Posts Tagged ‘sabattical’

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?

One of the primary reasons that I’m taking some time away from a conventional workplace is to try to improve my general capacity to learn as I think this will make me more effective in work and life in general.

But I wanted to take a step back and spend some time on the other primary reason, which I tend to think of as the quest for my next career.  Or what I want to do when I grow up 🙂

One of the images that stuck in my head is a Venn diagram that I heard described in a podcast.  Which is somewhat odd in itself, in that it’s an ‘image’ that I ‘heard.’  In any case I won’t burden you with whatever incipient synesthesia that I am apparently dealing with.  Here’s what I heard/saw:

Career Options

Kind of speaks for itself doesn’t it?  Quite simple – fill in the circles with skills/careers described by the text and shoot for something that lands in the triangle in the center and the problem is solved.  Of course if you’re at all like me you have this slightly uneasy feeling that the diagram might actually look more like this:


And even  though every job I’ve ever held has had very enjoyable aspects, I have to admit that my career choices have been pretty biased by a diagram that looks like this:


Now  that’s a perfectly good picture, especially if you are of the type (and I’m not judging here at all) that can choose such a career and use the proceeds from your job to do something on the side that contributes to the core of your happiness.   I have tried this with some success at times, but it never feels quite right to me.  I get too absorbed in my workplace to make that kind of work/life partitioning effective.

I also think that a fourth component should be ‘Things that provide value to society’ and in some sense that probably overlaps in a different way with the ‘Things that people will pay me to do’ circle, possibly even in a way that makes it a single component at least at a high level.  But I’ll have to give that a bit more thought.  And while I’m on crazy sidetracks, I wonder if there is any objective way to determine the relative size of the circles?

In any case, I’m not quite sure where that overlap is for me right now.  And building new skills will hopefully change where it is in the future.  But the obvious next step is to try filling out the diagram with actual data to see where it lands me and if it ends up in a readable state I’ll post it here.

I wonder if such a diagram would be a useful part of a resume?  Just joking. Really.  I wouldn’t actually do that.

P.S. I can’t for the life of me remember the podcast that started me down this track.  I think it might have been one from the Entrepreneurial Thought Leaders series, but I’ve been listening to them in a scattershot way so I don’t have any hope of zooming in on the correct one.  If anyone knows, please pass it along so (a) I can give credit where it is due and (b) I can see how close my memory is to what I originally heard.

Keep in mind that the Prime Directive of my reboot project is to get my middle aged brain up and running back at twenty-something spryness. So the specific skills that I have chosen to tackle were taken from a list of things where there is some evidence to justify spending time on them as means to that end.

All that said, I am having a blast getting back into music.  And I’m enjoying the piano in a way that I never did as a kid, which may not be surprising.

Here’s what happened.  Even before I left my full time job, I impulse purchased a package that contained a 6 octave keyboard and the E-Media beginning and intermediate piano methods (eMedia Play Piano Pack).  The box sat in the corner and gathered dust for several months while I struggled with my decision to give up a stable career and go off and do this reboot thing.  Who knows, maybe the mocking keyboard bundle was what put me over the edge?

So when I decided to tackle the piano and re-build the musical part of my brain, I loaded up the software, hooked up the piano and dove in.  I have to say, I was really impressed with the e-Media piano method.  Now admittedly, I had a bunch of piano lessons in my youth and a decent amount of music theory for a non-musician.  So nothing I ‘learned’ in the beginning method was technically ‘new’ for me.  But the meta-analysis of how they set up the system was a blast and as long as I remember to turn that analysis off while actually playing, I think it added to the experience.

One of the coolest things about this method was that they use  several songs that everyone probably knows – my favorite of the bunch is Billy Joel’s “Piano Man”.  They start with an extremely simplified version and build them up to something close to the full version of the song, although at least in the case of “Piano Man” it doesn’t quite get to the complete rich harmony of the original.  First you play a simplified version of the melody and have the option to get the software to play the harmony. This means that  from the get-go you feel like you’re actually playing music.  They start you on C major with hands in a home position and move you through F and G major along with a couple of basic positions for the hands, but they really do keep it simple.  For harmony they teach you the basic I, IV, V7 progression  and then use that in a very obvious way in their arrangements of the familiar music you’re learning.

There is also a very rudimentary ear training component.  A bit of help in recognizing the intervals and chords that your learning to play when you here them is not a bad thing at all and something that I wish I had done more of when learning to play instruments the first time around.

To top it off, you have the midi keyboard hooked up to the computer so the software will give you feedback about everything from missed notes to notes not held long enough or too long.  I’m not sure if it’s good or bad that this evokes the image of my piano teacher when I was ten telling me similar things in a somewhat less neutral way.  More importantly, you start with the discipline of playing with someone (or something) else so you build in the importance of not pausing because something is hard, which was one of the single hardest habits to break when as a kid I went from individual lessons to playing in group.

In any case, I whipped through the beginner method in a bit over a month of running 10 or 20 lessons at a time.  Most of the stuff that was set up to practice repeatedly I was able to sight read through, and the built in feedback gave me some confidence that I wasn’t cheating.  I would be really curious to know how well this works for someone who is learning for the first time, but it was really fun as a review.  And since I have about a 30 year gap since I last took a piano lesson, I feel like some of the well thought out aspects of this method helped me build better habits the second time around.

Now the question is, does this help me with by larger objectives?  How do I measure that?  I’m not quite sure yet, but it has proven to me that picking at least some of the skills for the reboot project as things that I really enjoy is probably a personal key to making this project a success.

I’ve been dong a considerable amount of reading about learning and how we learn as I wade into an extended commitment to improve my own abilities in this area.  One of the most intriguing books so far has been Spark: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain.

When I embarked on this adventure that I’ve decided to call a self funded sabbatical, I had seen a decent amount about neuroplasticity which roughly defined is the the repurposing the existing circuits in the brain for new uses.  But one of the core messages of Spark is that neurogenesis or the growing of new nerve cells is not only possible but well established science, if still on the bleeding edge.  There are limited parts of the brain where this is proven to happen and several other caveats, but just the glimmer of hope that the all those cells that I’m sure I killed off in my twenties while drinking and smoking and otherwise abusing my system may not be permanently lost to me is exciting.  As a small side note, I wonder how all night programming stints while chugging Mountain Dew ranks on the abuse of the system next to some of the more conventional craziness?

The formula for neurogenesis appears to be a good bout of aerobic exercise at seventy to eighty percent max heart rate with occasional spikes to ninety percent followed by studying something.   Apparently if you don’t do some learning after the exercise the newly budded nerve cells just get re-absorbed, kind of a waste of good sweat, no?  One of the studies cited vocabulary acquisition explicitly as being enhanced by this method.  Another noted that attempting learn during the exercise was counterproductive.  Of course I was on the elliptical trainer when I learned those factoids.  Go figure.

So I’m making an attempt to use this information to inform my routine.  My current goal is twenty to thirty minutes on the elliptical followed by ten to twenty of tap then right into my Pimsleur Spanish lesson of the day.  Before the holidays I did this three times a week for a couple of weeks, once I get back into the routine in the new year, I’ll see how frequently I can mange it and write an update.  I’m also considering alternating morning and afternoon exercise.   And because I am insane, I’m at least flirting with doing a bout in the morning and a bout in the afternoon.