September 17, 2014 Leave a comment
“The mountain always maintains the upper hand.” -Neville Shulman
Have you ever started down the road to learning something, enjoying small success and incremental improvement, only find the road has become a path up the side of a mountain? I’ve been learning to program recently. There are multitudes of resources for self-guided students out there, but what they describe as a short, sure path to success is quickly revealed to be a rocky passage ascending the very face of Mount Doom.
It’s with that perspective that I read “Zen in the Art of Mountain Climbing,” a wonderful short book by Englishman Neville Shulman. His tale of fulfilling a lifelong dream to climb Mont Blanc in 1991 with only his Zen Buddhist training to prepare him was tremendously satisfying. It also reminded me of my own journey of learning how to program.
Neville seems like a man who is serious about his spiritual practice and a dilettante in his professional life. Writer, publicist, lecturer – his bio lists a number of low commitment jobs without emphasizing any in particular. He certainly doesn’t go into detail about how he makes money in the book.
Instead, he starts with a story about how he’s always dreamed of climbing Mont Blanc, Europe’s tallest mountain, in the legendary French ski town Chamonix. So he answers a call for volunteers on an expedition up the mountain. After he’s accepted, Shulman conditions himself by going on increasingly longer walks in his home city of London in the short weeks before the expedition.
If that sounds inadequate, it is. Fortunately, his preparations really began much earlier, with his Zen practice. For example, Shulman’s Zen study helps him come to terms with his inevitable fear of failure, or worse. As he has read in Buddhist scripture, “Nothing is possible without three essential elements: a great root of faith, a great ball of doubt and a fierce tenacity of purpose.”
Once he’s on Mont Blanc, even as the oldest and least experienced member in his 12-person party, Shulman holds his own. He stays (mostly) calm in the face of intimidating new physical challenges and keeps up with his peers. Again and again he emphasizes how much he benefits from his Zen practice. This is no hyperbole or metaphor. It comes down to such essentials as simply not overexerting himself, as “Zen teaches the greatest economy of expression and action.”
The lengthy climb – for they go up and down the lower part of Mont Blanc several times before ascending the whole mountain – proves to be opportunity for spiritual development. Or, as Shulman quotes from a Zen expression, “Thousands of repetitions, and out of one’s true self perfection emerges.” And Shulman does indeed reach the top; in fact, he went on to climb several more mountains, including Kilimanjaro in Tanzania.
What does this have to do with my learning to program? Well I, too, have embarked on a dificult journey that I am, on paper, ill-prepared to complete. The typical developer starts in his teens (and it is usually a he), not his 30s. I’m also busy being married and talking to teachers about my book, “How to Teach Adults,” not spending 100 hours a week building an app while eating ramen in my underwear.
What I’m betting on is that the basic principles of adult learning that I’ve written about also apply to teaching myself how to code. Many of these lessons are Zen in character. One must be committed to hard work for its own sake, not simply for external reward. And I recognize that a lot of learning (and teaching!) has as much to do with your emotional self as your external actions. Or, as Shulman says, “Zen is a way of learning inwards and outwards at the same time.”
Adult learning comes down to this: Don’t give up. Work harder, take risks, think creatively and keep trying until you reach the top. The mountain may indeed maintain the upper hand. But continue imagining yourself forward until you reach the summit. Then share the lessons you’ve learned along the way, to make the path a little easier for those who climb after you.