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Archive for May 2009

Practice, Practice, Practice

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I like David Brooks. He makes a concerted effort to be more than just a political columnist. In an age where only shrill voices are heard over the airwaves and bold-faced, siren-laden headlines dominate the Internet, Brooks occasionally departs from his role as the New York Times’ token conservative op-ed columnist and writes about something completely unrelated to politics. More people should do this.

In a recent column, he examines what genius is and how it is cultivated, both by circumstance and by conscious effort. The effort part is what interests me most. For a long time, I’ve struggled, not just with Chinese, but with actually improving my overall abilities in writing, communication, time management, and other areas, both mundane (but necessary) and artistic. The tipping point between frustrated abandonment of a difficult task and slow but steady success is always focus, or a lack thereof. Focus is a problem for nearly everyone. Too many things demand our attention, and we are often all too happy, elated even when we are offered a chance for distraction. My brain shoots between topics and activities almost as fast as Firefox can open a new web page. There is so much information available and always something new happening somewhere that it becomes easier and easier to lose oneself in the flood of information and, in doing so, lose out on many opportunities to grow. Without focused effort over a long period of time, no meaningful ability can properly develop. If ability or talent do seem to spontaneously emerge, it is because we have not fully understood how some activity or circumstance in the past contributed to the growth of the ability in question. Why, for instance, was I particularly good at reading as a young child? Clearly because my mother read to me, pointing at each word as she did so, for hours every night. I was tutored rigorously when my brain was most ready to receive – the benefits will last forever.

Brooks writes,

By practicing in this way, performers delay the automatizing process. The mind wants to turn deliberate, newly learned skills into unconscious, automatically performed skills. But the mind is sloppy and will settle for good enough. By practicing slowly, by breaking skills down into tiny parts and repeating, the strenuous student forces the brain to internalize a better pattern of performance.

The key is rigor and repetition. I have never been good at this as a student because I once thought I didn’t have to put in the same amount of time to get the same, or even superior, results. Often, this was true – thanks to my parents forcing or tricking me into doing things that made me smarter as a kid, I had a head start. This led me to be lazy and carry an almost entitled, superior view of myself into any academic situation. But the idea that someone is inherently ‘gifted’ with knowledge or technique is ridiculous. Talent is not a gift, it is a product, a result. Even LeBron James, whose physical gifts alone would make him at least a journeyman in the NBA, routinely outworks his peers in the weight room, in terms of hours spent practicing, etc. There’s no throne without the thorns, as William Penn said. Without that repeated, brain-numbing effort, there will be no notable results, nothing to write home about. Too often it’s made learning Chinese a real chore, but it IS a chore. One of the most epic, difficult chores in the world. I’ve done passably well so far, but I can’t calculate the amount of time I’ve wasted and the words/sentence patterns I’ve forgotten simply through lack of review and daily usage. The same is true of my English – when I do actually buckle down and spend lots of time on my Chinese, and don’t post to the blog or write emails, I find myself committing vast amounts of typos and wantonly dangling participles hither and tither. Given that I style myself a candidate for law school, I should be more mindful of what would otherwise be trivial errors, and yet they recur again and again. Why? Lack of practice. Even a keyboard will trip up someone who hasn’t spent much time in front of it recently.

Some people do New Year’s resolutions, so how about a (belated) May Day resolution? If I’m going to lead a charmed life as a student and faux-知识分子 , one may as well put in the hours and the time to make that knowledge a reality, an arsenal that can be called upon reflexively and immediately, without lots of hemming and hawing and “I’ll get back to you on that.” Knowledge, language, politics – they all have vocabularies that can be learned and concepts that can be mastered. Without that, talent is just an empty word, and the ‘big picture’ thinking I fancy myself as being good at will be impossible.

Just as an aside, WordPress is wonderful. This is so much better than any other interface I’ve used, and it even lets me publish from my desktop, although I’m still wrangling with XAMPP and trying to coach myself up in various aspects of it. I used to be ‘good’ at computers, now I’m merely another user. Practice, practice…I’m hoping to divide the blog (or just use tags?) to move my Chinese language content/ranting about Cleveland sports over here as well. It’ll be a busy month, but I’ll get it done somehow.

Written by Michael

May 3, 2009 at 11:45 am

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