Archive for the ‘Language’ Category

One of the reasons that I’ve been a bit quiet here lately is that I had some grand idea forming in my head that I would start a tradition of an annual report on my reboot process by going back and pulling up my initial objectives and examining progress on each one(*).  Well, not only did that stop me cold in my tracks, but I suspect that it would have been about as interesting to read as the phone book.  So I will spare you that.  You may thank me later .

In the process of killing off the annual report idea though, I did keep coming back to what I feel is the single biggest thing that I have learned over the last two years.  It may not sound particularly profound.  I think it may be like some of those Buddhist concepts where  the act of putting the idea into words robs the idea of its power.  But I’m going to try anyway.

The three word summary is in the title of this post:  Enjoy the Process.

And for some reason I feel compelled to break this down by introducing (or possibly recycling) a series of aphorisms.  This may end up being even more self-indulgent than my original idea of an annual report, but hopefully it will at least be a bit entertaining.

Don’t obsess over becoming an expert, enjoy the time spent on the journey.

This is mostly deeply rooted in the Growth vs. Fixed Mindset idea that came as part of my informal teacher training.  One of the most frustrating students I taught last year was convinced that he was a natural expert programmer and did a pretty darn good job in general.  But he kept hitting a wall in his experience and rather than treating that as an opportunity to learn he would just thrash away in frustration.  Some of my greatest triumphs were when I got him to plow through and figure out the solution himself.  I see too much of myself in that behavior, but now I have that very clear image of that student to pull on when I find myself hitting my head against a wall.  I hope I helped him half as much as he helped me.

Treasure feedback from any source as if it is a rare gift.

Because it is.  It is always harder to give feedback than not.  I have a deeply ingrained impulse to take constructive feedback as a negative commentary on my abilities and I believe it still shows on my face, even in very relaxed environments like a yoga studio.  And of course that treats the absolutely wrong feedback loop with people I am trying to learn from.  I think I’m doing better in the moment and hopefully that will continue to improve over time.   Habits aren’t hard to break (says the ex-smoker), you just have to keep trying.  And making sure that I express appreciation after the fact  to the people that teach me things is, I hope, an effective way of counteracting the in the moment reaction that still happens more often than I would like.

Things that are worth mastering are rarely things that can be mastered.

So one had better enjoy the learning process, because there is no end.  I set out to learn to speak Spanish and learned that I haven’t really ‘mastered’ English yet.  I set out to teach computer science to high school students and I’m pretty sure I ended up learning more from them than they did from me.  I could go on ad nauseum with this list, but I’ll spare you for now.

Be wary of spending too much time doing something that you don’t enjoy.

This is often an attempt to attain some grand future goal, like a title at work, a retirement fund or some kind of recognition.  I’ve achieved a bunch of these things, but if I regret anything (and I really try not to have regrets) it’s the hours spent doing things that I really hated to get to goals.  They really aren’t worth that price.  So I am going to try to make sure that whatever I do in the future the day to day work on balance is both fulfilling and enjoyable in and of itself.

Some part of everyday routine basis makes the world better place

This is the one that I struggle with the most.  Is the world a better place because I helped build better technology relatively early on in the PC revolution?  I like to think so, but it’s pretty impossible to prove.  Do some kids have a slightly better outlook on programming and technology because of the time I spent last year volunteering.  I think that’s a much clearer yes, but that was a much larger commitment than I can manage on a regular basis.  Hopefully I will manage to find on the clearly good + clearly sustainable list in the near future as a volunteer activity.  But the thing I am really trying to figure out is how to get my career Venn diagram to include an unambiguous “make the world a better place” component.

Overall, Enjoy the Process really is a pretty good summary of what I’ve learned so far.  With any luck that will include enjoying the process of writing and you’ll hear more from me in the coming months and years.

(*)The other reason is that I’ve diving into my start-up project which also involves some writing  and so I am (so far not very successfully)  trying to integrate the reboot writing into my ‘non-work’ time.

As promised, here is a quick trip report on the week Señora Reboot and I spent in La Paz on a misison to improve our Spanish.

First off, this was a really great experience.  It would never occurred to me on my own to take a week to try to pop my Spanish at this point in my studies, but it was definitely a lot of fun and I made progress in ways that I have not been able to manage at home.  So public thanks are in order to the lovely instigator of this adventure.  Muchas gracias, mi esposa bonita.

Secondly, I’m not going to go into great detail about expenses, but the numbers for the school and home stay are on the school’s web site and the bottom line is that this was substantially less expensive than even a mid-range resort vacation, including the cost of the school.  Although I may try to write a quick post with lessons in logistics from this particular trip.

We ended up with a slightly different experience than we expected.  We had booked twenty hours of small group classes for the week and had enough communication with the administration of the school that we had every expectation that this is what we were headed for.  Until the day before we left, when we received the final schedule letting us know that they were unable fill classes at our levels so that we would instead be receiving ten hours of private tutoring.   This all worked well in the end and possibly even better than the small group class, but for a planner like myself that was quite a shock to the system.  In any case, the cost was the same, and it was obvious once we arrived that this kind of substitution must be entirely routine for the school.  So the only thing I would really change about that is the communications from the school ahead of time rather than the experience itself.

We ended up doing two hours of tutoring and about two hours of studying each day to meet our initial goal of about twenty hours of formal Spanish learning.  But that was really the smallest part of the experience.  There were two other aspects to this trip that made this a really useful (and enjoyable) learning experience.  The home stay and the fact that just about everyone around us spoke primarily Spanish, and many had little or no English.

The home stay was amazing. We were placed with a lovely Señora who lived alone but had family and friends constantly visiting. She spoke some English, so it was possible to make sure that any logistics were unambiguously communicated but was very good about trying everything in Spanish first. So we got lots of practice “at home” both with her and had the opportunity to get past feeling really stupid when her seven year old grand-daughter proved that she had a much better command of the language that I (over and over and over again). And I cannot leave the subject of homestay without mentioning the absolutely wonderful home cooked meals that we enjoyed while we were there. Breakfast and Lunch were included and the only negative thing I have to say about that is that the Señora seemed to feel that we didn’t eat nearly enough. “Estoy satisfecho” is a phrase that I learned quickly and well.

We tended to spend the afternoons and evenings in some combination of studying and wandering about town.  Dinners were generally down on the boardwalk, which was definitely the most tourist centered part of the city.  However, possibly due to the fact that we were there outside of peak tourist season, even in that area it was pretty typical to need to use a bit of Spanish to get around.  Which was great.  If you need to ask for agua rather than water to get H2O, you learn to do that quickly, especially when the temperature was flirting with 100 degrees Fahrenheit regularly.

So even though my Spanish is still incredibly rudimentary, by the end of the trip I was able to stumble through basic day to day life en español, which was definitely not true when I started.  Mission accomplished.

Señora reboot and I just returned from La Paz, where we spent a week studying Spanish in an immersion environment.  It was a really incredible experience and I intend to write a post about it in more detail sometime in the near future.  But I seem to be blocking on that for now, so here’s a quick juxtaposition of one of my biggest meta-learnings from that trip and something that popped up in yoga today.

Perfection is the enemy of good enough.  Or in the context of this trip – grammar (not even perfect grammar, just any grammar) is the enemy of staying afloat.  I’m just not at the point where I have enough vocabulary to be functional no matter how many grammar rules I may memorize.  As I spent time with my teacher we had to stop so frequently to define (or redefine) words that it really didn’t make sense to try to obsess over grammar or really over correctness at all.  By the middle of the week his mantra for me was “SVO” (subject, verb object).  Breaking my thoughts down into that size chunk is really, really, really hard, as I’m sure you know  by now.  But frankly I am just going to have to learn to live with that for a while.  And I’m going to spend my Spanish study time for a while doing as much as I can to just internalize a decent set of vocabulary.

So what does this have to do with yoga?  Well.  Coincidently, two different teachers at two different schools have mentioned in the last month that I am overly dependent on my joints.  What does that mean?  Well I hyperextend my knees.  I have lordosis of the spine.  I have perhaps a bit more flexibility than is actually healthy in a number of other joints.  So rather than using core strength and finesse to achieve some postures I just bend.  Now since I started yoga when I was forty and couldn’t touch my toes without bending my knees at the time, I didn’t have this level of flexibility in my joints then.  Which means to me that by trying to take as straight a line as I could to the ‘perfect’ versions of postures I muscled through some things in a less than healthy way.  So now my joints are a bit looser than they should be an I get to spend time trying to keep core strength whilst relaxing into postures.  So in the case of yoga, perfection may be even worse than the enemy of good enough, it’s the enemy of a healthy body.  Which kind of defeats the purpose of doing yoga in the first place.

That said, does anyone have suggestions for Spanish vocabulary building websites, programs or books (that don’t pollute the experience with trying to teach grammar at the same time)?

I was sweating away in yoga the other day doing a pretty good job of turning my brain off when a thought popped into my head so forcefully that I fell over – I was in Dandayamana-Dhanurasana (standing bow pose) at the time.

I continue to try to achieve the full standing meditation effect because I feel like it helps to keep me sane to do that.  But thoughts keep interfering.  Most of the time they are fairly orderly somewhat conscious lines, like composing a blog post.  While I’m not sure I am thrilled with the compromise (sanity is reputed to be pretty important, after all), it’s certainly productive time when I do that.

So on this particular day, the thought that just popped into my head was a solution to a problem that I had given up on solving.   One of the things we’re using to teach computer science is a book/website called CSUnplugged which is a great set of lessons aimed at late elementary school and up to teach basic computer science concepts without using a computer.  This is how we took our class through things like binary numbers, image representation, and text compression.

But we’ve got a somewhat unruly class of ninth and tenth graders (okay, that was redundant, wasn’t it).  So we have been building slide decks and adding some interactive material both of which are aimed a little closer to our target demographic.   But it takes a long time to do this kind of auxiliary material even when the core lesson is already built.  So I had given up on additional exercises since I couldn’t come up with anything good.

Then came along standing bow pose in a 105 degree room.  And into my head pops the idea to expand on the idea of removing vowels from sentences to a full on interactive experience.  Part of the original lesson had a sentence “Cn y rd ths?”   But since I had just been listening to some lectures that covered the history of  abjads (writing systems without vowels) and had a lot of fun composing some sample sentences without vowels for one of my slides, it occurred to me as I was standing on one leg that the kids would probably have some fun doing something related to that.  And like any revelatory experience I didn’t think this all through – the idea and a full picture of the mini-game of translating/compressing and retranslating decompressing two different phrases – one common one and one from lewis carroll just popped into my head and (almost) knocked me over.

Which leaves me with two questions.  First, for the yogis out there –  is this kind of experience part of what I should look for in meditation rather than the purely relaxing/restorative aspects?    And second for the teacher out there, is it worth falling over in the middle of yoga class to come up with a good classroom exercise?

P.S. My favorite “fine line” expression remains – “There is a fine line between genius and insanity.” May I always stay on the right side of that line (or was that the left side)?

By the most strict definition, it’s been 9 months since I started this reboot project.  But for various reasons I’m going to write off about three months of that time and call this my six month check-in.  Not the least of which is that I hadn’t really gotten to the point where I felt like a top down check in made sense in April…

Here is a paragraph from my very first post which I need to keep coming back to as it is way too easy to get lost in the details:

I’m taking a minimum of a year off of full time employment to dive into this experiment, if this ends up being a year of self-improvement and self-discovery, I’ll count it as a success but not be thrilled with the outcome.  My overall objective is to accomplish the brain reboot and in the process discover my next big thing, which I hope will be a project/career that will both improve the world around me and provide a sustainable living.

And to do this I developed a what I can only describe as a self-directed curriculum.  I’m going to just blatantly cut and paste my original ‘curriculum’ post from October here, as I didn’t really remember it in detail and I’ve been living it…

—–Begin Excerpt—–

Because I am fundamentally a reductionist, I am going to divide my efforts into three broad categories.  One is large goals that I intend to spend something measurable in hours per week over the course of the year to achieve a specific objective.  Another is what I’m thinking of as tools and techniques – experimenting with different methods of learning on small things or specifically aiming at acquiring a particular skill that I believe will help my ability to execute on my larger goals.  The final category is the scatter-shot learning of anything that strikes my fancy.

Well that’s completely amorphous, you say?  Let’s dig a bit deeper.

I’ve already mentioned the top four big things:

  1. Learn a language – there are two major questions to answer here. The first is the language, I’m leaning towards Spanish, but some of the other contenders are Mandarin Chinese, Japanese, French, Latin, Gaelic, and Ancient Icelandic.  This certainly deserves at least one blog post of its own, so stay tuned. The second is technique. I’m not even sure where to start with a discussion on how to learn a language (although I’ve been accumulating ideas from various sources) so again, stay tuned.
  2. Music – While my initial measurable goal is to learn an instrument to some level of mastery, I’d also like to dig more into music theory and develop sight reading skills. Contenders here are piano, guitar, violin, clarinet, saxophone, ukulele, harmonica, vocals and upright bass.
  3. Programming – I’m not even going to try to attack this in a small paragraph.
  4. Writing – Well, let’s start with blogging, perhaps more will come of it.  Although I did just notice that nanowrimo is next month. Hmmm…

And some of the skills that I’m hoping to develop:

  • Speed reading
  • Memorization techniques
  • Analysis/Critique – If nothing else I am going to start reviewing books and teaching company courses that I read and listen to.
  • Math – there is certainly room for a ‘big’ learning subject here as well, but my initial interest is in exercising basic math skills to see if that help stretch my brain and make some other activities easier.
  • Physical skills – Keep doing yoga and dance and perhaps re-introduce an eastern martial art of some kind – I am certainly strongly planted in the strong body helps a strong mind camp.
  • Typing?

I’m not sure that the last category is actually a separate thing, but I’m including it as a reminder to myself to  strike a balance between a disciplined approach and making sure that I have a blast in the process.

—–End Excerpt—–

And of course I gave myself full permissions to morph the curriculum as I went (including calling 9 months 6 months, just because).  So where am I now?

At a very high level, I feel both very good about what I’ve accomplished and pretty frustrated at the pacing.  But a large part of the point of this whole exercise is to get better at learning in general and while it’s very hard to measure that explicitly, I feel some movement in the old noggin’ so that has to count for something…

At the next level, I have stuck with my top four major objectives but would say that physical skills which I had originally placed as a minor player actually ended up getting elevated to top tier status.

And for a quick brain-dump style status report, here’s what I’ve got:

  1. Language: I landed on Spanish and spent some time listening to Pimsleur audio + their minimal reading writing accompaniment.   It was slow progress at best.  I certainly wasn’t able to absorb this information without reviewing multiple times per lesson.  So I broke down and signed up for a small class size Spanish 1 at a local school.  This seemed to get me over a bit of a hump.   I’m just starting level II and fell like I’m making real progress.  I think there is some chance that I will hit at least minimal functionality sometime in the foreseeable future which is definitely further than I’ve ever gotten before with a language other than English.
  2. Music:  I landed on Piano + some ear training supplemented with a bit of music theory.  I made it through a level one piano book quickly as it was mostly review.  I stalled out a bit on the level two stuff but can see myself getting back to that soon.  I am pushing hard on the ear training as it feels like a breakthrough on that would be more fundamental in my general brain training than incremental improvement of keyboard skills.  I am also having a lot of fun going through the Billy Joel songbook (and will add Brubeck as well) – this is definitely not an example of deliberate learning, but may start slopping into flow.
  3. Programming:  I’ve some thoughts on branching into iOs and Android programming, but for now I’m playing with some ideas that have been floating in my head for years for some dance music tools, and I can do initial implementation of that nicely in the Microsoft universe.   In fact as I’ve started spending a bit more time on this it’s pretty easy to get lost in it and not want to do anything else, which is great.  Also, I signed up for a volunteer gig to teach intro to computer science to high school students, so I’m busily training to teach this stuff.  There will definitely be more on that here shortly.
  4. Writing:  Most of my writing has been in the context of this blog.  Alicia and I took part of an online fiction writing class, but stalled on it as we both manage grammar pretty well and there was a bit too much emphasis on basics in that class.  But one of these days some fiction may escape me…
  5. Physical Skills: I’ve had a blast starting to learn to tap dance, which is something I’ve never tried before.  Learning a new physical skill has definitely been a key part of helping me think about how I learn in general.  I’ve also dug deeper into yoga, adding a vinyasa (or flow) style to my practice and spending more time working with poses on my own rather than just pushing through them in class.  This is definitely a place where I’m playing with deliberate practice, but I certainly have a long way to go.

For the small random things, I’ve spent considerable time on speed reading as I think that’s the biggest bang for my buck.  And of course I upgraded physical skills to a major skill.  I haven’t been great about attacking small projects though and that’s a little disappointing.  Although if we were to add cooking and canning into the mix, they might count.

And of course my progress on the top level of what I want to do when I grow up is on the slow side.  But re-awakening my joy in programming and taking a stab at passing that on to others in a new way has to count as a good start, right?

Anyone who knows me is quite aware that I’m an atrocious speller.  The advent of the spell checker is nothing short of a miracle as far as I’m concerned.  And I’ve been writing in English in excess of four decades.  And I write quite a bit.  And I read even more.  Well, I finally figure out why this is so.  Okay, so call me slow (you won’t be the first).  The relationship between how a word is spelled and how it sounds is only marginally related at the best of times.  And it requires an expert in descriptive linguistics to even put forth a plausible theory about why we spell things in a particular way in some of the more extreme cases.

This doesn’t appear to be the case in Spanish.  I’m only six weeks into an introductory course on Spanish at this point so I’m sure as I dig deeper things will get more complicated.  But at least for now things are almost completely rational.  Hallelujah!  I may just switch permanently (sorry, non-Spanish speaking friends and family – we’ll figure out some way to communicate).  Had I known this at 13 maybe I would have taken Spanish rather than French in high school and kept it up.  Then I’d be writing this blog in Spanish (or living in Spain).

So what does this have to do with Multiple encoding?  First, multiple encoding is a term that I learned in this lecture series about memory but haven’t found a great reference for on the interwebs.   I like the term though, so I’ll use it.  Briefly, think about the different methods you use to etch information into your memory (which is generally described as coding or encoding) – these are things like repeating something verbally over and over again, trying to visualize something, embedding the information in a broader context or solving a problem related to the information so that it can be retrieved.  If you use more than one of these methods, this is what one would call multiple encoding.  Almost every memory trick or technique I’ve seen can broadly be described as multiple encoding although some rely most heavily on one method of encoding with minor support from others.

Professor Joordens uses the example of the “ROY G. BIV” acronym for remembering the colors of the rainbow — each color is associated with a letter, and the letters are encoded as a name.  Coming up with your own acronym would then add elaborative encoding to the system and make it even more effective.

And that brings me back to spelling in Spanish.  It seems like as I actually internalize the pronunciation (see, needed the spell checker for that word) rules for Spanish, I find that I can work at memorizing vocabulary from two directions, the spelling and the sound.   At least for me this has significantly improved my rate of vocabulary acquisition (this time auto correct took care of it).  And I think this counts as a form of multiple encoding as describe above.  The flip side of this is that it is probably part of the reason that I was making very little progress by doing a predominantly audio series, even one that was recommended and apparently pretty well designed.

The other aspect of multiple encoding that I’m finding to be pretty compelling is use of the link words system.  This is the idea that for each word in Spanish you find an English word or phrase that sounds like the Spanish word and then you build an image that relates the sounds like word and the definition word together.   As an example – The Spanish for RICE is ARROZ (pronounced ARROS), so imagine ARROWS landing in your plate of RICE.  As a supplement to other study, combined with the rational system that Spanish uses to spell that gives at least three, possibly four different memory systems a chance to grab onto new vocabulary and reinforce each other.  Much improved over just hearing the word, I think.  Of course once the word gets really embedded all of the learning techniques will drop away and I’ll just be able to retrieve the word, but that’s a bit in my future, at least for a broad vocabulary.

I mentioned in my “Which language should I learn?” post that I took two years of high school French.  And that I retain basically nothing from that today.  Well, it turns out that’s not entirely true.  The other day, about three weeks into the conversational Spanish class I’m taking, the generally very patient teacher stopped me after my attempt to pronounce cascarrabias (cantankerous) and in a fairly exasperated way asked me to pronounce the word for dog (perro).

Apparently I’ve been pronouncing the rolled R’s in Spanish in the back of my throat the way the French do rather than at the tip of my tongue the way Spanish speakers do.  Which is extra funny because to a native English speaker the Spanish way is much easier (at least I think so).  But now I have to break the darn habit that I seem to have actually cemented somehow during my very mediocre two years in French class thirty years ago.

So I was wrong, I did retain something from my high-school French class, it just wasn’t particularly useful for my attempt to learn Spanish.  Go figure.


The aspect of this that I find most interesting is that this little quirk from high school French became more pronounced when I started sitting in a classroom and attempting to learn a language in that environment.  When I was reciting back from Pimsleur podcasts and practicing vocabulary around the house this wasn’t as apparent.  Now, of course, that may be because I wasn’t being self-critical enough.  But the better explanation would be that placing myself in a context that was closer to my early learning experience helped bring up those memories.

The study that I keep seeing is uses scuba divers to test the hypothesis, since they can dwell in two well controlled and very different environments.   They are asked to learn something on the beach or under water and then recall it on the beach or underwater.  The various combinations are tested – Learn on the beach/Recall under water, Learn on the beach/Recall on the beach, Learn underwater/Recall underwater, Learn underwater/Recall underwater.  And the accuracy of recall was significantly better when the learning and recall environments were the same.  Apparently there have been similar studies for drunk/sober states and exhausted/alert states although I imagine they are a bit less controlled (so to speak).

In any case I’ve been collecting additional antidotal evidence recently.  Aside from the “French R Incident.”  The most obvious example was that whilst honeymooning in New Zealand my wife and I both learned to drive on the left side of the road, having never done that before.  I not only had vivid flashes of being 15 and learning to drive, but started recalling crazy stories that my driver’s education teacher recounted in class.

A friend recently told me that he gave up on learning the Dvorak system of typing even though he thought it was a really good idea because he started having nightmares about learning to type when he was thirteen.  Somewhat increased typing speed as an adult was apparently outweighed by recurring nightmares – I guess I can understand that.

I’m curious as to how general this phenomenon is.  Have you started learning a new skill or a variation on an old one and found yourself transported back to some related experience in your past?

I was telling a friend (who I think can be characterized as a reasonably successful musician) about learning to play the piano.  His immediate question was “who are you studying with.”  Which threw me for a moment, because I hadn’t actually considered starting up with a piano teacher yet. (Check out my post on learning to play the piano if you’re interested in the gory details of how I’m going about this).

But that got me to thinking about the general question of where self study is most effective and where other more formal education might be more appropriate.  I was inspired to start this reboot project in part by Chris Guillebeau‘s guest blog post on Powell’s site where the thesis was directed self study could be more effective than going to grad school (and cheaper).   While I’ve used the post as a touchstone, my goals are considerably different than his were and so what I’ve actually ended up doing has borne at best a passing resemblance to his suggested curriculum.   So why not diverge in method as well?

The quick answer is that I have already, and in fact I never really though about not taking more formal classes for some parts of my curriculum.  For instance, I didn’t consider trying to learn to tap dance without taking class.  On the other hand, I did take a run at learning to speak Spanish from audio lessons and books.

So where do you draw the line?  What things are best learned solo where you can make your own mistakes in the privacy of your own home, which things are best done in a class setting, and what things are better with a tutor?  And to add another twist, at what point do you get more out of teaching something to someone else than by taking more classes yourself?

For myself, learning a second language without some direction from someone fluent in that language has been pretty much a bust.   I broke down and signed up for an introductory small class course at a local language school.  We’ve only had two sessions so far, but I’m reasonably certain that was the right thing to do.

Has anyone out there learned a language without the direct help of someone who speaks it already?  If so was it your second language (or third or fourth or fifth)?  What method did you use?  And would you recommend it over taking a class or hiring a tutor?

I’m not quite sure why tap is doing this to me.  I really did just throw in this particular skill as an afterthought in my curriculum more because I’d like to have fun hoofing with my lovely wife if and when I make it close to her league rather than as one of my initial big chunks of brain re-trainings like language or music.  But for whatever reason things in my broader agenda keep clicking while in tap class.  So here is another installment of what I learned in tap this week that is only tangentially related to the dance form.

The teacher asked us to turn our backs on him and he tapped out a rhythm.  We were then asked to do our best to copy the sounds that he created using any technique that we knew.  He started out with extremely simple examples and when he got to just plain simple which resulted in total cacophony from the class, he stopped.  But he explained that this was a way of learning to improvise.  In the tap sense it’s pretty close to some of the ear training that I’ve been doing in music.  And of course back in my youth I really liked the concept of jazz improvisation, but was never all that great at it – probably because I didn’t spend enough time with ear training and building my vocabulary.

Did I just say vocabulary?  Yes, I did!  The thing that really connects everything together for me was that the teacher went on to describe how he thought of improvisation in tap.  He said it felt like learning to speak a language.  Your objective isn’t to figure out the sentence that you’re going to say ahead of time, mapping out the whole structure and then spitting it out.  The idea is that you should have a working vocabulary that is rich enough and natural enough that you can just start talking and you form the thought as you go.  Dance, music, language, choreography, sight reading, speed reading, writing, composing – the same brain does all of these things.  Maybe training in one is actually going to help others.  Who woulda thunk?

I’ve been thinking quite a bit about breadth first vs. depth first learning and skill acquisition.  The terms are from graph theory and are used with reference to tree traversal.  If they don’t immediately resonate with you, take a quick look at the graphs on the right hand side of the breadth-first and depth-first search Wikipedia pages – just walk through the nodes in the order of the numbers, that will give you a  good visualization of the conceptual difference between the two.  In any case, the idea that I’m trying to convey here is that I have been a radically depth first person in both work and life.  But now I’m reversing course and going pretty extremely breadth first and I have to admit that it’s freaking me out a bit.

My depth first work:

I got my first job at 13 as a sales and support person at an Apple computer store.  I was lucky enough to land a college work study job writing music theory software for the Macintosh.  I haven’t held a single job since that isn’t computer related.  And furthermore, of my twenty-odd year professional career a clear majority of that time has been spent developing a specific category of programs (debuggers, profilers, and other diagnostics tools).  I have occasionally toyed with trying some kind of service job just to round out my resume, but I don’t really think that will happen.

My depth first life:

When I started doing something other than work in my mid-twenties, I jumped straight into Ballroom dance.  I spent the better part of a decade dancing many hours a week and competed at several different amateur levels.  Ballroom is actually a fairly broad category.   My first year of trying to learn how to dance I took a conventional route of trying to learn a breadth of different dances (Foxtrot, Rhumba, Waltz, Swing, Cha-Cha).  That didn’t work at all for me.  It was only when my teacher convinced me to do an exhibition routine that was entirely swing that I clicked.  I eventually broadened out and learned more competitive and social dance styles, but it was definitely a key to start with one and learn it to a certain level before attempting a second one.

I then took up Kung Fu and spent 2+ hours 2 to 3 times a week in class, plus quite a few Friday evenings learning lion dance, plus time on my own, which was non-trivial although probably not nearly as much as I should have.  Again, I did this for the better part of a decade.  Then I took up yoga – again 2-3 times a week for about 5 years now.  For those of you that may know my age and are trying to do the math, there was some overlap on either end of Kung-Fu.  I’m not quite that old.

In any case,  I’ve generally only practiced one or two hobbies at a time and have practiced them intensely.  And I’ve gotten reasonably good at them.  I always take it as a compliment when other students mistake me for a teacher and a further compliment when another teacher makes that assumption, and that has happened in all three of my depth first hobbies on many occassions.

Switching to Breadth First:

Now of course, without a full time job, I could probably manage a few depth first activities at the level that I was previously maintaining one while working full time.  And at some level that’s what I thought I was going to do when I started this adventure.  But it really isn’t how things feel at this point.  Take, for instance, music.  I set out to learn to play the piano this year.  But when it came right down to it I wanted to take a broader look at music.  So I am playing the piano every day.  But I am also running through an ear training course.  And I just started a singing course as well.  My old self would have allocated more time to piano and not broadened into other music related things until I felt pretty comfortable with my basic keyboard skills.  But I think there is some real value in broadening out earlier.  So we’ll see how that goes.

Of course the music thing is a pretty limited example.  One could make the argument that what I’m really doing is some kind of depth first traversal of a redefined domain.

But then there  is the Spanish thing.  And the tap thing.  And I’ve started learning a different kind of yoga.  And re-learning programming.  And speed reading.  And writing – both this blog and taking a creative writing course.  And there are the dozen other things that I want to start doing this year but haven’t gotten traction on yet.  For instance, I’d like to play with memory techniques.  I would like to take a run at Toastmasters.  I would like to improve my typing speed (and/or learn Dvorak).  I would like to take a run at writing fiction.  And the list goes on.

I’m hoping at the least that trying a bit of breadth first will help with my primary goal of learning and acquiring skills faster, as measured by the net number of hours spent.  I’ll be sure to report back soon.