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To Learn, Do

January 21, 2022 | 4 Minute Read | Category: Learning

Our second child is only a few weeks old and so much is different this time around. Granted, no child is the same and she is not the same as her big brother. But there’s something else going on as well. My wife and I are "experienced" parents now (or as experienced as one can be on the ever-changing rollercoaster that is parenting 🤣).

When we brought our first child home, my wife and I had no idea what we were doing or what to expect. In fact, I wish we had a time-lapsed video of that first night at home, because it would read straight out of a sitcom. Nothing was organized like it needed to be. We were overly cautious about everything. We were running around the house trying to find this or prepare that. Neither of us slept at all that night and we ended up calling family the next morning for some reinforcements.

Fast forward two years and things with our second are completely different. I know how to swaddle a baby like I know how to ride a bike. I’ve changed 100s - probably 1000s - of diapers at this point. We know how to organize our house and our time. Feeding, burping, changing, cleaning, holding, rocking, swaying, comforting are all fairly second nature at this point.

So what changed? Perhaps obviously, the answer is "experience". But what does that actually mean? What about our prior experience prepared us for the next one?

While there are likely multiple reasons, I think the two most meaningful concepts are context and pattern matching.

Let’s talk about context for a minute. Going back to the parenting example, before our first child, I had no idea what it felt like to rock a colicky newborn crying for hours til 3:00 in the morning, night after night after night. Someone could have tried to explain it to me, tried to describe it, but I wouldn’t have known what it was like. I couldn’t have known the emotional and physical toll that takes and the subsequent ripple effect that has on everything else you still have to do as a parent (I don’t want to sound overdramatic; it was hard but it wasn’t impossible). But having gone through it, I have context for what is required. When our second came home, even though what she needed was different, I had context for what being a parent required and I was able to prepare accordingly.

A closely related concept is pattern matching. We as humans have an innate ability to notice and extract patterns from the world around us. As we see and do more, we start to pick up - both consciously and unconsciously - on how things work. More importantly, we are able to identify how to solve problems we’ve experienced in the past. When parenting, here’s my internal dialogue showing how this plays out: "Oh, the baby’s acting this way. It’s probably [thing I’ve seen before]. I know how to handle that." I’ve identified the problem before. I’ve solved the problem before. So I’m able to more quickly identify and solve the problem now. This is the hidden superpower of experience.

What does all this have to do with learning? The best way to learn a new skill is to do it. Learning a new language? Speak it as soon and as much as possible. Learning software development? Build something, no matter how small or how simple. The path to mastery is paved with experiences, both successes and failures, that give us more context and more effective pattern matching for next time.

I will leave you with the wonderful parable of the pottery teacher from Art & Fear by Bayles and Orland:

A ceramics teacher announced on opening day that he was dividing the class into two groups. All those on the left side of the studio, he said, would be graded solely on the quantity of work they produced, all those on the right solely on its quality. His procedure was simple: on the final day of class he would bring in his bathroom scales and weigh the work of the "quantity" group: fifty pound of pots rated an "A", forty pounds a "B", and so on. Those being graded on "quality", however, needed to produce only one pot — albeit a perfect one — to get an "A". Well, came grading time and a curious fact emerged: the works of highest quality were all produced by the group being graded for quantity. It seems that while the "quantity" group was busily churning out piles of work – and learning from their mistakes — the "quality" group had sat theorizing about perfection, and in the end had little more to show for their efforts than grandiose theories and a pile of dead clay.


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