Wednesday, July 5, 2017

Try, Try Again: An Empiric Approach To Learning

The two key concepts for today are empiricism and inculcation. Fancy four dollar words but both with very simple meanings for our purposes:

Empiricism: learning by doing

Inculcation: learning by repetition

The first time has launched scores of philosophical debates over the nature of reality but ultimately, there is no substitute for trying something out. If you want to figure whether you enjoy something or not, you have to go *do* it. No amount of book learning, dialogue with practitioners, visualization, or any other pre-"doing" technique will suffice for the actual experience.

Over on Farnam Street Blog, the post "The Map is Not the Territory" reminds me of my own literal first jarring experience with this truism. As a college student, I was new to the city and did not have a car to move around. Like most cash-strapped folks, I relied on the subway to get around. The map was nowhere near to scale, yet I assumed it was a reasonable proxy for distance.

In simpler terms, I assumed something two stops away was "twice" as far. Big mistake.

Imagine my surprise when I realized I could walk the same distance for free in less time. 

The map: 
Source: MBTA

is not

The territory: 
Notice any differences? The city began to make much more sense to me once I started running regularly and could understand how physical places connected together. 

The larger lesson is that the models we are given to represent a concept to learn are great for getting you about 70% of the way there. By necessity though, they must leave out detail in order to not overwhelm one with extraneous information. 

To master a concept though, 70% is nowhere near enough. To get as close to 100% as possible, we have to be empiricists. We have to do the thing we intend to achieve. Want to become an author? Make a habit of writing daily. Athlete? Practice. Chef? Cook. 

However, remember that the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different outcome. That is why the inculcation must involve deliberate practice. 

The concept of deliberate practice has been advocated by psychologist Anders Ericsson who is most closely associated with the 10,000 hour rule (the notion that world-class talent requires 10,000 hours of practice). Ericsson dives deeper in his book Peak, explaining that each repetition must have some goal behind it in order to accelerate one's journey from novice to master.

As you ponder taking up a new task, focus on creating as many opportunities as possible to do the activity you are interested in. Once you start, then try to practice deliberately by breaking the skill down into its component steps. Ask those who have mastered the skill what specific steps they were taking to improve. You want as much detail as possible here. Then just try, try again until you are an expert. As they say: you make your habits, and then your habits make you, so make good habits!

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