Recently my husband read (more like listened to) Moonwalking with Einstein by Joshua Foer. He really enjoyed it and he thought that one chapter in particular related to my project. I checked out the book from the library and began reading it one night. I quickly fell asleep and the next morning decided that maybe I just needed to read the one chapter and not the whole book. :)
The subtitle of the book is The Art and Science of Remembering Everything. Here's the quote on the inside front cover: "...a witty and engaging account of how Foer went from being a guy with an average memory to winning the U.S. Memory Championship."
In chapter 8: The OK Plateau, Foer says "at one point, a few months into my training, my memory stopped improving. No matter how much I practiced, I couldn't memorize a deck of playing cards any faster. I was stuck in a rut, and I couldn't figure out why."
According to the book, research shows there are three stages to learning a new skill:
- cognitive stage--you're intellectualizing the task and discovering new strategies to accomplish it more efficiently.
- associative stage--you're concentrating less, making fewer major errors, and becoming more efficient.
- autonomous stage--you've gotten as good as you need to be and turn on autopilot.
Foer's memory mentor recommended he check out the literature on speed typing. When learning to type people often make steady progress. They learn where the keys are and how to set their fingers (cognitive stage). They practice and get better and better (associative stage) until the process become almost unconscious (autonomous stage). Then they reach a plateau. They make a few errors but are typing well at a steady speed.
For those who want to be better than OK, the secret is to find ways to stay off auto-pilot. So how do I do that? Well, top achievers .... "develop strategies for consciously keeping out of the autonomous stage while they practice by doing three things: focusing on their technique, staying goal-oriented, and getting constant and immediate feedback on their performance. In other words, they force themselves to stay in the cognitive phase."
3 ways to stay off autopilot and take skills beyond OK
1. Focus on technique.
"The best ice skaters spend more of their practice time trying jumps that they land less often, while lesser skaters work on jumps they've already mastered. ... When you want to get good at something, how you spend your practicing is far more important that the amount of time you spend."
The best way to get off autopilot is to practice failing. With typing, they found that if you force typists to type faster than they're comfortable, even though they make many mistakes, they improve. It is a way to take the typist off autopilot.
2. Get constant and immediate feedback.
Another great example from the book was about doctors. In a few fields of medicine, doctor's skills don't improve the longer they've been practicing. "The diagnoses of professional mammographers, for example, have a tendency to get less and less accurate over the years. Why would that be?"
"That's because mammographers usually only find out about the accuracy of their diagnoses weeks or months later, if at all, at which point they've probably forgotten the details of the case and can no longer learn from their success and mistakes."
"Unlike mammographers, surgeons tend to get better with time. ... the outcome of most surgeries is usually immediately apparent--the patient either gets better or doesn't--which means that surgeons are constantly receiving feedback on their performance. They're always learning what works and what doesn't, alway getting better."
3. Stay goal-oriented.
"This, more than anything, is what differentiates the top memorizers from the second tier. They approach memorization like a science. They develop hypotheses about their limitations; they conduct experiments and track data."
"One a benchmark is deemed breakable, it usually doesn't take long before someone breaks it. For a long time, people thought no one would ever run a mile in under four minutes. ... Today all professional middle distance runners are expected to clock four minute miles and the world record has fallen to 3 minutes and 43.13 seconds."
"Regular practice isn't enough. To improve, we must watch ourselves fail, and learn from our mistakes." I found this chapter really fascinating and I can't wait to see how I can apply it to drawing and my other creative pursuits.