A couple of years ago I utilized a set of simple underlying principals of learning something new to learn how to juggle. Within a week, I was able to comfortably juggle three juggling balls.
Next year I used the same principals to learn how to draw faces and drew the face of a loved one which others were able to unanimously recognize. Within a week I learned how to touch type and within a month, crossed a typing speed of more than 100 words-per-minute.
This year, I had two life skills in my bucket list –
- Learning how to drive a stick shift in the crowded streets of India. Learn this to a point where I can confidently drive where I want to go; without consciously thinking about it.
- Learning how to play the piano and play one song by ear – no notes to refer, no looking up the song on YouTube, no reference.
Driving was the easy bit. It is all about spaced repetitions and frequency. When you start, driving a stick shift is excruciating. Over and above everything you need to learn to drive an automatic transmission, you’re dealing with the clutch and the gear. If the manual stick shift car you are driving doesn’t have hill assist you are also dealing with the mechanics of the hand brake and a strange combination of gas pedal, clutch and hand break; particularly while driving on slopes.
But the fundamental principals of driving are simple. You learn how each of these bits work, you find a place to practice and you repeat. Every single day. You do that for a day, a week, a couple of weeks and then somewhere a switch flips and you don’t even realize that you are driving. Suddenly you are having a full blown conversation with your family in your car as you drive even in a really crowded street. The mental circuit required for driving is internalized. Driving just moved from the upper and more conscious layers of your brain into your basal ganglia.
For me, the act of driving a stick shift was internalized in a couple of months. Within a few weeks, I was driving on highways, I was driving dozens of kilometers and in a couple of months, I was at a point where I didn’t think twice before taking my car out to drive where-ever I wanted to go.
But did I fully accept that I can drive? That’s the complicated bit.
As a matter of fact, even today, after months of driving and having no hesitation in driving, if you ask me if I know how to drive, I would have to take a pause and think before I responded in the affirmative. But I have no hesitation in taking the car out and literally driving dozens of miles. I basically learned how to drive, sooner than my brain had accepted fully that it knew how to drive; which was really creepy.
The theoretical moving bits of learning how to play the piano are really even simpler. I just focused on playing the melody / notes of the song and did not worry about learning the chords. The goal was not to be a musician, but to get to a level where I can enjoy some personal time with the piano and play any song I wanted. To learn, you start out by:
- Looking up a song on YouTube and you memorize the notes.
- As you play it you learn that each melody is composed of a sequence of keys, if next note is a higher pitch than the one you are playing, it’s ahead of the current key – how ahead; is defined by how higher the pitch is; and there are no negative marks for trying and failing. If it’s a lower key, it’s behind the current key.
- Now you look up a few more songs on YouTube but this time you don’t memorize them. You use the video as a reference. See the song and play it on the piano, once; by looking at the video / tutorial. Come next day and you would have forgotten the song completely; but this time instead of looking up YouTube you try to guess the keys. It’s a bit or memory, bit of playing by the ear. Soon you’ll realize that if you forget a song, you can make up missing bits, by ear.
- Repeat. Create a library of songs, but do it such that you don’t have to refer to sheet music or a YouTube video more than once. If you forget the songs the next day you should be able to get to the forgotten keys by ear. Get a library of songs big enough that it would be impossible to memorize; and that is when you will slowly start playing by the ear; but only when you forget something.
I reached and remained in this stage for months. I would look up a song, play it and then never forget it. If I did, I would make up the parts in between. I had given up the idea of playing without looking up the notes or sheet music even once. And then one fine day, in my living room, I felt like playing a song I did not know, so I gave it a shot. I was certain I would fail, and that I would have to look up YouTube or sheet music once, but the creepiest of things happened. I played the song; and my nephew who was in the same room, instantly recognized the song I was playing. It took me a few minutes to make the song, but I was able to play it without any reference. Just like driving, I learned how to play the piano, before my brain had fully accepted that I knew how to play the piano. Clearly, my brain was taking longer at accepting that I had learned something than it was taking in actually learning that thing.
The same thing has happened with me multiple times now. Even today my brain has not fully reregistered that I can juggle comfortably and I have to take a pause before I tell someone that I can juggle; but I can juggle three balls; comfortably; for a long time; without stopping. The same with driving. The same with piano. Which of course led me to ask the million dollar question:
Is our learning speed limited by our belief systems around how fast or slow we can learn something? Are our brains taking too much time before they allow us to accept that we’ve finally learned something? Is our productivity also limited by our belief system around how productive we can be?
And I was not looking for a stupid, “you can do it” styled answer from another YouTube guru. Because, when you research answers like this one, the internet rewards you with a lot of it is voodoo science ideas like affirmations and the power of positive thinking. I was looking at solid scientific studies around this topic. Research that has been done on how the brain’s belief system works and how it empowers or limits us in the endeavors we undertake.
The Sandford Prison Experiment
Assume that you are a psychologist, and device a small experiment, where you pay students fifteen dollars a day to participate in the “psychological study of prison life”. You randomly divide the groups into prisoners and guards (without telling the group that the other group is a bunch of students too) and you give your guards real uniforms and give them strict instructions that prisoners should not escape. How do you think the guards would behave over time? When phycologist Philip Zimbardo conducted this little experiment, the participants who believed that they were guards became so brutal and barbaric in the treatment of the prisoners; that the experiment had to be stopped in five days. The surprising part? Reports from the study indicate that the participants playing prisoners in fact had become abnormally submissive and were tolerating the abuse being dished out to them simply because they were playing the role of prisoners. The Stanford Prison Experiment was a chilling experiment how regular people can become abusers or victims simply by temporarily tweaking their belief systems.
The Fastest Mile
For hundreds of years in the sport of competitive running, based on the human anatomy, it was believed that human beings are physically incapable of running a mile in under 4 minutes. On May 6th, 1954, Roger Bannister, a middle distance runner, who had come really close to the 4 minute mark but failed, was supposed make one more attempt to break the 4 minute mile challenge. But because of the headwinds of 25 miles/hour Banister had made up his mind to not run and try again on a more opportune moment. Moments before the race however, the winds, dropped, and Bannister decided to run. That day, he ran a mile in 3 minutes and 59.4 seconds. Suddenly the popular scientific belief that the human body is incapable of running a mile in less than 4 minutes was shattered. And now that the sports world believed it is doable, the record was broken again, and again, and again. Today, a 4 minute mile is commonplace phenomenon in world class middle distance runners. The Latest record stands at 3 minute 43.13 seconds. Bannister’s run makes us wonder what changed? Did humans evolve rapidly or develop some genetic mutation that made elite athletes who till that day, had never been able to run a mile in under 4 minutes, now suddenly run it in much sorter time? Of course not. What happened is their belief systems changed. Their brains gave them permissions to run faster.
The famous experiment on learned helpless by the father of positive psychology, Martin Seligman, famous study on fixed mindset vs growth mindset by Carol Dweck, and the famous literature on the Luck Factor where participants saw more opportunities around them just because they believed they were lucky are all concrete studies conducted with scientific rigor which tell us that we are just as limited by our mindset (if not more) than we are limited by the hard the physical realities around us.
Why A Realistic Expectation Of Time It Takes Is Important.
When I was young, I worked with someone who would often use the phrase, “Nothing in life happens as fast or as slow as you think it will”. This phrase applies massively to learning new things. We grossly misestimate the time it takes to learn things.
At first, we fail, because we grossly underestimate the time we will take to learn something. And when we fail, we then grossly overestimate the time that thing will require and we give up.
On one hand we give ourselves a week to learn data science and then get disappointed that we’ve even forgotten the basics of statistics that we learned in high school. Then we go to the other extreme, think it will take years to learn, tell ourselves, “what’s the point?” and quit.
When we think of learning an artistic skill like playing a musical instrument, drawing or juggling it’s the same. We think we’ll just buy the piano and start playing it. When that doesn’t happen in a week or two, we get bored, we think it will take years and give up.
In reality however, I’ve seen that the focused deliberate practice of 20 to 40 hours (spaced over 20 to 40 days) is enough to make you reasonably good in any skillset you would like to dabble with. It won’t make you an expert, but it will bring you to a level where you become way better than someone who has never tried it and good enough to keep your brain engaged enough to keep tinkering with the skill, stay interested and learn more in months to come.
So the next time you want to learn something, Give yourself 30 minutes of deliberate practice in the morning and another 30 in the evening. Repeat it for 30 days. Do it with an open mind and you’ll be shocked to see how rapidly Neuroplasticity works. Soon your brain will start giving you permission to start playing the piano or start drawing, design a complex statistical model for that tiny little data science project you had in mind, start programming in rust or do whatever it is that you want to do. And the sooner your brain gives you the permission to believe you are getting actively better, the sooner you learn things.
The trick to allowing your brain to give you this permission is timing. It is most likely to happen if you have realistic expectations around how fast you are going to pick up things and how much effort will be required. Remember, nothing in life happens as fast or as slow as we think it will, particularly when it comes to learning something new. Now go pick up something new and interesting, set realistic expectations around how much time you are going to invest, engage in sustained deliberate practice and watch some magic happen. Of course it won’t happen as fast as you expect when you start, or as slow as you expect when you are about to give up. With this new insight in mind, go on, give something new a try. I wish you good luck.