I recently came across a really interesting article about Apple Computer folklore. It’s a really good story about one Apple employee who would continually challenge and push himself. At this point everyone will agree that by continually challenging yourself you’ll get better and better, that’s expected. However what’s interesting is that he also pointed out another thing that most people will overlook, each new challenge for that employee will get easier and easier to accomplish.
Think of it this way. We have two basketball players. The first player has barely played basketball and the second has been playing for a while (facing many new challenges such as learning to dribble with both hands, shooting three point shots, etc.). Now, let’s say a new challenge appears, something that neither player has ever faced before. Maybe the foul line is pushed back 2 feet, maybe the hoop is heightened by a foot, maybe the size of the hoop has been decreased by a few inches. In any case, it’s easy to see that the professional basketball player will have a lot less difficulties adjusting to these new changes! The idea is that the more challenges you face, the easier each new challenge becomes to conquer!
You could also think of it as driving. When you first learned to drive, every little aspect of driving was a large challenge. Once you’ve been driving for a while, you can learn new aspects of driving at a fraction of the speed as someone who’s just learning to drive.
Let’s think about this some more. Let’s go back to the story about the Apple employee. The story goes that when the employees would get tired they would play an arcade game called Defender (a great game in its day). To quote the author’s description of the game for those of you who aren’t familiar with it: “The goal of Defender is to defend your humans from abduction by aliens. The evil green aliens drop down from the top of the screen and randomly pick up your humans, and try to bring them back up to the top of the screen. You control a ship and have to shoot the aliens, either before they grab a human, or during their rise up to the top of the screen. If an alien makes it to the top with a human, they consume him and become a vicious mutant, which attacks very aggressively. You start the game with ten humans, and if the last one dies, all the aliens become mutants, and they swarm in on your ship from all sides.”
I remember when I used to play Defender myself that I would avoid the mutant aliens at all costs. They would get me faster than anything else! For those of you who didn’t played this video game way back when, it basically meant that your turn was over.
Well the guy in the story decided to try another alternative method of playing the game. He decided to try and take a few steps back in the hopes that he could take a few more steps forward for a positive net gain. He was willing to lose many games temporarily in order to gain the advantage over the long term. And there’s no doubt he did as the story shows.
What’s interesting though is how he did it. He did the unthinkable. He eliminated all the humans right away! That means that all the aliens became mutant aliens right away! Normally this would be considered insane. However for him it wasn’t. Rather than run away like everyone else and try in vain to hit one or two each pass, hoping you didn’t yourself fall prey to them, he decided to do circles around them. What happened is the mutant aliens ended up clustering together, and rather than fighting a horde of mutant aliens, he only had one large massive target of mutant aliens, or basically one large mutant alien! What an innovative idea.
Of course at first he didn’t do so well because the mutant aliens have special characteristics. They can move faster, travel differently, etc. They very adept at what they do. But after several games, he started to get better and better and would consistently win against his co-workers.
At this point most people will think that trying new innovative ways was the key. Yes it definitely was a key element, he had to be willing to try new innovative techniques and be willing to lose some ground to gain new ground, there’s no doubt. And yes, over time he got better, again no doubt there, practice makes perfect. But what I think is much too overlooked is that from now any new technique he tried would be that much easier to master. After challenging the best the game had to throw at him, any new challenge would be easy. Anyone who could master conquering a horde of mutant aliens could do anything in the game.
The moral of the story of the Apple employee is not to be afraid to push yourself. The more often you push yourself to new challenges, the easier conquering each new challenge gets. The better you get at it. When I first learned how to write computer programs, learning any new technique or language was very difficult. I remember the difficulties I had writing my very first computer program. It was brutal! I also remember how hard it was to learn my second computer programming language. The third was easier, and each new language thereafter got progressively easier. I’ve now learned more languages than I care to remember. But you know what, it’s not the number of computer programming languages that I learned that’s helped me, it’s that now I can easily and comfortably pick up a new computer language with very little effort compared to before. I basically practiced and got good at how to learn new computer programming languages. I practiced and got good at learning how to face new challenges!