The Beginner's Paradox and the Beatitudes: We Must Fall in Order to Rise
Ira Glass, in an interview on creativity, described the thing that no one ever tells beginners. It’s simply this:
When you start pursuing something new, it’s often because you fell in love with something old. Maybe you decided to learn music because you loved Mozart, or decided to play guitar because you worshipped Jimi Hendrix, or decided to take up ballet because you saw a breath-taking, once-in-a-lifetime performance.
You have this incredible sense of taste, cultivated by exposure to brilliance. And you set out to create something just as great.
But this incredible sense of taste coincides with the moment you have the least amount of skill.
And so, inevitably, your first attempts will suck. Compared to your dream, compared to the thing that drove you into this new art, or skill, or pursuit—everything you create will be awful.
Only after years of work will you ever rise to the level of your masters—and during that time, you will have to put up with (produce!) reams of work you find appalling.
This is the paradox. To become a master, you will have to become comfortable falling short of your own standards.
Almost no one does this. Instead, filled with disappointment at their first efforts, almost everyone abandons the path too soon.
I call this The Beginner’s Paradox, and it has probably cost us millions of works of genius.
The Intelligence Paradox
The Beginner’s Paradox shows up in all kinds of places, and I suspect that self-awareness is one of the places the paradox becomes most significant.
Imagine that you are a creature waking up to self-awareness for the first time. Suddenly, your eyes are opened, and you can see the world as it is, in all its glory and tragedy, in all its beauty and sadness. You look out into the sky, and find that you can imagine what it’s like to be up there. You look out to the horizon, and imagine yourself traveling beyond it. You think about the future and the past—about a billion years from now, and a billion years before.
And then you think about yourself. And you suddenly seem incredibly small, and incredibly weak, and incredibly fragile.
This is the dilemma of intelligence.
Intelligence gives you the power to contemplate the infinite, to solve unlimited problems, and learn innumerable things. As an intelligent being, there is no problem you cannot ultimately solve, or system you cannot ultimately understand.
But that vast capability carries with it the awareness of just how much there is left to do. To be intelligent is know the infinite things you will never accomplish.
The thing that gives you the ability to contemplate a million worlds, and a billion lifetimes, gives you the ability to think about how you may never leave your hometown, and how quickly people may forget you.
The thing that allows you to understand the inner workings of an atom, or build a machine that can go to space, makes you aware of just how much you don’t understand, and how much you will never build.
The thing that lets you contemplate the infinite, makes you feel incredibly small. The thing that gives you incredible power, makes you feel incredibly weak.
Experiencing that gap—between what you are capable of, and what you have actually achieved, between what you could be and what you are—is what we call shame.
And knowing just how much power there is, and yet feeling your own incredible weakness—is what we call fear.
They go hand in hand. This is the Beginner’s Paradox of consciousness: from the first moments we emerge as self-aware beings, we are overtaken and consumed by shame and fear.
And historically, shame and fear have been humanity’s greatest obstacles on the path to a better world.
The Beatitudes — We Must Fall in order to Rise
Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about the Beatitudes. These are the first sayings in Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, one of the most influential works of literature ever written.
Hypothetically, these sayings are the foundation of the Christian religion. And yet, they are so deeply paradoxical, you are hard pressed to find someone certain of what they mean, let alone certain of how to apply them.
Blessed are the poor in spirit…
Blessed are those who mourn…
On the one hand, they are easy to interpret as a call to the renunciation of life, as if suicide was the most holy path, or, barring that, as if you should purposely seek misery.
In fact, there’s so much like this in Jesus’ teachings, it’s a hard feeling to shake.
And yet, Jesus is constantly reminding us that he’s not an ascetic. Unlike other religious movements of the time, his disciples do not fast. He enjoys parties, and meals, and dancing. He turns water into wine. Indeed, Christianity’s core ritual is a feast.
On the other hand, many religious groups, in an effort to make themselves feel okay with their own extravagance, tone down the Beatitudes into basically nothing.
Which is it? What are these sayings really getting at?
When we look closely, we see that these sayings are not a call to trade in the pleasures of this Earth for an other-worldly paradise. In fact, they are saying something about this world and our history.
Blessed are the meek,
for they shall inherit the earth.
And they are not a call to give up aspiration or ambition—quite the opposite!
Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness…
They are instead a call to hunger and thirst, to suffer and struggle, to sacrifice everything on the path to making a better world. Doing that will require abandoning the old certainties, the old securities, and trading them in for a dangerous and unpredictable journey.
Blessed are those who have been persecuted…
… for theirs is the kingdom of the heavens.
What is this telling us?
I think the Beatitudes are describing the answer to the Beginner’s Paradox—an answer that is present everywhere the paradox shows up, and that applies to every person and every area of life.
To become strong, we must embrace our vulnerability.
To become great, we must accept defeat.
To create brilliance, we must welcome humiliation.
Only when we accept these things, can we persist from our first glimpse of beauty, down into the darkness of creative suffering and struggle, and out into the light.
Those who are too secure in the old ways will not make it, those who are too tied to security will not leave. But those who desire to create good above all else, will pursue it through the darkness and the downfall and the danger, and into the brilliance on the other side.
In other words:
Science tells us that intelligence, by its very nature, can solve any problem there is to solve. It can fend off killer asteroids, outsmart supernovas, and manufacture food from the cosmic background radiation.
It has no intrinsic limits. And yet it has a lot of limits right now.
Those right now limits often loom larger than anything else. Intelligent beings face their own mortality, and become obsessed with protection, building giant fortresses and walls, amassing enormous weapons.
And yet those fortresses often become prisons. They get in the way of free movement, they prevent exploration and discovery, they lock you in just as much as they lock anyone out.
The same is often true for weapons, because although they offer protection against external threats, they shut down free and honest communication. Without communication, intelligence has given up its most potent tool for overcoming the limits of the world around it.
For a more familiar example, consider that once someone has found security in their career, they may be unlikely to do anything else that is truly ground-breaking.
This kind of situation is pervasive in the human species, and every time we get caught up in it, it leads to our downfall.
The only way out of this dead-end obsession with current limits, at the expense of future growth, is to accept your vulnerability. To be willing to suffer, to take risks and make mistakes, to accept that you may not solve all the problems now, but that by pushing through humiliation and failure, you may be a part of the solution that is eventually discovered.
Regardless of what it is, if you are seriously pursuing something genuinely new, you have to take the lessons of the Beatitudes to heart.
Because that is the only path from apprenticeship to glory.