August: On the Clarion Staircase.

In my husband’s and my conversations about various attempts at achievement and self-improvement, we talk about something I’ve dubbed the Clarion Staircase Effect.  I’ll explain why in a minute, but first I’ll give you the most recent example.

I’ve been studying Russian for going on five months now, using a textbook, various apps, and twice-weekly meetings with a Skype tutor. This is the fourth foreign language that I’ve studied with any seriousness, and I normally excel at it.  I mention this not to be immodest, but to explain why it was frustrating to me, after five months, to still feel as though I were doing math problems in my head when I tried to speak in Russian, rather than having even the beginnings of a fluid “feel” for the language.  Every week I would study, and every week I would show up at lessons with my tutor and absolutely flounder. The only phrases in Russian that came to me fluidly were “I don’t understand” and “I don’t remember the word,” and those only from overuse.

It wasn’t until last week that I realized my tutor was, intentionally or unintentionally, creating the Clarion Staircase Effect in the escalating content of our sessions.

You probably begin to understand what I mean, but I’ll explain explicitly anyhow.

When I attended Clarion in the summer of 2009, I was terribly out of shape.  I’d been more or less a shut-in for a couple of years before that, and although I’d spent a few months pre-Claroin doing daily walks around the neighborhood to lift myself from a purely sedentary state to something more approaching human, I wasn’t prepared for the fact that every morning for six weeks I’d have to walk up to a classroom on the fourth floor.  I was also pregnant.

The first day of class, I was sweaty and gasping for air, heart pounding, worried for the health of my unborn child.  But by about week four, when I got to the top of the staircase I was… sweaty and gasping for air, heart pounding, worried for the health of my unborn child.

“This is so frustrating,” I confided to a classmate in week four as I sank miserably into a chair.  “I figured after nearly five weeks of daily cardio this would be at least a little bit easier.  And yet here I am, still gasping like a fish, just like the first day.”

“But have you noticed,” said my classmate, “that now you climb the stairs in about half the time?”


I do this to myself chronically.  I set a Difficulty Level for a task in my head, and subconsciously I adjust the task so that it meets the expected difficulty level, rather than doing it the same way I did before and enjoying the pleasure of watching the difficulty drop.  This perpetual bar-raising is a wonderful way to get better at things, but it’s not a great way to feel good about yourself.  So sometimes I have to remind myself, if I don’t seem to be improving at a task, it may be that my standards are moving ahead of my capability like a carrot on a stick.

Writing the Arcadia Project series has been like that, too.  I keep asking myself why first drafts never get any easier, despite my confidence.  And then I remember that every book I write has a larger number of threads I’m trying to tie together, higher stakes, and more complicated networks of relationships.  I’m not satisfied with simply repeating what I’ve done before.  Every time I sit down to write a book, I want to push myself to the point just before giving up, because that way I know I’m growing as a writer.  The minute it starts to feel easy, I know I’m cheating myself out of an opportunity to grow.

What about you?  Do you do this to yourself?  Have you been doing it and not realizing it?  Or are you the sane type who lets yourself enjoy the fruits of your own self-improvement by setting yourself tasks you couldn’t have managed two years ago, but can now accomplish with ease?

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