All Else Equal: I’d Rather Not Get Hit in the Face With a Tennis Ball

The Zone of Proximal Development May Have an Evil Twin

There are times when a lot of things can simultaneously go wrong, and a person can quickly find themselves in a veritable maelstrom of worry. There are also times when we can see certain problems approaching on the horizon, which appear blurry at first, but viciously clear once they are too close to outrun. Other problems drop down on us out of thin air, and can’t easily be predicted.

When confronting several problems at the same time, I am fascinated by my ability to try and compartmentalize them to persist and eventually, rise above them. Today, while on a walk with my spouse, I was articulating an idea about how we as humans do this, related to how much one can take before it becomes too much.

In the learning literature, there is a concept known as the “zone of proximal development,” which in short, can be explained using three concentric circles, one inside the next. The inner circle contains the things in life we can achieve without assistance. Things that may require some learning or adaptation, but things we can accomplish; nonetheless. The next circle represents the zone of proximal development—things we can achieve if we work hard to learn new skills and to push ourselves. This is the zone of proximal development—aka, the zone we want to spend time in because we learn and understand the most in pursuit of these goals. If the goal is too easy, we won’t learn as much, and thusly, won’t grow as much. The last circle represents things that we (the learner) cannot do, or things that will potentially burn us out if we attempt them with any fervor. For me however, I am quite interested with this third circle, which represents the things we want to achieve that may break or bury us. These are the goals and aspirations that come hell or high water, even after doing our absolute best, we may never achieve—and these are the things I wish I could master.

I spend a good amount of time in the zone of proximal development, but from time to time, I accidentally veer outside of the second circle, and color outside of the lines. For me, the longer I spend outside of this zone, the more at risk I am for severe burnout. When we truly give ourselves to our art, we can forget what it means to be human; and conversely—safe. What strikes me about this illustration is that I believe it may also apply to stressors.

It could be, that certain stressful or harmful events in life (loss of a loved one, getting fired, etc.) when happening in quick succession, can force us out of the second circle into a very bleak and foreboding state. This is the inverse zone of proximal development, or, the Alpha Jerk—as my Dad and I refer to it.

As I was describing this inverse zone to my spouse during our walk, right as I was articulating how I think people can sometime get wrapped up in so many bad things at the same time incidentally, a tennis ball hit me right in the face. Let me quickly explain why this is so beautiful. I had been walking alongside a tennis court, waxing philosophically about this stream of negative events. The chain link fence surrounding the court is ~18’ tall, and that fence is surrounded by densely packed array of pine trees that are almost ~25’ tall. Somehow, and some way, a tennis player managed to aggressively lob a tennis ball over the fence that hit me right between the eyes. It hit with such intensity (primarily because I was deep in thought), that it took me a couple of seconds to realize what had just happened.

I went to pick up the ball and throw it back over the trees/fence, but kept failing. Eventually, my spouse just squeezed the ball under the fence successfully, which also made me feel stupid for not thinking more creatively. Strangely enough, she had stopped to excise a rock form her shoe a few feet before I was struck, and thanked me for saving her from being hit by using my face as a shield. I laughed at the situation, due to the sheer statistics behind it all.

When I thought about the odds that I would be expressing this exact idea, walking at just the right time, and a fast tennis ball would hit me so clearly between the eyes and knock my head back, I thought to myself—this is amazing. Of all the free space and objects, I was chosen for a reality check. The odds alone were worth laughing at, because mathematically speaking, it was a beautiful coincidence.

I absolutely prefer not being hit in the face by tennis balls when walking around talking, but would gladly exchange the fleeting discomfort of the situation for a good story; and perhaps that is what it’s all about in the end.

Nick Warren

Nick is the Founder & CEO of MetaSensor, a venture-backed internet of things startup located in Silicon Valley, and a Behavioural Product Designer at Duke's Center for Advanced Hindsight (with Dan Ariely et al.). | Read Full Bio »

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