Learning is a Rewarding Bumpy Ride

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The past year has been a whirlwind: lots of personal and professional change, growth and new experiences. I’m looking forward to sharing some of it. I’ll start off by writing about a subject that looms large and is an important theme in my life: learning.

I’m part of the school of thought that believes you can learn anything – like literally anything and apply the new skill masterfully! I get into arguments with my friends all the time about this. I consistently try to convince them I could make the NBA in 3-5 years if I put in the energy (a man can dream can he?).

Last summer, I stumbled on the TED Talk below by Josh Kaufman. He’s the author of “The First 20 Hours: Mastering the Toughest Part of Learning Anything”. You can watch the TED Talk here. I strongly suggest you do!

In his talk, Kaufman advances the theory that you can attain a certain level of any skill after putting in the first 20 hours of practice. I was skeptical! However, I was excited to know that any skill in world (!) was accessible to anyone at such a low price! The analytical and empirical side of me felt like this theory needed to be tested. And that’s exactly what I did!

My skill of choice: to master the skill of riding a penny board. Mind you, I had ridden on a board only once in my life – about 5 years prior on the Venice Beach, California boardwalk. And it went terribly.

My initial impression: how hard could it be? It’s not like I’m trying to master space walking. Boy was I wrong? I documented the first 12 hours of my experience and wrote down some notes after each hour of practice session (noted H1, H2, etc.). To remind me of my initial struggles, I called the experience Operation Venice.

See for yourself! (I apologize for the poor penmanship)

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  • H1: Everything is looking good. I can stand on my penny board on straight lines and flat surfaces. After Hour 1, I’m thinking: I’m going to master this in no time!
  • H2-H7: DISASTROUS! I start running into minor obstacles like road irregularities, regular turns, stop signs, etc. These next 7 HOURS make me realize that I don’t actually master a thing: I can’t turn, brake or even stand comfortably. These 7 one-hour sessions consist of a lot of frustrations, falls, injuries, googling, youtubing and life-threatening maneuvers in front of moving cars. I remember wanting to quit after the 7th hour of coming home with scratches on my hands and knees. I had to push through to confirm Kaufman’s hypothesis had a basis (and because of personal pride, I’m a sore loser).IMG_6649
  • H8: I experience incremental improvements. I decide to break down the challenges in small tasks instead of wanting to solve everything at once! First task: figure out my balance and stance – basically being comfortable standing on the board. So far, so good!
  • H9: Next step: improve the steering and the control. I went on my first purpose trip: went to get food and back. Alright, it’s going well!
  • H10: False confidence, I hit a wall. I decide to take on tougher challenges all at once. I decide to go on a night ride (low visibility) on irregular hills with traffic. Honestly, super dangerous! I fell in front of a moving car that had to brake. Driver looked at me silly. Lesson: don’t try to skip steps and trust the learning process. I was trying to do too much with too many variables all at once.
  • H11: I decide to go on a 1h30min purpose trip to a yoga session in a park. Along the way, I make minor tweaks to my technique: balance – check, control – check, road irregularities – check.
  • H12: It was time to Beta Test my skills. So far, I had only gone on solo trips. I was ready to rub shoulders with a few close friends who were on bikes and had skateboarded for years. To my surprise – I could easily keep up and even handled a few slopes better than them! Operation Venice beta was a success!

Operation Venice had a few key aspects I consider crucial to learning! First off, I documented everything. It was important for me to write everything down because it allowed me to review the good/bad/ugly with fresh eyes right after they had happened. Secondly, perseverance is essential. I could have easily given up at Hour 7 and thought that I wasn’t made for penny boarding, but I didn’t. Without perseverance, nothing gets done! Finally, make incremental iterative improvements. Measure your skills against your old self regularly. Make small tweaks as you go and keep measuring, measuring, measuring.

I came to one major realization: learning is about believing you can! Sounds corny but it’s true about anything. If you don’t believe your project will take off, it probably won’t. Whether you subscribe to Kaufman’s 20 First Hours theory or even Malcolm Gladwell’s 10,000 hours, the lesson here is trusting the process and believing you can. Anyone in your circle who you consider skilled, went through the hardships of falling and getting back up.

If you start off with the belief that success is attainable, it suddenly is!

Learning is a Rewarding Bumpy Ride

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