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
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?
"WHO HAS TIME FOR ALL THAT CRAP," I thought. "I'LL JUST WRITE A COMPUTER
PROGRAM TO GENERATE THE SCALES FOR ME, AND THEN PLAY THOSE."
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
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
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
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
What have you been putting off out of fear? Are you sure it's as hard as it
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.