What Is The Best Way To Learn To Do Something Well?


Thursday, 8.47pm

Sheffield, U.K.

Perform your duty equipoised, O Arjuna, abandoning all attachment to success or failure. Such equanimity is called yoga – Bhagavad Gita

I felt like there’s been something missing the last few days of writing – a feeling of being tapped out, exhausted, running out of energy and content.

Maybe that because the big ideas seem to run into each other – the differences seem less relevant and the insights questionable.

For example, take the value of mathematical modelling.

That’s something I would have been quite interested in once upon a time for decision making.

But now I’m not so sure.

If you want to design a new bridge or a heart valve then modelling is crucial – you’re building something real and if it doesn’t work people could die.

But when you’re trying to choose between options the value of maths seems to fall – and what seems to matter more is maximising the opportunity to gain power and avoid blame.

It starts to be about people and people are hard to model mathematically.

It can also seem a hopeless task to try and understand anything new well.

After all, the 10,000 hour rule says that you must spend that much time over around ten years to get any good.

I’ve always had that rule in mind which is why I’ve given myself ten years and a million words to get better at writing.

And it appears that I’m wrong.

I watched a talk by Josh Kaufman, the author of The first 20 hours where he explained why what I thought was wrong.

The 10,000 hour rule, it turns out, comes from research into how much time you need to spend to become one of the best in the world at something that can be easily tested and ranked.

If you want to become one of the best violinists, for example, you’ve got to put in your time and then some.

But you don’t need to spend anything like that amount of time to get merely good.

Kaufman argues you can get to good in as little as 20 hours – 40 minutes of practice a day for a month – if you’re strategic about it.

Kaufman has a model and lists for how to go about acquiring a new skill – but the main takeaways for me are about two things.

First, sort out the environmental issues.

Decide what you’re going to do and block out time every day – preferably at the same time – to practise doing it. And get rid of distractions – notifications, children, your spouse.

And get the tools and space you need and keep them to hand – basically make it really easy to do what you want to do when you’re ready to do it.

And second, be structured about how you learn.

Focus on the things that come up often – the high frequency components.

Create a way to check you’re doing it right.

And practise, practise, practise – repeat, repeat, repeat.

Now, to give you an example of how this might be done – I’ve created the picture at the top of this blog.

I’ve been drawing images for my posts (badly) for a couple of years – nearly 700 of them so far.

I’ve been telling myself that it’s all about communication, not art.

But recently I found a book called The cartoonist’s workbook by Robin Hall which breaks down the drawing process in a way I hadn’t seen before – and this is what you see in the image above.

First, if you want to learn to draw cartoons, you will need to draw people – but those people are often built up from simple shapes – circles, boxes and so on.

So, you need to practise doing those fundamental shapes because you’ll use them again and again.

That’s the first thing then – selecting high frequency elements to practice – common chords in music, common steps in dance and so on.

The next thing is to make it easy to get things right.

Hall is the first cartoonist I’ve seen who says to draw on lined paper – and that makes a huge difference.

Suddenly, getting the size of things right is easy because the guides are there.

A head, for example is one line while a whole body is four lines.

In another life when I used to teach dance we used to tell students to take a step that was hip-width apart.

This often ended up with some people taking tiny steps and others taking huge leaps – and we had to clarify – but eventually they got it.

And then the last bit is repetition – doing the bits again and again until you start committing them to muscle memory.

And then you move on to the next element.

Now, I suppose if I were to add my own approach to this I would do a couple of things.

First, it’s not enough to practise the elements alone – it’s important that during each learning attempt you try and create the sum of the parts – a whole.

Break the thing you want to do into its elements, practice the elements but then put them together as well.

And the second is to worry only about what you’re doing – not about reward or failure.

It’s worth learning if you’re having fun doing it.

And that’s enough reward.

In Indian culture we think of Yoga not as an exercise – but as a way to do something – a way to learn, a way to be, a way to act.

The way is what matters.


Karthik Suresh

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