Some Notes on Learning Things

Spoiler: it's kinda hard.

by Pete Albertson

I started to study music at the age of 10. I remember pretty much half of the fourth grade starting with me. By the eighth grade there were maybe five of us? For whatever reason I stuck with it and later earned a Bachelor’s in Music.

About 20 years after starting, I gave up music, took some trendy advice at the time, and “learned to code.” It was hard but rewarding to see progress and grow confidence as a professional.

Three years ago I moved to Mexico and started to learn Spanish. I had learned some in high school, but as any American knows, the US education system treats foreign languages more like a personal enrichment style course than anything close to a serious academic study. I am now fluent in Spanish, but with lots of room for improvement.

Some patterns and lessons have emerged for me as I continue to learn these types of things:

  1. People will treat you like you have a superpower. The look on people’s faces when I say that I have a music degree but don’t play anymore would suggest my music skills could solve climate change. I think it’s because people know, perhaps only subconsciously, that developing musical proficiency is hard but also cool as hell. So why wouldn’t I continue to take advantage of that amazing skill I spent so many years obtaining???
  2. There’s no substitute for time. You’ll find countless youtube videos, blog posts, & apps who try to convince you that you too can speak fluent French or write javascript or play the guitar in just a couple weeks with this amazing hack universities don’t want you to know! They’re lying. It takes a lot of time, every time. You can improve your efficiency by minimizing distractions or hiring an excellent teacher but neither are going to turn you into a maestro overnight. Malcolm Gladwell thinks it takes 10,000 hours to master something. Well I’d argue it probably takes anywhere from 2,000-5,000 hours just to become proficient. “Everybody wanna be a bodybuilder. But don’t nobody wanna lift no heavy ass weights.” - Ronnie Coleman
  3. Do you like being awful at things? Well you better. Most people give up at the very beginning because it’s unbearable to be bad at something. It’s also kinda boring. Everyone wants to play their favorite guitar solo on the first day but instead they’re straining their hands to play a major scale. If you can deal with the suffering of not being very good, you’re more likely to go very far.
  4. Learning is not linear. With decent commitment and focus, you can actually make a lot of progress early on. Then you’ll make hardly any progress for months. It’s frustrating but normal. It helps to stop periodically and appreciate where you’ve made progress but also be honest about where you have lots of room for improvement. Your lesson or practice plan will need to evolve over time and that honest assessment of your deficiencies will help you more accurately adjust those plans.
  5. Quitting is totally fine. Time is a scarce resource and not everything is worth your time. You may learn during your study that you don’t actually enjoy that thing, or that you only wanted to learn it to impress someone. Ask yourself if you actually enjoy the study or practice, because if it feels like homework, that’s a good sign you probably don’t really like it that much or want it that bad. Move on.