In order to start this blog, I had to know or learn a lot of things. For example, I had to

  • register hosting and a domain (not new for me)
  • configure WordPress
  • choose a WordPress theme
  • figure out, how to create posts and pages
  • figure out, how to create a contact form and link it to email
  • et cetera

Of course, with experience, those tasks take less time and become easy. The blessings of confidence is conferred upon a persistent human!

Spoiler alert: this is not what learning a skill feels like. This is learning knowledge.

You may have some examples of your own. In order to learn to lift weights, you

  • talk to a personal trainer and check some videos to figure out the correct form
  • practice with light weights to pay maximum attention to the form
  • increase the weight and/or repetitions, as the form has become ingrained

Do you see the pattern? As you keep practicing, you are able to memorize the rules, you gain confidence, and – basically – you keep getting better every day.

Let’s try once again. If you are hired by Starbucks, in order to become a competent barista, you

  • read the (Starbucks beverage manual)
  • try executing instructions a few times, until you are familiar with the machines and the common problems (out of milk, out of coffee, need more water)
  • keep making beverages as the recipes and the rules get engrained. As you get better and more confident, everything takes less time, and you become free to improvise. You then consider yourself a skilled barista.

Linear learning: every day you feel better

That was the pattern: all those scenarios are linear. You learn a little bit, then you learn a little more, then you learn even more. As you keep getting better, things take less time, and you feel more confident.

For lack of a better term, I refer to such learning as learning knowledge. The key features are (1) once you learn something, it stays with you, and (2) every day you know more than the day before.

Every field includes some amount of linear learning. In chess, you start by memorizing the way each piece moves, and this doesn’t change. Music students memorize every note, major and minor scales, different tempos, and this doesn’t change unless you venture into atonal music. Future doctors have to learn anatomy – names and functions of bones, tissues, internal organs – and this knowledge, once again, is fixed and cumulative.

As you notice, the linear knowledge comes in the beginning.

The Paradox of Linear Confidence

You have started learning a new field, and keep accumulating knowledge. Every day you are getting better, building up on the day before. Every day your confidence grows.

No matter how many years have passed, chances are… you are a beginner. And an overconfident one!

As a matter of fact, you may be worse than a beginner. It takes much less time and effort to teach a person from scratch to mastery than it takes to teach someone from false confidence and ingrained bad habits to mastery. We are talking years of difference!

Unless, of course, you are a mnemonist. In the ancient times, people would commit to memory entire books, and it had great value for the preservation of knowledge. Nowadays knowledge preservation is delegated to books and computers; memorization is useless. Strictly following a process does have utility. Society needs people to follow processes that have been discovered over centuries. I don’t want my pharmacist to experiment with what prescription to give me or to challenge conventional doctrine, neither do I want a barista at Starbucks substituting black pepper for cinnamon.

Following rules, even complicated ones, is not a skill, at least under my definition. It is what you do in the beginning of learning a skill. For many people, the beginning becomes the end.

Circular learning: as one thing gets better, the other one gets worse

You add meditation to your daily routine. You feel more focused for a part of the day, but it also takes your most productive morning time, previously used to brainstorm business ideas.

You add more salt to the dish. Some people love the new version, others think it was better before.

You try a new chess opening. It confuses your opponents, but it confuses you even more, so you end up losing a lot, even after a year of using it. Your confidence and your motivation go down.

This is what learning a skill feels like. That’s the irony: you keep learning more — but it feels like you are losing what you had. Previous confidence in the rules fades away, and you find yourself in a swarm of ideas and tactics, none of which seem reliable. You can call it the “intermediate level”, but it stays like that forever; it’s just that many experts run out of steam after becoming “advanced”, and stay content with incrementally adding linear knowledge to their hard-earned foundation, but not engaging in the “circular” process any longer.

Why isn’t everyone engaging in this circular learning process?

The “Perfectionist” trap

As a rule of thumb,

a perfectionist is someone at a beginner or intermediate level who has a self-image of being intermediate-advanced because of a “linear confidence”.

As discussed, perfectionists are great rule-followers for the society. We want our pharmacists to be perfectionists. We want the food safety inspectors to follow their book to the letter. Electricians, plumbers, and even taxi drivers may well be perfectionists. This is not, however, a way to mastery.

I was watching an online tutorial on household chores by a cleaning lady with 20 years of experiences, and one piece of advice has stuck with me:

Know when to stop. When it’s clean, it’s clean.

This is not just being business savvy, as those folks are paid per hour while being judged on results. It’s that the time spent cleaning one surface is the time not spent cleaning another surface, so to attain mastery as a cleaner you have to balance your overall “budget” of time and energy.

The difficulty of doing it is profound. When you first learn cleaning, even as a child, you learn that more cleaning is better, and the very act of expending cleaning effort gives you a certain satisfaction. Then there are past references experiences, when you were scrubbing something very hard and for a long time, and in the end it became sparkly and beautiful. The challenge then becomes to let go of this emotion, stop scrubbing when you know it is clean, now when you feel enough effort has been expended, and move on to another surface. This is extremely hard to do — to recognize the need for such a balancing act in the first place, then to keep asking yourself “is it enough?”, then to calibrate your judgment. Most people are not willing or able to suffer through this circular learning process after they are already good at what they do, and that’s why so few ever attain mastery.

Worse, there is usually a positive self-image attached to perfectionism. “I am a professional, and I do my craft well.” There is something to be said for this mindset: it’s enormously powerful and incredibly useful. If you cultivate it, it will serve you well… to a point. When Shunryu Suzuki talks about (having a beginners mind), this is what he means: being willing to engage in circular learning, potentially rejecting your experience and the emotional attachment to it, even after you are relatively “good” at what you do. Your (in)ability to overcome this obstacle will determine your ceiling.

The “Let’s All Be Friends” Teachers’ Trap

Here the guilty ones are the teachers who don’t want to upset the students. Competition and criticism are avoided — as is progress.

There is time and place for complete acceptance. If you are dealing with a traumatized soul, shower it with love! If you have students who have been repeatedly told that they are incompetent or that they are bad at X, by all means, praise their every accomplishment. They are in the linear phase of a beginner — or they need a linear phase at the moment.

That is all fine, temporarily. Then the real teaching should come, and it can only happen by upsetting the student’s existing worldview — again, and again, and again, and again. And again. The teacher can be a friend of the students, but this friendship should allow for critique. You can’t change someone by sugarcoating the truth, because even if you throw the truth in their face, it will take repetition, and most won’t get it. If you want to sugarcoat, you should quit teaching and become a barista at Starbucks.

If you like to sugarcoat, consider becoming a barista.

The students make this mistake by choosing a “sugarcoating” teacher. A friendly personality of a teacher can be appealing, but there is a world of difference between a friendly teacher who will nevertheless firmly guide you on a circular path to master and one who will at best support a linear learning process, and at worst will make you feel better while letting you ingrain bad habits, all but guaranteeing that you will become and stay a mediocrity in that area.

Yet it is always the student’s responsibility: basically, if you feel confident, you are not learning, or the class is too easy for you.

The “It Has to be Difficult” Trap

It is akin to the Perfectionist Trap, but without the inflated self-image. The mistake is the same: perceiving the learning path as linear far past the beginner stage.

Perhaps the most insidious obstacle, this trap can cause great suffering and lead to years, even decades of, arguably, wasted effort.

In general, it is very hard to know, when to continue going in the same direction versus when to quit or change the strategy. Skill learning is no exception. If you’ve tried completing a marathon and failed 10 times, perhaps you need cross-training, a change in your diet or in your sleep patterns. Perhaps you just need another 10 attempts, who knows?

There is one way to know and it’s the mindset of it has to be difficult. Just as the linear learning model itself, it can be a good and useful mindset to have. Quite often, given two options, it’s better for the long-term to choose the more difficult one, just as of two products, the more expensive one tends to be of better quality. “You get what you pay for” applies to exerted effort as well.

This mindset is useful, but it prevents the circular learning process, because you are redoubling your efforts instead of questioning your feelings and assumptions. At the advanced stage “it has to be difficult” is incompatible with further progress, because a mastered skill feels EASY.

Getting from intermediate to advanced involves separating the stuff that you’ve learned that is useful from the stuff that you’ve learned that is not, and systematically unlearning the stuff that is not in order to minimize that mental and physical effort. That means that, depending on the stage of learning the skill, “learning” is an entirely different kind of a process. It feels different, it looks different, and it just is different.

Universal Learning Mindsets for a Circular Learning Process

My own writing is getting so esoteric!

If mindsets such as “my execution has to be perfect” or “it has to be different” have limited utility, and you may not even know at what stage you are to assess that utility, then what mindset to follow?

Which is a good direction?

Which direction to choose?

Here are the learning mindsets I have found incredibly helpful at every stage:

  • I am going to master it, and I will pay any price. Even if I have higher priorities, I still keep this mindset. It’s not logical, but it works.
  • I will study my own learning process and keep looking for ways and resources to learn better and faster.
  • If today I am not performing well, whatever, I play with the cards I’ve been dealt.
  • If today I am not motivated, whatever, I practice without motivation.
  • My worst days are my best days. So if I feel uninspired and not performing well, I will look for a breakthrough.
  • I am responsible for my progress. If something external affects it, I reinterpret it in a way that helps me learn faster.
  • I expect that the improved way of doing things will “feel wrong”.
  • If everything fails, I increase the speed of my thinking.
  • I have a repertoire of linear “extra” things to work on, to fill in the capacity emerging with experience. This is an absolute must if you want to progress and the activity is not feedback-rich. For example, if you are writing an article that should takes 1 hour to write and you accomplish it in 55 minutes, thanks to the accumulated experience, how would you spend the extra 5 minutes to make it better? If you are not as tired after a workout as you normally are, what extra thing would you do to squeeze in more learning?
  • I expect that accomplishing previously impossible things will not feel “real” until substantial repetition over months and years. I will suspend disbelief on a daily basis to try and expand what I can do.
  • There are other incredible mindsets such as “how do I create more value?” and “what are the consequences of this choice?”, but they aren’t directly relevant to learning a skill.

If this is too esoteric, don’t worry. Learning a skill is not linear, and such insights are only understood in the context of a real-life situation. The value of reading about it is that some day you will have an experience, you will stumble at one of those mindsets, and you will recognize it for what it is.

More knowledge isn’t better. What do people say about the education system, in every country? It’s terrible. It’s useless. It’s producing mindless drones who are only good at following orders (hi, Starbucks manual!) The hardest part of learning, and one producing the most results, is not learning knowledge. It is changing the organization of previously learned knowledge inside your mind. This is what learning a skill is about.