From snowball to iceberg

In You Are What You Love, James K. A. Smith asks us to imagine a snowball sitting atop an iceberg. 

The snowball represents our conscious reasoning. When we learn something new, it goes into our snowball. 

The iceberg represents our intuitive, emotional processes. It is where our default behaviors live—the things that power our instincts and intuitions.

Smith argues that if all we ever do is cram new information into our snowball without consciously applying it, it probably won’t impact our iceberg—and our behaviors won’t change. But if we consistently apply our snowball learnings, little by little they seep into our iceberg.

I use this analogy to remind myself that whatever I repeatedly practice is likely to become an unconscious action. This cuts both ways. If I am practicing something destructive, I need to be careful, because it is seeping into my iceberg. But if I am practicing something life-giving, the more I do it, the more I will do it.

Think about when you first learned to drive a car. Driver’s Ed put the theory of driving into your snowball. In the early days, you had to really concentrate to translate that information into behaviors. You had to watch your speed and turn your turn signal on and turn your windshield wipers off—sometimes all at once! Remember when that used to be a lot of work? But the more you consciously practiced driving, the more your clumsy actions became fluid. You took a theoretical understanding of how to drive, created a ritual around it by driving each day, and pretty soon, you became a driver. You got knowledge from your snowball to your iceberg.

I love this metaphor. It helps me see why knowing doesn’t automatically translate into doing—why I can read a book, be intellectually stimulated by it, and then . . . see nothing change. Learning feeds my snowball. Practice changes my iceberg. And, for better and worse, my iceberg is who I am.

TV shows and movies often paint a different picture. They show someone having a revelation and—like magic!—changing for the better. I used to wonder why my personal revelations didn’t translate into similar magic. The snowball-iceberg metaphor explains it. Revelations influence my snowball. It takes repeated effort and action, 1% at a time with self-compassion, to turn that influence into something transformative.


—Max


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