Learning A New Skill Takes A Long Time

Once this truth sinks in, the desire for becoming a Master evaporates for most. Once the realization that there is no easy button or magic fix becomes obvious, most folks simply move on to another activity, skill, or profession. True Mastery involves endless hours of practice coupled with many disappointments and failures. Most importantly, it involves the willingness to practice many hours for days and weeks on end with no apparent progress. Not a happy situation for those seduced by instant gratification.

This should not be surprising to those of us who have studied neuroscience and advanced learning theory. Learning theory teaches us that the Mastery of any new skill resembles a stair case. There are brief upsurges of progress, each of which is followed by a slight decline which is followed every time by a plateau phase lasting for an indefinite period of time. Each plateau phase being higher than the previous spurt of progress. This process can neither be avoided, skipped or accelerated because basically it is a neurological phenomenon of all learning. There is no way around it. To become a Master one has to accept that they will spend most of their time in the plateau phase where no visible progress is being made. To become a Master, you must learn to love the plateau phase and continue with practice and repetition of the skill you desire to learn or Master.

Why Does Learning Take Place In Fits and Starts?

Why isn’t there a steady upward linear path to Mastery? In the case of a physical skill we must develop what the neuroscientists call “muscle memory”. In the case of a cognitive skill we must develop new neuropath ways in the brain. This process takes time and is essentially what is taking place when we are seemingly stuck in the plateau phase. Only when we have developed these new neuropath ways will we be able to demonstrate that “we got it” and automatically act as is if we are on “autopilot”. Every skill you and I have or ever will learn follows this process. This new “habitual behavior system” develops deep in the unconscious part of our brain. This new unconscious behavior pattern allows us to, without conscious thought, return a scorching tennis serve, play a guitar, ride a bike, drive a manual transmission car while eating a cheeseburger and talking on the phone at the same time (not a good idea). This, the fourth stage of learning, is often referred to as the unconsciously competent phase.

How Do You Move Toward Mastery?

Simply put, you practice diligently, but you practice primarily for the sake of practice knowing that unconsciously you are developing new neuropath ways. And instead of being frustrated with a seemingly lack of progress you accept and embrace the plateau phase of learning. In essence, true Mastery involves failing in love with the plateau.

The Conspiracy Against Mastery

The road to Mastery is a lonely one. One that runs counter culture to our American hyped-up, consumer oriented, adrenaline seeking, get rich quick, always looking for the next climatic experience in life. This climax seeking behavior is completely counter to what one experiences in the plateau phase; and because of our obsession with the instant climatic experience few of us are willing to delay gratification and embrace the plateau. Consequently, few become Masters of anything.

Two generations of Americans have grown up on a steady diet of consumerism and instant feel good experiences. Our whole value system of delayed gratification has eroded and given way to the instant, got to have it now value system. We have come to erroneously expect that our lives should be one climatic experience after another. Life doesn’t work that way. Never has and never will. This false expectation causes all sorts of mental anguish, frustration, disappointment, depression, even suicide. I am convinced that it is responsible for many of the emotional and physical ailments that we now see so prevalent. The epidemic of gambling, sweepstakes and the explosion of lotteries is further evidence of our unrealistic obsession of instant wealth instead. Few are unwilling to accept the truth that true wealth requires both time and massive effort.

This instant value system applies to companies and nations as well as individual. Ralph Winter writing in The Wall Street Journal says “Gone is the talk of balanced, long-term growth. Impatient shareholders and well-heeled corporate executives have seen to that. Now anxious executives, fearing for their jobs or their companies, are focusing their efforts on trimming operations and shuffling assets to improve near-term profits, often at the expense of both balance and growth.” The same climate of thought that leads people to think that they can lose weight or learn a new skill without the long-term effort leads others to the promise of great riches without significant effort.

Our present economic prosperity is built on this illusion of riches without effort or sacrifice. Trillions of dollars – which will never be paid back- spent on projects to provide quick fixes, the failure to deal with the deficit, easy credit and the encouragement to consume will not end pretty for this country. At some point the law of cause and effect will prevail. When it does there will be hell to pay.

Sadly, in the long run, the war against Mastery and the path of patient, dedicated effort without attachment to immediate results, is a war that cannot be won.

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