Edge of Tomorrow symbolically encapsulates one of my simplest, most basic and fundamental beliefs about life:
The key to advancement in any life area is mastery of skills, and the key to mastery of skills is constant—no, endless—practice and repetition.
It sounds like such an obvious platitude as to be almost meaningless. And yet banal and obvious though it may be, many of us fail to live by this simple truth.
We fall short of living by it for three main reasons.
(1) First, we are sold the fantasy of constant, ever-changing stimulation and diversity of experience. Whereas once upon a time boredom was simply a given fact of life that we had to learn how to deal with, in our present day of media saturation and the constant flux of stimuli and information, boredom is feared as the ultimate curse, the ultimate stigma. We want something new and different constantly, and the common perception is that a boring life is the sign of a failed life.
(2) Next, on top of the desire for constant newness is the desire for quick advancement and progress in all things. In whatever arena of life, whatever project or endeavor we’re working on, we want progress and we want it quickly.
(3) Even if we’re willing to do the necessary work for the skills that we want, we’re not always willing to do the necessary work for the skills that we need. But to fully succeed in the kind of world we live in, we must become adept at all the skills that we need.
The self-defeating problem here lies in the fact that (a) real progress in most meaningful things is by nature achingly slow, and (b) not only is it slow, it requires that we endure something that is anathema to the average, modern mind: tremendous amounts of repetition and sameness, often with tasks that we don’t like.
Where Edge of Tomorrow gloriously embodies this principle is in the surreal and bewildering existential conundrum that our hero Major William Cage finds himself in, that of living the same day over and over again—much like his spiritual cousin, weatherman Phil Connors from Groundhog Day. But whereas Edge of Tomorrow uses the same essential setup, the mythical lesson and payoff is different. Groundhog Day is about learning to love and the value of serving others. Edge of Tomorrow is about skill mastery and ultimately, through the mastery of skills, mastery of situation, self and life.
Every Day is Exactly the Same
Remember that song “Every Day is Exactly the Same” from Nine Inch Nails’ With Teeth album? Well, even though Cage’s predicament is literally that every day is almost (if not exactly) the same, this fantastical scenario accurately captures people’s fear and dread about repetition.
Sure, at first glance Cage’s problem seems like it’d be kinda cool, especially if you were caught in a war in which your life hung by a thread. Screw up and get killed? No problem, you get a second chance to correct your error tomorrow… er, today redux.
But how soon do you think the novelty of that situation would wear off? Pretty quickly. Imagine having to be in the same place, doing the same things, hearing people say the same things, and going through much of the same routine with only minor adjustments. Especially with the level of patience that people have nowadays, this is a quick shortcut to nervous breakdown and ultimately madness.
And yet this imaginary, quite unrealistic situation accurately symbolizes and sums up the kind of courage, fortitude, resilience and godlike patience that the mastery—and I mean real, true mastery—of any significant skill or talent requires. And since skill mastery (or at least skill proficiency) is the key to advancing in life in your chosen ways be it artistically, financially, athletically or any of those things, it all comes down to those qualities of courage and patience—the courage and patience to repeatedly endure all that exhausting effort, discomfort, pain and, yes, boredom that the process of mastery requires.
Through the tutelage of one of my life mentors, and through the study of the lifestyles of certain figures who were geniuses in their chosen skill areas (such as the Japanese swordsman Miyamoto Musashi, actor/martial artist Bruce Lee, and even people in my own life such as a dance team called Last For One that I used to manage in a previous career) I saw and eventually understood the sheer epic scale of practice that was necessary to become not just good but great at something.
Moreover, a significant portion of said practice must be practice of the very basics, not all the fancy, advanced stuff that promises more fun, diversity and the elite status of being an “advanced” student. I promise you that if you truly master the basics, you’ll be ahead of 90% of the competition. And now here’s where that dreaded repetition and sameness comes back into the picture.
One of my favorite sequences in Edge of Tomorrow is when Sergeant Rita Vrataski is training Cage like a relentless taskmaster, shouting, “Again! Again! Again!” as Cage gets knocked to and fro ad nauseum by training robots.
How long do you think Cage spent in that training room? The editing in this sequence suggests a very long, long time. How unspeakably bored he must have been at the repetition, how frustrated by his constant mistakes and failures, and how afraid of the many ways he was being brutalized and killed. And sure enough, in the beginning of this sequence we see him looking bewildered and discouraged. But eventually he commits himself so completely to this process that the fear, frustration and ineptitude fall away and what’s left is the confidence of a man who’s done this a million times and the unwavering determination to succeed no matter what. Why? So that he can finally get the hell out of that damned training room and, by extension, to finally win the war and escape from the surreal nightmare he is trapped in.
Ironically, therefore, when you feel trapped in a life situation of soulless repetition and boredom, the paradoxical answer is not trying to escape from that repetition through meaningless distractions but fearlessly embracing undaunted repetition of the skills you need to get out of that situation and into a better one.
Live. Die. Repeat.
Next, I’ll talk about how to specifically interpret the symbolism of Cage’s daily deaths in the context of my overall discussion of practice and mastery:
My aforementioned mentor used to say to me, “For the new you to be birthed the old you must die. Apply yourself in your daily tasks with such utter focus and commitment that by the time the day is done, you will have died.” Naturally, since we’re talking about repetition, he had to repeat this many times while assigning difficult tasks for me to do over and over (“Live. Die. Repeat.”) before I finally understood it on a visceral level. And what he meant by “dying” was essentially two things:
(1) At best, when many of us go about our daily tasks we are on average about 40% present. I’m telling you, the sensation of boredom as you do a repetitive task—even one that strikes you as being very menial—doesn’t come from giving too much of yourself to the activity. It comes from not giving enough of yourself to the activity. When you truly put everything you’ve got into your daily tasks, even the repetitive stuff somehow is not boring. There’s a sense of the dissolution of self (“death”), a sense of time becoming distorted, and a sense of something meaningful coming into being (“rebirth”). This phenomenon is similar to what psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi calls “flow,” but whereas he maintains that the way to attain flow is through activities that you enjoy, I argue that you can attain flow with just about any activity, and the stronger and more practiced your mind, the more you can attain flow with even unpleasant and painful activities.
(2) As you keep repeating the process above over and over, gradually you begin to shed your previous sense of yourself and your limitations. You realize you’ve somehow managed to do things that you might not have thought you could do before. Hence, you’ve “died” and been “reborn” as a better version of yourself. Near the beginning of the movie Cage says, “I’m not a soldier.” And it’s true, he’s not. Yet by the end of the movie he’s the ultimate soldier.
An Example of Real-Life Application
Lest I ever be accused of not practicing what I preach or of talking abstract nonsense that doesn’t apply to real life, consider the following for what it’s worth:
I live under a set of circumstances in which repetition and sameness is a defining quality of my days in terms of both the physical routine and the subjective experience of it. The vast majority of the time I am at home, alone, and I do the exact same things. I check and answer e-mails, I write and edit articles and update this website, I go onto social media using my PopMythology accounts to keep my followers engaged and to stay relevant. Some of these activities, like the writing for instance, are for me inherently pleasant activities yet ever-present pain and fatigue make them difficult and even excruciating at times. Every once in a long while my friend Lee visits me but other than that there’s no social interaction except through maybe Facebook (which is a double-edged sword). And every day I wake up knowing I’ll be doing this in the same room in the same chair in pretty much the same way.
Yet I try my best to apply what my mentor has taught me in the ways I’ve discussed in this post so that I can manage (sometimes barely but nevertheless I do manage) to stay patient and positive in a situation that has remained virtually unchanged, at least on the surface, for two years now. At the same time, I trust that the specialist skills I’ve learned and am still learning as a result of doing the same thing every day will eventually lead to proficiency, perhaps even mastery, in my current field no matter how long it takes, no matter how many times it takes. And when that happens you bet your ass I will not be trapped in the same room doing the same thing every day anymore.
This is why, in way that I can’t do full justice to here, I was moved by the montage sequences of William Cage trying and failing, failing and dying, dying and learning and doing it all over again and again and again and again, never giving up no matter how many times he keeps having to do the same s**t, always looking for another way because there’s always a way to get over and past the edge of tomorrow to a better future.
And if that almost sounds like a video game, well, that’s because from my perspective, it kind of is.
All right. Let’s recap:
• Whether you’re content with your current life situation or trapped in an undesirable situation, if you want to advance then the key is to master the skills that are relevant for your chosen path of advancement.
• The path to mastery involves an endless, almost torturous degree of practice and repetition. Moreover, this practice should mostly be of the basics of the skills you need. Bruce Lee said, “I fear not the man who has practiced 10,000 kicks once but I fear the man who has practiced one kick 10,000 times.” In other words, don’t distract yourself with fancy crap that makes you feel more advanced but is actually just an illusion of advancement. Stick to the basics and master those first. Consider that Miyamoto Musashi could defeat skilled swordsmen with a single swing of his wooden sword while they were armed with steel swords—not in sparring sessions but in actual life-and-death duels. How many times do you think he practiced that swing to be able to do that?
• The state of “flow” alleviates the sense of boredom and repetition even if the task is by nature boring and repetitive. And the way to enter flow is sustained, laser-like concentration which in itself is difficult to attain but gets easier with… yup, repeated practice. So you see how even the very act of concentration is a skill that you can improve only with repetition.
• Success is often more of an endurance test than anything. Even when a less-than-ideal situation feels never-ending, simply refuse to give up (if the goal is important enough to you) and just keep practicing, focusing, and taking the next small step, one day at a time, and before you know it a year has passed. Two years have passed. And you look back and see that you’ve already walked quite an impressive ways. PopMythology.com, for instance, went from nothing to one of the top 1% of all websites worldwide in just over a year of pushing through pain, fatigue and boredom and working like a possessed maniac every single day.
• When you get so frustrated that any of the steps above feel too daunting, you might give your imagination a twirl and do what I do: mythologize the situation. Pretend you are William Cage or some sort of version of him. Imagine you’re trapped in an endless loop and you’ve done this a hundred times but the only way to get out is to do it right. So what difference will a few more dozen times make? Your survival and even the survival of the world is at stake. Boredom doesn’t matter. Frustration doesn’t matter. All that matters is that you keep trying until you get it right and each and every failure is just another step closer towards success.
Time plus repetition is one of the most awesome forces in nature. It literally moves mountains. In the face of such a force, something so small and insignificant as a human goal will sooner or later fall at your feet with a sigh of surrender.
Got it? Good. Now read this post again.
Nine Inch Nails, Groundhog Day, Live. Die. Repeat. Yeah!
Nine Inch Nails, Groundhog Day, Live. Die. Repeat. Yeah!