Some Thoughts On Skill Acquisition

I came across a thread on hacker news the other day linking to a post on the relationship between practice and flow. Basically, the idea is that when you’re practicing a skill, it’s dangerous to give into the temptations of flow and avoid practicing the things you’re not yet good at. In the context of piano practice, which is what the post is about, this means playing whole pieces from beginning to end, not focusing on the difficult parts.

This somewhat corresponds to my own experience in learning instruments and languages. It’s a phenomenon I have observed many times. However, the idea of “deliberate practice” that Cal Newport, the author of the blog, is big on always reeked a bit of hustle porn to me. This post too contains that message: if you’re having fun, you’re not doing it right. Suck it up and look for the pain that indicates growth.

Especially in language learning, people love to obsess over methods. I do too, they are cool to think about, sharable with other people and intuitively, seem like the thing to focus on. They are a meta skill that promises higher return on time invested. As valid as that is, I have found motivation to be the overriding factor that predicts successful language acquisition. The people I met who spoke Chinese well all had some positive emotional connection to the language and were often surprisingly unconcerned with methods. Conversely, I have talked to many self declared “language learning experts” who knew all about how to learn but couldn’t actually string together a grammatical sentence in the foreign language of their choice. [1]

I always felt like this was something that, between all the shitposts and juvenile humour, Khatzumoto really got right: finding a good mix between motivational content that gives confidence in being able to succeed and methods that help on the way there. Ideally the second helps with the first.

This all being said, I don’t want to sound like I’m totally opposed to the idea of the post. When trying to improve, the siren call of flow can lead away from a practicing style that actually helps improve. I guess the point I want to make is that this too should be a deliberate decision: don’t deceive yourself into thinking you’re getting better when you’re having fun flowing, avoiding difficult parts but also don’t do what’s painful because you’ve been conditioned into a “suffering is virtuous” work ethic.

Also, it might be worth exploring in a future blog post when this flow vs deliberate practice dichotomy applies. The experience that most influences my thinking on this is that of memorizing about 3000 characters in 6-8 months using mnemonic stories. Making these was sometimes tedious but never felt like the kind of drilling espoused in the Newport post (“do what does not come easy”). When thinking about learning methods, this seems to me to be the holy grail of techniques: using features of the human mind like mnemonics to dramatically aid learning.

Anyway, this blog post isn’t very structured but I do want to finish with a project idea I’ve been brooding over since reading that original thread: it’d be cool to be a beginner again and think and blog about these things as I am learning something new. I haven’t really approached a totally new skill in a while and it might be interesting to write down my experience as I am learning and exploring. The curse of knowledge often makes me wish I’d done so when learning Mandarin. Stay tuned for an upcoming post on this!

[1] I remember meeting this one American in Taiwan who was using a spectrogram on her phone to visualize the pitch of her voice and see tones. A really cool idea except her Chinese was absolutely atrocious. A case of “if you’re so smart, why aren’t you fluent?”, but I doubt asking her this would’ve penetrated her self-confidence.