[Jerry Seinfeld told me] the way to be a better comic was to create better jokes and the way to create better jokes was to write every day.

He told me to get a big wall calendar that has a whole year on one page and hang it on a prominent wall. The next step was to get a big red magic marker. He said for each day that I do my task of writing, I get to put a big red X over that day.

“After a few days you’ll have a chain. Just keep at it and the chain will grow longer every day. You’ll like seeing that chain, especially when you get a few weeks under your belt. Your only job is to not break the chain.”

– Brad Isaac, interview in “Lifehacker,” quoted in: James Clear, “How to Stop Procrastinating on Your Goals by Using the ‘Seinfeld Strategy’”

A novice can’t become great by studying Ph.D.-level textbooks 24 hours a day. You must learn the basics, then layer on intermediate knowledge, then layer on advanced knowledge. Knowledge acquisition works via scaffolding. You must grasp the fundamentals before you can appreciate fine details. Skipping steps works as well as a toddler trying to run before they can walk.

Similarly, you can’t just read. You must get hands-on. You must learn, then apply, learn more, then practice and play around with your learning. Doing – and applying what you’ve learned – will reveal areas of ignorance and suggest new questions to explore. By iteratively studying and doing, you will incrementally refine your initially crude understanding of the subject matter. Only after many evolutionary refinements can you become an expert, with a deeply nuanced and intuitive grasp of your subject.

The Chinese have many ancient proverbs illustrating this, including: “you can’t get fat in one bite” (“一口吃不成胖子”) and “one cold day can’t freeze water three feet deep” (“冰冻三尺,非一日之寒”). Rushing the learning process is like “trying to speed a baby plant’s growth by tugging at it to make it grow faster” (“拔苗成长”).

“Neuroplasticity” is the scientific term for your brain’s ability to restructure itself over time to improve its responses to future stimuli. Everything you ever experience enters your brain, and your brain modifies itself in response to those experiences, partly by recording those experiences in memory, partly by consolidating those memories into more compact representations and cohesive narratives, and partly by interpreting the significance of those experiences and modifying itself to (hopefully) respond better to similar stimuli in the future.

Though brain changes are incremental and subtle, your brain is constantly re-wiring itself. Over the course of your lifetime, your brain will change in incredibly complex ways.

Your brain is a complex system, so it evolves slowly in response to your daily experiences, just as human organizations and software programs and other large-scale systems evolve slowly:

A complex system that works is invariably found to have evolved from a simple system that worked. A complex system designed from scratch never works and cannot be patched up to make it work. You have to start over with a working simple system.

– “Gall’s Law,” Dr. John Gall, Systemantics: How Systems Really Work and How They Fail

Our kids played chess for years. Chess helped prepare them for life, teaching them: tactics, strategy, winning and losing with grace, time management, coping with disappointments, the relationship between effort and performance, the importance of a good night’s sleep, how to put themselves inside the minds of their opponents, etc. So many valuable lessons. But I never took time to learn chess myself.

For much of the past year, I’ve found myself playing chess puzzles sporadically while watching TV or using the men’s room. (I use the free iPhone app from LIChess.org, but there are many options.) A puzzle takes seconds or perhaps minutes to solve, so I can do a few, then stop.

I doubt I’ve ever spent even a full hour studying chess. Nevertheless, I’ve improved a lot over the past year just through sporadic, frequent, short sessions. And, because I’ve learned in small doses via fun puzzles, I haven’t lost interest, so I’ve made continuous small progress.

One of the many reasons I dislike SCRUM™ – the hugely popular “agile” methodology beloved by large corporations – is that it’s a never-ending series of “sprints.” You’re always sprinting. Marathoners aren’t sprinters. Besides, sprinting all the time is guaranteed to destroy your body and your enthusiasm, even if you intrinsically love what you’re doing:

The results of both studies show that on average, employees who are more passionate about work are less emotionally exhausted. …But …highly passionate days at work can lead to increased emotional exhaustion the next day…

…Experiencing high levels of emotional exhaustion after work creates a high need for recovery, which then leads to a decrease in passion the next day. Additional time off – like a long weekend – can help to restore passion for work.

Even the most passionate of us need a break. You can be loyal in your job, committed to your craft, and still benefit from some much-needed downtime. In fact, it’s the secret to keeping your passion going strong.

Nick Hobson, “Hiring for Passion? Be Careful of Employee Burnout, Say Harvard Scientists,” Inc.

In 1911-12, Roald Amundsen and Robert Falcon Scott raced to be the first to reach the South Pole. Amundsen arrived a month before Scott, returned first, and lost none of his men, whereas Scott died along with four other members of his team. One factor cited for Amundsen’s success was his slow, steady pace:

“To make the most of the [sled] dogs, he paced them and deliberately kept daily mileages shorter than he need have for 75 percent of the journey, and his team spent up to 16 hours a day resting.”

Wikipedia, “Comparison of the Amundsen and Scott expeditions”

Saving your energy and maintaining your spirits/enthusiasm is essential to success. Amundsen didn’t even sprint home…

Amundsen was determined to return to civilisation before Scott, and be first with the news. Nevertheless, he limited their daily distances to 15 nautical miles (28 km), to preserve the strength of dogs and men.

“Amundsen’s South Pole expedition”, Wikipedia

The more intensively you try to learn new skills, the greater your risk of burnout. Intensive practice is also less efficient than “distributed practice,” i.e., practice spread out over time. Cramming for a test may get you a better grade, but truly learning for long-term retention requires slower-paced learning over a longer time period:

Spacing out learning over time works best…

Crammed-in material does not stay in the student’s memory for long. “A day or two after the test, it’s gone—seriously gone, as if they’d never learned it in the first place,” [Williams College psychology professor Nate Kornell] says.

Annie Murphy Paul, “Why Cramming Gets a “C”,” Scientific American, 1 August 2015

We learn by detecting patterns and learning to think in “chunks,” rather than individual elements. For example, when you learned to read, you learned to interpret five squiggles on a piece of paper – “p” “i” “z” “z” “a” – as a single chunk, “pizza.” Having learned many chunks (i.e., “words”), you’re now able to read much faster than you could as a child struggling to stitch strings of letters together into meaningful chunks.

(Your ability to think in chunks is partly to blame for why you struggle to edit your own writing… You must force your brain to slow down and notice and dwell on every detail.)

From one day to the next, I feel no more capable of completing chess puzzles. But I now see the board very differently than when I started because my brain sees patterns that previously looked like noise.

With increasing frequency, solutions seem to pop into my brain before I’ve even scanned the board carefully. It feels magical. But it’s just because my brain has become much more efficient at evaluating chess boards. (I’m still NOT a good chess player… Merely much less terrible than I was a year ago.)

It’s often – falsely – claimed that we use only a fraction of our brains. This claim apparently originates from brain scans showing that parts of our brains are much more active than others. It’s false in part because we’re only consciously aware of a tiny fraction of what our brains are doing at any moment. Once your brain has acquired knowledge of piano chord patterns or chess board patterns, unconscious portions of your brain can move your fingers or find the best move without your conscious awareness.

Creative musical and athletic performances by trained musicians/athletes actually degrade when those experts think more consciously (“effortful self-monitoring”) about what they’re doing. This “Who’s In Control?” episode of NOVA’s “Your Brain” series covers this well. UCSF neuroscientist Charles Limb, MD explains that “When you start trying to [use a] conscious control mechanism [on a creative task], your performance goes down.” Athletes and musicians must relax and trust their instincts because their instincts have been optimized through years of pattern recognition training. Athletes tend to “choke” in key moments because they’re so conscious of the importance of the moment that their conscious minds override their highly trained, automatic instincts.

Since learning chess in tiny, frequent doses has worked so well, I recently decided to use the same process to learn jazz piano!

I’ve loved jazz since college. 75% of my massive Apple Music playlist is jazz. And I watch a ton of jazz on Youtube. I’ve said many times that I’ll die regretting I never learned to play jazz.

After hearing myself say that one too many times, I decided to do something about it. I have too many other things I love and want to do to spend hours a day becoming a musician, but I decided I could set aside 15 or 30 minutes a day for the rest of my life to learn piano.

15 to 30 minutes isn’t a big commitment, but if I do this consistently for decades, I’ll become a decent piano player… and may even play in a jazz band. I don’t aspire to be great. I just want to have fun.

You’re never too old to learn new things, as this woman’s marvelous story two minutes into this short video about our town’s band – which is apparently America’s second-oldest band! (which my son recently joined) proves.

Piano chords are similar to chess puzzles. Great pianists interact with keyboards differently than beginners because they have thousands of patterns (and patterns layered atop other patterns) stored in their brains for easy retrieval. I watch Emmet Cohen and am completely astonished. But his mind-blowing performances are the result of many years of cultivating patterns in his brain.

I’m already able to play a few simple two-handed songs with relatively basic chords. If I’m diligent, I should be able to play at a not-embarrassing level in a few years. I’ll never be Emmet Cohen, but I am already learning patterns and believe investing a small fraction of every day into playing piano will bring me joy if I stick with it. It has already helped me appreciate jazz in new ways.

I haven’t invented the idea of learning in small, daily doses. Many others have successfully used this technique to gradully improve. A few examples:

I bought a Yamaha DGX-670 and have practiced every day since it arrived more than a week ago. Over the past few months, I watched many Youtube videos on how to play piano. And I’m slowly learning how to play many different chords and chord progressions in many different keys. Learning them deeply will take years, but I’m already feeling a sense of progress. I’m currently learning inversions after realizing how valuable they are for playing rapid chord sequences in the songs I’ve tried to play. It’s a very fun challenge. All I need to do now is continue enjoying piano for a few more decades. Check this space in 2043!

(With thanks to Chuko Cribb for this photo on Unsplash)