تسلط - بخش سوم

کتاب: تسلط - رابرت گرین / فصل 19

تسلط - بخش سوم

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At some point in history, the original navigators in this region must have felt a great degree of fear as they confronted the need to travel to find other food sources, realizing the tremendous dangers this involved. The ocean must have seemed much more chaotic than the tiny patch of land on their islands. They slowly overcame this fear and evolved a system that was magnificently suited to the environment they lived in. In this part of the world, the night sky is particularly clear through much of the year, giving them the ability to use the changing position of stars to great effect. Using smaller craft allowed them to maintain closer contact with the water, which they had learned to read as accurately as the undulating earth on their island. Imagining themselves as stationary and the islands as moving helped them keep track of their reference points and had a calming effect. They did not depend on a single tool or instrument; this elaborate system existed entirely in their minds. By building a deep connection to the environment and reading all of the available signs, the Islanders could approximate the remarkable instinctual powers of animals, such as various bird species that can navigate around the globe through their extreme sensitivity to the earth’s geomagnetic field.

Understand: the ability to connect deeply to your environment is the most primal and in many ways the most powerful form of mastery the brain can bring us. It applies equally well to the waters of Micronesia as it does to any modern field or office. We gain such power by first transforming ourselves into consummate observers. We see everything in our surroundings as a potential sign to interpret. Nothing is taken at face value. Like the Islanders, we can break these observations down into various systems. There are the people with whom we work and interact—everything they do and say reveals something hidden below the surface. We can look at our interactions with the public, how they respond to our work, how people’s tastes are constantly in flux. We can immerse ourselves in every aspect of our field, paying deep attention, for example, to the economic factors that play such a large role. We become like the Proustian spider, sensing the slightest vibration on our web. Over the years, as we progress on this path, we begin to merge our knowledge of these various components into an overall feel for the environment itself. Instead of exerting and overtaxing ourselves to keep up with a complex, changing environment, we know it from the inside and can sense the changes before they happen.

For the Caroline Islanders, there was nothing unconventional in their approach to mastery; their method fit perfectly their circumstances. But for us, in our advanced technological age, such mastery involves making an unconventional choice. To become such sensitive observers, we must not succumb to all of the distractions afforded by technology; we must be a little primitive. The primary instruments that we depend on must be our eyes for observing and our brains for analyzing. The information afforded to us through various media is only one small component in our connection to the environment. It is easy to become enamored with the powers that technology affords us, and to see them as the end and not the means. When that happens, we connect to a virtual environment, and the power of our eyes and brain slowly atrophy. You must see your environment as a physical entity and your connection to it as visceral. If there is any instrument you must fall in love with and fetishize, it is the human brain—the most miraculous, awe-inspiring, information-processing tool devised in the known universe, with a complexity we can’t even begin to fathom, and with dimensional powers that far outstrip any piece of technology in sophistication and usefulness.

  1. Play to your strengths—Supreme Focus

A. In the first years of the life of their child, the parents of Albert Einstein (1879–1955) had cause for concern. It took longer than usual for little Albert to talk, and his first attempts at language were always so halting. (See here and here for more on Einstein.) He had a strange habit of first muttering to himself the words he was going to speak out loud. His parents were concerned that their son might have a mental deficiency, and they consulted a doctor. Soon, however, he lost his hesitancy with words and revealed some hidden mental strengths—he was good with puzzles, had a knack for certain sciences, and he loved playing the violin, particularly anything by Mozart, whose music he would play over and over.

The problems began again, however, as he advanced his way through school. He was not a particularly good student. He hated having to memorize so many facts and numbers. He hated the stern authority of the teachers. His grades were mediocre and, concerned for his future, the parents decided to send their sixteen-year-old son to a more liberal-minded school in the town of Aarau, near their home in Zurich. This school used a method developed by the Swiss educational reformer Johann Pestalozzi, which emphasized the importance of learning through one’s own observations, leading to the development of ideas and intuitions. Even mathematics and physics were taught in this manner. There were no drills or facts to memorize; instead, the method placed supreme importance on visual forms of intelligence, which Pestalozzi saw as the key to creative thinking.

In this atmosphere, young Einstein suddenly thrived. He found the place intensely stimulating. The school encouraged students to learn on their own, wherever their inclinations would take them, and for Einstein this meant delving even more deeply into Newtonian physics (a passion of his) and recent advances in the study of electromagnetism. In his studies of Newton while at Aarau, he came upon some problems in the Newtonian concept of the universe that deeply troubled him and caused him many sleepless nights.

According to Newton, all phenomena in nature can be explained through simple mechanical laws. Knowing them, we can deduce the causes for almost everything that happens. Objects move through space according to these mechanical laws, such as laws of gravity, and all of these movements can be measured mathematically. It is a universe that is highly ordered and rational. But Newton’s concept relied upon two assumptions that could never be proven or verified empirically: the existence of absolute time and space, both of which were thought to exist independently of living beings and objects. Without these assumptions there would be no supreme standard of measurement. The brilliance of his system, however, was hard to call into question, considering that based on his laws scientists could accurately measure the movements of sound waves, the diffusion of gases, or the motion of stars.

In the late nineteenth century, however, certain cracks began to emerge in Newton’s concept of the mechanical universe. Based on the work of Michael Faraday, the great Scottish mathematician James Maxwell made some interesting discoveries about the properties of electromagnetism. Developing what became known as field theories, Maxwell asserted that electromagnetism should not be described in terms of charged particles, but rather in terms of fields in space that have the continual potential to be converted into electromagnetism; this field consists of vectors of stress that can be charged at any point. By his calculations, electromagnetic waves move at the speed of 186,000 miles per second, which happens to be the speed of light. This could not simply be some coincidence. Light must therefore be a visible manifestation of an entire spectrum of electromagnetic waves.

This was a groundbreaking and novel concept of the physical universe, but to make it consistent with Newton, Maxwell and others assumed the existence of a “light-bearing ether,” a substance that could oscillate and produce these electromagnetic waves, analogous to water for ocean waves, or air for sound waves. This concept added one more absolute to the Newtonian equation—that of absolute rest. The speed of the movement of these waves could only be measured against the backdrop of something at rest, which would be the ether itself. This ether would have to be something strange—covering the entire universe but not in any way interfering with the movement of planets or objects.

Scientists around the world had been struggling for decades to prove somehow the existence of this ether, concocting all sorts of elaborate experiments, but it seemed an impossible quest, and this raised increasingly more questions about the Newtonian universe and the absolutes on which it depended. Albert Einstein devoured everything he could about Maxwell’s work and the questions it raised. Einstein himself had a basic need to believe in laws, in the existence of an ordered universe, and experiencing doubts on these laws caused him great anxiety.

One day, in the midst of all of these thoughts and while still attending the school at Aarau, an image appeared in his mind: that of a man moving at the speed of light itself. As he pondered this image, it turned into a sort of puzzle, or what he would later call a thought experiment: if the man were moving at the speed of light alongside a light beam, he should be able to “observe such a beam of light as an electromagnetic field at rest though spatially oscillating.”

Intuitively, however, this made no sense to him for two reasons. The moment the man would look at the light source to see the beam, the light pulse would be moving ahead of him at the speed of light; he could not perceive it otherwise, since visible light travels at that constant speed. The speed of the light pulse with respect to the observer would still be 186,000 miles per second. The law governing the speed of light or any electromagnetic wave would have to be the same to someone standing still on Earth, or someone theoretically moving at the speed of light. There could not be two separate laws. And yet in theory it still could be supposed that one could catch up with and see the wave itself before it appeared as light. It was a paradox, and it made him unbearably anxious as he contemplated it.

The next year Einstein entered the Zurich Polytechnic Institute, and once again his dislike for traditional schooling returned. He did not do particularly well at math. He disliked the way physics was taught, and he started taking many classes in totally unrelated fields. He was not a promising student, and had not attracted the attention of any important professor or mentor. He quickly developed a disdain for academia and the constrictions it placed on his thinking. Still deeply troubled by his thought experiment, he continued to work on it on his own. He spent months devising an experiment that could perhaps allow him to detect the ether and its effects on light, but a professor at the Polytechnic revealed to him that his experiment was unworkable. He gave Einstein a paper describing all of the failed attempts to detect ether that had been attempted by eminent scientists, perhaps trying to deflate the pretensions of a twenty-year-old student who thought he could uncover what the greatest scientists in the world had failed to accomplish.

A year later, in 1900, Einstein came to a life-changing decision about himself: He was not an experimental scientist. He was not good at devising experiments and he did not enjoy the process. He had several strengths—he was a marvel at solving abstract puzzles of any kind; he could turn them over in his mind, converting them into images he could manipulate and shape at will. And because of his natural disdain of authority and conventions, he could think in ways that were novel and flexible. This meant of course that he would never succeed in the slippery world of academia. He would have to blaze his own path, but this could be an advantage. He would not be burdened by the need to fit in or adhere to the standard paradigm.

Continuing to work on his thought experiment day and night, he finally came to a conclusion—something had to be wrong with the entire notion of the physical universe as described by Newton. Scientists were going at the problem from the wrong end: they were straining to prove the existence of the ether in order to maintain the Newtonian edifice. Although Einstein admired Newton, he had no ties to any school of thought. Considering his decision to work on his own, he could be as daring as he liked. He would throw out the idea of the ether itself and all of the absolutes that could not be verified. His way forward would be to deduce the laws, the principles that governed motion, through his reasoning powers and through mathematics. He did not need a university position or any laboratory to do this. Wherever he found himself, he could work on these problems.

As the years went by, it would seem to others that Einstein was a bit of a failure. He had graduated from the Polytechnic close to the bottom of his class. He could not find any kind of teaching job and had settled for a mediocre, low-paid position as an evaluator of inventions for the Swiss patent office in Bern. But free to continue on his own, he worked with unbelievable tenacity at this one problem. Even while apparently on the job at the patent office, he would focus for hours on the theory that was forming in his mind; even when out for a walk with friends, he would continue to ponder his ideas—he had the unusual ability to listen on one track and think on another. He carried with him a little notebook and filled it up with all kinds of ideas. He reflected on his original paradox and all of the embellishments it had undergone and played around with them endlessly in his mind, imagining a thousand different possibilities. During almost every waking hour he contemplated the problem from some angle or other.

In the course of his deep thinking, he came up with two important principles that would guide him further. First, he determined that his original intuition had to be correct—the laws of physics had to apply equally to someone at rest as to someone traveling at a uniform speed in a spaceship. Nothing else would make sense. And second, that the speed of light was a constant. Even if a star moving at several thousand miles per hour emitted light, the speed of such light would remain at 186,000 miles per second and not any faster. In this way he would adhere to Maxwell’s law on the invariable speed of electromagnetic waves.

As he contemplated these principles further, however, another paradox emerged in his mind in the shape of yet another image. He imagined a train speeding along a track with its lights beaming. A man standing on the embankment would see the light of the beam moving at the expected speed. But what if a woman were running toward or away from the train on the tracks? The woman’s speed relative to the train would depend on how quickly she was moving and in which direction, but wouldn’t it be the same with the light beam? Certainly, the light beam from the train relative to the woman would travel at a different speed if she were running away or running toward it, and the speed of this beam would be different from the speed relative to the man on the tracks. This one image seemingly called into question all of his guiding principles up until then.

For months he pondered this paradox, and by May 1905 he had decided to give up the entire matter. It seemed beyond solution. On a beautiful, sunny day in Bern, he walked with a friend and colleague from the patent office, explaining to him the dead end he had reached, his frustration, and his decision to give up. Just as he said all of this, as Einstein later recalled, “I suddenly understood the key to the problem.” It came to him in a grand, intuitive flash, first with an image and then with words—a split-second insight that would forever alter our own concept of the universe.

Later Einstein would illustrate his insight through the following image: Suppose a train is moving past an embankment at a constant velocity. A man stands in the center of the embankment. Just as the train moves by, lightning strikes simultaneously at two equidistant points, A and B, to the right and left of the man. Suppose there is a woman seated in the middle of the train, who is passing just in front of the man on the embankment as the lightning strikes. She will be moving closer to point B as the light signal travels. She will see it strike ever so slightly ahead of the lightning at point A. What is simultaneous for the man on the embankment is not so for the woman on the train. No two events can ever be said to be simultaneous, because every moving reference frame has its own relative time, and everything in the universe is moving in relation to something else. As Einstein put it, “There is no audible tick-tock everywhere in the world that can be considered as time.” If time is not absolute, then neither is space or distance. Everything is relative to everything else—speed, time, distance, and so on—except for the speed of light, which never changes.

This was called his theory of Simple Relativity, and in the years to come it would shake the foundations of physics and science. Several years later, Einstein would repeat the exact same process for his discovery of General Relativity and what he called the “curvature of spacetime,” applying relativity to gravitational force. He again began with an image, a thought experiment that he pondered for close to ten years, leading to his breakthrough theory in 1915. From this theory alone he deduced that the course of light rays must be bent by the curvature of spacetime, and had gone even further to speculate the exact bend of the arc for rays of starlight grazing the sun. To the astonishment of scientists and the public alike, during the solar eclipse of 1919, astronomers were able to precisely verify Einstein’s speculation. It seemed that only someone with superhuman brain capabilities could deduce such a measurement simply through abstract reasoning. The fame and reputation of Albert Einstein as a freakish genius was born at that moment and has remained ever since.

Although we like to assume that a genius like Albert Einstein had powers far beyond our capabilities, his great discoveries depended on two very simple decisions he made as a young man. First, at the age of twenty he determined that he would be a mediocre experimental scientist. Even though a heavy immersion in mathematics and experimentation was the conventional route in physics, he would go his own way—a daring decision. Second, he would consider his primal distaste for authority and conventions as a great strength. He would attack from the outside and unburden himself of all the assumptions that were torturing scientists in relation to Newton. These two decisions allowed him to play to his strengths. A third factor can be identified as well: his love of the violin and the music of Mozart. To others who would marvel at his feel for Mozart, he would reply, “It’s in my blood.” He meant that he had played this music so often that it had become part of him, his essence. He had an inside understanding of the music. This would become the unconscious model for his approach to science: he would think himself inside complex phenomena.

Although we tend to imagine Einstein as the ultimate abstract thinker, his way of thinking was remarkably concrete—almost always in terms of images that related to the everyday objects around him, such as trains, clocks, and elevators. Thinking in this concrete way, he could turn a problem over and over in his mind, consider it from all angles while walking, talking to others, or sitting at his desk at the patent office. He would later explain that imagination and intuition played a far larger role in his discoveries than his knowledge of science and mathematics. If he had any qualities that were extraordinary, they were his patience mixed with his extreme tenacity. After what can only be considered as well beyond 10,000 hours of contemplation of one problem, he reached a transformation point. The various aspects of a supremely complicated phenomenon had become internalized, leading to an intuitive grasp of the whole—in this case, the sudden image that came to him revealing the relativity of time. His two theories of relativity have to be considered as perhaps the greatest intellectual feats in history, the fruits of intense labor and not of some extraordinary, inexplicable genius.

There are many paths to mastery, and if you are persistent you will certainly find one that suits you. But a key component in the process is determining your mental and psychological strengths and working with them. To rise to the level of mastery requires many hours of dedicated focus and practice. You cannot get there if your work brings you no joy and you are constantly struggling to overcome your own weaknesses. You must look deep within and come to an understanding of these particular strengths and weaknesses you possess, being as realistic as possible. Knowing your strengths, you can lean on them with utmost intensity. Once you start in this direction, you will gain momentum. You will not be burdened by conventions, and you will not be slowed down by having to deal with skills that go against your inclinations and strengths. In this way, your creative and intuitive powers will be naturally awakened.

B. In thinking back to her earliest years in the 1950s, Temple Grandin could only recall a dark and chaotic world. Born with autism, she could remember spending hours on the beach watching grains of sand pour through her hands. (For more on Grandin see here and here.) She lived in a world of constant terrors—any sudden noise would overwhelm her. It took her much longer than other children to learn language, and as she slowly did, she became painfully aware of how different she was from other children. Often alone, she naturally gravitated toward animals, particularly horses. It was more than just a need for companionship—she somehow felt an unusual identification and empathy with the world of animals. Her great passion was to go horseback riding in the country around Boston where she was raised. In riding horses, she could deepen her connection to them.

Then one summer, as a young girl, she was sent to visit her Aunt Ann, who had a ranch in Arizona. Temple felt an instant connection with the cattle on the ranch, and she would watch them for hours. What particularly intrigued her was the squeeze chute they would enter to be vaccinated. The pressure from the side panels of the chute was designed to help relax them while they were injected.

As far back as she could remember, she had always been trying to wrap herself in blankets or bury herself under cushions and pillows to somehow feel squeezed. As with the cows, any sort of gradual compression would relax her. (As is common for autistic children, being hugged by humans was overstimulating for her and induced anxiety; she had no control over the experience.) She had long dreamed about some kind of device that could squeeze her, and seeing the cattle in the chute she realized the answer. One day she begged her aunt to let her into the chute to be squeezed like a cow, and the aunt agreed. For thirty minutes she experienced what she had always wanted, and afterwards felt a complete calmness. It was at such a moment that she realized that she had some kind of strange connection to cattle, that her destiny was somehow tied up with these animals.

Curious about this connection, a few years later in high school she decided to research the subject of cattle. She also wanted to find out whether other autistic children and adults felt the same way. She could find very little information on cattle and their emotions or how they might experience the world; there was much more on autism, and she devoured books on the subject. In this way, she discovered an interest in the sciences; doing research allowed her to channel her nervous energy and learn about the world. She had tremendous powers to focus completely on one subject.

Slowly, she transformed herself into a promising student, which allowed her to gain admittance into a liberal arts school in New Hampshire where she majored in psychology. She had chosen the field because of her interest in autism—she had a personal, inside knowledge of the subject, and following this major would help her to understand more of the science behind the phenomenon. After graduating, she decided to pursue a PhD in psychology at Arizona State University, but when she went back to the Southwest and visited her aunt, she reconnected with her childhood fascination with cattle. Not really knowing why or what it would lead to, she decided to switch her major to animal sciences. For her thesis, she would focus largely on cattle.

Grandin had always done much of her thinking in visual terms, often having to translate words into images before she could understand them. Perhaps this was the result of the unique wiring of her brain. As part of the fieldwork for her major, she visited a couple of cattle feedlots in the state, and she was appalled by what she saw. It suddenly became clear to her that her propensity to think in visual terms was not shared by most others. How else to explain the highly irrational design of many of these feedlots and the remarkable lack of attention paid to details that were so visible to her eyes?

She would watch with dismay as the animals were herded through cattle chutes that were far too slippery. She would imagine what it must feel like to be a 1,200 pound animal suddenly sensing a loss of control on surfaces that were clearly too slick. The animals would bellow and stop in their tracks as they slid into one another, causing a sudden pileup. At one feedlot, almost all of the cows would stop at the same point; something in their visual field was obviously terrifying them. Didn’t anyone stop to consider what was causing this? At another feedlot, she witnessed the horrifying spectacle of cattle being herded onto ramps leading to a dip vat—a pool of water full of disinfectant to help rid them of ticks and parasites. The ramp was too steep and the drop into the water too great; some of the cattle would tumble upside down into the pool and drown.

Based on what she had seen, she decided to do a detailed analysis of the efficiency of these feedlots, and how they could be improved, for her master’s thesis. She now visited dozens of these sites, and each time she would stand close to the chutes, recording the reactions of the cattle as they were branded and vaccinated. On her own, she would approach the cattle and touch them. When she used to ride horses as a girl, she often could sense the mood of the horse just by the contact with her legs and hands. She began to experience the same with the cattle, as she would press her hands on their sides and feel their relaxing response. She noticed that when she was calm, they would react to her in a calmer manner. Slowly, she was getting a sense of their perspective, and how so much of their behavior was guided by perceived threats that we could not necessarily notice.

It soon became obvious to Grandin that in the animal sciences department she was essentially alone in her interest in the emotions and experience of animals. Such subjects were considered beneath scientific interest. She persisted, however, in these lines of investigation—for her own sake and because she felt they had relevance to her thesis. She began to carry a camera with her on her tours of the feedlots. Knowing that cattle are very sensitive to any contrasts in their visual field, she would follow the course of the animals through the various chutes, kneeling and taking black-and-white photographs from their point of view. Her camera would pick up all kinds of sharp contrasts in their field of vision—bright reflections from the sun, sudden shadows, the glare from a window. It was clear to her that seeing these sharp contrasts is what caused the cattle to stop repeatedly in their tracks. Sometimes the sight of a suspended plastic bottle or a dangling chain would cause the same reaction—somehow these things represented dangers to them.

The instincts of these animals were obviously not designed for living in an industrial feedlot, and this created a great strain. Whenever the animals would become instinctively frightened by something and react, the fieldworkers would grow irritated and hurry them along, which only exacerbated the cattle’s fear. The number of injuries and deaths was rather appalling, and the time lost when they all piled up into gridlock was incredibly high; and yet, as she knew now, this was all quite easy to fix.

After graduating, she got her first series of jobs working on various design elements for feedlots throughout the Southwest. For meatpacking plants, she devised cattle ramps and restrainer systems that were infinitely more humane than what was there before. Some of this was accomplished through attention to simple details, such as making a ramp curved so the cattle could not see anything to the sides or too far ahead, which kept them calmer. At another site, she redesigned the dip vat so that the incline leading to it sloped gently and had deep grooves in the concrete to help them with their footing. The drop into the water was ever so slight. She also redesigned the area where they dried off, making it a much more placid environment for them.

In the case of the dip vat, the cowboys and fieldworkers would stare at her as if she were from Mars. They secretly mocked her “touchy-feely” approach to farm animals. But when her design was finished, they would watch in amazement as the cattle would blithely approach the dip vat and plop into it with hardly a sound or a complaint. There were no injuries or deaths, and no time lost with pileups or group panic. Such an increase in efficiency would occur in all of her other designs, and this would win her begrudging respect from the skeptical men on the job. Slowly, she was making a name for herself in the field, and considering how far she had come from her earliest days as a severely impaired autistic child, such achievements gave her an incredible feeling of pride.

As the years went by, her knowledge of cattle continued to grow, both through research and through frequent contact with them. Soon her work expanded to other farm animals, such as hogs, and later to antelope and elk. She became a sought-after consultant to farms and zoos. She seemed to possess a sixth sense for the inner lives of the animals she dealt with and a remarkable power to calm them down. She herself felt that she had reached a point where she could imagine the thought processes of these various animals. This was based both on her intense scientific investigations and a great deal of thinking inside their minds. She determined, for instance, that animals’ memory and thinking is largely driven by images and other sense traces. Animals are more than capable of learning, but their reasoning process cycles through images. Although we might find it hard to imagine such thinking, before the invention of language we reasoned in a similar way. The distance between humans and animals is not nearly as great as we like to believe, and this connection fascinated her.

With cattle, she could read their moods by the movement of their ears, the look in their eyes, the tension she could feel through their skin. In studying the brain dynamics of cattle, she had the strange feeling that they resembled people with autism in many ways. A scan of her own brain revealed that she possessed fear centers that were three times larger than normal. She always had to manage higher levels of anxiety than most other people, and she would see continual threats in the environment. Cattle, as prey species, were continually on guard and anxious. Perhaps her own enlarged fear center, she reasoned, was a throwback to the deep past, when humans were prey as well. These reactions are now largely blocked or hidden to us, but because of her autism, her brain had retained this ancient trait. She noticed other similarities between cattle and people with autism, such as the dependence on habit and routine.

Thinking in this way led her back to her early interest in the psychology behind autism, and to deepening studies of the neuroscience involved. Her condition as someone who had emerged from autism to a career in science gave her a unique perspective on the subject. As she had done with animals, she could explore it both from the outside (science) and the inside (empathy). She could read about the latest discoveries on autism and relate them to her own experiences. She could illuminate aspects of the condition that no other scientist was able to describe or understand. As she delved deeply into the subject and wrote books on her experiences, she quickly became an extremely popular consultant and lecturer on the subject, as well as a role model for young people with autism.

As she looks back on her life from the present, Temple Grandin has a strange sensation. She emerged from the darkness and chaos of her earliest years of autism, her mind partially guided out of it by her love of animals and her curiosity about their inner lives. Through her experience on her aunt’s ranch with cattle, she became interested in science, which then opened her mind to studying autism itself. Returning to animals for her career, through science and deep observation, she made innovative designs and unique discoveries. These discoveries led her back to autism yet again, a field to which she could now apply her scientific training and thinking. It would appear that some form of destiny kept directing her to the particular fields that she could explore and understand with single-minded purpose, and master in her own ingenious way.

For someone like Temple Grandin, the possibility of achieving mastery in any field would normally seem like an impossible dream. The obstacles in the path of someone with autism are enormous. And yet she managed to find her way to the two subjects that opened up possibilities for advancement. Although it might seem as if luck or blind fate led her there, even as a child she intuited her natural strengths—her love and feel for animals, her visual powers of thinking, her ability to focus on one thing—and leaned on them with all of her energy. Moving with these strengths gave her both the desire and resiliency to put up with all of the doubters, all those who saw her as strange and different and who found the subject matters she chose to study too unconventional. Working in a field where she could use her natural empathy and her particular way of thinking to great effect, she was able to delve deeper and deeper into her chosen subject, arriving at a powerful inside sense of the world of animals. Once she had mastery in this realm, she was able to apply her skills to her other great interest—autism.

Understand: achieving mastery in life often depends on those first steps that we take. It is not simply a question of knowing deeply our Life’s Task, but also of having a feel for our own ways of thinking and for perspectives that are unique to us. A deep level of empathy for animals or for certain types of people may not seem like a skill or an intellectual strength, but in truth it is. Empathy plays an enormous role in learning and knowledge. Even scientists, renowned for their objectivity, regularly engage in thinking in which they momentarily identify with their subject. Other qualities we might possess, such as a penchant for visual forms of thinking, represent other possible strengths, not weaknesses. The problem is that we humans are deep conformists. Those qualities that separate us are often ridiculed by others, or criticized by teachers. People with a high visual sense are often labeled as dyslexic, for example. Because of these judgments, we might see our strengths as disabilities and try to work around them in order to fit in. But anything that is peculiar to our makeup is precisely what we must pay the deepest attention to and lean on in our rise to mastery. Mastery is like swimming—it is too difficult to move forward when we are creating our own resistance or swimming against the current. Know your strengths and move with them.

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