Amateur, once more

The world is a vast, vast place.

I am simultaneously fascinated and terrified by the process that we learn. Learning, by definition, is the process of retraining your body to get acquainted with a new set of knowledge. The canonical example is riding a bicycle. The enactive process by which the body learns to adapt to the bi-wheel pedal metal frame contraption leads, over time, to the ability to command the machine to do your bidding of sending you over terrain with grace. Learning a new branch of mathematics feels like forcefully rearranging the neuron soup in your brain (ouch!) until the symbols start speaking in a language that you can understand. It is infinitely fascinating how malleable the human body is. It is as if the body has the ability to either symbiotically attach and become part of external machinery, or the force of black hole in assimilating abstract symbols.

Learning at the same time is scary as hell. At least when, once the child-like fascination with the world fades under the pressure of human societal realities. Learning a new skill requires the user to start from a ground plane, like anybody else, to scale the tree of knowledge; aging is an irreversible process with a trillion dollar industry.

I recently had the good fortune starting a few different activities with some semblance of regularity. All within a relatively short time period. Role-playing games have a remarkably elegant way of explaining skill acquisition. One popular representation is a skill tree. Typically, the character starts at the root with a basic command of said skill. As he, she or it gains more experience points, the points can be spent to advance his, her or it’s abilities up the skill tree. One of the interesting ways that skill trees are laid out is that while costs to go up exponentially higher as the character advances, the effects become significantly better as well. Like hell yeah this is super awesome better.

Other than the apparent lack of step function (and that is arguable) in real life, the metaphor translates pretty well. Often times, I’ll stare wide eyed at the some other dweller performing the very same activity that I am engaged in with higher performance and relative ease. How the hell did he (or she) do that, I would think to myself. I knew the answer of course. By hours and hours of consistent hard work.

The harsh reality about learning is that it never gets easier with age and experience. Assuming the 10,000 hour rule holds up, and that skill transferability can be modeled as a constant less than 0.1, the amount of hard work required to get to a certain level of proficiency shows remarkably little variance. While a person might be “talented” at a certain activity, the “less talented” person would be able to overtake the talented with increased amounts of (intelligent) hard work. Tortoise, hare.

The humbling and harrowing experience on taking on the task of learning multiple new things at the same time is the realization that how fundamentally brittle I myself am. I can’t help but feel like a baby. At each and every task, I am no better than the young teenager participating next to me. Worse then, as sometimes he or she had the good fortune of starting at a younger age, and therefore advanced further up the tree. I often stare wide eyed (again!) at the relative ease of these youths maneuvering through obstacles, and mutter to myself under my teeth, Something, something, the power of youth. Deep inside, it just feels humiliating. The older I get, the worse it feels.

Check your ego at the door, said the bouncer.

Sitting at the bar, I sipped a shot of objective self reflection. Gradually, some of this sense of worthlessness lifted off my shoulders. In the reflection of the shot glass, reflections of my youthful endeavors mixed with the stirring of the dark brown liquid. We accumulate knowledge and skills as we go along life, and at the same time build up pride and ego around what we think we are capable of doing. Expert! Career! Being an absolute beginner again sucks, but really does not reset us back to ground zero. It is the lowering of pride that made it immensely painful.

No wonder they say you can’t teach an old dog new tricks. Sometimes, the pain of going back to a ground level is just too much for our old, prideful hearts to bear. As I picked up my ego blazer off the floor, it slipped out of my hand. At that moment, I am reminded of the joy, the pure unadulterated joy that comes from the rapid rate of acceleration as I begin a new skill acquisition process. I hadn’t realized how heavy this jacket of mine had become.

I watched as the heather gray jacket slumped into a messy pile on the dark uneven concrete flooring. Maybe, I thought to myself. Maybe, it is worth it after all.