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Achieving Mastery When Learning, Plus Followups

I shared writing about mastery with my free email newsletter and asked about people’s concerns and objections. Here’s what I said followed by my responses to three concerns.


(Link to the curi.us message where I first wrote this.)

[name], do you think you achieved mastery of some significant, new things in your makeup project? If so, you could list those. If not, I think you should have higher standards and stop overreaching.

Can you self-evaluate the correctness of any of your new makeup knowledge with similar confidence to your self-evaluations of counting to three or judging whether the word "with" is spelled correctly? Those are examples of what mastery looks like.

The same goes for all your other philosophical work. Keep it simpler. Practice things. Aim for mastery. Aim for a low error rate where correct criticisms are uncommon, surprising and treasured.

Consider what you do have mastery of and build on it. Plan out projects intentionally with goals and trees, keeping issues like mastery and overreaching in mind.

Where are the 5+ successful past projects at 90% of the size, complexity and difficulty of the makeup project? And at 80%, and 70%, and 60%, etc., all the way back incrementally to simple projects like crawling to a location as a baby.

You don't have good examples of what success looks [to] compare your project to. There's a huge gap from the makeup project to your most similar projects that are clear, confident, decisive, unambiguous successes.

And these are not new things that I'm saying.

Start way smaller, get quick, clear wins, and iterate. Start with multiple successful (micro) projects per day. Finish 100+ in a month with a not-decisive-clear-success rate under 10%. Establish a baseline of what you can do that way and get the iteration started.


Anne B shared these concerns on the FI Learning Basecamp.

I have a hard time breaking a goal down into a planned-out tree made of smaller things that are easy wins. Example:I have a goal of understanding computers and learning how to use them better. Breaking that down into a plan of all the small things I want to learn and in what order seems too hard. Instead I take opportunities to learn small things when they come up.

Do smaller, easier mini-goals first until you get more experience with the method. For example, “Install Atom text editor” is a mini-goal. I bet you could break that into multiple steps. E.g.:

  1. Find Atom website.
  2. Download Atom.
  3. Run installer.

You need practice doing that kind of breakdown successfully before expecting it to work in more complicated scenarios. Once you get good enough at it, in the future, you’ll be able to skip writing down the steps for small things like installing Atom. And when you’re more used to breaking things into sub-parts, you’ll do better at breaking down bigger, harder goals.

It’s important not to face too many challenges at once. Each one distracts you from the others. Mastery of something means it’s no longer distracting or challenging. Practicing breaking simple projects into steps will help you achieve mastery of some breaking-into-parts skills, which will mean you’ll have fewer things to worry about when attempting a medium-difficulty project.

You could do several other small projects, e.g. one to use Atom documents. Steps:

  • Make a document in Atom
  • Save it
  • Close the document and close Atom
  • Reopen the document with Atom

Another project could deal with bold text. Steps:

  • Make some text bold using the menu.
  • Use a hotkey to make text bold.
  • Make text bold by typing in markdown formatting characters.
  • Remove bold text using each method.

If those are too hard, you could break each of those steps down into easier parts. You can adjust the level of detail. If they were too easy you could use fewer steps, e.g. just “Learn Atom basics”, but that’s unsuitable for figuring out how to deal with projects.

After doing the atom install project, the atom document project, the atom bold text project, and several others, you would have done the steps of a larger project like “learn Atom basics”. Small projects are the components that make up medium and large projects. If you’re trying to do a large project and don’t know what the smaller sub-projects are, it’s hard to be organized or succeed.

Are you saying we should aim for mastery in everything we do? If not, how do we decide which things to go for mastery in? If yes, that seems like too much—wouldn’t we sometimes want to just try something out to see how it goes and whether we like it?

Mastery is important for things you’re gong to reuse a bunch and build on. English, walking, basic arithmetic, typing, searching the internet for info, learning methods and project management are good examples. Those get used over and over as sub-components of other tasks and projects.

Mastery is necessary to do anything complicated. Complicated things have many parts. If each part is distracting you from the others and demanding significant attention, then you’ll be overwhelmed and fail. If you have mastery of some parts, that means you can deal with those parts without them being a distraction. Mastery means something requires little conscious attention, which frees up your attention for other stuff. Without mastery, you can only do small things.

Put another way, mastery is necessary for making progress because progress involves accumulating more and more knowledge. You also revise ideas, replace ideas with more elegant versions, and drop some errors, but overall, on average, the amount of knowledge goes up when you make progress.

Increasing amounts of knowledge would get overwhelming if all the older ideas were taking up your attention or causing many errors. The reason you’re able to increase your total knowledge is because you finished learning some things: they’re done and no longer take much thought (unless you reopen and reconsider the issue, which is always an option but shouldn’t happen too often). Mastery is finishing learning something instead of it being an unfinished project.

How done is done? When are you finished? When you can use the knowledge without it requiring much conscious attention and with few errors.

How much attention or errors are OK? It depends on the thing. The more it gets reused or built on, the closer to perfect it needs to be. If it’s only used occasionally, it can be more flawed but still good enough.

Side note: You can also intentionally stop learning something so it requires your conscious attention to do it, but while paying full attention you can do it successfully. That means you can’t build on it. It’s an end to progress (unless you start learning about it again). But that is reasonable in certain circumstances. E.g. suppose you have a job operating heavy machinery. If you pay full attention every time you do it, and do it successfully, that’s good enough. You don’t need to make further progress to get the job done. And actually it’s dangerous to operate heavy machinery without paying conscious attention to what you’re doing at all times. It’d be bad to go into autopilot mode for that or focus your attention elsewhere. (BTW, a lot of car accidents are due to people achieving a lot of mastery of driving and then not paying enough attention to their driving. Due to mastery they can still generally drive well without paying attention, so it works out fine most of the time, but not every time. Also, btw, a reason texting-and-driving is so dangerous, or using audio books while driving, is due to lack of mastery of texting or audio books. Those things distract people significantly, or in other words they don’t have mastery over those activities.)

To have a thousand ideas and for that to be useful, many of them need to be mastered. You can only fit at most around seven non-mastered ideas in your head at once for active use. (Seven is just a loose estimate that other people like Leonard Peikoff have used; the specific number doesn’t matter.) If you want to fit more in your head, you have to master ideas. In other words, you can only effectively pay conscious attention to at most around seven things at once, so, to deal with more than seven things, some must not require conscious attention, which is what mastery is about.

This is also why it’s important to integrate (combine) ideas. E.g. you take four ideas and turn them into one single conceptual unit, which can then be thought about as one thing that uses up only one slot in your attention. But integration only works well when you master the components. If they aren’t mastered, you can’t focus on the one higher level concept because the underlying ideas that you’re building on will keep causing trouble. You’ll make mistakes while using them and/or they’ll distract your conscious attention, because you never finished learning them to the point (called “mastery” among other things) where that won’t happen.

Integration is one of the main ways we reuse and build on ideas. All the small ideas that got integrated into higher level ideas are getting reused in some sense every time a higher level idea that’s built on them is used. Repeated integration creates a pyramid of ideas, and using a single high level idea can reuse hundreds of lower level ideas. But if any low level idea in the pyramid has an error or won’t work without conscious attention, it can screw up your high level activity.

Integration is discussed and advocated by Ayn Rand’s Objectivism.

You don’t need to master everything that’s available and you should not take on large projects without first exploring/scouting and having a pretty good idea of whether it’ll work, whether you want the results, etc. But you do need to master most of what you learn if you want to make ongoing progress.

Having criticisms be uncommon isn’t a very good gauge. Criticisms could be uncommon because there’s not much to criticize or they could be uncommon for other reasons (maybe there’s so much wrong that people don’t know where to start in their criticisms, maybe people are busy with other stuff, maybe people are afraid you won’t take criticism well, maybe people don’t like to criticize because it’s not nice, maybe your stuff is boring so no one reads it).

Criticism being uncommon is a necessary but not sufficient condition for indicating mastery.

Also, you’re focusing on external criticism, but self-criticism is a more important thing to pay attention to first and it doesn’t have most of the difficulties you mention. It’s very hard to use much external criticism effectively before being pretty good with self-criticism (that’s one of the main reasons people dislike receiving criticism so much – they aren’t able to use it effectively because they aren’t good at self-criticism yet).

That’s similar to an issue that came up on FI list a while back: it’s very hard to find common preferences with your child effectively if you struggle to find common preferences with yourself. Individual, personal stuff mostly needs to come first before dealing with other people much.

If this interests you, and you'd like to better understand ideas like this, join my free Basecamp group.

Elliot Temple on February 27, 2021

Messages (1)

Forward from *The Little Schemer*, which was reprinted from the second and third editions of *The Little LISPer*. Emphasis is my own:

> In 1967 I took an introductory course in photography. Most of the students (including me) came into that course hoping to learn how to be creative—to take pictures like the ones I admired by artists such as Edward Weston. On the first day the teacher patiently explained the long list of technical skills that he was going to teach us during the term. A key was Ansel Adams’ “Zone System” for previsualizing the print values (blackness in the final print) in a photograph and how they derive from the light intensities in the scene. In support of this skill we had to learn the use of exposure meters to measure light intensities and the use of exposure time and development time to control the black level and the contrast in the image. This is in turn supported by even lower level skills such as loading film, developing and printing, and mixing chemicals. *One must learn to ritualize the process of developing sensitive material so that one gets consistent results over many years of work.* The first laboratory session was devoted to finding out that developer feels slippery and that fixer smells awful.

> But what about creative composition? *In order to be creative one must first gain control of the medium. One can not even begin to think about organizing a great photograph without having the skills to make it happen.* In engineering, as in other creative arts, we must learn to do analysis to support our efforts in synthesis. One cannot build a beautiful and functional bridge without a knowledge of steel and dirt and considerable mathematical technique for using this knowledge to compute the properties of structures. Similarly, one cannot build a beautiful computer system without a deep understanding of how to “previsualize” the process generated by the procedures one writes.

Anonymous at 10:16 AM on March 27, 2021 | #1 | reply | quote

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