A Learning Plateau

Ancient Atlantis
Ancient Atlantis by European Space Agency (CC-BY-SA)

Anyone can play guitar and they won’t be a nothing anymore Radiohead

So you want to learn how to play guitar? Awesome!

Step one, get yourself a guitar. Great, you took the first step!

Step two, start playing any pop song ever. Great, now you know chords!

Step three, check out some cool and/or classic guitar riffs. Great, now you can read tabs!

Step four, learn a bit of music theory and realize that the pentatonic scale always sounds good. Great, now you can improvise!

Congratulations, you can now play guitar. This is your progress so far in ASCII art:

      |    /
      |   /
skill |  /
      | /

Finally, we have step five: Practice and hone your skills. Oh shoot, the progress now feels like this:

      |     ___________________
      |    /
      |   /
skill |  /
      | /

I call this the learning plateau, and it seems that when trying to learn new skills, arriving at the learning plateau is an inevitable part of the process.

It goes like this: In the beginning, the learning curve is linearly increasing, but at some point, it starts feeling like the curve is flattening out and the improvements become smaller and smaller. While this is not inherently a bad thing, it gets frustrating when you know that you can improve, but there is no clear indication of progress.

When it comes to playing the guitar, knowing all the scales, chords and music theory there is to know will not help with the speed of the guitar play, or the coolness of the guitar riff improvisations. Improving this particular subset of skills takes exponentially longer than learning a new chord. At this point, it is easy to start making excuses for practicing less or even giving up entirely. I kind of did that…

Bend the curve

So how does one deal with being “stuck” on the learning plateau for a particular skill? To be honest, I don’t really know, but here are some thoughts:

Decide whether it is actually an important priority to improve the skill.

For example, is it really important for me that I improve my guitar play? Will I see any long-term benefits from putting in that effort or am I content with the current skill-set that I have obtained?

It seems silly to continue pushing forward if it does not feel “important” to do so. However, in my own experience, lost interest can sometimes be the consequence of facing big difficulties rather than an actual loss of interest and that is a bad excuse for quitting :-) This actually leads to:

Realize that it is always possible to improve.

Shake off that fixed mindset and start nurturing your growth mindset. For example, learn to play that guitar riff at 120 beats per minute rather than 110 — not a huge improvement, but it is an improvement. And playing the guitar just a bit faster sometimes opens up for playing different genres of music or making improvisation more interesting. Small improvements add up.

Form productive habits.

It is no secret that the people that get very good at their trade (whether it is art, business, entrepreneurship, etc.) put in a lot of deliberate practice, directly or indirectly. The overnight business success is a huge myth and even the most talented musician has to practice several hours per day. I recently stumbled upon an inspiring quote from Andrew Ng, a prolific and well-known figure in the Machine Learning field:

When I talk to researchers, when I talk to people wanting to engage in entrepreneurship, I tell them that if you read research papers consistently, if you seriously study half a dozen papers a week and you do that for two years, after those two years you will have learned a lot. This is a fantastic investment in your own long term development.

But that sort of investment, if you spend a whole Saturday studying rather than watching TV, there’s no one there to pat you on the back or tell you you did a good job. Chances are what you learned studying all Saturday won’t make you that much better at your job the following Monday. There are very few, almost no short-term rewards for these things. But it’s a fantastic long-term investment. This is really how you become a great researcher, you have to read a lot.

People that count on willpower to do these things, it almost never works because willpower peters out. Instead I think people that are into creating habits — you know, studying every week, working hard every week — those are the most important. Those are the people most likely to succeed. Andrew Ng

The question is: How the hell do successful people get motivated and how do they stay consistent? Andrew Ng seems to suggest that forming habits is important and this is a topic that I have only recently started researching in more detail. I read a blog post recently about forming identity-based habits and that was a good starting point for me at least.

Take the first step.

It sounds almost cliche, but taking the first, small steps towards a specific goal is important. It is also a good place to end this post. It is my first step into a hopefully more creative 2016. Happy New Year and thank you for reading :-)

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