Friday, August 21, 2015

Check Out the Fractals.

We were talking about some pipe dreams each of us has, and a friend of mine met my objection before I had even had a chance to voice it.  "If it takes too long, why not start now? How old will you be in five years if you DON'T follow that dream?"

I provided the obligatory clever retort.  But the sentiment has stuck with me.

How old will I be in five years if I don't do it?

I have mentioned my sister before regarding her learning to play the accordion.  All her life, Caroline has played the long game.  She looks into the distant futures, finds a future she wants, and starts on the intermediate tasks that will get her there.  This is not a new thing with her - I saw her figuring out costs and benefits when she was a baby contemplating taking her first steps.  And then again when she decided to swim.  And then again when she learned to read. 

A couple of months ago, when I was comparing musical notes with her, she told me her goal - she wants to be the 80-year-old lady who plays the accordion. If, as current popular theory states, it requires 10,000 Gladwellian practice hours to achieve mastery over a task, then she will plan on being an expert in 40 years. 

10,000 hours over the course of 40 years is only 250 hours a year.  An average of just over 40 minutes a day.

Very long game.  A friend of mine shared a quote with me this week:

When Pablo Casals (then aged 93) was asked why he continued to practice the cello three hours a day, Casals replied, "'I'm beginning to notice some improvement...'

The game is long, but focusing on the game means that you are breaking the process up into bearable units.  Although 10,000 hours seems like an insurmountable summit, 40 minutes is doable.

More important than the bite-sized practice sessions, though, it helps keep expectations in check.  I get discouraged if my banjo playing doesn't improve.  If the lessons I learned yesterday don't stick.  If the song doesn't sound better than it did yesterday.  Or worse still, if it sounds worse.  If my fingers are stiff and don't limber up, if the timing just sounds wrong, if the tune I hear in my head cannot make it out onto the instrument.... I get frustrated and fed up.

Each discouragement means that it is harder to pick up the hated instrument and play for a half hour. (30 minutes a day means it is gonna take me a little longer than Caroline to get to the 10k plateau....)

But what happens when I am not working towards immediate gratification?  What a lift do I get when I know those damned scales are just part of a huge plan to get good?  Practicing those rolls are not an end to themselves, but part of a long-term project to increase strength and flexibility?

As part of my research in my previous life as an archaeologist, I looked at fractals, the self-replicating patterns that repeat at every scale.  It made sense to look at it to study stone tool debris; I can tell you that one small pile of debitage looks almost identical to another (just so you know, that is not enough to write a thesis on...).  But I am beginning to think that maybe my efforts to learn things happen in the same way.


Mandelbrot might have been a math genius, but I
bet he sucked at playing the banjo.


I work on my forward rolls on the banjo.  I see a little bit of improvement.  Not much, just a little bit.  I see this little part of the learning pattern, and I think I know where it is going. And if I look back, I can imagine where I was a week ago.

But at a larger scale, over the past year and a half, I can see the things that I have learned.  And they grow at about the same rate.  My practice and the improvement I have in my ability replicates itself over time.  I get better incrementally.  My breakthroughs are not as amazing as I remembered them to be.  My plateaus not so long. 

Last night I went back to my first banjo instruction book, and was delighted to find that some of the trickier parts of the book were not as tricky any more.  I was able to do even the unfamiliar tunes more quickly.  That I struggled less.

What happens in five years?  How far along will I be? 

Funny thing that I realized, though, is that it is not limited just to my music.  How does playing the long game change my ideas about exercise (instead of getting discouraged that I don't look like Charles Atlas after six months of push-ups)?  How would it change my attitude towards my career advancement?  My furthering of my education?  My work in the community? 

What happens if I take the long view? 

And what fractal in your life would YOU approach differently?

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