’s heads, you’re going to take option A, and if it’s tails, you’re going to take option B. Before I do that, you have to promise to abide by the decision of the universe, as signified by the coin flip… (Just for fun, before we go any further, which way do you hope it lands, heads or tails?)
Okay, the moment of truth has arrived. Take a deep breath, flip the coin, and see which way your life has landed. (Quick question for you: How do you feel about that? Relieved? Excited? Disappointed?)
If you played along, you almost certainly experienced a physical, visceral response, seemingly to the flip of the coin but in actuality to the thinking that passed through your mind simultaneously. The way you felt before the coin was flipped and the way you felt afterward are fantastic access points to your inner wisdom.
Remember, it doesn’t matter which way the coin landed. The feeling you had while it was in the air and the feeling after it landed will tell you all you need to know.
2. Reflect on how likely or unlikely it is that the intelligence that spins planets, grows trees, and regulates the oxygen/carbon dioxide balance in our atmosphere would be present or absent inside us
I’ve been learning a lot about trees lately from some of my colleagues. One of the most interesting things I’ve picked up along the way is that when one tree in a forest is attacked by a certain kind of insect, other trees will somehow change the chemical composition of their leaves in a way that makes them unappealing or even toxic to those same insects.
For me, that level of intelligent interconnectedness doesn’t prove or disprove anything about some kind of an external deity; it simply suggests that underneath the thought-deep surface of our intellect, there are positive forces at work for our good that are beyond imagination.
Whether you want to call that intelligence “Universal Mind”, “implicate order”, or even God, it seems to make sense to me to let it guide me through life as much as possible, knowing that as I get more of a feel for letting that intelligence live me, I get more of a feel for life.
Or to put it another way:
While society may reward us for knowing the right answers, life rewards us for living in harmony with the way things actually work.
With all my love,