Unravel the Thread

 In Blog

Unravel the Thread
By Justin Wright

When it comes to high-performing teams, there is a degree of specialization that becomes necessary. Great teams do not consist of carbon copies; the individuals who compose these teams have a variety of skills that make them best suited to their positions. As we have discussed in the past, a great quarterback has no place on the offensive line. The best forward is also not the best goalkeeper. These differences, and these paths of specialization, are what allow these individuals to own their roles and drive the team forward.

In the US Navy, specialization is heralded as critical for continued development within its SEAL teams. Advanced learning is not just encouraged, it is necessary. In order to continue to function at the highest level, SEALs must strive to grow and evolve on a continuous basis. This leads to high-performing team members with a variety of skills that are suited to different situations. While one scenario may require someone with demolitions expertise to step up, another SEAL may need to lead the charge in a close-quarters combat situation.

So how do we begin the process of specializing? A more important question might involve understanding what, exactly, to specialize in. With so much information to be learned, how best can we determine the right path? How can we focus our efforts in a meaningful way to get the best return on our investment of time? The answer, in short, lies in curiosity.

Curiosity creates commitment

We can all agree that in order to gain specialized knowledge, to truly become an expert, we must be fully committed to the process of learning. Merely dabbling in a subject is not enough to gain mastery; we must embrace the material fully and without reservation. There is, however, a common struggle with commitment: it requires pursuing something long after motivation fades and long after it becomes challenging to do so. It requires determination, grit, and discipline. Simply put, commitment is hard.

In his recent book Going Right, author Logan Gelbrich uncovers the secret sauce to this process: “Watering the seeds of curiosity is the most important step in developing true commitment.”(1) In order to fully commit to something, it must pique our curiosity. It must be interesting enough to warrant advanced inspection. We must love the material enough, and be interested enough in exploring the deeper questions surrounding it. We must ask questions out of a burning desire to unearth the answers. These answers must excite us.

Think back to your childhood. As kids, we harbor a natural curiosity about the world around us. We can focus intently on something, and we can ask deeper questions to gain clarity. Everything is new to us and, because of this, we become excited by what many find mundane. “Why?” is a phrase uttered often by children to the point of comedy, but this basic question is one that many of us stop asking as adults. We cannot afford to lose this curiosity, as it is the fuel that keeps us committed to our efforts.

The origins of discipline

Discipline, as we have discussed, is what must follow motivation. When we begin something new, or undertake a new project, the initial excitement gives way to motivation in the early stages. This sensation makes us yearn to make progress in this new endeavor, at least for a period of time. Once motivation fades, however, it is discipline and commitment which allow us to stay the course.

Curiosity, therefore, is the precursor to discipline. We must care enough about uncovering the answers to push through hardship. These answers must be more important than comfort; as the going gets tough in any meaningful pursuit it is easier to simply give up or move on to the next project. Being able to focus on the task at hand through these difficult times requires a love of the process, a true commitment to the craft that can only be bred from curiosity.

Robert Greene explores this in-depth in his book Mastery. Some of the greatest creators in human history were those initially deemed failures by their contemporaries. It was their strict adherence to their curiosities that earned them this reputation. Instead of focusing on fame or riches like their peers, these pioneers instead were willing to put in countless hours of effort to perfect their craft. They willingly shunned the “easy way out” and chose to get their hands dirty with deliberate practice.

At the core of all of these masters was an unbridled curiosity; they had a burning question inside of them that had not been adequately answered by society. Had it not been for this desire, it would have been impossible to maintain the discipline required for these pursuits. A love for the process can only occur if we are actually interested in the subject matter being pursued.

Albert Einstein, revered as one of the greatest thinkers of all time, was also a very subpar student. The traditional manner of learning bored him, and he disliked the standard style of lecturing and note-taking. He was driven by a curiosity, of a desire to answer some of science’s deeper questions. It was not until he attended an alternative type of school that this curiosity was able to take hold.

Einstein’s theories of relativity were borne from a desire to explore a commonly held assumption of his time. He believed that space and time were relative, that they could not be assumed to be constants as many of his peers believed. Years were spent in deep thought, tinkering with this concept and seeking to find an experiment that would help prove his theory. Eventually he was able to create an experiment, using the perspectives of two individuals observing light to show that time was relative based on the viewpoint of the observer. This led to Einstein’s advanced theory of relativity and ultimately to the reputation and fame that we now associate him with.(2)

He spent years toiling, experimenting, and asking questions long before he experienced any recognition. He was seen as a failure because he was performing science differently than was standard practice at the time. Instead of quitting and succumbing to the pressures of society, Einstein soldiered on. Eventually this commitment paid off, but it was only possible because he could not rest until he satisfied his curiosity. This curiosity led to discipline, commitment, and mastery in his field.

Unravel the thread

In order to be the best versions of ourselves, in order to contribute to our world at the highest level, we must satisfy our curiosity. Unless our pursuits truly intrigue us, unless we have a genuine desire to answer the questions that we are asking, it becomes far too easy to quit when we are inevitably faced with challenges. Commitment itself is challenging; like with any good investment, the rewards are not experienced until far later in the process.

Understand, however, that this process is necessary for mastery. In order to specialize, to gain advanced knowledge, to be able to contribute at the highest levels, we must be fully committed. We now understand that curiosity is required for commitment, but how do we determine what we should be curious about? Pay attention to the questions and experiences that keep you up at night. Pay attention to the things that pervade your thoughts. Seek out those threads and gently pull until the fabric starts to unravel. It is through this process that we can gain fulfillment and satisfaction from our pursuits and, ultimately, become our best selves.

(1) Gelbrich, Logan. (2019) Going Right. Venice Beach, CA: HTS Publishing, Inc.
(2) Greene, Robert. (2012). Mastery. New York, NY: Penguin Books.


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