Two Steps Forward, One Step Back

Learning is one of those funny things that we never learn how to do — we just do it.  As children, we somehow learn to read, do math, and play sports all without thinking too much about how to learn or what it feels like to learn.  Learning is just a natural thing when you’re growing up.

As a child, you’re given lots of guidance, lots of opportunities and most importantly lots of time to learn.  Contrast this with learning as an adult:

  • You rarely have explicit guidance — you’re an adult, teachers are for kids!
  • You have fewer opportunities to learn — you’re an adult, you’re supposed to be able to identify and seize opportunities for yourself!
  • You have so much less time to learn — you’re an adult with a full schedule every day!

Which basically leads me to this fact: it’s much harder to learn as an adult!  As opposed to not being as capable to learn as an adult, which I think is a myth.

My situation was a bit different from most because I extended my schooling with graduate school.  Although everyone there was still an adult, there was still a lot of guidance, (self-directed) opportunities, and most importantly time to learn.  Now that I’m working in the “real world”, I’m finding myself bumping up against all of these challenges to learning as an adult.

But I digress, what I really wanted to talk about in this post was a phenomenon with learning that I have recently been thinking a lot about.  It’s the idea of “two steps forward, one step back” in learning.  As you learn a new skill in a subject area, at times you feel like you’re making good progress (“two steps forward”), but quickly realize you’ve hit some kind of wall and your progress grinds to a halt (“one step back”).  Incrementally you make progress but the process is grueling.

When in school, I rarely thought about this process.  You just keep moving forward, course after course, test after test.  It’s all such a whirlwind that you rarely have time to think about the actual process of learning.  More importantly, since it’s your full-time job to learn, this phenomenon may not be as apparent.  However, when your full-time job is actually your full-time job, and learning is just a hobby, you start to think about it more.

I most recently experienced this “two steps forward, one step back” phenomenon in three very different areas of learning:

  • Machine Learning: I’ve been trying to stay on top of (or catch up on?) all the recent developments in machine learning.  I’ve been pretty good at posting on my technical blog trying to explain concepts and ideas that I’ve learned.  Part of this process is really digging into the details of a particular topic including the math, the implementation and the intuition.  But the more I dug into a topic, the more apparent it was that my knowledge of the area was relatively superficial.  The math, the implementation, and even the concepts went so much deeper than I could have imagined.  Two steps forward, one step back.
  • Music: I’ve been taking guitar lessons with an amazing teacher for a while now, and recently just started vocal lessons with him too.  When I started out I was pretty terrible, I mean really terrible.  I struggled with the most fundamental skill of simply knowing if I was matching pitch, never mind actually trying to match pitch.  The analogy I like to use is that I was completely in the dark.  As I progressed, I gradually got better at telling if I was on pitch and correspondingly matching pitch.  I went from completely blind to having just really bad eye sight.  However, as I was able to “see” more, the distance between two notes that initially felt so small, felt like they had much more space in between.  But I soon after came the realization that there was yet another layer of detail that I was missing.  Two steps forward, one step back.
  • Chinese: I recently decided to take Mandarin lessons at a great Chinese school in the evening after work.  Part of my inspiration came from Lee Kuan Yew, also of Chinese descent, who learned Mandarin in his thirties.  So I thought: if one of the greatest minds of the last century could do it, why couldn’t I?  Obviously, it was a lot harder than I anticipated.  One particular thing I was proud of early on, was how many Chinese characters I learned in a short period.  There is this great little Chinese learning app called Plecko that has a flashcard program built-in.  Every time I hear a new word, I add it to the program.  At one point, I hit 1000 flashcard entries and it felt like a big achievement!  The next lesson, I got put back in my place.  I realized just how little I knew.  In addition to a flurry of new vocabulary that I had never seen, there was a whole slew of new grammatical structures and phrases that were foreign to me.  Two steps forward, one step back.

This idea of making progress, but feel like you’re not, is nothing new.  It’s part of learning, especially in a time-constrained way where you are bound to feel it more.  As soon as I realized this pattern, I started to feel a bit better about it.  Learning is rarely easy, there’s always a grind, especially if you’re trying to do it in a short period of time.  Among the many quotes available, here’s one by Confucius:

Real knowledge is to know the extent of one’s ignorance.
— Confucius

So the fact that I feel like I’m taking one step back is actually a sign of gaining more knowledge.  Life is full of these little paradoxes.  Now if someone would just tell me where I’m going to die so I won’t go there.