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Learning to Mastery and Repetition

I originally wrote this to the Fallible Ideas email list in 2019.

every adult learned some stuff to the point of MASTERY – very low attention needed, can do it great while tired/low-focus/low-effort, very low error rate, etc.

like walking. and talking. and reading. and, for many people, basic arithmetic. and, for many people, the year WWII ended and the number of states in the US and the number of original colonies (they don’t have to stop and think about those things, they just know, instantly).

doesn’t work in all contexts. giving a speech or walking on ice are different. but that’s ok. they know that. they pay more attention in those contexts. they understand pretty well what is mastered and what isn’t.

there are generic things that ~everyone gains mastery over, like walking. and there are generic things that lots of ppl gain mastery over, like some basic arithmetic.

and there are other things that only a few ppl gain mastery over. like i mastered tons of chess skills. lots of stuff is automated to the point where i can play good chess moves in under 1 second. and i could still mostly do that even though i quit chess many years ago – like i’d be worse now, and rusty, but still worlds better than a beginner. and giving me 10 minutes to think about a move right now, vs. 10 seconds, still wouldn’t make a ton of difference. the skill i still have is still mostly automatic. (when i was actively playing, 10 seconds vs. 10 minutes also wasn’t a huge difference. it matters, especially when playing someone who is very similar skill level to you, but over 90% of your skill works within 10 seconds, and the extra 10min of thought only adds a bit extra.) btw i haven’t mastered chess as a whole, i just have mastery over lots of pieces of chess to the point that i’m a good player as a whole but certainly not the best. mastery doesn’t mean perfection overall, it can just mean mastering a specific piece of something, or sub-skill, and then you have mastery over that piece. mastery is about getting something to the point of it being really automatic – very low error rate while using very little conscious attention.

some ppl get really good at an instrument or a sport or many other things.

but most stuff that ppl master, they master in childhood. and they don’t remember the learning process very well. and so, as adults, they don’t have a good example to refer to for how to learn. they haven’t mastered anything recently.

most adults either learned to touch type as a kid or they still aren’t great at it. actually mastering it as an adult is uncommon.

Dennis replied:

I agree wholeheartedly. It's a really rewarding experience to have learned something new and somewhat mastered it as an adult. It's a neat way to reward one's future self. I still thank myself for teaching myself to 10 finger touch type last year. Somehow I had gotten by using just three or four fingers over the years, and this is just so much better now.

My original email continued:

so one of the things i recommend ppl do is master something. learn something. see how learning works. doesn’t matter what it is. just gotta succeed. it shouldn’t be very hard. don’t make philosophy be the first thing you learn really well in the last 20 years. that’s ridiculous. learn something easier for practice. you can learn a bit of philosophy but don’t go for mastery until you master some easier stuff.

the best thing to master, in general, for practice, is a video game. there are lots of options but video games have a lot of very good characteristics. but if you don’t like them, or you have something else that you really wanna use, you can consider alternatives. i have explained in the past what’s good about video games, what kinda characteristics to look for in something to master, and written about many game examples.

what lots of ppl do is learn stuff a little bit, halfway, don’t master it, and move on. then repeat.

so, yet again, i advise ppl to learn a video game to get a feel for mastery and how learning works. or master something else. but no one listens to me. to the extent anyone else here plays video games, they don’t stream it on twitch, they don’t master it, they don’t talk about it much, and they aren’t very good.

Dennis replied:

In one of Popper's essays I read the other day he talks about the difference between creative learning (ie problem solving) and learning by repetition. [...]

Do you differentiate at all between the two modes of learning? I've been wondering about Popper's remark about learning by repetition. He seems to claim that its akin to induction, but induction is impossible, so... how could anyone learn by repetition? Also, I doubt people actually have two different modes of learning. [...]

I replied:

You can’t learn merely by repetition, you have to think about what will and won’t work. Repeating can’t figure out solutions and can’t do anything to find or correct errors.

Some of my examples are simpler because people should master some easier things before aiming for some harder ones. There has to be a progression.

In order to effectively think creatively about chess strategies, you can’t be too distracted by remembering how the pieces move. Practice does help automate one’s understanding of the piece movement rules. But practice isn’t just about repeating things, you think through what the rule for moving a piece is and figure out where it can go – it gets actual conscious attention when you’re learning it. You couldn’t just repeat correct piece movements without conscious attention, as a practice method, because you don’t know them well enough yet. (You could repeatedly move a rook back and forth between two adjacent squares, or something else simple, and thus make correct moves without thinking about it even though you don’t know the piece moves well, but you wouldn’t learn much by doing that, that’d be bad practice.)

It’s the same with everything else. Interesting, creative conscious thought is always building on many layers of thinking that were conscious in the past but no longer require conscious attention – that attention is now freed up for more advanced things.

Learning touch typing requires directing conscious attention to doing it correctly, as well as some creative problem solving – identifying what you’re screwing up and figuring out how to fix it. Generally this means doing things slowly at first so you can get it correct even though you’re barely able to do it. Then you speed up a bit at a time and check for new errors happening due to going faster. Trying the same thing at successively faster speeds isn’t really repetition because the speed is changing. You do repeat a little because of variance – to find out if you are making mistakes at a new speed, you might need to do it 20 times, perhaps more, depending on what sort of error rate is acceptable. Doing it once at a new speed doesn’t mean you can do it reliably at that speed. The same method is common with instruments and many other things people learn.

Since there’s infinite potential progress, ideally ~all our current thinking would be so easy in the future that it takes almost no conscious attention, and we could consciously focus on more advanced things. I think this is an atypical goal, but important. I generally don’t regard things as finished if I can do them but it’s hard or slow or it only works 1 in 3 times (or even 99 out of 100 can be too low depending on what it is). As one example, I think it’s a travesty that most of the world’s so-called “intellectuals” can only read at 300 words per minute or fewer and aren’t trying to improve that, they think they’re done learning to read even though they do it slowly using lots of conscious attention.

Elliot Temple on June 14, 2021


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