experiential learning

Fake it…

by Steve Brock on September 17, 2014

Mt. Rainier PeakI’ve long held that my theology does not include the word “coincidence.” But I still find wonder in how diverse threads of conversations and seemingly random bits of data somehow show up in the space of days as if bearing little tags tied to them with the message, “You may want to pay attention to all this…”

In response to last week’s entry on mastery, Doug asks how to get his son to work past the hard part of learning something new. John comments on the same thing from a different angle. Then another friend, Hillary, relays her tale of summiting her first mountain and the wisdom passed on to her at a point where she was struggling, not sure if she could go any farther.

“There are two types of fun,” a seasoned climber told her. “The first are experiences where you have fun at the time of the experience. The second are ones where you are miserable at the moment, but have incredible fun and reward later looking back on the experience. Mountain climbing is almost always the second kind of fun.”

And that little insight got her to the top.

So what gets you to the top, figuratively speaking? What keeps you going, especially when you’re learning something new and the initial enthusiasm or the “This could be fun” feelings are but a memory?

At the risk of sounding trite, I will tell you the best advice I know:

You fake it till you make it.

Behaviorist psychology research has demonstrated that it is much easier to change an action than an attitude. That’s contrary to the popular notion that if you just get a better attitude – Happy thoughts everybody! Happy thoughts! – you’ll make it through your hard situation. But even Hillary received her encouragement as she was in the midst of trudging up the mountain, i.e. the words helped, but it was putting one foot in front of the next that got her to the top.

It’s really no different in marriage: You won’t always feel the passion for your spouse. Of course I ALWAYS do (just in case you’re reading this, dear)! But for most people, we go through dry periods in our relationships with loved ones and even our relationship with God. We do forget our first love. So then what do we do?

We fake it till we make it.

We remember why we once loved someone or something and that can help. But more than anything, we do the actions that will then change the attitude.

As Woody Allen once noted, “80 percent of success is showing up.” And as we noted last time, sometimes you have to just keep doing what you love (or once loved) until you love what you’re doing. That’s the heart of mastery; practicing through the dullness until the passion returns.

A few years ago, the New York Times Magazine ran a whole issue on inspiration. In summarizing everything that they learned about where creativity comes from, they articulated it with these few words. Note in particular their last line:

“(The enigmatic nature of creativity), it turns out, is often not so enigmatic. Step 1: Work. Step 2: Be frustrated. Step 3: Repeat.

Yep. That’s it. Take all the different styles and techniques from writers, artists, musicians, directors and a host of other creative people and it all comes down to that: work, be frustrated, repeat.

Whenever you’re learning something new – and all creative (or at least innovative) work is, by its very nature, something new – you’ll hit a wall where practice or the work itself is no longer fun. Looking for inspiration from others can be a start. Remembering what you originally loved about it can motivate somewhat. But nothing will help you do it more than just doing it. Over and over.

And then, likely when you’re so numb to it that you just don’t care anymore, that’s when you’ll awaken to find something you thought was forever lost: your passion and inspiration. And when that happens, you’re almost thankful for the dry, hard season because the contrast makes the return so much sweeter.

So when (not if, when) you reach that frustrating point of learning something new, traveling when it’s no longer fun or rising above the plateau where you feel stuck, remember this tired old expression: Fake it till you make it.

For if you do, you will.


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The paradox of mastery

by Steve Brock on September 12, 2014

Fishing on the Deschutes

“A good hockey player plays where the puck is. A great hockey player plays where the puck is going to be.”

Wayne Gretzky

Gretzky’s famous saying applies to all forms of mastery: once you know your field intimately, you’re able to play ahead or see beyond the present situation, anticipating what will come next. But you only get to that enviable position through mastery. Otherwise, if you play beyond the puck as a beginner, you likely end up crashing into the wall.

So how do we achieve mastery?

That’s a bigger question than I can cover in one entry here. But let’s explore one aspect of it, what I call the paradox of mastery. You’ve likely heard the stat promoted by Malcom Gladwell and others that you achieve mastery after 10,000 hours of doing something. It’s a widely quoted finding.

It just may not be true.

This article does a good job of summarizing the more recent research on the subject noting that 10,000 hours was only an average and that it doesn’t apply the same to all kinds of activities.

What does seem to apply if you want to master something is interest. Seems obvious, but here’s where the paradox of mastery kicks in. Sometimes, when seeking to learn something new like fly fishing or even travel (for good travel is a learned discipline), you want to try and become good at it as fast as you can. You have interest, even passion, so you engage it and practice as much as you can.

All well and good until you practice beyond your passion.

Sometimes when learning something new, we simply try too hard too soon. Remember the point about how 15 minutes a day of practicing a musical instrument or new language will reap greater results than three hours in a single marathon session? The same principle applies to trying too hard.

Unless you really are striving to become a pro at a new area of learning, learn to do it for the simple reason that you love it. The word “amateur” derives from the Latin “amare” which means “to love.” We sometimes deride amateurs for their lack of skill but true amateurs, those who take on something new for the sheer joy of doing it don’t care. It is in the doing we find our satisfaction, not necessarily in the mastery. But here’s where the paradox of mastery comes back in.

You don’t have to be a pro at something but you do need to know enough to enjoy it. As my surfing coach Shaun says, “You have to reach that point of being stoked.” Once you hit that level of really loving it, you’re hooked. But many people give up before that point because they don’t get good enough to enjoy it. So you need to work to reach at least some degree of proficiency.

Once you do, the magic takes over: The better you get, the more you enjoy. The more you enjoy, the more you’ll push yourself to be better not because you have to, but because you want to.

Enjoying the process of learning is as critical to mastery as being really good at something. In fact, it’s hard to get to the latter without the love of the process itself. So enjoy every mistake along the way.

Going back to the Gretzky quote, one conclusion you could thus make about mastery is this:

Learn to be content with where you are and you’ll ironically proceed and improve faster than if you focus on where you aren’t yet.

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Eliminate your variables

by Steve Brock on September 4, 2014

Salmonfly nymphsOn page 14 of the book The Care and Feeding of Ideas, author James L. Adams writes in part about how we learn to problem solve. He notes that we move through four stages which he illustrates with the example of learning to tie our shoes:

“There is a certain time in life when we do not know how to tie our shoes but are unaware of it (unconscious and incompetent). We then reach a stage where we become aware that we do not know how to tie them (conscious and incompetent). We then learn to tie them (conscious and competent). Finally, tying our shoes becomes a habit (competent and conscious). We know how to tie them, but do not need to think about it.”

This is a helpful framework to understand when you’re learning a new skill like, oh, say, fly fishing.

When I went out with the guide down near Bend, Oregon, I was at the stage of mostly being conscious and incompetent. I knew I didn’t know what to do, at least not in every way. And therein lies the problem.

When we try to become competent in a new area, there are normally so many variables to consider that you can’t manage them all at once. So a lesson I’ve learned that applies to fly fishing, marketing, travel and most of life is this: eliminate your variables. In short, concentrate on learning one aspect at a time and reduce the number of unknown factors or areas of incompetency. In so doing, mastery will come much faster than if you try and get good at a dozen things all at once, or at least that’s been my experience.

When I got back from my fortunate/unfortunate trip to Oregon, I jotted down a list of things I didn’t know a week before. They include the following (which may make no sense to you if you don’t fly fish: welcome to my realm of incompetency):

  • Tippet is just the missing part of your leader, not a separate concept or different kind of line.
  • Fly fishermen and women use bobbers. Only they use a more dignified term: strike indicators.
  • You can use two flies on one line (e.g. a nymph and a streamer).
  • Mending isn’t just a sewing procedure. It gets you a better drift and drift matters. A lot.
  • Small casts are more useful – and common – than large ones.
  • Caddis flies look like little moths when they fly.
  • Some “flies” are used as “wet flies” below the surface of the water.
  • Fish will strike a pattern they like but spit it out if it is the wrong size. Size matters.
  • You don’t have to use much effort to cast. Less is actually more when it comes to accuracy.
  • Set the hook (lifting your rod when the fish strikes) too hard and you’ll lose the fish.
  • Current is stronger and harder to walk in than I ever imagined.
  • I seem physically unable to cast two flies at the same time without tangling, at least most of the time (see point 3).
  • I like small rivers better.
  • Bald eagles chase ospreys for the fish the latter has snatched. But the eagles don’t always win.
  • Scary-looking insects aren’t all that scary in reality (see photo above of salmonfly nymphs on the Deschutes River).
  • It’s different fishing on your own versus going with a friend who eliminates most of the variables for you.

I wondered, “How could I not have known all these things?” But I didn’t. And as a result, I had to keep track of so many variables that it got overwhelming. Only after stepping away from the river for a while and coming back one evening where I just tried one fly pattern and one casting technique did I have success.


Because I eliminated my variables, reduced the number of things I had to consciously keep track of, and finally began to enjoy this wonderful sport of fly fishing.


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. Software, Knowing and Doing and Learning in Small Bites

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Knowing and doing

by Steve Brock August 14, 2014

Learning to fly fish reveals that knowing something without doing it is incomplete. Some things can only be grasped experientially through doing.

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Hardware vs. software

by Steve Brock August 4, 2014

Sometimes your best investment is in your gear. Sometimes in the experience itself. But neither will help you learn something new if you forget how to learn.

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Doing it right – Part 2

by Steve Brock July 9, 2014

Sometimes, in sports or travel or life in general, we learn more – and different things – by learning from others than we ever could on our own as I found out in learning to surf.

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Doing it right – Part 1

by Steve Brock July 3, 2014

Learning from skilled professional teachers can save you a lot of time and effort. And you might just learn more than you expected…

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