Helplessness

Something I encounter often is the behavior of helplessness in others. This is a psychological behavior wherein someone learns or believes that no matter what they do, some negative outcome is unavoidable, so they “learn” to just accept the negative outcome and make no attempt to fix it.

For example, someone saying “they can’t lose weight” and continuing to eat poorly and avoid exercise because it’s hard and/or painful to do the opposite. It’s not that they can’t do it, just that the work required to go from where they are now to where they want to be is overwhelming. The result, then, is feeling helpless to fix the situation and so they continue with the negative behavior.

In respect to my work, I used to feel this way. When I first started out, there was so much that I wanted to know and be able to do. One of the things that I wanted to do was to be able to both design and develop websites and applications entirely on my own. The common consensus was that this was “too hard” and so it wasn’t uncommon to see many peers choosing one side or the other. Albeit complimentary, mastering these two skill sets is difficult because they encompass several different modes of thinking.

To make something both functional and aesthetically beautiful (design) requires a certain way of thinking about problems. Conversely, development—being able to connect the visual elements to the underlying system—requires a different way of thinking about problems, too. When it comes to defining one’s skill set, then, the more common outcome is that an individual believes they can only ever perform one of these tasks and so they develop a learned helplessness around being able to do both (i.e. “specialize”).

The problem with this is that it’s not impossible. It sure as hell is difficult, but not impossible. Even within the microcosm of each skill set—design or development—we also see learned helplessness around learning new techniques or technologies. “I can’t possibly learn how to use this new language. I’ll just stick to what I know.” In this scenario, what happens is that the individual’s skill set grows increasingly obsolete.

Instead of fighting the pain of learning something new, the individual struggles to do so (as they’ve “learned” to be helpless around building new skills) and gets into a trap where what used to be a popular skill is now defunct. Because they’ve learned to be helpless from other pursuits, they believe that improving is simply impossible and they will never live up to the task.

The part about this that irks me is how this helplessness is learned. While many will contest me, it’s clear that helplessness is more-or-less baked into society and our education systems. We learn that certain tasks just aren’t for us, so we get boxed into believing that. “Gifted children” programs and the like teach students with a slower learning curve that they just aren’t cut out for being smart. The common result is that a student who is perfectly capable becomes discouraged and learns that they just “are not smart,” when the opposite is achievable with proper investment.

The result of all this, then, is a culture wherein being “dumb” or “stupid” is identified as the average or mean. Subsequently, individuals in that culture grow up believing they will never achieve anything so don’t bother. Unless their path crosses with someone or something that demonstrates that they can do better, they simply will not try. Being dumb becomes cool. People graduate from college with degrees but because there are “no jobs in that field,” decide that instead of applying themselves elsewhere become helpless and believe that “there’s just no possible way I’ll ever find a job.” Per R. Buckminster Fuller’s Operating Manual for Spaceship Earth:

[…] specialization is in fact only a fancy form of slavery wherein the “expert” is fooled into accepting his slavery by making him feel that in return he is in a socially and culturally preferred, ergo, highly secure, lifelong position.

Anything is possible. Anything. In respect to learning and education, unless you’re suffering from a diagnosed mental illness and some type of learning is completely out of your reach, don’t feign helplessness. It’s a slap in the face to the people who truly cannot help themselves. Try harder. Push back against mediocrity on all fronts.

You can do anything you want if you focus and work hard. That’s not a joke or some aphorism plucked from the poster on the wall of a classroom. Unless it’s physically out of our reach, we choose to not try. We choose to be average. You don’t have to be. If you feel that pang in your heart that you can do more, or even be better at what you’re already doing: go for it.

Don’t let others tell you it’s impossible. Don’t be afraid to remove these people from your life. Coincidentally, the harder you work and the more you do, the more you will find yourself naturally drifting away from this sort of thinking. Don’t give up. Never surrender.