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2014 August — The Meaningful Traveler

August 2014

Learning in small bites

by Steve Brock on August 25, 2014

Yellowstone TroutWhen I was down near Bend, OR going out with a guide fly fishing, something happened that was surprising but shouldn’t have been.

When the day began, my casting wasn’t great, but I could usually get the fly to the general area of the river I wanted, as long as it wasn’t more than 20 feet away. I took solace in our guide’s reassurance that almost all the winners of fly fishing competitions for trout catch their fish when casting less than 20 feet.

As the morning progressed, my casting improved.

And then it didn’t.

It got steadily worse over the course of the day. I’d have moments when my abilities would return, but then the very next cast would tangle the line or simply not go anywhere. It was a mess and so was I.

What happened?

Think Thanksgiving Day.

On Thanksgiving, we forego any usual decorum on taking small bites and eating normal size portions. We feast. We over-indulge. We go beyond an optimal consumption point. And that’s exactly what I did on the river that day.

Any time you’re learning something new, you’ll be more successful if you learn in small bites. I’ve found this to be true with learning to play the guitar or learning a new language. 15 minutes every day will cause you to improve much more than three hours one day a week.

When we learn in small segments, we don’t push beyond our attention or fatigue points. Plus, the repetition of everyday learning helps what we learn to stick better. We retain more and develop muscle memory faster.

I wish I had known this when I was younger. Music, sports and language learning would have come easier and I would have actually enjoyed my 15 minutes of practice daily rather than dreading an hour or two here or there.

To be fair, to master a field, you’ll need more than 15 minutes a day. And there’s nothing magical about 15 minutes. I could have spent an hour on the river that day and still have been more successful than trying to force fit weeks or months of learning into a four hour period.

The point is to not try and learn beyond our physical and mental limits in a given period of time. We can tolerate and, in fact, require longer periods of practice as we improve. But when, as we’ll see next time, you’re a beginner overwhelmed with multiple variables to consider as you learn, you’ll be most successful when you take that learning in small chunks.

And if you’re learning fly fishing, you might actually catch more fish as well.


If you haven’t already, you might want to check out other entries in this series on lessons on learning through fly fishing: Gone Fishin’Hardware vs. SoftwareKnowing and Doing and Eliminate Your Variables

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Knowing and doing

by Steve Brock on August 14, 2014

Fishing in YellowstoneA while back, I had lunch with my friend Al. We got to talking about the idea of experiential learning. I had noted that in general, Baby Boomers (roughly early 50’s to late 60’s) tend to focus on knowing something cognitively whereas Millennials (late teens to early 30’s) are more into the experience itself.

I was explaining that in the book I’m writing on meaningful travel, there are both stories and exercises/experiments. When I run the book by my Boomer friends, in general they focus on the stories and glance at the exercises making comments like, “Oh, I could do that.” But they never do. They assume that knowing about the experience is the same as having had it.

My Millennial friends look at the book and say something like, “I might glance at the stories, but I’d definitely do each of the exercises.”

The interesting thing about both is that each misses a major part of meaningful travel. Boomers think that cognitive awareness about something is enough which is like having someone explain to you what chocolate tastes like or reading about love without ever being in it. Millennials are more interested in collecting experiences, so they have the experience, but don’t take time to reflect on it. Instead, they are already moving on to the next experience.

These are, of course, broad generalizations, but see if they don’t ring true with your own circle of friends and acquaintances.

When I explained this to Al, he noted that this idea of separating knowing from doing is a modern concept. In biblical times, there was no such thing as knowing something intellectually without having done it. The only way to truly know something is to engage it experientially and then reflect on it. Which brings me back to fishing.

Before my recent trip to Oregon where my son and I went out with a guide, I had rented some videos from the library on fly fishing. I watched all the methods of casting and retrieving, tying knots and reading the water. I had the knowing without the doing.

Now, based what I’ve mentioned above, you might think that was insufficient and it was in terms of being able to jump in and fish well. But there is a value to having some knowledge before you attempt to do something.

Having prepped somewhat, I knew what to expect and look for. I understood the terms used. And most of all, I had a general mental model of what I was supposed to do. All of that helped.

But it wasn’t until I was out on the river, feeling the tension of the rod bending with the whip of the line or having the tactile sense of how the line lands on the water that the concept of fly fishing started to gel. It took doing for the knowing to be fully realized.

A little knowledge can be a good thing or a dangerous thing depending on what you do with it. If you expect that just knowing about something will suffice in place of the experience of doing it, you will be either disappointed or in denial. If, however, you realize that having a background understanding of something and then participating in it aren’t opposites but equally important components in truly knowing something, then you’re in the best place to learn something new.

Even something like fly fishing.

Read other parts of this series: Gone Fishin‘, Hardware vs. Software, Learning in Small Bites, Eliminate Your Variables and related entries: Doing it right – Part 1 and Part 2

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Hardware vs. software

by Steve Brock on August 4, 2014

Fishing the Deschutes

My friend John and I used to discuss what to ask for when it comes to birthday and Christmas presents. We both enjoy woodworking (him, professionally; me, for fun). I once mentioned asking for woodworking supplies – sandpaper, glue, finish – for a present because, well, I needed them for an upcoming project. “You never want to use precious gifts on ‘software’,” he’d replied.

What he meant was, invest the “special” money (i.e. gifts from others you want to remember) on ‘hardware:’ tools and things that will last. That way, every time you use the tool, you’re reminded of the giver and if you get good tools, you can pass them down to your kids. Spend the gift on supplies or even wood and you’ll never build up your tool collection or have memorable associations.

It’s a wise way to think about giving and receiving well.

So I tried to apply this to fly fishing. Only it didn’t fully line up. Here’s why. I had inherited a reel from my dad and I bought a decent but not-too-expensive fly rod recently (“not-too-expensive” in almost all my hobby areas these days – woodworking tools, cameras and lenses, surfing equipment, mountain bike components and now fly fishing gear – is a relative concept. I’ll save my thoughts on the economics of hobbies for a later entry). I knew that if I wanted to be serious about this sport/hobby, I’d need to invest in better “hardware.” But the more I talked to fly fishing friends and read books, the more everyone pointed toward another form of investment: going out with a guide to learn the basics.

But the price of guides isn’t cheap. You could get a decent set-up of rod, reel, line and flies for less than a day with a guide.

The guide seemed to me like “software,” something that didn’t last longer than the time you were out together. But here’s where my thinking has changed.

With travel, which is more important: The places you’re going or the gear you have that goes with you there? You need a certain level of quality with your stuff – suitcases that fly open during baggage handling don’t make for a fun trip. But for the most part with travel, I’ve found that it’s better to invest in the experience than in the stuff.

And so it seems with fly fishing as well. All the best equipment won’t help me catch fish if I don’t know how to cast, retrieve or even know where to look for the fish. Thus, on that recent trip to Oregon, we splurged and hired the guide.

It was horrible.

Not the guide. He was great. Incredibly patient with both my son and me. Supportive, funny, encouraging and never dismissive. But I didn’t catch a single fish and by the end of the day, I was ready to give up on the whole idea of fly-fishing.

What I later came to realize was that the investment in “software,” in hiring the guide, did pay off. Just not at the time any more than great tools – hardware – will help you immediately if you don’t know how to use them properly.

What I came to appreciate from my “software investment” is that not only does learning take time – I can’t become a master angler in just one day – but that how we learn can matter as much or more than our hardware or software.

Over the next several entries, I’ll be sharing some principles gleaned from that day with the guide. These are principles for learning something new that most of us may have known but we all too easily forget. These “rules of thumb” will dramatically increase your ability to acquire a new language, play a new instrument, develop a new skill or navigate your way around a new city.

Or maybe even fly fish…


If you haven’t already, you might want to check out other entries in this series on lessons on learning through fly fishing: Gone Fishin’Knowing and DoingLearning in Small Bites and Eliminate Your Variables

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