signs of stagnation

“The most fatal illusion is the settled point of view. Since life is growth and motion, a fixed point of view kills anybody who has one.”
— Brooks Atkinson, Pulitzer Prize winning journalist for the New York Times and drama critic

Isidor Isaac Rabi was an Austrian born, American physicist who won a Nobel Prize in physics for his work in nuclear science. He was once asked how he became a scientist. Rabi explained that each day after school his mother would discuss his school day with him. She was less interested in what he had learned than in whether he had “asked a good question today.” She encouraged inquiry and curiosity in all that young Isidor did. “Asking good questions,” Rabi explained, “made me become a scientist.”

Personal growth, continuous improvement, lifelong learning…these are mantras for many people today. But good intentions often don’t become action. Recognizing when we’ve slipped into the stagnant waters of stability and certainty isn’t easy. Like putting on weight, it happens so gradually until one day we notice how out of shape we’ve become. Here are a few Stagnation Signs:

  • “We’ve always done it that way” — we don’t challenge our assumptions and frequently reflect on how we should do things now.
  • “I am too old to change” — in The Dog Ate My Homework, philosophy professor, Vincent Barry, calls this learning cop-out “some senior’s socially sanctioned refusal to acknowledge and take responsibility for attitudes, actions, and circumstances well within his or her power to influence.” He goes on to write, “It’s also about dying before one’s time by living halfheartedly the time one has left. In this respect, ‘I’m too old to change’ is about all of us who refuse to live by refusing to change; for ‘to change is to mature, [and] to mature is to go on creating oneself endlessly’.”
  • Losing our child-like curiosity — our sense of wonder and discovery is replaced with cynicism and apathy — “been there, done that, what else is new?” One of the most prolific artists in history (he created more than 20,000 works) the Spanish painter and sculptor, Pablo Picasso, has been called the greatest artist of the 20th century. He once observed, “Every child is an artist. The problem is how to remain an artist once he grows up.”
  • Learning strictly through our own experience — it’s often better to borrow experience than to just learn from our own. Not only can that be less painful, it’s much faster. Books, podcasts, seminars, mentoring, networking, group problem solving and the like are some of the ways we can learn from other people’s experience.
  • Creatures of habit — it’s so easy to slip into routines that close us off from new approaches and learning. Even our thinking can fall victim to repeating worn out cliches, platitudes, and dogma. In The Tragic Sense of Life, the Spanish philosophical writer, Miguel de Unamuno writes, “To fall into habit is to begin to cease to be.”
  • Having all the answers — in his personal journal, the French artist Eugene Delacroix made this entry on February 25, 1852, “Mediocre people have an answer for everything and are astonished at nothing. They always want to have the air of knowing better than you what you are going to tell them…a capable and superior look is the natural accompaniment of this type of character.”
  • Satisfied and complacent — only a mediocre person is always at his or her best. If I am getting very comfortable with my expertise and skill levels, my learning has leveled out. I am not stretching and challenging myself enough. My comfort zone is fossilizing into a complacency zone.
  • Fearing to attempt — we know that the turtle only makes progress by sticking his head out. Yet we sit and dream about what we’re going to do someday. If we don’t take steady steps toward our dreams, the walls around our complacency zone get ever higher and thicker.
  • Fuzzy focus — our growth and development should be taking us some where. If we don’t know where we want to go, what we stand for, or why we’re here, any experience and learning path will do. We just wander around and hope for the best.

There’s a world of difference between getting old and growing old. With age can come wisdom, but too often age comes alone. Age to the stagnant is winter, but to a leader on the grow it is harvest time. Not all experience is equal. Experience isn’t what happens to us, it’s what we do with what happens to us. There’s a major difference between growth experiences and stagnating experiences. Just because we’ve shown up year after year and put in the time, doesn’t mean we’ve gained by the experience. We may just be going through the motions, like taking the same route day after day; soon we’re numbed to the passing landscape. We’re in a rut.

When we see learning as a phase of life rather than a way of life, it’s easy to become set in our point of view. As our personal growth rate slows and time goes by, we can become one of those boors that have many answers and few questions — a know-it-all. By the time we reach middle age we can end up with our broad mind trading places with our narrow waist. We can represent decades of history unimpeded by growth and development. We could become so narrow minded we have to stack our ideas vertically.