On Learning: Hurtling off the Cliff

As children, we embrace learning new skills and abilities with a vengeance. In that we start life with no skills, and pretty much everything around us is fascinating and interesting, and we want to be able to do things that others already understand, we eagerly embrace the unknown. What is fascinating at this age, however, is the belief that we *can* learn. Others can do things, and so can we. We just need to unlock the secret of how.

Whether riding a bike, tying a shoelace, swimming, jumping rope or using a computer, life is a thousand of little skills that we embraced and developed to become the thinking, functioning human beings of our later lives.

Fast forward several decades, however, and things feel different. We are (or presume ourselves to be) experts in several areas of life, and particularly those aspects of ourselves that we most closely identify. We know how hard the acquisition of those skills were, the product of errors, failure and hundreds and thousands of hours of work. We take pride in our accomplishments, help others who are learning, and dismiss the arrogance of self-proclaimed-experts that don’t quite know what we know.

At the same time, we covet the skills and abilities of those who have mastered skills that we have not. Chefs that can produce an exquisite meal. Authors that are able to weave words into turns of phrase that simply express in a sentence what takes us whole paragraphs. Programmers that are able to speak arcane languages and grok the structures that align bits in the ether. Analysts and economists that understand the levers of the global economy, and what happens when you pull the red one. We want to be able to do those things, and yet we recognize that the learning curve is steep and we stand at the bottom of the hill.

What we forget is that they were small children once as well. They embraced the novelty of the world just as we did. They learned to tie their shoelaces over a period of days, and to ride bicycles over a period of weeks. And when they developed their craft, they did it one step at a time, within their chosen path. They chose different roads than we did, but they worked hard, failed before they succeeded, and now stand before us as experts in their own rights. Overnight successes happen overnight only when we discount the long years of toil that preceded miraculous discovery.

What we also forget is that we can still learn. What we don’t know but interests us is within our grasp, whether we are 23, 43 or 63. It requires embracing what we don’t know. It requires hammering our brain against a concept until a glimmer of understanding seeps through a crack, and we are finally able to see the light. It requires accepting that we will be confused before we understand, and we will be frustrated before we are delighted. We can get there, but we have to want to get there hard enough to make the persistence worth it. We have to recognize that the value of learning is the journey, not the arrival. What we are learning we appreciate; what we know we take for granted.

I’ve hurtled off the cliff several times in the past, and I hope I will do so again in the future. Most recently, a decision to pick apart and reassemble several web sites is leading me back into an exploration of technology that I left somewhere in the past. I used to know how to do this, but I’ve been away for a long time and the technology has changed enormously. For some time, I’ve let others who were already expert do the heavy lifting so I didn’t have to. Today, I’m feeling the pleasure of wrestling with new ideas and new approaches, and the accomplishment that comes with a little bit of mastery.

I’m not an expert, and possibly never will be. But I know more today than I did yesterday. And I will know tomorrow a little bit more than I do today. That feels like progress.

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