Passion Alone Won’t Get You There
Episode 3: You’re Such a Plastic. (But, Like, in a Good Way)
Get in stupid we’re going after some Mean Girls references.
I learned most about plasticity in my junior year of engineering school in the Mechanics of Materials course. The lecture was at 7:30am on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday, with a lab on Tuesday afternoons. It was about as exciting as you’re imagining.
Critical mass of hungover students with disheveled hair in the lecture hall aside, I learned a great deal in that course which made me able to make sense of more advanced courses in the later years of my degree path.
One of the biggest takeaways from the course was the difference between Elasticity and Plasticity of materials.
Elasticity vs. Plasticity: The Bounce Back
The elasticity of a material refers to its ability to reverse physical deformations – to bounce back. An elastic (aptly named) waistband will stretch to accommodate, uhh, physiology (your ass bigger than your waist) as you take off a pair of gym shorts, and will return to its natural form once you release it. Ironically the material we call “plastic” is often pretty elastic – depending on the type of plastic it’ll often flex and bend and keep its form until it just breaks.
Plasticity refers to changes which cannot be reversed. Think about bending a metal bar: once you bend it significantly it stays in its deformed state. Even trying to bend it back to its original form usually leaves it looking a bit wonky (technical term). If elasticity is the bounce-back, plasticity is the set-in-stone.
Elasticity is akin to passion; moments or seasons of manic energy can have a great effect on our behaviors and motivations, but how often do you experience these seasons and then find yourself reverting back to your old habits of laziness and resignation? That doesn’t diminish the value of those seasons, but it does put the limited lasting impact in perspective.
Plasticity is a separate thing entirely. The term is in common usage in the psychological realm already, but while this revelation is not new I want it to completely change your view of development and learning.
Plasticity is growth. It’s change. It’s the play-doh being molded into something brand new (a dinosaur if I have it my way), not the water crashing back toward its level form once you take your hand out of the bucket. Plasticity is the development of neural pathways and the manufacturing of real solid dendritic connections which don’t just serve to flex your brain…
THEY CHANGE IT ENTIRELY.
I should have put a “Nerd Alert” disclaimer at the top of this one. This stuff is so fetch.
There’s something we need to recognize at this point, though.
Plasticity doesn’t always work the way we want it to.
The dark side of plasticity is that while your brain has the ability to learn positive new skills and abilities through repetition or moments of significant sensory input, it can also learn destructive and inhibiting patterns.
All of us have experienced brain-altering moments and patterns in our lives. We call these experiences “trauma”.
Trauma is real. It’s quantifiable. Trauma isn’t inherent weakness. It’s not you being a snowflake. It’s your brain responding to inputs and setting up systems to either protect yourself from them.
But if your brain has been altered to behave a certain way in response to particular stimuli, it absolutely can be trained to override that response with something more life-giving.
Now, like I mentioned, there is no inherent weakness in having a brain that has fortified itself as a survival response. Here’s the tricky part though – there is inherent weakness in recognizing that condition of weakness and allowing yourself to stay there.
We all start where we start on this journey. A lack of strength is not a condition of character. A lack of resilience is, though.
Strength is the result, but resilience is the choice that gets us to that result.
Disclaimer: There are clearly nuances to this concept, and I do not have any notable expertise in psychology. If your mental condition requires professional aid then please be encouraged to seek that aid. I’ve experienced an immense amount of growth in my own life as a result of therapy, and I encourage all of you to utilize those same resources for your own mental health.
We’re going to need to use our brain’s ability to be molded and shaped to develop the skills and capacities to take us from our current situations into a new and better season.
A single step away from the old self is still forward motion.
Our next season of life can look much the same as the previous one if we stay dormant, or it can look completely different. It can be a season of growing strength, of growing confidence, of developing technical and interpersonal skills, and of fighting anxieties and insecurities head-on.
I’m not asking for you to have defeated all of your demons and achieved mastery of your life in this theoretical “next season”. What I’m asking you to do is get in the arena and start fighting for yourself and for the people who you matter to.
It’s time to start fighting back against the hindering parts of our learned nature; to start fanning the flames of confidence, strength, and good character. It’s time to stop promising ourselves that we’ll start learning new skills or taking on new challenges – it’s time to actually follow through on those promises to ourselves. How far can this work take us?
The limit does not exist.
Suit up. I’ll see you in the arena.
Get to Work: Action Items
1. Take an honest look
at your level of mental resilience. Remember that resilience is a learned skill, and that strength is only the visible evidence of that resilience. No matter what amount of mental resilience you possess, begin to practice building on that resilience. The following article has a basic overview of building mental resilience:
3-5 subjective (not quantifiable) beliefs you have about yourself which are self-limiting.
i.e. – “I’m not as smart as my coworkers, so there’s no point in asking my manager for more challenging projects.” ;
“I have dreams, but I always chicken out before taking any real tangible steps toward changing my career.” ;
“I’ve waited too long to start a new path in life.”
3. Write down
the inverse form of the beliefs you listed in Action Item #2.
i.e. – “I’m smarter than I think, so there’s no point in not asking my manager for more challenging projects.”
“I have dreams, and I’m the type of person who will take explorative steps toward them even though it’s frightening.”
“Right now is the best time to start a new path in life.”
Post these inverse sentences somewhere you will see them every day (reminder in your phone is a good option). Say each out loud five times per day. Yes, out loud. No, I’m not kidding. Yes, that’s weird. Do it anyway. The act of speaking a thought out loud (in a mirror works even better) creates far more neural pathways than simply reading it silently to yourself. Your brain can be convinced of these new messages of strength and confidence remarkably quickly using this practice. Do the weird thing for science.