On Skills and Learning

Authors note: Publishing this because I’m publishing drafts today. This post is entirely true and many people would benefit substantially from internalizing its ideas. It reads more like the intro to a post though – a sequence on skills and learning is something I’d like to produce at some point, and this would be a good part of that.

There are a few things about skills and learning them that I have found hold broadly true, but which do not seem to be understood, or at least not felt deeply, not internalized, by most people. I’ll try to explain them here, as I think that they’re surprisingly important and in some ways liberating. In short, they are: everything is a skill; skills can be learned; and skills are mostly the culmination of many small things.

Everything is a Skill

I mean this very nearly literally. Most people understand some version of this, but don’t understand how broadly it generalizes. There are two extremes of this that people tend to fail to understand.

First, people underestimate the degree to which small things that feel automatic are skills. Breathing, for example, does not feel like a skill – and yet there are whole schools of meditation built around improving your skill at breathing. I have personally struggled with anxiety and panic attacks, and learning how to focus on the skill of breathing and execute it even when under duress has been of extraordinary value to me. If you can only take deep breaths when you’re calm and relaxed, but fail to be able to when you’re anxious, you can improve your skill at regular breathing. Many things, things we think of as small, fall into this category. Sitting can be seen as a skill: how’s your posture? Do you even know what it should be? Walking is a skill: I know a woman who once walked incorrectly in such a way as to cause herself significant pain. And so on. The only things that are small enough to truly fall outside the skill category, in my conception, are basically basal body procedures: digestion, heart beating, etc.

Second, on the far side of the scale, people overestimate the idea of talent and the extent to which it matters in terms of large, obviously skillful things. Many people believe they could never become good painters because they lack the talent for it, for example. And talent, which is a very vague word that I’m going to avoid delving into too deeply, definitely exists in some form. Most people, no matter how hard they work, can never become LeBron James or Flash or Picasso. But the impact of talent is minimal unless you’re competing at the very top of the ladder, and believing that talent is critical to success as a beginner is an error, and usually one deployed demotivationally – the one who says “I’m just not good at math” is justifying their unwillingness to work; they are not stating a deep truth about themselves.*

Accepting that everything is a skill is both overwhelming and liberating. On the one hand, it means that getting good at new things is mostly going to be a lot of work; but on the other, it means that getting good at new things is possible.

Skills Can Be Learned

This sort of dovetails from my digression on talent. There’s not much to say about this that isn’t straightforwardly implied by the title: skills can be learned. If you want to get good at writing, or playing guitar, or running, or whatever, you can. The issue is internalizing that belief. Too many people believe they can’t learn new things – baby boomers who have spent 20 years believing themselves incapable of learning how to use computers, teenagers who believe they will never be good at math, etc, etc. Truly believing that you can in fact learn new skills is powerful, which is why the sentence gets its own section.

Skills Are Agglomerations

(I’m working on coming up with a pithier version of this title…)

The process of learning something is dominated by the acquisition of a large number of small skills. There is a common narrative that learning consists of someone getting an epiphany about the subject at hand – all at once, a true, deep understanding of something is acquired, and with it a new level of mastery: the student has seen the code behind the matrix. This model of learning is dangerously false, and not merely false but in fact almost an exact inversion of what really goes on.

Learning generally proceeds in plateaus, where one alternates between learning small things and then integrating them into a deeper understanding. The common mistake is getting the order wrong: the sub-skill acquisition precedes the integration. Telling someone about the circle of fifths teaches them nothing unless they’ve already learned their scales; telling someone who can play all their scales in their sleep teaches about the circle of fifths unites the disparate ideas into one bigger concept that they can then employ. The same can be said for basically any large, structural idea in any subject. The formalization of an integer has no use before you know a bunch of them. The formalization of a rational number requires you understand integers well, and that you have encountered the need for ratios, and so on. Writing the fundamental theorem of calculus down for someone won’t help them – that’s the integrative part of what requires a bunch of examples and motivation to get to.

* On the extreme ends of the spectrum, there are people who will truly lack the ability to learn various skills. These are well under 1% of the population in most cases. Basically everyone without a significant mental disability can learn calculus, and yet you would be hard pressed to find a room of adults without at least one person who thinks they never could – the incidence of this kind of true inability to learn something is dramatically overestimated.

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