Starting

I often improvise on piano, and I sometimes find some really cool stuff to play, and enjoy myself greatly. But I never memorize any of what happens, I don’t write it down, and I’m not sure how to get there again.

Most of the time I play, though, I do get to an interesting place – so I’m reasonably certain that if I start, I can find something. And often, I don’t know how to start.

So I thought – I need a standard way to start. And I thought that this would be useful not just for piano, but for everything I do – a standard way to get into it, that is nothing like the thing itself, but that always leads to the target thing flowing well.

For piano, it had to be something very simple, that I know how to transform into everything else I’d play. And so that’s what I worked out – a basic flow, that necessarily forces me to go outside of it, that is not stable for me to get comfortable in and forget myself; a flow with an open question, something unresolved.

I don’t want to limit myself by the way I start. I’d love to work out many different ways to start, and keep working out new ones. But I think someone who truly knows their craft always knows some standard openings. A chess maestro has them memorized.

For software, I feel like I should never be at a loss of ideas for the next most important thing to change in the world that contributes to my goals the most. My standard way of getting into the years-long flow is notes. And they have to work on every scale of time – from my day to day, to the intermediate milestone, to the grand vision. And opening to think about every scale of the problem.

 

 

Skill

A friend of mine told me that discipline is skill – that getting up early at the same time, and going to bed at the same time – is not a choice, but a skill.

I asked him why – I’ve been trying to stick to that sort of schedule, and I’ve been very consistent over the course of a few weeks. In my understanding, a skill is something that takes years to develop, and you can’t have if you one day wake up and decide you want to have it. I asked – what is the trainable aspect of getting up early?

He answered.

The skill isn’t getting up early once, it’s having a low error rate – what percentage of days in a year do you fail to stick to your daily commitment? More importantly – why?

Understanding why it happens each time, and committing to routines that prevent those situations in the future – is the skill. And it takes years, because only in trying to implement your routine will you find your natural habits that break that routine. And only in knowing them, and deliberately avoiding them – having tools, tricks, hacks to avoid them – can you improve the rate at which you respect your commitment.

And that is the skill of discipline: knowing yourself.

Saturation

I quite enjoy talking with my mentor – I learn a lot, or at least I get food for thought. He’s a busy man, though, so we can’t talk every day.

But if we could, we’d have nothing to talk about. Part of how the conversation starts is reflecting on progress. With no progress, there’s nothing to reflect on. A thoughtful conversation with someone more experienced is bound by saturation, as is all growth.

Every day we wake up, we have a finite amount of energy, and we can choose what to do with that energy. But only a certain amount of it can be allocated to each type of growth until the saturation point is reached, and you will grow no further by investing more of your energy into the problem.

Most complex skills are subject to this, and optimal practice is informed by the limitation. Practicing guitar for 30 minutes every day yields much greater improvements than practicing for 3.5 hours every Sunday. If one day, old, you wake up and decide you want to know how to play, you’re inspired, and explode with energy – you won’t be able to transmute that energy to skill.

Perhaps a major cause of the limitation with something like guitar is the limited pace at which neurons can grow. It’s similar to the constraints on muscle growth. Work out, eat, muscles grow, repeat. Attempt a pattern of movement, eat, neural tissue grows, repeat.

This understanding places a limit on incremental growth, which is a crucial part of development. I think one way around this sort of limitation is to focus on breadth in a skill: practice a different aspect, that a different set of neurons would be responsible for. For truly complex skills, there are enough different aspects to occupy a full day, so all the time you have in a day can be dedicated to improvement.

There is a different sort of limitation – a bottleneck of understanding. Often work is done in the wrong direction, or not fully correctly. Or the right question is not asked for optimal growth; the framework of thinking about the problem is missing something. This is a sort of thing that mentorship and guidance is good for. It can help find the right questions.

Until you arrive at a question, though, hearing the answer may not even be helpful. Questions only come in struggling with the tools you have at your disposal. But once you have earned the question, you are truly ready to hear the answer, understand it, and instantly incorporate it into your worldview. This is the limitation of conceptual jumps, epiphanies.

These sorts of limitations – incremental and fundamental – apply in the realm of thinking as well. It’s possible to get very good at thinking, but it’s a journey of stumbling in darkness, making mistakes, reflecting deeply. You need to incorporate a style of thinking – which is a life-engulfing discipline – apply it, course-correct, and try again.

Human life is fraught with moderation. The most beautiful moments in life are moments where the rules are broken, or when a transcendental truth is spoken. But if a rule is broken every moment, they don’t truly exist, and there is no beauty in breaking them. If all truths are transcendental, there is too much noise, and nothing is worth listening to. Transformational conversations only have something to transform if there is something between them.

Creative thinking

I’ve long had this theory that creative thinking is merely logical thinking, after taking a step back from the problem at hand, and looking at it at a space on level above, or a meta space, or perhaps adding an extra dimension into consideration.

For dance, taking a step back would mean instead of executing the sequence of moves, looking at what rules those moves are made out of, and then altering those rules. what you do is a product of how you move – so change how you move.

For music, a piece can start to feel flat and lifeless if you’re just playing interesting patterns in a scale. Perhaps you find one interesting pattern; then another interesting pattern. And then eventually you exhaust the variety of new note patterns, stuck playing by the rules of note patterns. A step back, what are the patterns made of? For one, they are a system – and as a system, they blend together differently: staccato, legato, accent, rhythm. For two, they are made of sound – which has texture, resonance, attack, amplitude.

What about problem solving? You’re playing within a certain framework of rules, a formal system. But that framework itself is defined in a formal way; the rules are somehow described – through meta-rules, which adhere to the same logical principles as rules themselves. If you are able to break out of the box and use the language of the meta-rules – you, applying logical thinking, make a creative leap, as observed by someone stuck playing by just the rules of the problem.

Strengths

A friend recommended I watch a talk by Gary Vee: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0mXH7TX80aY . He’s an entrepreneur, and his approach to success is taking a long term view, connecting with people, helping as much as possible, and working hard.

I watched it. One thing that caught my attention was that he suggested focusing on your strengths, and not killing yourself trying to overcome your weaknesses. I’ve heard that advice before – from a guitar teacher in an online guitar course that I started with – Doug Marks, of Metal Method.

I get very curious when I hear the same advice coming from successful people from extremely different backgrounds. I think that signals depth, truth.

I asked my mentor about it – he thinks it can be good advice. I asked him what he thinks of my strengths. He listed a few:

  • Resilience, staying calm under pressure
  • Being happy to help others
  • Taking on work, regardless if it’s difficult or hard, glamorous or dirty
  • Egoless approach to work
    • Caring about the result, not the pat on the back – not needing to own achievements
    • Accepting feedback, and improving on it
  • Being comfortable out of my comfort zone, throwing myself against things I’m not great at until I get them
  • Coming up with crazy/creative solutions to difficult problems
  • Solving problems under extreme time pressure

He summarized this saying that I need to work harder than most with my set of strengths. I was reminded of a quote by Luciano Pavarotti (paraphrasing): “I’m not as talented as other singers, but I work harder”.

I can fail at something I’m bad at, then accept the feedback, and then work hard under extreme pressure to get better at it. Great. 😦

I was thinking about this in tandem with my goals, and the advice I got about working on discipline. That it may be okay for me to increase the pressure I have in my life, work under extreme pressure – on my job, on my side projects – and iterate on my release cycles, note the flaws in my work process, and improve.

Ego/discipline

I was thinking of all the things I’ve gotten better at, and how jumps in skill had to be preceded by overcoming an ego resistance.

Often, I had areas I was improving in, and I felt like I had a path of growth. Occasionally, I even felt like external circumstances were holding me back – not being attractive enough, or rich enough, or having enough free time, or having too much stress. But instead, most of the time I was totally blind sighted by my weaknesses in areas that I was not comfortable admitting to myself that I need improvement in.

I took for granted that I was good at certain underlying traits; improving meant admitting I was not, and then working really hard against my nature – or to change it, change who I am, or how I am. For certain problems, approaching them without ego was the skill: being curious, inquisitive, adapting rather than forcing pre-conceived notions and practiced approaches – are all elements of successful problem solving and engineering which are accomplished in large part by simply dropping your ego.

I’ve discovered many things to be skills, which I previously thought were mysterious black boxes, made out of many sub-components I could practice.

I also used to think that I’m simply bad at certain things, and will never be better. And have instead found that they are also skills, and also made out of small components I could practice.

I used to think being smart was something you were born with, and something I was good at – instead now I work to break it down, and improve on aspects of it. I used to think creative thinking was just some sort of unknown magical power some people have. I used to think memory was what you were given; that I was good at focus, or that I am naturally thorough. Or that I understand something when I first hear it, or that I’m good at conversation. I used to think I’m an introvert, not simply in need of better social skills.

I used to think I’d never dance, because that’s simply outside of the realm of possibility for me, and then came a time when I started to think I’m good at dance, and every sort of self-evaluation like that has always held me back – positive or negative.

It’s a harsh truth to accept – that someone is so much more popular than you because, while you’re incredible at certain things – they have a deeper truth about something that you’re exceptionally bad at. It’s not because they were born that way; it’s something you can have. And you are very far from having it, and you can certainly have it if you work on it. That feeling – is stepping over your ego. That moment – is when you can begin down the road to have whatever you desire.

One thing I thought I was always bad at is getting up early. I get really into whatever I’m doing, and am comfortable working late into the night.

In my situation, I need to work, and I need to work on side-projects, to get to where I want to go – have a business, have a green card. I don’t want to give up my hobbies, and I’m looking for a balance. And a friend told me I should live like in the military – come in at 9, and leave at 5, and work on my things 6-11, and repeat, repeat, repeat.

He said I’ll have to have discipline even if I quit. And that I won’t magically start living that way if all my time is free. I tend to be pretty productive in my free time, but what he said made sense. If I don’t project an aura of discipline and seriousness, and I try to employ people, they’ll happily take money, and not deliver, and my enterprise will never succeed.

Him and a few other people I respect maintain that it’s not something you just have. It’s a skill. I think incorporating that into my worldview – that for 29 years, I have not been “naturally bad at waking up early”, but rather “too lazy to be disciplined” – is a great opportunity to step over my ego, and try an approach that will salvage the best out of difficult circumstances, and perhaps lend me a tool that will propel my future goal towards success.