2013-08-26

Skill Development For Non-Beginners

I've written about the idea of the perpetual beginner in the context of running and fitness, but isn't it odd that I haven't managed to apply this very important idea to other aspects of life? No matter what you might be interested in doing, there comes a time when you've picked all the low-hanging fruit, and the only way to experience additional gains is to stop approaching things like a beginner.

Think back to the time when you were a child, learning how to do all the things you now do reasonably well, such as playing a sport or a game, speaking a foreign language, playing a musical instrument, writing, etc.

If you were anything like I was, you invested yourself heavily in practicing, often for hours at a time. It made sense, because you had hours of free time. Even when you got together with friends, you all spent some of that time engaged in the kind of play that facilitates the development of that skill. I used to get together with my friends and play music, or listen to it. My friends and I also used to play basketball together. Now that I am in adulthood, I find that have acquired a certain level of musical ability and basketball ability.

In adulthood, our lives consist of competing priorities. We can no longer play music all evening under the assumption that our parents are going to cook us dinner and wash our laundry and keep track of the time for us. We want to play music, but we have to do all that other stuff, too. (Of course, if you don't play a musical instrument, feel free to insert some other hobby of yours - golfing, writing, working in your wood shop, whatever.)

Just because we're adults doesn't mean we no longer have any desire to improve our abilities, so we do set aside some time to pursue our hobbies. But here's the crux of today's blog post: Our first thought is to pursue those hobbies using the same practice method we used as children, when we developed a great deal of skill in a short period of time. But this is the wrong approach entirely.

On the one hand, our expanding set of competing priorities prevents us from dedicating the kind of care-free, hours-long block of time we need to hone our craft like we once could, as aforementioned.

But more importantly, setting aside hours of practice time may no longer be the correct approach to develop our skills beyond their present state.

Take music for example: As a young guitarist, I could experience major improvements by setting aside an hour or two to work on picking speed and accuracy. After a few weeks, my playing speed and knowledge of scales would have really improved. But today, I already have that picking speed and scale knowledge. It's not that I already play as fast as I want to, it's simply that I'm experiencing diminishing returns: An hour of picking-speed drills results in a much smaller gain today than it did when I was a young man. Of course, the same is true for my training as a distance runner, or my writing, or my cooking, or etc. etc...

As an adult, I require a different approach to practice. For raw guitar technique, I need to capture marginal returns by doing a little bit of technical exercise daily. And I should do likewise for other aspects of music: spend a little time every day writing, a little time working on tone, a little time working on improvisation.

Now that I've picked all the low-hanging fruit in my childhood, what matters now is working steadily and consistently on each skill; not for hours at a time, but for a few well-focused minutes.