The Okay Plateau

Posted: March 15, 2013 in Learning, Mental Reboot, Music
Tags: , , , , , , , ,

I just finished reading (actually listening to) the book Moonwalking with Einstein.  It’s a description of how the author gets involved in the U.S. Memory Championship and goes into great detail about how he studied to compete in the championship as well as many entertaining stories about the personalities of the current people on the world memory scene and the history of memory techniques.  I highly recommend the book and I’m trying to decide whether or not he convinced me to spend time working on specific techniques to enhance my memory.  I’ll get back to you when I figure that out.

The thing that stuck with me the most though was Mr. Foer’s description of what he calls the Okay Plateau.  The general idea is that for most skills, you learn rapidly for some period of time and once you’re good enough you don’t get any better.  His main example is typing – many people ‘practice’ typing for longer each day than I’m spending on most of the skills I’m currently trying to master.   Yet they aren’t any better than they were shortly after they learned to type.

Now I don’t know that I’m going to add typing to my list of things to improve.  Especially because once I started talking to friends about it the suggestion came up that I learn the Dvorak keyboard rather than trying to incrementally improve my QWERTY skills.  Which is interesting enough that I’ll have to do some further research to decide which way to go, if any.  And also probably a comment on how off the wall my friends can sometimes be, that’s what keeps life interesting, right?

Since I am actively working towards acquiring a number of new skills this year and improving some old ones, I am very interested in avoiding the okay plateau.   By my reading, the idea is that once you learn a skill sufficiently to meet your needs, you start ‘practicing’ in in an automatic way that requires less concentration but that also precludes much improvement.  The suggested methods for breaking out of this ‘Autonomous’ mode are to do three things.

  1. Spend more time practicing outside of your comfort zone.  An example is that the best figure skaters spend more time practicing the jumps that they can’t land while mediocre figure skaters practice the jumps that they can.
  2. Make sure that you are practicing in a way that you can get immediate feedback.
  3. Act like a scientist – examine what you’re doing and how you’re learning and try to figure out what you’re doing that is good and what you’re doing that is sub-optimal.  Of course, I still maintain that doing to much of this while actually practicing can lead to issues.

I think the above are all things that are worth considering while learning a new skill.  But here’s another thought on breaking out autonomous mode.  I think that changing between depth first and breadth first learning could shake one off the okay plateau.  My canonical example of this is my experience with yoga.  I spent a number of years practicing the standard bikram series of poses and while I think my learning curve didn’t necessarily plateau at a zero degree angle, it had settled into a very gentle slope.   For reasons not directly related to trying to improve my Bikram practice I ended up practicing a very different kind of yoga and lo and behold I started seeing breakthroughs in bikram poses that I hadn’t improved in months or even years, even though I was spending considerably less time on a weekly basis doing those poses.

I’m hoping that doing things like learning some music theory, ear training and singing while tackling the piano will help keep me from even entering the okay plateau of music.   Now I need to decide if I’ve got enough breadth in some of my other endeavors.

I am also struggling with the relationship between these principles and the concept of flow, as I feel like there is a contradiction between these two ideas that I can’t quite reconcile.

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