Learning How You Do It

Learning How You Do It

Just about everyone learns how to walk. When we are born, we can’t. But as children, we watch those around us, emulate them and eventually, get up on two wobbly legs and try. We see how those around us are doing it and then figure out how to use our own machinery to do the same thing. But that doesn’t mean we walk the same way.

As a kid, my parents forced me to go to church until I was about 16. Twice on Sunday plus a couple of other days for good measure. I hated it for a long time. But I learned to watch people. I learned how to identify them by the way they walk. Now when I’m at work concentrating in my cubicle and hear someone walking down the hallway, most times I know who that person is just by their stride.

You never learned how to walk. You learned how you walk. Learning how “you” do things becomes even more necessary when the skill is complex, in deep work, where most of the work happens in your head. Here you can only emulate the results of work and not the work itself. A teacher can guide you. He can tell you what techniques worked for him. But still you must do the work yourself.

I found that with skills like these, I go through a certain pattern. I find a book that will teach me how to do it. Or most likely get many books, read through them, see how they are different and see which one clicks the most with me. And sometimes, get every book I can find, read through them, turn reading about doing into a hobby and never do anything.

But those skills I finally gain some skill in go a different direction. If I really want something, I will keep trying. I will hold myself to some rules I read in a book for as long as I can. Then I will find that the rules are not quite working, like shoes a size too small or too big. I can kind of walk in them, but they hurt. And because they hurt, I can’t walk normally. My stride is off. And I definitely can’t run. I can’t trust my feet to tell me much about the ground I am covering because the pain covers up all the finer details of the terrain.

So I start to throw out rules and adding my own. I find out what works for me. I watch my own reaction to the process and adjust to make it better for me. Sometimes I even have to trick myself into doing things a certain way until I build a habit. And I get closer and closer to what I want to do.

But I had to make it to that point. I had to make it to that gap. The gap where you are on your own and just have to push through.

When I decided I wanted to be a writer in my teens, I found a book by William Saroyan called “The Daring Young Man on the Flying Trapeze”. It spoke to me. Talk about a skill where you have to take a leap, literally and figuratively.

I think about that book any time I think about any hard, deep skill I have to learn. Someone can teach you all they want about how to be a trapeze artist on the ground. All the experts in the world can fill you with their knowledge. But at some point, you have to climb that ladder, by yourself and make that leap across the gap. No one is going to help you as you are flying through the air to your goal.

Stephan Miller

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Kansas City Software Engineer and Author

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