25 Jul 2013

Some things I've come to understand about learning:

The hedonic treadmill is the ultimate enemy of happiness. Experiences degrade. The second time something happens, it's not as good as the first. The effect is absolutely general; for anything, you'll gradually need a bigger and bigger hit to get the same rush.

Skills are the only way off. You'll still need a bigger and bigger achievement to get the same rush. But, because you're getting better, each one is bigger.

Being good at something is not only joyful, it's the only kind of joy that doesn't go away.

You're not just training one skill, you're training the entire supporting pyramid. If you're learning the 'Side-by-side 8-count Charleston', you're also picking up levels in 'Charleston', 'Swing Dancing', and 'Dancing'.

The base of the pyramid is very general, so general that you can't even see it in action. In this example, that might be "physical coordination", "holding the beat", perhaps "rapid memorisation".

It's not necessary, or even possible, to train the skills at the base of the pyramid directly. They come as a side effect, but they're important.

The pyramid explains why some people pick up even very new things quickly. I have seen people walk into their first ever swing dancing class, and master in minutes steps that took me weeks. I used to think that they were simply talented; more likely, they had a solid base to build on.

Thinking about this base means that all skills, even esoteric ones, are much more valuable than one would expect. A law degree, even unused, comes with skills in reasoning, argument, research, and analysis. At the extreme, knowing how to interpret the Australian constitution makes you better at understanding the data models of London healthcare startups.

The pyramid offers hope; with a large number of separate, but related, skills to learn, the second will be faster than the first and the third will be much faster. Progress is not linear.

But it works the other way, too; if you're missing the base, initial progress will be very slow. This is where the overhang gets you.

Starting from zero is brutal. When you are very bad at something, doing it sucks. Since the only way to get better at something is to do it, this means that the learning experence is going to suck.

That's fine. A lot of things which are great fun suck at first. Distance running is a good example; each time, kilometer one sucks, and kilometer ten makes it worth it.

And, soon enough, you'll be good enough that the learning will be enjoyable, or at least it won't suck. You've reached the turning point when the new skill is useful - that is, it enables you to achieve something other than just getting better at it. This is the edge of the overhang; once you've cleared it, the slope is gentler, and progress is steady.

But here's the gotcha: If you fall off, you get nothing. No satisfaction, and no new ability. If you ever try this skill again, you'll be starting from zero.

It's not until you clear the overhang that you can save your progress.

And that means that the best way to get started is to hit the skill with everything you've got, to focus relentlessly, until you pull yourself over the top. After that you can relax.

After all, this should be fun.