We’ve all heard the idiom before:
Don’t bite off more than you can chew.
And how wise those words are. The issue with biting off more than you can chew is the struggle to swallow. Many times, tackling an obstacle that far exceeds our skill level is too daunting, and when that happens we give up. We step back from the challenge, and take smaller bites. This is especially true when setting goals, as too lofty a goal will leave us standing slack, overwhelmed by the enormity of the task. And in that paralyzed state of overwhelm, nothing gets accomplished.
But the reverse is also true. Goals, real goals, goals that mean something to ourselves. Those goals need to be challenging enough to keep us striving to be better. Taking too small a bite leaves us malnourished. This malnourishment shows up in the form of boredom. Overcoming obstacles that are so far beneath us that we glean no sense of satisfaction from their accomplishment. Without the sense of satisfaction, we become complacent, and our skills deteriorate.
So there we have it, don’t bite off more than you can chew, and eat enough to keep from starving. There exists in the middle a space of not just surviving, but thriving.
To help visualize the line that we all need to strive for in our own lives, the below graph shows the quadrants we are looking at:
Arguably, at birth we start with no skills, and no real challenges. From there, we start to take on more challenges, and gaining more skills. This is the same in any new endeavor, regardless of age. From the first thought, to progressive realization of a new skill. If we follow the Motivated Equilibrium line carefully, we progress from being new to the challenge, through to being a real achiever. Where we get off the line, or come to a plateau is completely up to us.
How does this shape up? Forgive my musical ignorance, but we will use guitar playing in our example.
We begin with the idea of playing a guitar. Never picked one up, never strummed a chord, we’re a newbie (new to this). From the first moment we decide to learn this skill, we enter the lower left quadrant. At this moment, biting off more than you can chew, trying to play Through the Fire and the Flames by DragonForce. This song would be so completely overwhelming, for virtually everyone, this would be the point where they stopped trying to play the guitar.
On the flip side, let’s fast forward a few (or a lot of) hours of practice. So now we can hit every chord with our eyes closed. Our fingers know the struts and the strings, the sound is as familiar as our own voice. If all you played from this point forward was Mary had a Little Lamb, it wouldn’t take long for boredom to set in. All those skills you had developed over hours and potentially even years of practice, those skills would eventually falter. You would become rusty, and your skills would deteriorate.
We see this deterioration every day, the lessons taught in past schooling that no longer seem relevant. I couldn’t tell you the first thing about Canadian French, or the nuances of biology, or even guitar playing. My once acquired knowledge and skills faded into boredom with misuse, and eventually deteriorated.
So where does achievement lie? And how can we retain and grow our skills? We need consistently evolving goals and challenges, only within reach. These cause us to strive for greater skills, which in turn help us push our goals further out as we take on bigger and bigger challenges. This walk along the path of Motivated Equilibrium leads us to excellence. But that walk is a tightrope. Too much or too little, and we’ll stall, or fall. If we stick with biting off exactly what we need to become better versions of ourselves, throughout the passage of time and effort, we will not only survive, we will thrive.