Originally posted at sandymaguire.me

I want to share a piece of ridiculously obvious advice today.

I've got a bad habit, which is being too smart for my own good. Which is to say, when I want to learn something new, too often I spend my time making tools to help me learn, rather than just learning the thing.

Take, for example, the first time I tried to learn how to play jazz music.

There's only one thing that I'm really good at, which is programming. The central tenet in programming is that "laziness is good," and if you're faced with doing something boring and repetitive, you should instead automate that thing away.

When all you have is a hammer...

According to The Book, the first thing to do to learn jazz is to learn your scales---in every mode for every key for several varieties of harmony. There are 12 notes, and seven modes, and at least four harmonies. That's what, like 336 different scales to learn?


In retrospect, this was a terrible plan. Not only did it not get me closer to my goal of knowing how to play jazz music, I also didn't know enough about the domain to successfully model it. It's funny to read back through that blog post with the benefit of hindsight, but at the time I really thought I was onto something!

That's not to say it was wasted effort nor that it was useless, merely that it wasn't actually moving me closer to my stated goal of being able to play jazz music. It was scratching my itch for mental masturbation, and was a good exercise in attempting to model things I don't understand very well, but crucially, it wasn't helping.

Or take another example, a more recent foray into music for me---only a few weeks ago. This time I had more of a plan; I was taking piano lessons and getting advice on how to practice from my teacher. One of the things he suggested I do was to solo around in the minor pentatonic scale. And so I did, starting in C, and (tentatively) moving to G.

But doing it in Bb was hard! Rather than spend the two minutes that would be required to work out what notes I should play in the Bb minor pentatonic, I decided it would be better to write a computer program! This time it would connect to my keyboard and "listen" to the notes I played, and flash red whenever I played a note that wasn't in the Bb minor pentatonic. I guess the reasoning was "I'll train myself to play the right notes subconsciously." Or something.

I spent like 15 hours writing this computer program.

This attempt was arguably more helpful than my first computer program, but again, it's a pretty fucking roundabout way of accomplishing the goal. Here we are, four weeks later, and I still don't know how to noodle around in the Bb minor pentatonic.

Like I said. Too smart for my own good.

There's a happy ending to this story, however. Earlier this week, I decided I was going to actually learn how to play jazz music. So I started reading The Book again, and when I got to the scale exercises, I decided I'd just give them a go. No computers. Just the boring, repetitive stuff it said would make me a great jazz musician.

The book even gave me some suggestions on how to minimize the amount of exercises I need to do---rather than playing every mode in every key (eg. C ionian, then G ionian, then A ionian, etc etc until it's time to play dorians), instead to play C ionian followed by D dorian followed by E phrygian. These scales all share the same notes, so they're more-or-less the same thing, which means I actually only need to practice 12 things, rather than 84 (the other 250 can likewise be compressed together.)

If I had been patient, I would have read that PRO-TIP the first time around. It probably wouldn't have helped me make less-"smart" decisions, but it's worth keeping in mind that I could be two years ahead of where I am today if I were better at keeping my eye on the ball.

One of the scales the book made me do was Ab major---something I'd literally never once played in my twenty years of piano. It started on a black note and always felt too hard to actually do. I approached it with trepidation, but realized that it only took about three minutes to figure out.

The thing I'd been putting off for twenty years out of fear only took three minutes to accomplish.

I've often wondered why it seems like all of the good musicians have been playing their instruments for like 25 years. Surely music can't be that hard---you can get pretty fucking good at most things in six months of dedicated study. But in the light of all of this, it makes sense. If everyone learns music as haphazardly as I've been doing it, it's no wonder that it takes us all so long.

What have you been putting off out of fear? Are you sure it's as hard as it seems?

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4 comments, sorted by Click to highlight new comments since: Today at 7:30 PM

I like the spirit of this post, but think I object to considering this 'too smart for your own good'. That framing feels more like an identity-protecting maneuver than trying to get at reality. The reality is that you think you're smarter than you are, and it causes you to trip over your untied shoelaces. You acknowledge this of course, but describing it accurately seems beyond your comfort zone. The closest you get is when you put 'smart' in scare quotes near the end of the essay.

Just be honest with yourself, it hurts at first but the improvement in perspective is massive.

Agreed, except that the behaviour described could also just be procrastination.

Writing random bits of code is a good hobby. It sounds like you prefer doing that than learning to play jazz, so forget the jazz and just code. I was having a hard job understanding quantum spin, and wrote some code to help. It was reasonably helpful. Then again, quantum spin is all about complex matrix multiplication, and numpy has functions for that, so I was basically using it as a matrix arithmetic calculator. Another example, I found that I kept getting distracted, so I wrote code that randomly beeped, asked what I was doing, and saved the results to a file. It worked quite well.

This actually reminds me of a saying: "People will retreat to their strengths". Most of the time using what your good at is the fastest way to overcome a problem. It's a heuristic that works well for 95% of everyday problems but can sabotage you when confronted with especially hard or novel situations.

It seems like the important skill that this post alludes to is knowing when to apply your current skills to a problem vs. going out and putting in the hard work to acquire a new skill.