Quitting at Nineteen

Keeping on, even as the sun sets.

Keeping on, even as the sun sets.

On two occasions now, I’ve heard He Jinbao mention what I assume is an old saying about training: If it takes twenty years to get good, most people quit at nineteen. The lessons are obvious. Don’t give up too soon; some things take a long time; and you’ll want to quit most when you’re closest. The saying, then, seems to have some immediate validity, but it raises the interesting question of why people would quit when they’re closest to achieving something.

There’s more to this saying, too. There’s the curious matter of how it is possible that “at twenty years” someone is good but “at nineteen,” she isn’t yet. Does training really happen in discrete jumps like this, or is does improvement come as a smooth transition over time? Also, what significance, if any, is there to twenty years in the saying? Does it imply that if you train for twenty years, then you will get good?

First, a bit of psychology

Humans are curious creatures, and our psychology is an interesting thing. One particularly interesting fact about human psychology is that if you’re doing something hard and don’t know how much ordure you still face, it makes it that much harder to face.Experience probably confirms this for most people reading this blog, but I recall reading at some point a few years ago that it has been demonstrated under careful conditions as well.

A practical example, and the one I seem to recall from the study I think I read, would be that if we have fifty pushups to do for a trainer, and the trainer is counting them out for us, they’ll be as hard as fifty pushups will be. If, on the other hand, we don’t know that we’re going to fifty, they will feel harder after we do what seems like a lot of them. If no one is even counting, they’ll feel even harder. There’s something to knowing where the finish line is and how far along we are that helps us rally when the going gets thick. There’s a reason, it turns out, that kids are notorious for driving us nuts by asking, “how much longer?” on every road trip ever. Suffering in ignorance is harder than suffering with knowledge, or, at least, knowing when your suffering ends makes it much easier to bear in the meantime.

Getting “good” in a martial art like Yin Style is something we all realize takes a long time once the initial “I’m going to be the one special person for whom that isn’t true” enchantment fades. The thing is, we don’t know how long it will take. We have common sense and might hear things that are suggestive. Some examples include that it takes maybe five or six years to earn a black belts in many martial arts styles, Liu Shichang (the oldest living YSB practitioner) suggests to give YSB ten years or not to bother, some guys who have been training for about fifteen years are frighteningly good, the saying under examination here seems to suggest twenty years, and generally mastering something difficult seems like a two-decade task. Still, we don’t know how long it will take.

Twenty is a placeholder

Common sense may dictate that mastery of something should take someone around twenty years, and let’s run with that. Let’s assume twenty years is the requirement for mastery of a complicated effort.

It’s critical to realize that the saying here might use that intuition but does not imply that people will get good in twenty years. In fact, the saying negates that idea directly because if a person knew he needed twenty years to get good and was just one year away, he’d have to be a moron to quit. He only quits because he doesn’t know that he’s a year away from achieving his goal. In his mind, he may still be twenty more years from good, or a hundred. He has no idea. He just knows he’s not good yet. People don’t quit when they know they’re almost somewhere they want to be. People quit when they think it’s hopeless, that they’ll never get there.

This is a part of what makes open-ended, long-term training goals like “getting good” or “achieving mastery” so difficult. We don’t know how long they’ll take, only that they’ll take a lot of time in between and they’re not guaranteed. For example, if someone trains badly, he will not get good, not even in fifty years. The amount of time that any individual will need to get good will be specific to that individual–his talents, the time he can invest, his methodology, his access to instruction and correction, and so on. “Twenty years” here just means “a long time,” and “nineteen” just means “almost there.”

Frustration builds and peaks

So, what happens after many years of training and remaining aware of not yet being good is that frustration builds up. It feels aggravating; it’s disenchanting; we become disengaged; we get frustrated and eventually hopeless. Then, if we succumb to those negative feelings, we quit, often thinking we’ve made an honest assessment of ourselves of the form, “I’ll never get this, better move on to something else with my time.”

Now think about it. If this sort of frustration with your progress is really building up, when will it happen? At first? Probably not: we’re still way too full of optimism and understanding that the road ahead of us is long for it to get us right away. After a few years? Maybe–it certainly will feel worse if we’ve made only a little progress, but if we’ve made any, it can be encouraging. Remember, we know the road is long, and so we know a few years isn’t long enough. When we’re already good? No. Of course not, that’s when we’ve made it.

No, this hopeless frustration with training will hit its maximum right before we cross over to realizing that we’ve gotten good. That’s when it will have built up the longest without feeling like it has borne fruit. That’s why the saying indicates that we’ll quit 95% of the way into our work. This is why people quit at nineteen, if it takes twenty–but remember that twenty is just a placeholder for “long time” and nineteen just means “when we’re closest.” In fact, I’m changing the numbers for most of the rest of the post.

Two flavors of progress

Wouldn’t a person who has been training for almost two dozen years realize that he’s almost there? Why wouldn’t he? Surely to goodness he has made some progress, even substantial progress, in all of those years of hard, serious training. Surely he can recognize that progress and use it to keep his engagement up. So, how can it be that he could be in a position where he is still not good after twenty-six years and then good after twenty-seven?

In my experience, the problem here is that progress comes in two kinds. To pull from my math background, I will call them continuous and discrete. Continuous progress happens all the time (if we’re training). Day after day, we get a little better. We definitely want that as part of our training. Discrete progress will refer to short periods of time in which we feel like we suddenly get a lot better, maybe in a few months. (Note that all of this is a bit optimistic because if we get on a bad tangent in our training, we might actually get worse for a while and have a lot to fix before we’re improving again.)

What matters is that continuous progress is slow and incremental. Over fairly long periods of time, there’s only a little apparent development, even if deeper things are going on under the surface. During these phases, we’re getting better, but it is surprisingly easy to lose sight of that fact (so, keep this in mind next time you’re frustrated!). In fact, we’re unlikely to realize the progress we’re making until well after we’ve made it, probably during or after our next discrete jump in development.

Discrete progress is explosive. For some short period of time, we get better really fast, and it’s usually pretty obvious. In my experience, these periods follow a big piece of the puzzle falling into place, often resulting in a whole new way to think about training, new levels of clarity, and a renewed approach to training that comes as a result of the change. I am almost certain that the transition from not good to good follow a period of explosive improvement after some critical piece of the puzzle falls into place.

If I’m right about this, what it means is that at fifteen years, we may still be not good and then by the time we reach sixteen, something could have changed enough to where we’ve crossed clearly over into good. In other words, the person stuck at almost good is unlikely to know he’s almost good and just feels not good, with a lot of frustration built up.

For you Yijing nerds, like I am, given that baguazhang is based upon the Yijing, this is the exact theme of the sixty-fourth hexagram, sometimes translated as before completion or almost across, fire over water. The theme there is that things are almost realized, everything is in the proper relationship but hasn’t fallen into the proper place, and that it is also the time of the most important and laborious work so that you can achieve a huge success. It’s also said to be a time of great danger because the temptation to quit can be so high, just like our saying suggests.

Take home

Train because you enjoy it. You don’t have to worry about getting bogged down with whether or not you’re getting good enough to justify your effort if your real reward is that you enjoy the training. Who cares how good you get if you enjoy what you’re doing and trying to get better?

It might take you ten years, twenty years, thirty years, or fifty years to get good, or maybe you’ll never really get good, but you will get better the longer you train, so long as you train seriously and train well. Training with an aim to improve is important, so don’t lose that, but it’s not going to work out for you if you don’t enjoy it for its own sake.

On the other hand, if you don’t really enjoy it, and you’re only doing it to “get good,” fix your priorities or quit. You’re going to at nineteen anyway–and what a damned shame–and you could save yourself a lot of time in between.

As always, your thoughts are warmly welcomed and strongly encouraged in the comments below!

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