Barbell strategy for learning

I recently reread Cal Newport’s So Good They Can’t Ignore You (notes here). He’s a big believer in deliberate practice, or his term of choice, “deep work”, as he calls his new book. His thesis is that we should devote our learning efforts to striving as hard as possible.

Does this square with my experience? I was struck by a comment in an interview with Matt Webb about learning programming: “I got a book about “idiomatic Python”, and I didn’t concentrate very hard. I just copied it out. I literally typed in everything that was idiomatic.”  I do a lot of learning like that. My newest learning experience is yoga, and it’s all kinda like this: watch what the instructor does and try to do it. This brings us to the first part of the strategy…

The first plate: mindless mimicking

Mindless mimicking is observing an expert or an expert’s work and copying what they do. Mindless doesn’t mean do whatever — I believe there are several components to mimicking effectively. 1. It involves an expert, whether that is an expert’s code typed out in a book, or an expert working the same moves in front of you. 2. It’s active. I don’t believe that just watching or just reading has no learning benefit, but active learning has at least one huge benefit: your attempt is tested, providing you feedback about what’s going wrong. Feedback requires the right conditions: learning to drive in an open field is very different from learning to drive on a road with a curb, not to mention short-tempered drivers. 3. There are gaps to fill in. These are often incidental: in yoga, you won’t see every tiny movement that the instructor makes. You also won’t immediately know the exact path to perform something. This variation lets you find the edges for feedback.

Another example that I came across recently is the Goldlist method for learning language. The method makes a strong claim that creating mnemonics aren’t worth the (decidedly not mindless) effort. Furthermore, we should strive to be comfortable and pleasant while learning — far from the pained efforts that Newport suggests!

Forming the barbell: deliberate practice

But I also agree with Newport and the researchers he cites: this kind of practice will lead to plateaus. Mindlessness, of course, makes you a zombie, not an engaged and productive member of society. Mathematical zombies have been discussed recently in the MathTwitterBlogosphere: students who can do the steps but don’t have an understanding of the concepts.*

So what is the barbell strategy? Described by Nassim Taleb, it’s the use of two divergent strategies parallel rather than one in the middle. The canonical example is financial investment. One strategy is a very safe investment for most of your money: bonds or index funds. The other is a high-risk/high-reward use of the rest of your money to make occasional big jumps.

If mindless mimicking forms the first plate of the barbell and deliberate practice forms the plate on the other end of the bar. Unfortunately, for all the talk about deliberate practice, it can be hard to nail down a good definition. One aspect that may be helpful here is to think of it being highly conscious rather than mindless: both about the goals of what you’re practicing and the level of effort you’re putting in. If playing music, make sure you are 1) choosing a technique that is difficult but not beyond your ability to play to perfection 2) repeat until you play it perfectly.

The hollowed-out middle

A critical aspect of the barbell strategy is that any time spent between the two plates would be better spent on one or the other. Another analogy is rock climbing: you should either stay where you are, or reach out and grab a rock. Spending time flailing your arms and legs around is just going to wear you out.

Think about playing chess. Having an expert tell you what to do while you’re playing along is a shortcut to developing a great deal of long-term memory. Doing study of difficult problems and working them out to the end is how to stretch and strengthen your chess skills. Between the two is what a lot of people will do to get better: think pretty hard while playing. This uncontrolled scenario can lead to problems: spending too little effort to reach the correct conclusion about a given position, or spending too much effort thinking about a position that doesn’t teach you anything new.

Generally speaking, the spectrum between mindless mimicking and deliberate practice is the level of consciousness, a powerful tool that can also trip us up. (See also: The Inner Game of Tennis.)

*This isn’t a perfect example because I don’t think deliberate practice is the antidote to weak conceptual knowledge. I had originally considered the opposite side of mindless mimicking to be more abstract learning. After all, you tend to observe more concrete things. But I think mindless mimicking actually works at different levels of abstraction, depending on your current ability and the techniques of the teacher. For example, in yoga, the teacher might cue the students to “create space in your chest”, which rests on more concrete moves like widening shoulders, focused breathing, etc., that were introduced earlier.

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  • John Alves

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