Getting off the intermediate plateau

If you’ve ever learned a skill to a high level (advanced, expert, rockstar, etc. are labels that are often used) and stopped to think about the experience, you might draw a graph that looks like this:

Skill versus Time: the inevitable plateau.

Skill versus Time: the inevitable plateau. (Thanks to Anna Czoski for creating this.)

I think most people have experienced this in some shape or form. I think I’ve experienced this enough times to form some thoughts about what is universal about skill-learning. Today I want to explore those common elements and in a later post I’m going to propose some ways I think learning can be improved based on those commonalities.

If you’re wondering, I’ve struggled through – or am still in – this  ‘intermediate plateau’ in:

  • salsa
  • tango
  • guitar
  • piano
  • most computing languages – my most recent, Ruby

At first, almost all people have an easy time learning a skill; you get better, exponentially, and there’s a tight feedback loop, because the improvements are very visible and very easy to feel – your frustration level drops quickly. With sufficient time, you become intermediate; “good”, but not “great”; an average sized fish in the pond.

This is when things get hard. Does this sound familiar?

  • You’re good enough: You can accomplish enough things to ‘get by’, but you don’t execute as well as advanced peers or experts
  • You don’t know how to improve: the lessons or classes that you found great as a beginner don’t seem to be useful anymore
  • Your peers are other intermediates: whether you’re coding with others, dancing socially, or jamming with friends, you feel comfortable performing with other intermediates. But when you have the rare opportunity to engage with an expert or advanced peer, you feel nervous, out of your depth, uncomfortable; unable to keep up.
All of this should should familiar. But why do people end up in a long, drawn out plateau where their skills don’t grow? Here’s what I think are the key reasons intermediates “get stuck”:
  • Less incentive to improve: Intermediates know how to do enough to be successful; that might be having fun with others, or being able to build the average RoR website, or complete work items assigned at work. Beginners find everything frustrating; so they don’t have an option of doing the ‘fun thing’. But intermediates find some things frustrating and some things fun. They avoid the frustrating things: it’s human nature. For example, intermediate skiiers complain they can’t do black diamond runs well, yet when asked what they ski, they predominantly ski blue runs. The thing, then, is to:
    1. Do what is hard; don’t perfect what is easy.
  • Beginner teachers are unlikely to be good intermediate teachers. There is a lot of material out there for beginners. First, there is a monetary incentive: there’s lots of beginners and high turnover. Second, the level of skill required to teach beginners is low: so instructors are easier to train and teaching material easier to create. But beginners don’t realize they need different teaching once they become intermediates. They gain little value from continued investment (in time and money), and eventually become frustrated and quit lessons or structured learning. So:

    2. Intermediates desperately need high quality teaching methods and materials, and their needs are very different from beginners.

  • No role models or mentors: Beginners spend a lot of time with other beginners but also intermediate peers; in other words, they ‘peer up’. Intermediates more often ‘peer down’: that is, they spend a lot of time with other beginners and intermediates, but not with advanced folks. Without such direct, high bandwidth interaction, intermediates have difficulty understanding where they need to improve. Simple time, however, is rarely enough. Structured feedback is required: oftentimes, advanced practitioners are so good at what they dothey consciously or even subconsciously workaround the problems intermediates exhibit.  So:
    3. Intermediates need advanced role models and mentors to improve.

Now, if all of this seems obvious and trite restatements, apologies. You’ve likely been thinking about this problem just as much as I have. I realized this post is quite long, so I’ve split it into two parts. In the next part, I’ll actually get into the meat of this post-series: how I propose we can improve the educational / learning experience by systematically attacking each of these 3 points I’ve outlined.

Hello, World

Hello, world (BASIC)

The canonical hello world

I’ve long wanted to write about all sorts of things. Sometimes I have long (and I mean long!) discussions about things that later I want to reference, wikipedia-like, while arguing in heated discussions with friends. Other times I just want to record something important, inspiring, or intriguing and let the world know.

I hemmed and hawed about starting a blog. I registered on tumblr and wordpress and thought about using G+. But a couple of things stopped me for years.

First, I found Facebook updates “almost good enough”. Most people would agree Facebook is poor for long-form interaction (and G+ is substantially better in this respect). But I rarely had the patience to write out longer texts anyway, so this didn’t bother me much. I found the pain bearable.

Second, I thought most people (most of my friends, I mean, of course) had the same opinions on most of the topics I felt were important. This, I am discovering again, is really – really! – not true on a wide range of topics. Turns out we all come from different places, and apparently, my viewpoints are pretty strange.

Obviously, though, something kicked me in the pants. And that thing is Quitting My (Cushy) Job and Becoming An Entrepreneur. I certainly want to write about and record my journey as a startup founder. So I have, finally, a Great Reason To Start A Blog.

But what to write about? Focusing on specific parts of your life works: I’ve seen many people separare the “personal” from the “technical”. But it’s hard work. Since I don’t want to make writing any harder then it is, I have instead decided to write about everything that I want to write about: Dancing, Technology, The Future, and Entrepreneurship.

I’ve also set a goal for myself: to write 2 posts a week. Here we go!