Beyond suckiness: the anatomy of learning curves

I love the whole process of learning something new, and find it kind of addictive. This means I’m something of a serial hobbyist (for whom some things stick and turn into long-term endeavors/commitments while others don’t). It also means I’ve thought a lot about learning curves.

For me, learning curves usually seem to have four distinct phases, no matter the specific thing I’m learning:

1. This is awesome! I want to do this shiny new thing forever!

2. Wow, I suck at this. How did I not know before?

3. Okay, I’m beginning to suck a little less. I still have a lot to learn, but that’s okay. At least learning is happening. Time to settle in.

4. Hey, I’m not bad at this. When did that happen?

Understanding stage 2 is especially important, because if we don’t understand that a stage of suckiness at any new pursuit is normal, that’s the stage we tend to give up at, taking said suckiness to indicate lack of ability instead of being just a routine part of how learning new things works. Stage 2 is when children crumple up their drawings, when adults throw up their arms and say, “I just don’t have the talent,” when we take things we were just beginning to learn and condemn them to the bin of things we think we can’t possibly learn.

Of course, sometimes what we learn at stage 2 is that we just don’t love whatever we’re learning enough to push through it, and I think that’s okay. There’s a huge difference between I choose not to and I can’t. The former is an active decision. The latter is often a passive giving over of power.

(Though I do think there are some things we can’t do, for lack of resources of various sorts–my lungs are never going to let me climb Everest, for instance. But I think there are far fewer of these things than we tend to assume.)

For me the greatest chance of giving up doesn’t come at stage 2, though, but stage 3. By stage 3, I feel like I’ve proven to myself that I can learn whatever I’m learning, and now I have to decide whether I want to settle in to keep on learning it. In its way, disconcerting as stage 2 is, progress, once it happens, can happen quickly, because the things waiting to be learned are big things.

Stage 3 is all about settling in for the long haul. By the time I get there, I’ve had time, during stages 1 and 2, to think hard about whether I want to do that.

Stage 4, by contrast, tends to sneak up on me. By stage 4, I’ve long been committed, and I’ve long accepted that there will always be new things to learn, too. (If there weren’t, I also would have given up by now.) But maybe one day I kind of look up. See where I am. Maybe smile, when I realize how far I’ve come.

And then I get back to work. Because if I’ve made it to stage 4 at all, I’m no longer fueled just by my learning-curve progress, but have found other things to drive me.

2 thoughts on “Beyond suckiness: the anatomy of learning curves”

  1. OK, I have decided I need a HOBBY, so this is perfect timing. I will remember it while I learn how to weave seed beads! Stage #4 is right around the corner… right? Because I hate stage #2!

    1. I feel like one of the wonderful things about taking up new hobbies is the way they give me perspective on all the things I’ve been doing for longer!

      I’m mostly cool with stage 2, except when, well, I’m in it. 🙂 (But knowing it’s normal does help!)

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