In his incredible book, The Art of Learning, Josh Waitzkin, the subject of the movie Searching for Bobby Fisher, describes two styles of learning: increment-based learning and identity-based learning.
Identity-based learners have their egos invested in their success in achievement. Getting an A in a subject means having that part of your mind validated: you are smart. This works very well and builds a strong ego as long as you keep performing well. It can help a suitably smart person skate through high school or even college, as long as they never hit the hard stuff. The trouble is that some stuff doesn’t come naturally or easily, no matter how smart or skilled you are. That’s when the identity-based learner has real troubles. He or she hits a challenge, dislikes feeling stupid or, worse, being regarded as a failure through grades or observable results, and quite often rejects the subject matter in order to preserve his or her identity as a smart or successful person. Again, depending on your intelligence, talent, aptitude, and the fortune of your socio-economic background, this style of learning can lead to great success. But there’s an inherent limit in that the identity-based learner will rarely reach his or her true level of aptitude because pretty much every level of elite achievement demands the learner succeed through a dark night of the soul.
I was a precocious kid. I was told from pretty early on that I was smart. It definitely went to my head, and I suspect it did permanent damage to my learning style. Since I had a huge amount of my identity invested in being smart, I was an archetypal identity-based learner. In a lot of ways I’m sure I still am, which is kind of the point of this entry.
Waitzkin contrasts identity-based learning with increment-based learning. Instead of validation coming through a sense of being smart or successful, that same sense of achievement is acquired through work. When the identity-based learner brought home an A, his parents said, “Wow, you are so smart!” whereas the increment-based learner’s parents said, “That’s what studying hard gets you!” Obviously there are degrees for each of these things, whether the C-student is told he is an idiot or the B+ student is told he didn’t study hard enough. The thesis is the same from an orbital perspective, that the validation comer through the rigor of process, not from having one’s identity confirmed through the pleasure of achievement or success.
Point-blank, as Waitzkin argues in The Art of Learning, increment-based learning is a superior tool in every way. High achievement means dealing with setbacks. Whether it’s learning a martial art, a musical instrument, cooking, a new language, learning how to program, or picking up any other skill, there is tremendous utility in speaking clearly with yourself and saying, “I suck at this now, but I’m working on it.” That acknowledgement, that it’s perfectly normal and okay to suck at whatever you’re doing and that failing, repeatedly, is often the only way to learn, is the only way to pick up new skills, especially after your personality has had some time to cook in the kiln of adult life.
“Sometimes there is no way to get better at programming except through sheer brute force. You just have to stare at the screen, work it out in the code, and get it wrong over and over again.”
That’s wisdom from a friend of mine who now works as a programmer after successfully completing an intensive boot camp at Hack Reactor, a program like the one I’m going to start at Flatiron School. He and I had never discussed The Art of Learning, but he had independently arrived at the same conclusion that I am carrying into my class. While I certainly hope I can grasp the material in a snap and help other students along the way (“When one teaches, two learn.” — Robert Heinlen), but if I’m the slowest kid in the class, so be it. That means I have longer nights, and I get to be the weirdo on the subway with his nose in his laptop. Make no mistake, to date, I have felt extremely stupid while diving down the rathole of Ruby. Some things that used to confound me are now easy (if/else loops, yielding into blocks) but I fully expect to be stumped regularly throughout my course and have to say, like a mantra, “I suck at this now, but I’m working on it.”
The Art of Learning is pretty short. It’s one of the only books that, after I finished it, I immediately started again on page 1. I can’t recommend it enough if you’ve found what I’ve written here thought-provoking.