Saturday, December 12, 2015

The Joy of Juggling and Learning to Learn

In less than 20 hours, you can significantly increase your learning skills.  The general method applies to a wide range of skills and competencies. The specific approach, learning to juggle, has life-long benefits.

How Do We Learn a New Skill?
I often use juggling to get people to think about how we learn and then discuss what learning methods are most appropriate for different types of skills and competencies.

You can first ask people how they would learn to juggle and they will typically come up with a list like the one below.

You might start with one approach, encounter failure(s) and turn to another approach based on what you discover through your initial attempts.

A Great Way to Learn Quickly from Failure
Juggling offers so many opportunities to learn from failure -- I'm only half kidding here.  Failure is inevitable in learning to juggle and it's quite prevalent at first. Unless you're learning to juggle with clubs or knives, it's not dangerous.(2)

Juggling makes us learn from failure whether we like it or not.  With immediate feedback and a very quick cycle of trial and error, the learning curve is steep.  Deliberate practice makes us learn faster (see Anders Ericsson's research on deliberate practice, popularized by Malcolm Gladwell's book, Outliers) but I'm convinced that simple practice through repetition of the most basic elements of the skill also builds the muscle memory needed to focus on more difficult elements of the skill.

Easily Measurable Progress
Juggling is within everyone's reach.  It's like riding a bicycle. Everyone can learn to ride a bicycle and everyone can learn to juggle.  It is therefore a great tool to help nurture a growth mindset in people (See Carol Dweck's Mindset: The New Psychology of Success).  A key advantage to juggling is that progress is very easily measured.  It is only frustrating in the first five minutes of practicing a new skill when you're missing almost all the balls.  Once you've accomplished a single pattern (one cycle of throwing and catching all the balls), you can increase the count and learn variations and new skills.

I'm now reasonably proficient with the three-ball cascade and two-ball fountain with each hand individually.  My next challenges are the four-ball fountain pattern and the three-ball shower.

Learning the Next Skill
This morning, I made my first attempt at the three-ball shower.  While I had seen it done, I had no understanding of the pattern and whenever I tried, my hands reverted to the cascade pattern.  Finally, I searched for a visual on the web that would show me in slow motion what was supposed to happen. Once I understood what it should look like, I was able to deconstruct it.  The lateral passing of one ball from one hand to the other without throwing in the air was the new movement I was struggling with.  So, I practiced that movement with just one ball.  I think it took me a full five minutes, which is ridiculously long when you realize that you're just throwing one ball from one hand to the other. Somehow I wasn't catching it.  Once that was mastered, I picked up a second ball.  Within a few minutes, my brain recognized a nice circular pattern created by the two balls and it became instantaneously easy.  Now I still have to figure out how to add the third ball to the shower.  I read that more height is required than for the cascade. (3)

Learning to Deconstruct - Deconstruct to Learn
The larger point is that like in juggling, many skills can be learned relatively quickly when they are deconstructed carefully (that is the basis of Josh Kaufman's claim that you can learn anything in 20 hours).  It looks silly to practice the basic element of a skill  (one ball throws), but that's how the body and brain learn to do it easily so the focus can be on other challenges. When you learn how to drive, you have to pay a great deal of attention to everything,including the amount of pressure your foot is putting on the accelerator and brake pedals.  With practice, you no longer have to constantly think about that and you can concentrate on other things, like keeping a close eye on what other cars are doing, not just controlling your car.

(1)  Tennis balls can be a little too big for a beginner.  Their main disadvantage, however, is that they bounce and they roll,  As a beginner, you will spend a lot of time running after dropped balls and therefore tennis balls are not ideal.  One way to deal with this challenge is to practice by the side of a bed, facing the bed so that balls drop on the bed and not to the floor.

(2) Since you're likely to bend down to pick up fallen balls regularly, warming up your calves and hamstrings beforehand might help or you'll just be a little sore the next day and you'll wonder what you did. That won't happen if you give up after five minutes but if you insist and you practice for 30 minutes, be warned. Of course, if you do 100 squats on a daily basis, this won't affect you that much.  If you don't squat to pick up the balls you will hurt your back, which is worse.

(3) Update:  Using the learning strategy of spacing learning, I came back to my practice with three balls later in the day and managed up to five counts. Within a week of starting to learn this skill, and focusing on it daily, I was able to consolidate it and consistently manage 10 counts, with a record of 30 by the end of the week.


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