Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Getting past the Aha! point

This may be obvious, but a recent (re-?)discovery of mine. In essence — when you learn something, getting to the next stage, even if somewhat prematurely, really helps mastering the previous one.

Hmm, I sure can make the simplest idea sound very complicated. I am not a learning expert (there are some good ones, though), but I do try to learn something, all the time, mostly for the joy of it. So here are two examples of what I am trying to say, from my personal experience.

(almost) Hundred Pushups

Last year I was doing the One Hundred Pushups program. No worries, I am not straying, teaching your muscles can be similar to teaching your brain (so they say). It was achieved by doing very intensive exercises  (pushups, obv.) three times a week, increasing the number of repetitions every time.

Pushups made easy, almost

It was a good experience, yet I was quite surprised to find out the following. If 40 pushups seem very difficult (but doable) — after you tried to do 50 pushups you'll just go past 40 and will hardly notice it. Seriously.

So that's my example #1 — when N pushups are hard, go for N + 10, then look back surprised.

(I got to around 60-70, so getting to a hundred seemed reasonable, yet I had to stop because of an unrelated surgery. Still, it was a great experience, seeing results in sports can be highly motivating in other activities — that's another thought to ponder)

Unbarring That Bar

Now I am in the middle of another exciting learning process — piano lessons. It already taught me many important things: I can't think fast enough, my hands are not as flexible as I thought they were, my fingers are too long and grow at strange angles etc. But apart from those vital findings here again comes a similar thought.

Playing the piano with friends (can be very hard)

When taking apart some sheet music, another Mozart or Beethoven, painfully memorizing note after note, I find that if a bar of notes is too hard to play (but I already learnt the notes in it) — then moving to the next bar helps me learn the previous one.

Thus, example #2 is — when bar N is too hard, start bar N+1, and you'll get N in the process.

Sometimes I only notice this when looking back at the whole piece, a little puzzled: "Remember this bar that seemed impossible to mount? Now I just play through it, no problem. Huh."

Back to Software

I really hope it is clear by now, and I think it applies to all areas of skill- or habit-related learning.

When applied to software it explains why we, developers (notice how I said "we"?), jump at the opportunity of project problems that we don't yet exactly know how to solve. We feel that we will find a solution, and it will make even our previous experience more solid (and it also explains why we can't always give a precise estimate to such tasks). It should happen within reason, but climbing ever higher mountains is key to growth.

One final observation.

Learning transitions to experience via a brief aha moment

We often value the so-called "Aha-moment". Yet in reality, and from above examples, we can notice that "Aha" is, same as "now", a mere moment. It is a thin line between learning and experience, and sometimes we can only see it in retrospect. Experience is what matters.

Although an occasional "Eureka" moment can sometimes make my day :)

Thanks for stopping by!


  1. A classic "глаза боятся, руки делают". Your opinion on how difficult something is is rarely in tune with reality.

    1. Also true, but in my case my opinion is correct - just that I change in the process of doing something that initially looks scary :)

  2. By the way, comment form's captcha is buggy in this theme too. Upon first submit it just showed me same form with a small red blob above and centered over the comment text field. After second press on Publish it finally showed my captcha form.

    1. Yep, sometimes I get the same when commenting on Atron's blog, need to read up on it, see if it is solvable or just a blogspot "feature".

    2. Wow! You writing this?!! How come you are not publishing the books?!! Anton you made me think :)