By: Chris O'Brien
I glanced at my older brother’s phone, and it looked like he was reading from a large print Reader’s Digest. Everything was zoomed in. The app buttons were bigger. His text messages—if the standard font size is 12 pt—looked like they were 18, maybe even 20.
Which was surprising to see, because my brother is the only one in my immediate family who doesn’t have some form of glasses or contacts. He has, by all accounts, 20/20 vision. He doesn’t make an annual trip to the eye doctor. Doesn’t know the smell of optometrist breath, which is always like a strange balance of garlic and Altoids. He doesn’t know the feeling of the glaucoma test; sitting in the chair, heart rate accelerating as you prepare for the unpreparable, a little shot of air right on the eyeball. Alright, for our next test, look through this peephole, and I’m gonna shoot your eye with a Nerf gun.
But he is three years older and with age comes at least one of three things: you lose some hair, gain a few gray hairs, or experience a decrease in vision. Well, he’s still got a full head of non-graying hair, so an attack on the eyes seemed totally reasonable. It happens to everyone.
“Wow, do you have your iPhone set at the 80-year-old display setting?” I asked him like the dirtbag that I am.
“What?” he replied. And it wasn’t a defensive ‘what,’ it was more like “what are you talking about?”
“Your font size. It’s out of hand.”
“Not at all. See, you gotta give your eyes a break. You’re looking at a computer all day, why would you continue to beat them up on the phone?”
This idea immediately fascinated me. I reflected on my experience with eyesight. In fifth grade, I got back the damning result that I needed glasses. At 11 or 12-years-old, that diagnosis feels like a death sentence. I have to enter middle school on the nerd path?! Any bully will have one guaranteed “four eyes” bullet to use against me.
So, I fought against it. I rarely wore my glasses in fifth or sixth grade. By seventh grade, my eyes were too bad to continue the resistance. I had no choice but to go full-time glasses. This meant I had the middle school triple threat of glasses, braces, and acne. I grew from 5’2” to 6’2”, had no body fat to my name, was just a tall, gangly, voice cracking goon. They say seventh and eighth grade are your prime ugly years and boy do I agree. I fell down the ugly tree and hit every possible branch.
But when I started to wear glasses, it’s not as if the lenses healed my eyes. Each year my prescription got a little bit worse.
I now believe the reason for this is because glasses and contacts are admitting defeat. Your eyeballs’ morale is depleted by this decision. Ah, what’s the point in trying anymore. He doesn’t believe in us. Each year, the eyes try a little bit less, and things get a little bit worse.
This introduces two Medium Rare alternatives. The first is to do like my brother does. Give your eyes a break when you can. Go with a large font size on your phone. Do the 125 or 150 percent zoom on the computer. When the eyeballs question if they’re becoming washed up, you absolutely deny it. What are you talking about? I don’t think this font size looks bigger at all. You two are doing great! This keeps the morale up and saves your eyes’ energy for when you need them most. They’re not getting better, but they’re probably not getting much worse.
The weakness is just that: a weakness.
The other approach is to go full out Army boot camp. Go with the smallest font size possible. Send out emails with 8-pt font and make your co-workers question if you are secretly an alien. Take pleasure in reading the fine print of a legal contract. Never relax. Get five hours of sleep a night. If your eyes aren’t veiny and bloodshot, you’re not pushing them hard enough.
This second approach seems ridiculous, but if you take this idea outside of eyesight, it is often the recommended approach for how to attack our weaknesses.
Turn your weakness into a strength!
Whatever you hate doing, whatever scares you, do it over and over again until it becomes something you love.
Face your fears and sign up for work league softball!
But why? When did weaknesses have to become strengths? When did we lose the ability to say, “I’m just bad at this particular thing.”
What I want to propose, for eyesight and life in general, looks more like the first approach: give your weaknesses a break.
For example, let’s say you really want to get better at basketball (you’re already pretty good), but you also want to become more assertive because the last time you asked for a raise the conversation ended with you saying, “You know what, I could actually just take a pay cut instead.” And you’d also love to learn the guitar (never played before. Always struggled to learn a musical instrument).
The temptation would be to tackle all three at the same time. Become “well-rounded.” A true renaissance man or woman. But this strategy forgets two key details. First, there’s a limited amount of time in a day. How would you work on all three + have time for a job, relationships, and Netflix? Second, it’s far more enjoyable to get closer and closer at mastering one thing than it is to be pretty good (or even just “meh”) at several disciplines.
Think about the difference in enjoyment for a basketball player being able to sprint up and down the court for an hour vs. standing over the trash can after one game. Going from standing over the trash can to sprinting up and down the court takes time and dedication. Probably two or three open gyms a week + some regular time spent running on a treadmill.
But it’s never a waste of time. That person can compete at a higher level now or go back and play a group of stand-over-the-trash-can opponents and feel like Draymond Green for an hour. Likewise, the person who obsessively practices guitar for four years may not become Jimi Hendrix, but they can feel like Jimi Hendrix whenever they play a beginner’s song. The higher you climb in a skill, the more individual levels you’ve mastered. It’s hard work, but there’s more fun to be had the further we go into a craft.
Compare that to casually working on a weakness. Let’s say you practice the guitar once a week and after three months can do a slow and sloppy rendition of Smoke on the Water. I’d argue that’s only slightly more enjoyable than not being able to play the guitar at all.
In Robert Greene’s book Mastery, he details the process of becoming a master in any field. And one of the most important steps is being completely focused on that area, especially at the beginning.
“First, it is essential that you begin with one skill that you can master, and that serves as a foundation for acquiring others. You must avoid at all cost the idea that you can manage learning several skills at a time. You need to develop your powers of concentration and understand that trying to multitask will be the death of the process. Second, the initial stages of learning a skill invariably involves tedium. Yet rather than avoiding this inevitable tedium, you must accept and embrace it.”
Learning the right form for shooting a basketball. Learning the chords on a guitar. Seeing someone piling snow on your car and saying to yourself, “You know what, I can be more assertive here.” All of these things that eventually come second nature the further we go into developing a skill take a ton of time up front. And, because of the time commitment, because of how tedious these basic skills are to learn, it’s tough to spread this type of focused practice out over multiple things.
It’s both good and bad news. The good news is, through dedicated hard work, we can push past barriers and catch up to people who had more natural talent than us. Greene uses the example of a famous Air Force pilot named Cesar Rodriguez who found there were people ahead of him (called “the golden boys”) who were better, more natural, everything seemed to be easier for them to learn. But he didn’t give up. He asked his new instructor to “work him to death.” This began an intense training program to turn his weaknesses into strengths.
“He made Rodriguez repeat the same maneuver ten times more than the golden boys, until he was physically sick. He honed in on all of Rodriguez’s flying weaknesses and made him practice on the things he hated the most. His criticisms were brutal. One day, however, as he was flying the T-38, Rodriguez had a strange and wonderful sensation—it seemed like he could feel the plane itself at the edge of his fingertips. This is how it must be for the golden boys, he thought, only for him it had taken nearly ten months of intense training.”
We can work our weaknesses to death and turn them into strengths. BUT, the bad news, it’s not really possible to do this in more than one arena at a time. The chapter on Cesar Rodriguez didn’t go on to say he also mastered the guitar and became an NBA All-Star during this same time period.
In the end, I think there are really two defined choices with our weaknesses. We either go all-in, attack them, work extra hard to master or hey, give ourselves a break. Raise the font size. Work on something else instead. With this approach of going all-in or taking it easy, we can get more out of each day and master the things that matter most. Because, at the end of the day, there’s a lot more enjoyment going from good to great than from bad to meh.
This is a chapter from my new book "Here or There" available on Amazon or via email - firstname.lastname@example.org. Check out previous chapters below and tune in for more upcoming chapters here on Long Overdue Books.