The Heisenberg uncertainty principle of learning

It can be frustrating learning something new. When you hit a plateau, you feel like you’re not making any progress, which makes you feel like you suck, which makes it even harder to make progress. Sometimes I feel that way about learning Japanese, or drawing, or even coding with a new platform or API.

I really like khatzumoto’s blog post on Intermediate Angst: Dealing with Feelings of Suckage (from All Japanese All The Time). Here’s what made me go “Hmm…”:

Call it the Heisenberg uncertainty principle of learning languages: you can’t have any momentum if you’re busy worrying about your position.

And from earlier in the blog post, concrete advice on small victories:

If you want to win the long game, stop playing it.
Stop running the marathon and start sprinting instead.
Start running and playing and winning short games instead.

Don’t learn Korean.
Learn the chorus of this song.
Don’t learn Korean.
Play this movie. Don’t even watch it. Just play. It. Audibly.

Sometimes I get lost in the big picture, feeling the insignificance of each small step. If I focus on constantly making small steps, even absurdly small steps, I’ll get somewhere faster than if I’m worried about how slow I’m going.

I knew this truth better when I was younger, reading and rereading books even though I didn’t understand everything in them. Why not rediscover it with Japanese? Some small steps: to read the manga we have out loud, not worrying about whether I understand it, and to repeat that (and other things) until it gradually becomes clearer.

Intermediate Angst: Dealing with Feelings of Suckage

  • bzimmerly

    Hi Sacha! I’ve always been of the opinion that it matters not how fast you’re moving, so long as you’re going in the right direction. (A great philosophy for writers of all kinds; poets or programmers.)

  • Mark Lewin

    Hello Sacha! I totally agree. I put off learning Emacs for ages because it seemed so big and scary. I didn’t make any in-roads at all until I really chunked it down. So, for example, my first strategy was to just get familiar with the shortcuts for moving up, down, left and right. I gave myself permission to use the mouse, but *not* to use any other editor at all.
    I kept adding new keyboard shortcuts and techniques, started playing with a few very simple config settings (such as losing the splash screen, maximizing the emacs window on startup, etc) and now I’m learning a little bit of Lisp. All in all, I feel pretty comfortable and not too fazed about all I *don’t* know. It will come in time :)
    So, a combination of the little steps you talked about, plus total immersion (refusing to use another tool so I can gain competence with this one) has helped me learn emacs and a couple of programming languages. This approach has helped me learn other things too. So, for instance, I can’t possibly know everything there is to know about gardening, but I can learn the names of the plants in my back yard. :)