Learning: that uncomfortable moment when you realize the depth of your ignorance.
The timing of this post is going to be rather more ironic than I really prefer, but so be it. I am teaching myself to write left-handed. To function left-handed, more accurately. This is ironic because, at the moment, I can’t really use my left hand for much of anything. I have problems with my wrists on a good day, but I’ve been doing so much typing I managed to really, properly hurt myself this time. I have a nice big lump on the back of my hand where it meets my wrist. It’s a wee bit painful, just like the occasional numbness in my last two fingers is a wee bit inconvenient. I’m writing this via speech-to-text software. It is slow and frustrating and demoralizing. And damned if that isn’t usually a sign that I’m doing something right.
People seem surprised when I mention this new goal of mine. They ask me “why” in tones normally reserved for someone who’s just announced their intention to perform some home brain surgery. I can only ever reply, “why not?” I’m doing it because I enjoy aggressively forging new neural connections, which is to say, I like learning stuff. I’m doing it because people seem startled when they see a person effortlessly switch from one hand to the other. I like startling people. I’m doing it because I’ve always had a certain level of ambidexterity and I find it ludicrous not to extend that to finer motor control.
I’m doing it, let’s be honest, because it sounds like fun.
What I consider fun tends to have a large overlap with what I consider frustrating. Trying new things necessitates a certain amount of time spent being incompetent. I don’t cope well with that. In fact, apart from stories about sad puppy dogs, that’s one of the only things that can reduce me to tears. When it comes to writing with my left hand, I am really very incompetent. With the understanding that I have been practicing already, this is my left-handed writing at the moment:
Dismal. It’s readable, ish, but it took all my concentration and very careful movements to render it. It lacks the natural flow of my normal handwriting. (In a curious aside, I have been mashing together my left-handed writing with my Japanese practice. My left-handed hiragana is significantly less dismal.) I find it difficult to find times to practice because it’s not as though I can write all my notes to myself with my left hand. That would be the usual recommendation, right? Start doing all your writing with your non-dominant hand to get as much practice as possible. That’s swell, except for the part where I have to be able to read my notes to myself after the fact. Please understand that there is actually an incredibly low bar on this count. My right-handed handwriting is… well, it’s not so much that it’s bad as open to interpretation. See the following samples to understand.
[My right-hand writing when I’m really trying hard to be legible.]
[My normal handwriting. The letters begin to flow into one another.]
[This is what the average lecture notes look like or anything else I have to write quickly. At this point, context may be the only means of interpreting what I’ve written after the fact.]
So it’s not actually that unusual for me not to be able to read my own notes. There’s only so much worse I can make it before I might as well stop writing notes at all. I’ve seen significant improvement by using children’s fonts that provide letters for tracing. It was like being back in grade school. I printed myself up some practice sheets, row after row of a dozen A’s, a dozen B’s, and dutifully traced them. It was agonizing. It was also extremely helpful.
Therein lies the biggest obstacle to adult learning: putting up with the frustration and tedium of being totally useless at something.
We are so accustomed to being competent in our daily lives. Even if we don’t consider ourselves to be particularly talented individuals, we can usually take it for granted that when we pick something up we won’t drop it immediately, we won’t accidentally skewer our tongue trying to eat with a fork, and we won’t fall over trying to move in a straight line. Trying to learn a new physical skill, particularly compared to mental skills, strips us of that privilege. Using our nondominant hand, picking up a fork and moving it to our mouth can become Herculean effort. Though less dire, this is the same process seen in someone who, following an accident, must go through physical therapy to learn to walk again. The action is so familiar, and our brains are so convinced they know how to do it, but our bodies aren’t cooperating. What galls us, what stands in the way of our ever learning this new skill or relearning an old one, is that we must grind through the simple repetition, the child’s games, the tedious practice.
So assuming we are not content to spend our lives only doing the things we’re already good at, what is an adult learner to do? For a start, consider keeping it private (like not broadcasting your intentions on a blog). There’s a certain school of thought that encourages you to create an audience to keep you on track, to keep you committed. That’s great and if that works for you, fantastic (again, like broadcasting on a blog). But that’s about the idea of learning something. I’m talking about the practice of. Don’t let someone watch you filling in your writing practice sheets or show them the results. Don’t show off your new dance moves in an impromptu performance after one class. What I’m saying is, don’t invite criticism. Not just criticism from your audience, but internal criticism. You’ll get enough of that anyway, just by trying something new at all. Don’t give yourself the opportunity to think self-defeating thoughts like, “they must think I look like an idiot” or “they’ll laugh about this later.” Often, there’s no avoiding this aspect of performance if you’re learning a new skill in a class setting, which typically involves practicing with other students. So at the very least, give yourself time outside of class, away from prying eyes, to practice and enjoy your new skill with minimal opportunity for criticism.
Children are such fantastic learners in large part because they are not dissuaded by repeated failures or feelings of embarrassment. That comes later. As adult learners, that frustration can be our greatest obstacle but it can also be our clearest signpost on the way to success. If it feels uncomfortable and weird, there’s a good chance you’re headed in the right direction.