Take Home One New Thing

Hiking in TellurideI’m on vacation this week in Telluride, Colorado. Telluride nestled into a box canyon, with peaks jutting up all around it. Pretty amazing scenery and hiking around at 10,000 feet gives you plenty of time to think. Whenever I come to a place like this, I always play the game of “What If I Lived Here”, where I try to envision life as a local. Compared to what I hear about some ski towns, by the way, Telluride has a nice mellow blend of local vibe and constant visitor turn over. But why is that game so interesting? What’s so fascinating about picturing yourself living somewhere you don’t?

As I’ve thought about it over the last few days, it seems pretty similar to a learning problem you have as a student, a professional development problem you face as a teacher, and even a business problem you have running a small business. The problem is this: how does inspiration that comes from somewhere outside of your normal routine impact and integrate with what you go back to doing on a regular basis?

In other words, can I take something away from these gorgeous mountains without feeling like I need to move here? Can I learn a new form or exercise without abandoning everything I’ve learned before?

Now, the obvious answer is, of course you can. But as I’m sitting here watching the mountains in the distance fade into morning clouds, I feel like really knowing this place is going to take more than a couple of days. So that’s the flip side: if I take a little piece away with me, is it going to mean anything?

What I Take Home When I Travel

Just getting a taste of place may not be the same thing as knowing it like your own home town, but I think it can help you know your home better. The things that jump out at you when you’re in a new place have certainly faded into the background when you’re at home.

For instance, we were talking to a pilot in a bar yesterday. Recently arrived from the Bay Area, he says his most pressing problem in Telluride is whether to ski, fish, or go to the airport everyday. The good news was, if he timed it right, he could do all three. While we joked about the laid back rhythm of life here, it got me thinking about rhythms at home. You become blind to them as you go about your day, but I’ve learned from Tai Chi that if you can be aware of an internal rhythm as you go through it, it’s energizing, not draining.

Of course, being out in the mountains, there are many more geographic features to appreciate, and you can be sure when I go home, I’ll be looking at rivers and oceans, and ok, hills, a little differently.

I guess I’m trying to say that coming to a place that feels so different from home gives you fresh appreciation for home and is worth it for that alone.

What I Take Home When I Study With Someone New

Learning qigong, martial arts, or fitness over the years, I’ve been exposed to many teachers, styles, and philosophies of movement. At this point, whenever I study with someone new, I try to treat it just like a travel experience: I’m not moving anywhere, but just seeing things from a fresh perspective helps me appreciate the trajectory of my own practice and highlights certain elements of it.

I say “at this point” because I think there is a learning threshold for being able to take small pieces from different sources and make sense of them. If you are too early in your practice, this is not a good approach. See, the drive to “move to Telluride” is a drive to have an integrated experience and understanding of something. Just like moving from country to country or town to town would make it hard to answer “where are you from”, trying to throw together understanding of movement by adding bits and pieces from different sources right from the start doesn’t make sense either. You need to have an integrated learning experience first, before you try to add new elements.

When it comes to movement, my intuition is that 3-5 years of learning in a coherent system gives you this foundation. Many of my favorite practitioners and teachers talk about “forging” your body, like making a sword. You need to devote time to a single approach to let the method work on you.

But once you cross this threshold, learning from a new teacher can be just like traveling to a new place. I’ve experienced this time and again in workshops or seminars. Someone will have a very clear way to present (talking in Tai Chi terms now), how to feel the arms driven by the legs — it might happen in an external form I’ve never trained before, but the principle behind the movement is translateable into what I already know. And so you can take on new facets of your practice, without dabbling. It’s more like refining the trajectory you are already on. The path becomes clearer and more focused.

To the degree that you have a foundation in an art (and here’s where I think learning, teaching, and doing business are all similar), being exposed to new ideas will refine what you already do. But there’s one final hurdle that you need to overcome to really make this work: You have to throw away more than you keep.

There’s an art to finding the right ratio of “throwing away” and “keeping”, but it boils down to this. If you can take home one new thing, each time you go to a workshop, observe someone else’s class, or read a business book, that’s a huge success. It’s so tempting, when someone presents a compelling idea, to say, “that’s it, I’m abandoning everything I’ve learned before and doing it this way!” But you can’t do that. It’s the very same urge you feel when you travel to someplace beautiful and say “Ok, I’m dropping everything and moving here!”. What about 99% of your life that exists back home. Transforming it into a new life in a new place isn’t so simple. Yes, the pull is there, but if you can “throw away” most of that desire and “keep” the core of it, you’ll be fond of the new place you’ve visited AND deepen your appreciation for where you are from. It’s the same for learning, teaching, and business.

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