Effortless English Archives

Automatic English For The People

Sunday, March 05, 2006

Timely Coincidence

by AJ

Just after completing the "fossilization" post, I clicked over to Creating Passionate Users and found the same issue stated in a different way. In her post, "How to be an Expert", Ms. Sierra outlines research relating to "experts"... top performers in their field.

The research finds that "natural talent", in fact, has a very very small effect. Turns out those who eventually reach the top are those who keep pushing themselves. These top performers arent content with proficiency. They arent content to cruise along doing things the same way.

"For the superior performer the goal isn't just repeating the same thing again and again but achieving higher levels of control over every aspect of their performance. That's why they don't find practice boring. Each practice session they are working on doing something better than they did the last time." (Ericsson)

YES! Thats it exactly. Thats what it takes to become a great teacher. You dont keep doing the same thing again and again.. EVEN IF THOSE THINGS SEEM TO BE WORKING FAIRLY WELL. Sometimes, you've got to go backward to go forward. In other words, sometimes youve got to delve into new skills... go back to the "I suck" beginners stage. Learn all over again.

Some folks dread that process, but I find it fascinating. Im engaged by it. When I reach a certain comfort level... I start getting bored. I know its time to tear everything apart and rebuild again. This can, in fact, be an incredibly enjoyable process. As the Ericsson quote suggests, practice is not boring when there are continually new challenges to tackle.

Ms. Sierra's post also holds a clue to the fossilization phenomenon. As she notes, some learners become quickly frustrated while they are in the "I suck" zone. In other words, in the beginning of any new learning process, the learner is typically incompetent. They cant seem to function, they are clumsy. They often feel foolish. If they stay too long in this zone, they give up. This perfectly describes my past efforts at Spanish.

Other learners manage to escape the "I suck" zone. They reach a comfort level.. where they can perform at a level useful to them. They no longer feel incompetent.... nor do they feel the euphoria of "kicking ass". Some folks fossilize in this zone... they are content with their level of performance and stop pushing themselves. This describes my Thai learning efforts. I learned to get around Bangkok using a very basic level of Thai. But once I could manage taxis and markets, I lost motivation. I stopped pushing. The effort to reach ass-kicking level (ie. fluency) just didnt seem worth it. And so I fossilized (in my case, at a very low level).

But the would-be expert keeps pushing.... determined to reach those ass kicking moments of mastery. But thats not all. Sometimes they deliberately go back to the "suck zone"... realizing they must add new skills in order to return to mastery at a higher level. For whatever reason, this is the case with teaching.

Perhaps its because, unlike with Spanish or Thai.... I actually have had "I kick ass" moments as a teacher. Ive had classes and courses in which everything flowed, in which there was tremendous energy & passion.. in which students made dramatic improvements. It doesnt happen all the time, but it doesnt need to. A few of those moments are all thats necessary-- they spark a transformation. Suddenly, you want to have more of them... and you want to make them more intense. It becomes easier to purposely return to sucking, for a little while, because you know it will help you eventually go higher.

Put directly-- innovation is uncomfortable. Sometimes, when you try something new, you suck. Sometimes you suck a lot... people shake their heads, students groan, and you feel like a goddam idiot. Its normal and necessary. Part of the process of mastery. Rather than recoil from experiences... increase their frequency.

As Tom Peters says... Fail faster, succeed sooner.

San Francisco, CA