Practice for Autodidacts

As the last 2 posts suggest, I’m becoming interested in training and practice.

I’ve long considered myself a skilled autodidact. I have successfully taught myself the programming skills I use to earn a living, as well as multiple languages. I’m (over-)confident of my ability to immerse myself in an unfamiliar academic discipline enough to find whatever information I need.

Pull back the camera, though, and it turns out I am very good at a small subset of learning. I can do studying, but have only the most rudimentary skill in practice or training. Or to put it in the terms of the previous post: I am good at gaining knowledge-of, bad at gaining knowledge-how.

This, I think, is because so much of my learning has happened alone. It is much easier to teach yourself than to train yourself. Training (or practice) requires a tight feedback loop, and it is harder to obtain that without a teacher. It’s hard to imagine a movie training montage without the wise mentor in the background.

And we approach new challenges with the tools we have used to deal with problems of the past. Self-directed learning means I have spent less time practicing, which in turn means it is not the first method which comes to mind when I am learning something new. I have got out of practice at practicing.

As I noticed this more over the past couple of years, I gradually realised its scope. Take cooking: I understood this to mean memorizing a collection of recipes, techniques, flavor combinations and the like, so I could pull them out of my mind at will. It occurred embarrassingly late to me that “knowing how to cook” might involve experience more than book-learning.

It’s not an accident that I came up with such a ridiculous approach to cooking. I was taking the mental toolkit I had, and applying it to the problem at hand. I have not previously learned much from practice, and so did not reach for that as an approach.

Humbling as it is to realise what I have been missing out on, it is also energising. Since I have overlooked an entire area of learning, there is plenty of low-hanging fruit to be plucked. I suspect I’m now heading towards a phase of annoying over-correction, as I ask about everything: “how can I practice it?”

Written on August 9, 2020