I was re-reading One Punch Man recently and stumbled across this dialogue in manga. For a satire protagonist, Saitama does say some really cool shit. I tried to think about this and it was something I wish more people thought about.
Almost everyone knows that you can improve in any task by just doing more of it. I think this is a double edged sword, it will hurt you if you don’t understand how to wield it.
When you search for job positions, all of them have something in common, there is a requirement of “years of experience”. The more years of experience, the more seniority you have and therefore you can expect more responsibility and higher salaries. I’m sure everyone agrees that this is something necessary. We will expect a person with more years of experience to be “better” at doing a certain task, but as you probably agree, this is not always true. Many of us see people with relative young age perform at senior level that you’d expect from a much elder co worker.
A big problem here is that a lot of people have this very basic idea that:
NO MATTER WHAT I DO, IF I JUST KEEP AT IT, KEEP PRACTICING, I WILL GET BETTER.
This is quite often right, but better does not always mean that you will improve indefinitely. Your brain is structured so that you can automate repetitive activities and perform without requiring any threshold of attention. Of course, you need to pay attention and learn the actions to start with.
AAAA this will get complicated real fast, so let me use an example to convey my point, please bear with me.
I used to suck at aiming FPS games, anything that involved me having to point and shoot. I decided to practice till I got my aim on point and get my aim to a point where people start calling me fishyChair (a one-shot headshot machine) in game cause of my aim.
Warowl (love his content 💜) has a really nice video about this where he compares this to the process of learning any musical instrument. (I could relate cause i’ve been playing the guitar for years now)
I did get there. it involved a ton of attentive, deliberate practice. but once I got it down in my “muscle memory” . the process was automated. i don’t need to think about flicking, or even holding an angle, i just instinctively aim and shoot the heads of my opponents, ( i also have a really nice stack of teammates, who are the best supportive players i could ask).
But what if, i learnt to aim with an abysmally high sensitivity? what if i used a really un reliable surface, all that practice all those hours would of course make me better, but not as good as i am now, I’d learn to aim, but aim inconsistently, develop bad habits, and rely on clearly unreliable flicks to save my ass in the situations.
I’d be learning to aim with a mouse, the “wrong” way.
Getting better at things the wrong way
most people are self-taught. Learning how to play the game, they learn to hold the mouse themselves, there’s really no one to tell you how to aim. you see the dude, you learn to point the crosshair to him and shoot and control the recoil in game. You often see people who use the ineffective aiming habits. (think about how elderly people use index fingers to type, it gets the job done, but very inefficient, very ineffective). The bad news is that programming the brain to do something new is easy compared to reprogramming it.
Although this seems like a minor issue, this process is constantly happening to whatever you do. To put a few more examples.
- Using the turn signals when you drive. If you get used to it, you always do it. If not… you will never do it.
- Recycling. Once you get used to putting things into the right container, you cannot do it in any other way.
- Sit down properly A lot of people get this wrong for the same reason as the elder people typing, you are self-taught how to sit down.
I think almost everyone has at least one of the previous issues mentioned before and provably they have tried to correct them. If you are one of them, you will understand how hard it is to reprogram your brain.
Now that you understand how you get better at doing things wrong, let’s put a few examples that are found at professional levels. If you are a programmer, If you never write unit tests, you will get better at introducing bugs in your code. If you’ve always work alone, you will probably get better at not collaborating. If you never think twice about how to write clean code, you will get better at writing messy code. If you never review your changes before push, review your pull requests, you’d get better at doing the same mistakes again and again.
This means that if you do not pay attention, you will get better at creating poor quality code over time. For this reason, I try to avoid doing things in a way that I know is not the right way. Not only because it is not the right way, but because I do not want to get better at it.
Finding the right way
Okay, let’s be fair, everyone thinks that is going in the right direction. Everyone chooses the best option in every situation according to the information that they have. Ideally, everyone will choose the same option in the same situation. And that is the trick, you never have the same information.
To find the right way, having all the relevant information is the key to ensure that you choose correctly. The best way to get this information is to get feedback from people with more experience. Asking a real person is a straightforward way, but watching an online video or reading a book is also a good way of getting feedback.
Following the mouse aiming example, you need to focus on not wasting time on micro adjustments and last minute mouse movements, need to focus on getting accurate shots. need to focus on understanding your reaction times and account for that during holding angles. you have to be really mindful about your mouse and right hand. the learning process is taking all the time, you are forming habits all the time, you are learning things, every moment of the time you spend. if they are the right things or wrong is what you get to decide.
DIE Duplication is Evil or DRY Don’t repeat yourself.
Retraining your brain.
What if you have learned something the wrong way?. It is possible to change but it is also really hard. Your brain is split into two systems. System 1 is in charge of automated actions and System 2 of conscious actions. System 2 is what you call “yourself”. When you learn something, you use your System 2 to program System 1. Once it is programmed, you can perform the learned tasks without effort. It can be called a habit.
If you already know something, you must double your effort to retrain your brain. First to learn the new way and second, to overcome the automated action triggered by System 1. Depending on your experience, the System 1 can be persistent, so you can overcome it consciously, but you fall back once you direct your attention somewhere else.
System 1 acts like a chain reaction, action 1 leats to action 2, 2 to 3, 3 to 4… and so on. A clear example of this is a morning routine. Just think for a while about the huge amount of things that you do automatically. Wake up, turn off the alarm, get out of bed, put on your slippers. go to the bathroom, wash your face, go to the kitchen, prepare coffee…. and the list continues. You always do all of this without thinking because your System 1 is in charge, System 2 may be thinking about what you have to do when you arrive at work or listening to the news. Interesting things happen when the chain is broken. If someone takes your place in the bathroom, your System 1 panics and you suddenly do not know what to do. Then your System 2 makes a decision, maybe you can prepare coffee meanwhile. And your System 1 takes control again. But what if your System 1 does not know what to do? for example, you run out of coffee and decide to prepare tea. This will require your full attention and System 1 will just record what you do. You will learn to prepare tea.
If you want to ease the work when retraining your brain, A good trick is to create an exception in your System 1. For example, if you want to properly learn typing, you could buy a new keyboard. This way your System 1 will panic because it doesn’t know how to use it and your System 2 can take advantage of the situation to correct your bad habits. This is called avoiding the triggers. In a general way, if you want to avoid a bad habit, try to change what you do just before it. This way it will be easier because System 1 will be disabled and you can fully control System 2.
Growing more that what is expected of you.
I’ve seen artists concerned because they do not improve over time. They have been doing art for several years but the works that they produce do not increase in quality. Feels like they have reached the limits of their ability. They compare with greater artists and feel that they will never reach that level so they feel depressed and want to quit. The interesting thing is that they can work much faster than before, it is just the quality that doesn’t improve. What it took 2 days a year ago, now it takes 1.
This artist has been drawing for a lot of time, so their System 1 knows how to do it perfectly. They only use System 2 to be creative and decide what to draw, but how to draw is System 1’s job. This is the reason why they can do it really quickly, but cannot improve quality. It is like learning to type with the wrong fingers.
To improve quality, you need to retrain your System 1, but this time you do not want to completely replace a behaviour, just slightly modify it. This requires you to focus on how you do meanwhile you do it. Take your time to slowly draw better lines, carefully select the colors, pay attention to facial expressions… If you do it right, it will leave you exhausted. Using System 2 requires much more energy than System 1. The key is to manage to produce better results than System 1. Automatically, System 1 will learn from System 2 and if you repeat this process a few times, you will notice that you will start producing better quality art without extra effort.
This is what I mean by The quality of the team invested is more important than the amount. If you have been doing something for 20 years but you’ve never made an effort to improve, you will be stuck. At some point, your System 1 recorded a version of what you do and is replaying it over and over again.
One paradox is that System 2 is really bad at measuring improvement from memory. This means that even if you are improving, you won’t notice it. This can lead to disappointment and eventually surrender. There is a clever trick to solve this issue. Keep track of what you do. If you are a programmer, just take a look at the code you wrote a year ago. If you are doing it right, you should feel ashamed of it. It will mean that you are learning and will encourage you to keep doing so. For me, this blog is a way of keeping track of my improvements. You will notice that recent posts are better than old ones and I hope to keep improving over time.
Although you think that you have full control of your body, the truth is that most of the time you are not controlling it. Your System 1 is automating your actions meanwhile your System 2 focuses on things that require attention. You can say that most of the time you behave as a complicated state machine programmed by System 2. The quality of the actions performed by this machine can be modified, but require you to do make the effort.
This means that years of experience alone is not a good indicator of mastery. You need to get to know each person and try to guess how much time did they put to improve their behaviour.
It is interesting to see the similarities of the two systems model of the brain with the Machine Learning algorithms that we are trying to develop. A machine learning model is trying to imitate System 1, for example, recognize persons in a picture. And all the training process is trying to imitate System 2. Given some samples, train System 1 to do recognize persons.
Thinking fast and slow, by Daniel Kahnmen
Saitama - One Punch Man.