How we learn and how we measure ourselves (and others).
Learning is universally applicable. We apply it to everything in life. Some even say that death is graduation day. Some, sadly close their minds off at a certain age (Like after high school) or after infusing some dogmatic hyperbole (you know what I’m talking about brothers and sisters).
Part of learning is self-assessment of where we’re at and where we want to be. I have my own personal “Chang scale” I use to measure the value and quality (as I see it) of various artistic endeavors. In the formal education system, we have grades. If we pass the tests and do the homework, we get moved up to a higher grade. The grades not only act as a measuring stick, but also prescribe the type and level of knowledge to be imparted to us. Outside of the school system and its grades and diplomas, we have other, simpler ways of measuring ourselves (and others). Common methods of measuring skill level are things like high, medium and low levels of proficiency. And then there are terms like beginner, novice, intermediate and advanced. Some people add more levels like expert or advanced intermediate. Truth be told, these are all subjective. Smart-ness (I know) is in the eye of the beholder.
When I’m trying to learn something, mental or physical, and whether it be guitar, writing, mountain biking, hockey, surfing, or whatever, I tend to sense myself hitting walls and being on a plateau for a period of time before making some breakthrough to what is clearly a higher level of proficiency. However many levels you break the learning process down into, I have found myself usually having two or three eureka moments and facing two or three plateaus where I just seem to be stuck. For the sake of simplicity, I will stick to low-medium-high (beginner-intermediate-advanced) or whatever you want to call it, in my examples.
I remember when I started out playing hockey as a kid, I could barely stand up, let alone skate. This is rank beginner-hood. As my skating skills slowly progressed, I remember the hallmark of my playing ability was that as soon as I was in possession of the puck, I would take a quick look around and then push the puck in the direction of the nearest teammate (despite their shouts to “skate”). It was at that moment when I could actually skate and stickhandle the puck with my eyes up, looking around as I skated that I felt my game improved dramatically. I was actually seeing the game from a different perspective. I had made it past the first roadblock and into the intermediate level. I developed bits and pieces of advanced play before I had to hang up the skates due to recurring injuries: like being able to propel a backhand shot with velocity to the top of the net, being able to redirect slapshots from in front of the other team’s goal, being able to slam on the brakes hard when skating backward and the attacking opponent thought he could pull a fast one on me by slamming on his brakes. I never really got to be a seriously advanced player because I never was able to skate fast enough. But IMHO, I came close.
Surfing: (a big shout out to my bro Bert Mack out in Hawaii)
Starting to learn to surf, you find yourself endlessly paddling around looking for a wave you can take off on. There are little things you learn along the way to that first hurdle, like being able to duck dive out through a rip. But that first big eureka moment for me was the first time I was able to stand up and actually ride a wave (granted it was only knee-high) all the way until the wave closed out. I didn’t make any hotdog moves for sure, but at least I was able to steer the board away from other surfers paddling out (I’m certain that they appreciated that). I actually had a glimmer of advanced skill when I was able to ride an overhead wave in New Jersey after a nor’easter had passed offshore, without dying. Surfing an overhead wave without dying is always a good thing to accomplish. Again though, a spate of hockey injuries to knee, shoulder and back kept me from going much further. I have only surfed maybe twice in the past twenty years and probably will find myself back down in beginner land the next time I go out.
I remember getting that first guitar. The feeling is sheer exhilaration. But then you hold it in your hands and all you can do is strum a few open chords, and you wonder if you’ll ever be good enough even to say play in a garage band just for the fun of it. Thoughts like that alone can really hold you back. But I found as I studied music theory for guitar, played my idols’ riffs from tabs, and noodled around, that when I got to the point where I could play bar chords, power chords and other movable chords in all positions on the neck, with reasonable speed and timing, that I had passed my first hurdle. I had become a reasonably competent rhythm guitar player (note I did not say guitarist. There’s an implication of anything with “ist” at the end being an artist as well as technician). So now, my endeavors to take it to the next level involve learning speed lead (A.K.A. shredding), slide, improvisation and articulation. I figure maybe by the age of eighty I’ll be a pretty advanced guitarist (notice I used the superlative suffix this time).
When starting out in photography (and probably all along the way), you take lots of pictures every chance you get. You bring a camera everywhere and are always on the lookout for a great shot. As a beginning photographer starting out, you take snapshots (not to be confused with slapshots). For me, the transition to an intermediate level is somewhat still in progress. I am framing my shots in more interesting ways. I am a devotee of the eastern world’s view of background and empty space being of equal importance with foreground and objects. And I am gaining an understanding of how light behaves—how it is absorbed or reflected, refracted and diffused. My experience in sound engineering has helped me quite a bit in understanding how energy waves can behave and how you can capture them to your liking. I am carrying this into videography/cinematography, and discovering that the fourth dimension of time adds quite an interesting and challenging new set of issues. I’ve been learning that framing now involves knowing where a moving object enters the frame, where it exits the frame, and how long it stays in frame. Similarly, when camera and subjects are both moving, the angle of light hitting the subject and the lens changes. There’s so much to learn. I’m in awe of the very good cinematographers I know locally and have had the pleasure of working with.
When learning a foreign language, you typically start out memorizing phrases and carrying a phrase book when you travel. This works fine if the foreigners you meet always use the canned phrases. Of course this rarely happens. But they can look at your book and point to a phrase and let you know what they’re trying to say (like “don’t pester me”). When you are able to understand enough grammar and built up a reasonable vocabulary (say, a few thousand words), you have made it to the next level. You can construct sentences and understand what people are saying (for the most part—assuming the foreign speaker has mercy on you and sticks to basic simple language). Instead of a phrasebook, you probably will carry around a dictionary. And then as you might expect, the next level of proficiency is fluency. There are always levels within these broad classifications. Native fluency is a level that few can ever achieve in more than one language, save for children born into a mixed household or living abroad from a very early age.
In general, it is commonly believed that children learn things more easily than adults. The reason is not entirely clear. Some believe the brains of adults become less plastic and thus less open to reprogramming. Whatever the reason is, it seems evident that someone learning a skill from early childhood tends to gain proficiency faster and to a higher level than someone learning the same skill as an adult.
Abilities involving physical skills development tend to plateau at a point where only the development of complementary mental skills can carry the person to a higher level. Elite athletes know that the higher level you attain, the more the game becomes more mental in nature. Things like developing muscle memory, ignoring pain and fatigue, “psyching out” the opposition, and staying positive despite facing seemingly insurmountable odds, are all traits of an elite performer. The top hockey superstars talk about not just knowing where the puck is, but where the puck is going to be. I’ve read the same about good action photographers. There is a sort of instinct or “sixth sense” that develops at the highest most advanced levels of proficiency.
I have no doubt that learning itself, like any ability is something some people have more of an innate potential for. But like anything you strive to attain, hard work, dedication, perseverance and self-confidence can carry you over many of the obstacles that block the path to high proficiency. But one of the saddest things is observing how many people just plain give up on learning new things and improving their selves. For whatever reason, it seems a terrible shame to not care about being a better person in some meaningful way every day.