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The Truth About Learning

February 12, 2013 Leave a comment Go to comments

hspu1from Matt Madeiro

My quest to master the free-standing handstand has been a semi-predictable one: hands down, feet up, my nose inches from crashing into the hardwood floor. I’ve fallen more times than I can count, tweaked my wrists more times than I should probably admit, and pulled a muscle in my shoulder that then stung like hell for a solid two weeks.

I shrugged it off. I kept going.

Over the last year, I’ve had periods of trying, failing, and then stretches where I threw my hands up, kept my feet firmly on the ground, and stopped practicing altogether. Oddly, those periods of no practice were some of my most useful. Something changed whenever I let my arms rest and put my attention elsewhere, though it always changed for the better.

Five minutes before writing this article, I tried again. My routine, now, is to squat low, place both palms on the floor, and kick straight up, my torso locking in a sharp line while my feet go skyward.

This time, I did it. This time, I held. And I had, somewhere in those twenty-odd seconds of victory, a strange thought: holy crap, something changed.

By and large, learning isn’t a linear process. You can’t read a Spanish textbook and pop up afterwards with full fluency. You can’t take a single class, put in an hour or two of work, and come away with a new skill in your lineup. But you can read. You can work. You can put in time, more time, and maybe more time after that, and you can wake up, one day, realizing that all those hours—all that sweat—made a difference.

You changed. You got better. Not by leaps and bounds, maybe, but by something more interesting: a little bit, then a lot of a bit, and then just a little again.

You hear the number 10,000 thrown around a lot. By some estimates, that’s the number of hours required to really, truly master something. I dig the idea (and isn’t it a nice, round number?), but I don’t dig what it suggests: that learning is a standard, smooth process, with a well-defined end point. I’m not so sure it works like that.

I think it works like this: you start. You try. You struggle, you throw your hands up in frustration, and then you wake up one morning and realize that something has changed. Maybe everything has changed. Maybe, just maybe, you find yourself suddenly comfortable shooting your legs straight up above you.

You probably won’t know why. You probably won’t even know when the change occurred. But the wrinkly thing between your ears gleaned something new from all those hours of practice, and it finally—finally!—got around to telling you.

I think that’s kind of awesome.

Don’t Give Up


Here’s the point. There’s two, in fact.

1. Start. Go. Ship. Begin. Pick your verb, but pick your action — that first step you need to take, now, to start learning whatever new skill that you’ve been waiting to tackle. Everything comes back to this.

2. Don’t give up. You’ll get frustrated. You’ll wonder, time and time again, why you can’t do already this certain thing, and you’ll wonder why you haven’t come as far as expected given all the time put in.

Learning isn’t linear. Honestly, it’s kind of a mess. In a funny way, though, that’s a blessing. There’s no need to get frustrated. There’s no need to doubt yourself. There’s no need to give up.

There’s a need, instead, for something much simpler: starting. Sometime after you do, you’ll change. It might be 10,000 hours, or it might be 10. No matter the number, though, your obligation remains the same: start. Keep going. Keep trying, keep learning, and keep changing.

That’s all you need to do. Let your brain puzzle out the rest, but give it plenty of time, too, for the puzzling.

There’s no better investment.

And now, if you’ll excuse me, I think it’s time for late-night handstands.

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