The Process of Learning, or “It’s the journey, not the destination”.

I saw a T-shirt with the slogan “Look it up” written on it, and along with the text was an image of someone’s face scowling fiercely at you. And while I never bought the shirt, I often think of it whenever my kids ask me how to spell something, or ask me what something means. (I like to use big words once in a while, for two reasons: to elicit a reaction from my kids, and because I secretly long to be like Rex Murphy.) Now, to my shame, I usually cave and give them the quick answer, rather than saying (wait for it….), “Look it up!” While their homework may have gotten finished more quickly, I have just robbed them of another great opportunity to learn something. “What?”, you say? “How have they been robbed? You just gave them the answer!”. Yes, dear reader. They got to the destination. Easily. But they never got to go on the journey, however small; to fight for the destination and make discoveries along the way.

When we are children, we play at things, often not worrying about any end result. My son often goes to the skateboard park with some friends, and they have fun trying different tricks. They get joy from simply spending time doing that. They don’t necessarily have some end goal in mind. However, we as adult learners want to get to the answer as quickly as possible. When I achieved my Quality Engineer certification, I saw endless forum posts asking for the fastest or most efficient way to pass the exam, either in terms of money (“The best book, if I only had to buy one?”) or in terms of time (“Should I just do mock exam questions, or do I need to read the entire primer?”). We want to lose weight quickly. We want to learn Excel in 10 minutes. We want to learn to play an instrument and be proficient immediately. (Personally, I’d like to play jazz by next week.) Well, time is ticking by, and we seem to have less of it to spend, so isn’t this expediency a good thing? Not in most cases. Because once you get there, you see that the destination is not an end point, but merely a checkpoint or milestone along the journey. Once you’ve learned to play “Smoke on the Water” on the guitar, you’re now focused on the next song. Once you know how to use Pivot Tables in Excel, you’ll get another problem that will require some other method like macros to solve. And once the certification is achieved, you realize that no matter how accomplished you may feel, you still have a lifetime of learning ahead of you because you have a better understanding of what you don’t know.

If I haven’t convinced you that these destinations are not an end point and are not as coveted as we think, then consider this: The real value in getting to these destinations is the toil, struggle, missteps, detours, dead ends and triumphs we encounter along the way. In striving to reach the destination, by embracing the journey, we will have learned so much more than we originally set out to, and in the end gained much more than from merely being given the answer. Let me illustrate with two examples.

My son asks me to spell “encounter”. He thinks it starts with the letter “i”. Assuming he does not use Google, he spends some time in the dictionary looking in the wrong place. However, he finds a bunch of other words that he may have heard before but does not know the meaning of, and so he quickly reads the definitions. He struggles some more, and finally thinks about an alternate spelling (or he may blurt out that this stupid dictionary doesn’t have the word, to which I calmly suggest he look under “e”). He eventually finds the spelling, reads several definitions he wasn’t aware of and now knows that it is a verb and a noun. By bouncing around inside the dictionary he has made a number of what I call “happy accidents”. He has also benefited from an increased facility with navigating the dictionary itself. And while these benefits are modest, he has increased his knowledge, honed a skill, felt a sense of accomplishment and pride and, most importantly, not forgotten how to spell the word the next day. 

As a second example, a guitar student of mine wants me to write out the fingerings for a relatively simple tune. Up to this point he has been given fingerings and sheet music to all the songs he can play. He can play these tunes well, but they’re memorized, and he’s limited to these songs for which he has sheet music. He has come to me because he has seen me play and wants to play blues and improvise. Again, as an adult learner, he wants the straightest path from here to there; the secret decoder ring to unlocking the magic behind “making stuff up as you go”. I implore him to attempt to figure it out on his own. Before you accuse me of throwing him into the deep end before he can swim, rest assured that I’ve given him a simple scale and fingerings; a small sandbox of sorts to limit his scope and make it easier. However, the task before him is daunting nonetheless, particularly for someone who has never done it: listen to a snippet of the song, perhaps only a note or two at a time, and find the notes on the guitar. Now, you may think this is straightforward. You may know that all the blues guitar greats learned to play by ear and did it this way. Regardless, for an adult who has never done this, it is a humbling and frustrating experience.  However, up to this point he’s been handed all the answers to his problems without having to work for them.

So he begins. As he wears out the reverse and forward buttons on his CD player looping the same few notes over and over, he sings them, and has the pitches in his head. He attempts to find them on the fingerboard. He gets the first one, then the third. After a half an hour of this hell he rests and comes back the next day. He figures out the first phrase. By now he has spent 3 hours on the damn thing, missed his TV show, and his fingers are sore. He can’t get the song out of his head, and it swirls between his ears as he tries to fall asleep. He leaves it the next day because his fingertips are too tender to touch the strings. However, he’s been listening to the song in the car to and from work, and he can now sing the entire guitar part (well enough).  While still feeling some pain, he gingerly picks up (no pun intended) where he left off, and has now learned a couple of bars in 30 minutes, progress that is much faster because he didn’t have to go to the CD player as often. A week later, he can play along with the CD in certain sections and his fingertip calluses are nice and firm. His wife asks him where he’s been for the past 3 hours since dinner, and he thought it was only 20 minutes. After a month, he’s having fun and he can play the entire guitar part fairly well, but because he’s heard the same phrases over and over, he hears these same phrases in this and other guitarists’ tunes. He picks out another tune by the same guitarist, and has the entire part down in one week.  Bolstered by his success, and gets up the nerve to go out to the local jam and play the tune. They introduce him as a first timer, and he gets massive applause when the song is over. (There’s a screenplay here somewhere…)

Could he have played the tune at the jam if I had written out the piece for him and he had memorized it? Probably. But by making the difficult journey here’s what he received that he wouldn’t have otherwise:

  • He knows the tune well enough and has enough familiarity with the scale that he can recover during the song if he makes a mistake playing it with others (an extremely important skill);
  • His overall playing (i.e., not just this song) has improved noticeably because of the time spent on the instrument, not to mention the great calluses;
  • His strength on the instrument has improved, and he can think of perhaps attempting things now that he previously thought impossible;
  • He’ll learn the next song in half the time, and again with the one after that, as his ear training improves;
  • He can now “hear” phrases and standard “clichés” in this particular idiom of musical style, and the entire universe of phrases and licks doesn’t seem so overwhelming;
  • He has begun developing a connection between what he hears in his head and where that is on the instrument—a critical skill;
  • He feels a sense of joy at being liberated from the confines of the sheet music;
  • He has a feeling of pride and accomplishment at doing something he couldn’t imagine before;
  • He has become a more discerning and intelligent listener of music, at least within this genre he is studying;
  • He has not only learned this song, but has “discovered” some phrases of his own along the way that are now his own; those happy accidents;
  • He has discovered that by rearranging some of the phrases he’s learned, as well as adding those of his own he’s discovered, he can actually improvise new stuff with his own “voice”;
  • He’s done something other than watch TV.

Hopefully I’ve convinced you that the road to the destination is at least as important as the perceived destination. As I search for employment, I have to periodically remind myself that while drawing a pay cheque again sounds like a nice destination, it too is only a milestone in the journey. The hunting down of the job postings, the education and skills acquired, the self–reflection and introspection, the elation and the depression, the networking and the friends and acquaintances made along the way are all part of the journey—the process. Through networking and reaching out one can be part of another’s journey as you share a part of yours with them. So next time you are so worried about getting to the answer and finding the most efficient way from point A to point B, remember that it is the process you are going through that gives the greatest rewards. Revel in it. Don’t try to shorten it or eliminate it as you will only be short-changing yourself.

All things Process.

Hello to cyberspace and the process-curious! It’s about time I started a blog, given that I own a T-shirt that bears the slogan, “Everyone is entitled to my opinion”.  Well, here we go.

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