"We do not learn from experience, we learn from reflecting on experience." -John Dewey
This is the fifth installment in the Meaningfulness Project series, an essay project devoted to exploring a sense of purpose through long-term commitment to core values.
In an earlier post (here) I described learning as a crucial part of living the Good Life, a life of action. Now I want to explore learning as a pursuit of mastery and a leap of faith. Why does learning call for a leap of faith? Well, when you set out to learn something new, you don’t know if your efforts are going to make you feel productive and purposeful long-term. You only hope they will. Also, no field of expertise is devoid of problems and frustrations. Moreover, focusing on one area of learning requires that you sacrifice pursuits in other areas, and no sacrifice is without its drawbacks.
We can learn anything with varying levels of intensity and to different degrees of expertise. Josh Kaufmann’s TED talk (here) stresses that getting “reasonably good” at anything takes 20 hours of deliberate practice. First, you must deconstruct a skill into core sub-skills that you tackle individually. Next, you should develop insight to help you correct your performance as you practice. Finally, Kaufmann encourages his audience to remove distractions and other barriers to their practice and get in those 20 hours (45 minutes a day for a month, let’s say).
At some point, though, you may decide to go beyond 20 hours and strive for total mastery of a skill or subject. This is a serious decision. True mastery is not for the faint of heart. It’s not for the hobbyist. You cannot accidentally or casually achieve it. It takes a commitment that demands you manage your time well and exclude whatever distracts you from your goals. When you have mastered a discipline, it helps define how you live your life, how you think, and even who you are. Mastery is one of the hardest, but surest paths to a meaningful life.
Of course, it’s important that our chosen field of mastery align with our core values. We might even find that the pursuit of mastery shapes our values over time. In my essay about my daily ritual (here), I describe how I eventually replaced “hiking and nature appreciation” and “self-reliance” with “permaculture” on my list of 10 core values. This happened as I started to explore permaculture as something I might master and use as a philosophy for starting a business.
Australian biologist and environmental psychologist Bill Mollison coined the term “permaculture” in the 70s. Originally, the word combined the terms “permanent” and “agriculture” and signified a new approach to landscape design. Permaculture plots would provide big agricultural yields long-term without industrial inputs like big machinery, chemical fertilizers, pesticides and so on. This is possible when practitioners harness a deep understanding of how biodiversity and nutrient cycling works in natural systems that regulate themselves. Ideally, even a small plot of land can be designed to provide for most of a family’s food, shelter, energy and material needs — not to mention those intangible psychological benefits you get through self-reliance and deep communion with nature.
Permaculture also has deep social and political implications. If more people took care of themselves, they’d have less need for the interventions of government and big corporations. In the US, a more active lifestyle fueled by local whole foods might translate into less contact with a for-profit, pharmaceuticals-laden healthcare industry — an industry that regularly and remorselessly bankrupts the families forced to rely on it. What’s more, transitioning to a permaculture lifestyle, ethic and output helps you make a bigger impact on mitigating the effects of climate change and providing a stable foundation for future generations.
But before we get too starry eyed for permaculture, it’s important to address its possible shortcomings. The permaculture standard is laden with idealism, and all too often our idealism is the first thing we toss out the window when financial security and stability is at stake. A poignant series of interviews from the Humans of New York project (see Season 1, Episode 5 on Facebook here) addresses with biting realism how practical concerns can often overpower an idealistic pursuit of mastery.
Also, as far as I can tell, the optimistic claims about permaculture rely on a commonsense type of reasoning that may be at odds with life as we actually live it. If you own land, for instance, you’ll need to pay taxes on it, and if you cannot pay these taxes by selling your agricultural surplus, you’ll have to get a job. Both your crop sales and your new job require you to pay federal taxes, a huge proportion of which goes toward propping up politicians and the military industrial complex. These entities may very well create the conditions for instability on a regional, national or global scale (North Korean nuclear armageddon, anyone?), well beyond your control and local efforts to counteract bad values and policy at the grassroots level.
Taking a step back, perhaps the US government doesn’t create the fatal domestic instability it specializes at creating abroad (read Noam Chomsky’s work here). We must still take into account our complex interconnections in a modern world (transportation networks, global manufacturing …), as well as the positive potential of global phenomena like the Internet, which at present relies on corporate infrastructure and government regulation (click here for the ACLU’s take on the net neutrality debate).
My purpose in describing the Utopian promises and likely setbacks of permaculture mastery is to demonstrate the minimum level of thought and scrutiny we should exert when deciding what to do with our lives. Living according to your values is messy, purity is impossible, but your daily efforts to manifest the beauty of your ideals must be strong enough to weather the inevitable hardships, setbacks and compromises.
I have decided to try and master the discipline of permaculture because a life wrought from deep understanding of and connection with nature is the most beautiful life I can fathom. Allain de Botton, in his book The Art of Travel (here) defines the concept of the “sublime” as “an encounter — pleasurable, intoxicating even — with human weakness in the face of the strength, age and size of the universe.” To experience the sublime in the natural world is to experience a shrinking of your ego, and this goes hand in hand with the aims of mindfulness, wisdom and enlightenment. Permaculture brilliantly integrates many of my core values (see the list here), so despite what might be its Utopian oversight, I’m committed to starting this journey and seeing where it leads.