I want to pick up on an aspect of the master’s path I wrote about last week, and that’s the role of memory. Or rather, how difficult it is to form certain types of memory, particularly muscle memory and that automaticity that can go along with being in “flow.”

Tonight I was again getting back on the path of reviving my musical interests (somewhere between the paths of hacking and mastery) while my partner was playing on the computer. As I was winding down she joked “how about some Stairway to Heaven?”  The funny thing is, I could immediately play a jazzy improv version of StH, followed by a bluegrassy version, followed by the straight version. It was probably the cleanest piece I played all night. I swear I haven’t played any of those in years, and even then just once in a blue moon while goofing around. Stairway to Heaven was one of the first “real” guitar pieces I learned when I picked up the instrument in high school (and who in my generation didn’t learn that as part of their repertoire?), and I remember drilling away at it all summer, hours on end.

Most of us have probably heard the “10,000 hour rule” popularized by Malcolm Gladwell in Outliers, based on research by Anders Ericsson. Without picking apart the details, Ericsson claims that one needs about 10,000 hours of focused practice to acquire a skill to the point the rest of us would recognize as “master level.”  I should go back and read Ericsson’s original writings on expertise rather than popular interpretations of his ideas – I’d like to understand more about the, well, recalcitrance (if that’s the right word) of the human brain/nervous system to ingrain new patterns.

Huh. I realize my memory of some basic educational psychology has faded over the years since graduate school (somehow, I can’t recall classic readings on demand the way I can pop up with Stairway to Heaven).  But I remember a more-or-less evolutionary argument for why our systems are biased toward a certain conservatism.  With notable exceptions (e.g., the single trial learning that occurs the first time one encounters a hungry tiger), humans are creatures of habit.  A major section of Alva Noe’s book Out of Our Heads: Why you are not your brain and other lessons from the biology of consciousness dealt with habit, and how we probably couldn’t get through the day without most of our activities being automated, a function of subconscious habit. We simply can’t handle that much complexity in real time without “off-loading” the processing to other, more automatic parts of our brain/bodies. Imagine, to use a really dumb example, what would happen if you had to consciously remember to draw each breath!  Then coordinate – as a toddler – swinging one leg forward, transferring your weight, swinging the next leg forward… and don’t forget to breathe!  Oh, and look ahead!

Hmmm… it’s late and I don’t have a lot of mojo for writing (still on the once-a-week kick, though!), so perhaps I’ll come back to this mid-week.  Mainly, though, I’m seeing that the path of mastery (lots of persistence and focused practice) is rooted deeply in our physiology. Cursing and wishing it wasn’t so… well, that expresses some frustration, and then it’s back to practice.

I do want to hang out with this idea of practice.  There’s an idea from Aristotle that goes roughly “we become that which we practice being.”  I’m particularly interested in the non-school activities of kids nowadays, and what they “practice” throughout the day, both in semi-formal settings (sports teams, after-school clubs, street gangs) and in less well-structured settings. More on that later.

Mastery and other paths

Once again, the commitment to write – something! – at least weekly is turning out to be an interesting challenge. Some weeks are rather “ordinary,” where there are no grand epiphanies to be written about. What to write on these ordinary weeks? I suppose look back on the ordinary moments and see what themes emerge.

Last Tuesday I went for a trail run (first one of the season). Near the trailhead is a site where the city tree trimmers drop off the logs and limbs from major trees they’ve taken down. Local scavengers (the 2-legged variety) come by to take home some free firewood, while others (like myself) look for wood to squirrel away in our shops.  On Tuesday there were a couple of folks there with a portable saw mill slicing up some nice redwood slabs.  I was limited to what I could physically lift and carry over to the trunk of my car (as well as what I could store in my garage/shop), so I walked away with a couple of pieces of oak, what looked like crotches and other gnarly pieces with severed limbs and knots sticking every which way out of it.  These can often hold beautiful gems of wood grain on the inside.

I split one piece in half, chucked it onto the lathe (without even rough-cutting it into a circle), and started turning away the outer bark. There were some inclusions (bark that had grown inward between the limbs that met in the crotch) that promised an interesting pattern. Of course, they were also structural weaknesses – would the bowl hold once I started hollowing and thinning the walls?  Well, as the pictures below show, it stayed together.

That was a good exercise over the course of a couple of evenings. Having free wood to play with allows me to experiment and take chances with design choices – I have nothing to lose but my time, and even that is in service of learning and improving. As it turns out I might have tweaked the profile of the final bowl just a little, but overall (so far) it looks like a serviceable bowl for serving nuts or snacks at a party.  Whether it survives the drying process (which could take several months) is another question. “Green” bowls distort upon drying, and the structural weaknesses in the wood could decide to give way.  That’s part of the delayed learning process.

So this project was a small learning segment on a much longer journey of mastery. In fact, that’s what most of the week was like: I learned a little bit more about some technical aspects of my day job, had some minor breakthroughs in my relationship, continued practicing music… just staying open and aware and letting the learning happen.

The late George Leonard wrote a book on “Mastery.”  A PDF copy can be found here at scribd. It’s a fun, easy read, and very insightful. A keen observer of human learning (his own and his Aikido students), he’s characterized some typical “paths” that we take as learners. His characterizations have what we in the biz call “face validity” – we recognize the truth in them intuitively.

First up, the path of mastery:

If you think of the vertical dimension as “progress” in a general sense, and the horizontal dimension as time, this is Leonard’s take on the master’s path. It involves lots of time spent on plateaus, simply practicing our practice. Then (although the detail isn’t apparent in this diagram, but I’ve heard him describe it this way), things start to fall apart – there’s a small dip before the growth spurt. Growth tends to happen in spurts, and then there’s a settling back down into another plateau. As they say on the bottle: lather, rinse, repeat. This is mastery.

There are a couple of critical components to this path. The first is that most time is spent making very little discernible progress. That can be very discouraging to people who like instant gratification or quick fixes. The second is the somewhat chaotic nature of the growth spurts. In particular, that sense of things actually getting worse before they start to really improve is paradoxical, but I believe it signifies the beginning of some significant cognitive/neurological/whatever reorganizations. A time of “things falling apart” is emphatically not the time to give up in the pursuit, but to hang in there just a little while longer – great learnings are just around the corner.

Leonard’s three other paths are pathological cases (no pun intended) of how we fall off the path of mastery.

The Dabler

The dabler’s path is to start something with enthusiasm, experience that first rapid growth spurt, but when the inevitable plateau comes around say to oneself “this is it? I’m bored… time to move on”.  Variations on this theme include “I guess I wasn’t cut out for this” or “I guess I have no talent.”  So we move onto different activities or fields, and experience the same dynamic…

The Obsessive

The obsessive dives in 110% to a new activity. S/he attempts to prolong that initial growth spurt through increasing effort, refusing to accept any form of the plateau. “If you’re not growing you’re dying” is the motto.  Ultimately this simply isn’t sustainable – nobody can keep improving at a constant pace forever (I claim that as if it’s a fact, but it’s just a generalization from personal observation. If anybody knows of a counter-example, please fill me in!).  In athletics we see the injury-prone athlete who doesn’t know how to recover or taper effort.

The Hacker

This one is my personal nemesis.  The hacker starts off looking a lot like the path of mastery. Growth spurts, plateaus, more growth spurts. But then there’s that plateau that never seems to end. What’s happening here is the appearance of steady practice, but not masterful practice. And although I cite this as my personal bugaboo, we all probably do all of these in various areas of our lives. I enjoy bicycling, but my mountain biking skills haven’t noticeably improved over the past decade. When I was training for a century I was on a good mastery path, but then ramped down the effort during the fall and winter. My history with music is one of very long plateaus, dropped interest, and then a long time spent regaining the facility I had when I last stopped.

(Well, I guess I found something to write about, even if it’s just reflecting on someone else’s writing)

I’d like to – obviously – stay on the path of mastery in as much of my life as possible. I’m doing it in my primary relationship – I’ve experienced more steady, genuine growth here than in any other time of my life, and have also never worked as diligently at it. I’m trying to stay attentive to my growth in woodworking and woodturning. The challenge for me at the moment (as has been the case in the past) is musical – staying at it when sometimes what I’m playing doesn’t flow very well.

Flow. Leonard cites Csikszentmihalyi’s work on Flow as being a characteristic state of one on the master’s path. In my day job as a researcher I experience flow frequently, getting lost in my work, not knowing where the time has gone.  That’s one place I don’t worry about falling off the master’s path. Similarly in the woodshop – I can stay at a task all day, plodding along at a relaxed pace, engrossed with what I’m doing.  I think the trick for me in music is to find the style and level that lets me flow. I’ve played mostly classical guitar, which is technically demanding and not always the most soul-satisfying genre of music. I’m been branching out more this past year, taking classes in celtic and folk music, trying to find that style that makes it effortless to pick up an instrument and practice on a daily basis.

So there – I found something to write after all.  I do recommend Leonard’s book (available on Amazon and probably still in print at brick-and-mortar stores) as a fun read, particularly for my friends in education. And of course, I’d love to hear your own stories of mastery (and/or other paths) in the comments section below.