Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Learning Curve

I've spoken to this before, but since it's a passing parade and the line has moved along, I thought I'd mention it again.

Much of what I have learned in my life has gone from the broad and general to the specific. You establish a beginner's base and then add to that. 

You don't build a pyramid with the point down.

If you want to learn to swim, starting in shallow water where you can touch the bottom if you lose your stroke is maybe safer than doing it in deep water where you cannot.

Once you learn the basic stroke, you can swim in any depth. And then you can add other strokes, increase your distance, become more adept. If you want to win an Olympic event as a swimmer, you have to master one or more strokes, become efficient, develop specific strengths, and train out the wazoo to get to world-class status. The level of competition is going to be a lot higher than it is down at the open swim for seniors Wednesday at the local pool. 

I'm guessing most of you are still with me.

General is good, and sometimes enough to do what you need to do. And that's where you start. If you can throw a fist-sized rock, you can probably throw a baseball. (If you want to throw it in the major leagues, you need more depth. Michael Jordan, arguably one of the greatest basketball players ever, was fit, trained, and beyond expert in his sport, but when he went to play minor league baseball, it didn't translate. Probably he was in better shape than most of the players around him generally, but his depth in baseball was lacking. He might have learned, but he was way behind the curve, and chances are he wouldn't have ever caught up with guys who had been specializing in the sport all their lives.)

Training in two-move chess problems seriously for fifty hours will put a so-so player on a par with grandmasters–for two-move chess problems. You won't have his total game, but in a heads-up in that particular arena, you can hold your own. 

It depends on what you want or need to do. 

Sometimes wide and shallow is the ticket. Jack of all trades, master of none. 

Sometimes, deep and narrow beats wide and shallow all to hell and gone. 

The trick is to know which one best serves you in a given situation. 


Anonymous said...

"Specialization is for insects" - Robert Heinlein

Rest of quote: http://elise.com/quotes/a/heinlein_-_specialization_is_for_insects.php


Steve Perry said...

This wasn't the same Heinlein whose entirely literary career was the output of space opera, was it?

No specialization there ...

Anonymous said...

Touche. Yes, that's the person.

Brett said...

I've always liked this quote and it is another thought on the area of specialization.
"When the only tool you have is a hammer you tend to see every problem as a nail." Abraham Maslow

Steve Perry said...

Absolutely. I use that one and variations of it myself.

Of course, if the problem you have is a nail, then the solution is a hammer, isn't it?

The trick is in seeing what the problem is, then figuring out the proper tool, and then having access to it.

If I need brain surgery, I want a really good neurosurgeon doing it. Much as I like my family doctor, she's not qualified past lumps and bumps when it comes to this kind of carving.

Heinlein's comments about being able to change a diaper and set a bone and all are valid -- well-rounded people are more fun at a party. Now and then, though, a narrow one with sharp edges comes in handy, too.

Joshkie said...

Question, but which one is more likely to serve and come best conclusion most often?


Steve Perry said...

One size doesn't fit all, so you can't really make that determination without knowing the problem(s) to be solved.

Having a choice of tools is probably better than having just the one, most of the time.

But not always. Sometimes, you will need but one, and with more expertise to make it work.

If you must do brain surgery, a hammer, pliers, and monkey wrench probably aren't going to do you much good. When you need a scalpel in that instance, you really need it, and nothing else will do.

Plus you have to know how to cut precisely.

I'd rather take my chances with a so-so neurosurgeon in that event than with a master carpenter. Maybe that's just me.

It's not an either/or situation -- no rule says you have to have a lot of general knowledge but no depth, any more than you have to know a whole lot about one thing and not much about anything else.

My point was that sometimes one serves and sometimes the other does, and that it would be useful if you recognize that and make use of it ...

Mark said...

We've discussed depth before--fascinating concept. I've done a lot of dabbling, not unhappy with having experienced many things, but sacrificing depth.
Levels of depth affect perception. For example, I've done some serious singing. I was watching a local opera with my sister (who has a master's in voice), her husband, (who knows nothing about opera), and a professional opera singer I know.
It occurred to me that each of us, watching the same performance, had radically different experiences of the same event. My sister and I basically knew the big ditties, could tell whether the singer was flat, etc. To her husband it all sounded the same.
The professional knew every single word, note, and nuance of the baritone part--a totally different perception.
When I first sang next to a professional singer, who had dedicated a lifetime of study to the art, it was unbelievable. Orders of Magnitude different. I had to stop because I was blown away in awe of the size and power of his voice.
I imagine it's like watching a martial arts master move--wow. Just wow.

Steve Perry said...

I like your story, Mark.

I have been for most of my life an eclectic and an autodidact. Wide, but shallow, and happy to wade and splash about in next to the beach. Pretty much all I needed, and happy to teach it to myself when I could.

Once I felt the need to wade out to where I couldn't touch bottom, I found it a different but equally beneficial experience.

I studied seven or eight martial arts for thirty-odd years and never went far in any one. Then I found one that called to me, and I stayed in it because I wanted depth.
Not to say it was better or worse than the others, but it had more that I wished to experience. And I'm a long way from mastery of it.

I didn't stay with it to learn how to become a bad-ass streetfighter, only to learn the nuances.

As a guitarist, I knew a handful of chords and could sing along okay. When I started digging into it, I found a great deal of satisfaction in the details. Again, no claims to mastery in any way, but it's a path I like. I play better and I sing better than I used to, and that's the measure I use.

And while knowing a little bit about something makes you appreciate folks who know a lot about it, the more you learn, the more impressed you get around a real expert.