Round the bend

How do people learn new skills? And what can be done to make it quicker and easier to learn those needed skills?

One answer is to explore the patterns in the skills-learning process…

On the surface, each skill is different, and different for every person; yet there are also patterns in the learning-process that are much the same for every person and every skill. The usual view of skills-development, though, is that it’s a linear process – we gain a steady increase in ability, each layer of training building upon those before, with identifiable periods of practice needed to achieve distinct levels of skill:

  • pick up the basics (typical: 0~10hrs)
  • start out as a trainee (typical: 10~100hrs)
  • learn a bit more as an apprentice (typical: 100~1000hrs)
  • apply the skill as an independent journeyman (typical: 1000~10000hrs)
  • achieve acknowledged mastery (typical: at least 10000hrs)

We can visualise that sequence in SCAN terms as follows:

Yet whilst that mapping seems obvious enough, in practice it doesn’t describe the difficulties, the uncertainties, the common feeling of ‘one step forward, two steps back’, that are so often experienced in skills-development, and which make the development of any new skill so challenging. It’s also far more than mere training: it’s the education of experience, literally ‘out-leading’ that experience from within the inner depths of each person.

In other words, the learning-process within each of those overall stages is nothing like a simple linear progression. Instead, a more useful metaphor is the ‘skills-labyrinth’. This provides a means to describe and deal with all of those issues, and in a way that’s common to every skill — so it makes the learning of any skill an easier, less stressful experience. The metaphor uses the classic seven-turn single-path labyrinth – found in many cultures around the world – to model the various stages in the personal process of learning new skills.

There’s only one path in a labyrinth, so as long as we do keep going all the way, we’ll achieve the end-point – in this case, mastery of the skill. Unlike a maze – a branching puzzle with choices of path and direction – a labyrinth has only a single, non-branching path leading towards the centre. In principle, it should all be really easy, simple, straightforward – not difficult to navigate at all. But despite the simplicity, it turns out that there are all too many opportunities to get lost along the way…

So here’s a brief summary of the various stages in the journey through the skills-learning labyrinth, using traditional labels as in the diagram above for each respective phase along the path:

(prelude)                       Beginner’s Luck

Starting from Beginnings, we move almost immediately to a point where we seem to have a kind of instant mastery – Beginner’s Luck. But it only lasts for a moment: in fact, we often succeed because we know so little about what we’re doing – which itself can be a source of many difficulties further down the track. We then have an explicit choice: to back out, avoiding any commitment to the skill; or ask “How did I do this?” – and start on the Journey.

(1: Third loop)              Control

This phase emphasises Training, moving slowly towards the Apprentice stage. Much of the time the focus will be on rules, and on analysis – respectively the Simple and Complicated domains, in SCAN terms, often well over to the left of the SCAN frame. Those rules and analyses do seem to give a sense of control, though it’s nothing like the ‘instant mastery’ we achieved back at the very beginning. Yet every now and then things seem to break down – the ‘best-practice’ rules somehow don’t work for us, in our own specific context – and it becomes clear that we are part of the process. At some point, then, we must change direction, and look inwards. Until this point, everything we’ve done should (in principle, at least) have been the same for everyone; this change in direction is also the moment at which the practice changes to a true personal skill.

(2: Second loop)           Self

In this circuit we explore our own involvement in the process — the parts of the skill that are specific to us alone. Often there there’s an new emphasis on patterns, on emergence – the Ambiguous domain in SCAN, over the far side of the ‘edge of uncertainty’. But despite the increasing experience, and despite knowing more – and having to face challenges of our own that we now need to address – we find our mastery seems to be getting steadily worse. The further we move along this path, the worse our skill will seem to get – until eventually it seems no better than that of a rank Beginner. At that point, it seems self-evident that looking at self was the wrong way to go: so we change direction, trying to revert to ‘the Rules’ to get our skills back on track.

(3: First loop)                Survival

This doesn’t do what we expected. The turn-round takes us outward, not inward; far from bringing us back to Control, it takes us ever deeper into chaos, the Not-known… What’s happened is that although ‘the Rules’ haven’t changed, we have – and it’s all too easy here to fall into the dreaded ‘sophomore slump‘. In particular, there’ll have been a key personal shift, from unconscious-incompetence to conscious incompetence: but an unfortunate side-effect of that increased awareness is that we can now see the actual incompetence that we’d previously had – and that hurts… Stuck on the outer – in several senses – this can seem like a struggle for survival, an endless cycle of “practice, practice, more #!%*&%*! practice”. And comparisons with others only make it worse: everyone seems better at this than we are. This is the worst stage of the Labyrinth, and by far the longest… and as with the previous loop, the longer it goes on, the worse that feeling gets.

(key-point)                    Dark Night of the Soul

Then comes a key point – classically the day before the exam, or just before (or after) the presentation to the Board – where we’re brought face to face with our apparently limitless incompetence. We realise we’re further away from mastery than when we first started: seems we’re not just worse at this than a Beginner, some raw recruit, we’re no good at all… Traditionally described as the ‘Dark night of the soul‘, this bleak moment of despair can also be called the “Oh, stuff it!” point.

(It’s crucial to understand here that this period of despair is a normal and necessary stage of the skills-learning process – a crescendo of conscious-incompetence that is the gateway to the beginning of conscious-competence.)

Whilst the despair is all too real, and may well seem as if it will last forever, there is a way through – if we can find the strength to keep going. The danger here is that if we give up at this point, walk straight on and break out of the Labyrinth – as the steep turn encourages us to do – we lose everything we’ve gained, except for a large dose of disillusion…

Instead, the key is to trust – ‘to listen to the heart’ – and choose to care about the skill for its own sake rather than for any extrinsic reason. By accepting that we know we don’t know and can’t know – an acceptance of the Not-known, a “surrender to the ‘cloud of unknowing‘ and the ‘cloud of forgetting'” – there’s a sudden breakthrough, a change as fast as that at the beginning: from Chaos we suddenly find ourselves almost at the centre once more. There’s then often a brief moment of calm: and then the Journey continues, changing direction once again.

(4: Fourth loop)            Caring

Here, for the first time, our effective skill at last extends beyond the best of training – though it’s been a long haul to get here. Our skill now also never falls back below that level, as if at least this level of skill has become ingrained into our very being. But there’s another important twist, because, as indicated by the current research on extrinsic versus intrinsic motivators, the usual external ‘carrot and stick’ motivators – promises of reward, or threat of punishment — that pushed us to succeed at the Training levels not only cease to work here, but often make things worse, damaging the quality of decision-making and the like. What does work is caring: finding value in the work itself, and what it means in terms of personal and shared values. So to go further into the skill, we need to care about what we’re doing and why we’re doing it, and care about the skill for its own sake: in effect, “a commitment of the heart as well as of the head”.

(5: Seventh loop)          Meditation

At another key point, the quiet euphoria of the previous stage fades as a new focus comes to the fore. This is a different form of observation and self-observation which could be described as ‘thinking about feeling’ – a kind of meditation, a deep, often intense and personal absorption in the work and its processes, yet at the same time seemingly almost detached from it, as if observing from the outside. This sense of engagement in the context is essential for successful action within the realm of the complex, the Ambiguous, over to the right-side of the SCAN frame. For a while – and especially to outsiders – this may well seem like mastery: yet there’s actually still quite a way to go before we get there.

(6: Sixth loop)               Mind

In yet another disorienting shift of perspective, ‘thinking about feeling’ becomes ‘feeling about thinking’, as the previous changes in practice become embedded at a much more visceral level. For some skills this will literally become embodied, as in the development of ‘mechanics’ feel’, or the subtle delicacy of touch so essential to true musicianship. In the ‘knowledge worker’ skills that are more common in the business context, this would be embodied more as the deep-learning expressed in, say, an experienced manager’s intuitive grasp of a complex real-time business process, or a product-designer’s ability to elicit customers’ real unspoken needs, a trader’s test and trust in hunches and ‘gut-feelings’ about the subtle ebbs and flows of the market.

This kind of awareness and sensitivity is essential to work well in what the real-time chaos of the Not-known – the domain of inherent uncertainty, the salesman’s ‘market of one’, this person, unique, right here, right now. The mind here helps us make the link, back through principles and patterns to everyday practice, though in a way that sometimes seems quite opposite to the way we used the mind when – so long ago – we thought we were in Control.

(7: Fifth loop)               Communication

Another mode of thought comes through, to provide reflection and review between sessions of practice – typified by techniques such as the US Army’s deceptively simple After Action Review. Sometimes it may seem as if the skill-level is falling once more — an apparent echo of the struggle back at the Survival stage – but in fact this impression arises solely because we’re paying more attention to the fine-detail of the work. To help us learn more, and also to challenge us to greater competence, we’re also likely to need mutual support from and with our peers – a community of like-minded people with similar skills and similar concerns and interests.

The other key theme of communication here is that of helping others to find their own skill. Often this will spring from a kind of altruism: the renewed self-doubt, though much quieter than that in the Survival stage, leads to a sense that even if we ourselves may never reach the pinnacle of mastery, we can perhaps do so by proxy, through helping others to reach it in our stead. Yet this activity  of educating others also helps us in our own process of reflection: it’s often said that the last stage of learning is to teach it to others. The result, usually unexpected, unheralded, and without any warning…

(postlude)                      Mastery

…is that we discover that we’ve reached reached ‘the centre’ – mastery of this specific skill.

Yet here we also find that the skills-learning labyrinth has an even stranger twist: it’s recursive, nested, fractal, ‘self-similar’, in that the same overall pattern occurs simultaneously on many different levels, and applies as much within each stage of skills-development as to the overall skill. We can be struggling with the Survival level in one skill, or one part of a skill, whilst also experiencing the elation of Beginner’s Luck, the quiet of Meditation, the information-overload of Control and the despair of the Dark Night of Soul in others – all at the same time. Hence plenty of opportunities for confusion, for losing one’s way, even in such a simple structure with only one path…

There’s also a social dimension to all of this:

With each circuit, the path alternates from clockwise to counter-clockwise, with the result that everyone on the immediately parallel path – usually either one step ‘later’ or ‘earlier’ – will seem to be going the opposite direction. On top of this, earlier skill-levels will often seem ‘better’ – closer to mastery – than later ones: things seem to get steadily worse as we go onward yet outward from Control to Self to Survival, for example. So others will often try to ‘help’ by telling us we’re going the wrong way, or that we’re doing the wrong things; and we’ll no doubt do the same for them. And even though our immediate cohort would in principle be facing the same way as us, they’re just as likely as we are to be confused by all of this – so they’re likely to ‘help’ us in the wrong ways, too. Tricky…

As we’ll see in the upcoming series on ‘Seven sins of dubious discipline‘, the labyrinth also illustrates several other common skills-learning mistakes, such as the tendency to cling on to the brief success of ‘Beginner’s Luck’. (Playing New Age-style dilettante is fun, of course, but nothing actually improves…) It shows how interactions between people at different stages of a skill will contribute to confusions and mistakes; it also helps explain why reliability and proficiency necessarily go down during some stages of development. And by showing that the ‘dark night of the soul’ is an inherent part of the process, it helps to reduce the risk that people will abandon their development of skill at the moment before success — at what would be great cost to themselves and their self-esteem.

Learning each new skill takes us into the labyrinth all over again: the tangled, twisted, tortuous path that at times can seem torturous too. And the process of developing a new skill – any skill – will always bring up some personal challenges around commitment to the skill itself. To get through those challenges, we have to find some way to access our own passion for the skill – a drive to improve, no matter what it takes. If we can’t find that burning ‘inner need’, our skills – and the quality of our results – may well fade away to nothing. Yet in the end, there’s just one simple rule to help us achieve mastery in any new skill: all we have to do is work with whatever comes up at each moment, and keep going, keep going, one step at a time.

Developing our skill and discipline in the work is the only way we’ll improve the quality of our work. In turn, though, we also need to be able to identify what quality actually is – and in particular, the key distinctions between objective and subjective quality that underpin quality as a whole. That question of quality – or rather, the various ‘sins’ that so often cause loss of quality – is what we’ll need to look at next.

(Note: This post was adapted from my old post ‘Surviving the skills-learning labyrinth‘ (Sept 2009), on my now largely-defunct Sidewise blog. I’ve reposted it on this blog as a prelude to an upcoming series here on ‘Seven sins of dubious [skills]-discipline‘.)

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