Wednesday, June 11, 2014


One of the great difficulties in thoroughly learning anything is the deceptive, increasingly difficult and slow pace at which we learn.

I will give you an explanatory example from my own progress this summer as a biker. Not long ago I recounted my early experience as an out of shape biker starting a new commuting plan. I believe there was some mention of a large hill, vomiting blood (don't worry, it was a metaphor, I was merely coughing up blood, and it was leaking from my eyes), and an exhaustion so profound I was having visions of enormous turkeys. Now I have been biking steadily for a couple weeks, pretty regularly, and though I don't breeze up that giant hill, I do ride up it. I do not need to stop and collapse for ten minutes. I don't need to stop at all. I just keep going. I consider this to be a lot of progress. Let's say I have, in two weeks, gone from being a beginner to being an advanced beginner. I think at this rather sparkling rate I should be a Tour De France level athlete by the end of the summer. No, seriously: two weeks to advanced beginner, two weeks to early intermediate, two weeks to intermediate, and so on to Professional level in about 14 weeks. There I'll be, on my green, 200 pound, three-speed city rental bike, competing with the greatest bicyclists on the planet. And when I finish in a respectable 43rd place I can say that at least I did it without steroids.

But this won't be happening.

It won't be happening because improvement is exponentially difficult. It is twice as hard to go from advanced beginner to early intermediate (say, a '2' to a '3') than it is to go from beginner to advanced beginner (1 to 2), and it is four times as hard to go from early intermediate to intermediate (3 to 4). So what I am saying is that though I improved a full rank in a couple weeks, I might, if I keep at it consistently, improve another rank sometime later this summer, at which point I will stall out. I will not be able to progress at all beyond that point, I mean, not without focus, pointed dedication, a much longer time period, and an increased commitment in every way.

We have a great many books at my library on how to learn a vast number of things. Many of them try to set you at ease by insulting you, thus the Dummies series and the Complete Idiots guides. Some just innocently claim to be for beginners. But whatever the selling approach the general conceit seems to be that a gentle approach to the basics will be appealing to those wanting to learn. In my experience they are reasonably good at this, but, and this is important, only for one or two chapters, whereupon they completely lose sight of the fundamental nature of learning: that each step is exponentially more difficult. These books will take you up to the early dawnings of intermediate level stuff at a relatively moderate pace, but then they will fully assume that you will continue to develop and learn at that exact same pace. You will be left behind because that is not the normal pace of learning.

There are some other things I have to tell you about learning, but don't you think this is enough for today? It all gets a lot harder from here on out.

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