Sunday, January 19, 2014

The Art of Learning New Tricks as an Old Dog: feedback and taking lots of turns

It becomes increasingly difficult to learn new things as an adult. I am convinced, however, that this observed fact is not because the adult mind is less adept at learning than it was during childhood or adolescence. It is instead because adults have, over the course of their lives, developed a complicated web of phobias, bad habits, and misconceptions about themselves that puts barriers in the way of learning new things.

"Portrait of an Extraordinary Musical Dog" by Philip Reinagle (1805)

By the time you reach around 30 years old, it is easy to simply conclude that it's a matter of genetic destiny that you are no good at certain skills and never will be. You simply say "I can't draw," or "I can't write well," or "I'm no good at Spanish," and leave it at that. Once that type of self-talk becomes part of your identity, and you become "the sort of person who can't draw or write well," it is so easy to spend the rest of your remaining life self-fulfilling that prophecy. You will never bother to get even 10% better at drawing, or writing, or speaking español through the power of deliberate practice the way you might have when you were a foolish and uninhibited youngster.

The best way to learn something is to try it out and fail miserably, get feedback and advice from an expert source on how to do it a little better next time, and then take another turn. Take lots of turns. This is why it is valuable for everyone to try to learn a musical instrument at some point in their lives. Music learning teaches the power of deliberate practice over a long period of time, and the results of practice are apparent in a particularly objective way for music compared to other complex creative skills. When you started learning music you probably couldn't clap a tricky rhythm, and then you worked at it deliberately for a while, and then you could do it a little better, and eventually it was flawless and automatic. The progress over time for musicianship is obvious because many typical practice exercises on rhythm and pitch can be "right or wrong" in a way that has no easy analogue for more subjective creative tasks such as acting, writing, storytelling, painting, or filmmaking. Once you prove that you can use deliberate practice to improve your music skills, you can use that success to apply deliberate practice to anything.

On Taking Lots of Turns

I recently started reading The Improv Handbook-The Ultimate Guide to Improvising in Comedy, Theatre, and Beyond, by Tom Salinsky and Deborah Frances-White. My initial reasoning for wanting to study the techniques of improvisational theatre is that I could use the ideas and apply them towards having better telephone conversations, answering and asking better questions at job interviews, thinking faster on my feet, and delivering better speeches in public.

However, as I started reading the Improv Handbook, I came across a series of passages that described the barriers to learning new things that are endemic in adults, barriers to learning any new thing.  I found the following passages so wonderful and compelling that I will quote them here in full:
...The words "Can I have a volunteer?" often ignite feelings of fear and anxiety. People who have paid to be at [a] class, or have sometimes paid for three years of drama school, will often avoid eye contact with the teacher when the request is made.
It is not always like this, however. On some occasions, if a volunteer is asked for, every single person puts their hand up and some actually rush forward. That's when those people are children.
Children approach playing games, or doing exercises or being given the chance to try something new, very differently from adults. Children approach these situations with one mission, and that mission is to have lots of turns. They sometimes actually rate their success that way, saying something like "I had four turns and Charlie only had three—I win!"
Adults are very different. We want to sit back, assess—from our seats!—whether we'd be any good at the task in question. If we think we'd be successful at it, then and only then will we want a turn. If we think it is something we would not be good at, we would usually prefer to have no turn at all.
Children want lots of turns, but adults want one perfect turn.
As adults, we've already decided what we're good at and what we're bad at, and we only want to have turns at things we're already good at. We've met lots of people who've told us they can't draw, but none of them was seven. All children think they're brilliant artists and want their drawings displayed on the refrigerator. As adults, even if we secretly think we can draw, we hide our sketches away under the bed: "Don't look at those—they're just some silly things I was doodling." The thing is, we all were those children. We believed we were great artists, we sang and danced when we were happy and acted out cops and robbers for hours. No one ever stopped and said "I'm not a very good robber. I've run out of ideas. I think I need to research my character." We always had endless ideas. Endless positivity. Endless faith in our own talent. What happened to us?
One answer is: our education. We hope at least that your education was free because, wherever you got it, it has screwed you over and transformed you from someone who volunteered fearlessly and believed in your own creative abilities into someone who is unwilling to get up at all in case "you make a fool of yourself," and who claims they "can't" sing, dance, draw, act or speak in public and who has no imagination.
When you're at school, if the teacher tells the class to write an essay and everyone else is writing, and you're sitting there all Zen and relaxed, thinking about your essay, what will happen? The teacher will shout at you. She'll say "You! You're not even trying." She would know if you were trying because trying looks like something. If your shoulders are hunched and you look worried and a little ill, then the teacher will probably come and do it for you. We learn to look anxious before we do things—like we're not up to it.
We also tend to punish ourselves after we do things. Two adults will volunteer for something, and after they finish they'll make a physical gesture of apology which says to the room: "No need to mention it—we know it wasn't very good." Maybe this is because we teach our children to punish themselves if they suspect they've failed. When you're a kid, if you're washing dishes and you break a plate and you say "Well, never mind, everyone drops things from time to time," and you clean it up in a relaxed and happy fashion, your mother will shout at you. This in our society is a "bad attitude." A "good attitude" is to cry and feel worthless. Then your mother will say "Never mind, darling, it was only an accident," and then clean it up for you. Therefore, as adults, we anticipate this; we've learned to. We look anxious before and after everything we do to avoid punishment from others.
This means we come to any learning opportunity feeling tense and anxious. If that was a good state for learning or creativity that would be great, but unfortunately you're less likely to be good at learning—or any creative pursuit—with a gun pointed to your head. The fact is you're the most able to learn, create and improvise when you're most yourself. Think about it: Are you more witty, sparky and full of ideas when you're with your oldest friends and a bottle of wine or when you're on a job interview? Your inner improviser is far more likely to be with you when you're relaxed.
It follows that the people who are most successful at learning to improvise are those who are most relaxed. We tell our students that their only mission is to have lots of turns and see if we're worth our money. We say "I'm the only one who's shown up claiming to be an expert and therefore I'm the only one who should be nervous." If they can already do everything we show them very well, that makes our job very difficult. As teachers it's our job to find things the students can't do and show them how to do them. Education is not coming to the workshop pre-educated. We tell them "I'm hoping for a very high level of failure in this workshop, otherwise how can I take your money in good conscience?"
This blog is primarily a vehicle to engage in deliberate writing practice so that I may become a better writer over a long period of time. I plan to take lots of turns. My intention is to become not only a better writer, but also a clearer thinker, and a more attentive reader than I was when I began. The blog format is better than writing in a secret notebook or diary because the entries are searchable, dated and timestamped, allowing any progress over time to become more apparent (and safer from being lost during a cross-country move). It also allows me to "take lots of turns" writing in a natural way, and experiment with different writing styles and genres. Blog posts can be commented upon, and the traffic results for different articles can be compared to one another, providing a mechanism to get valuable feedback on the quality and interest from the readers. Some day, I hope to be able to write well enough, and write interesting enough things, that I could write a whole book (or several books) and then take your money in good conscience.

As such, any feedback is always welcomed here: any comments on writing style, the content of the ideas, what's boring, what's not. Does something I wrote make you angry? What do you find interesting? Pretentious? Condescending? Annoying? Uplifting? Poetic? Let me know, and I will certainly appreciate it.

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