This is what learning Guitar taught me about how our mind works
Learning guitar has taught me more than just guitar. It has given me insights into how our mind works and how we learn things. It has made me believe that with the right elements in place we can learn anything.
I grew up with a fixed mindset. I used to think that I have inherent talent for certain things that makes me good at them and not so good at other things. I was not good at sports, arts and music — I assumed that it is because I lacked the talent for sports, arts and music. I was good at Mathematics and logic — I assumed that it is because I have the talent for it. I was not alone in this way of thinking. Everyone around me seemed to think this way. Thus, growing up, when I found myself not doing well at something new, I assumed that I don’t have the talent for it — this stopped me from trying harder to learn new type of things.
Learning guitar has helped me change from fixed mindset to growth mindset. I now believe that with practice, we can pretty much learn anything. There is a theory that if we spend 10,000 hours learning a skill, we can become one of the best in the world at it. 10,000 hours is a really really long period of time — If you spend 1 hour practicing guitar every day, it will take you more than 27 years to get 10,000 hours of practice. While this may be impractically large amount of time to spend on more than one skill in our lifetime, the point is that if we put our mind to something and give it time, we will acquire that skill.
When I had started learning guitar, my dream was to one day play Hotel California song on my guitar. It seemed to be a pretty difficult song. I had no idea how long it will take for me to learn it. It was essentially an unknown unknown. When we don’t know anything about something, it looks more difficult than it really might be. It has only been a year since I started learning guitar, which is relatively a very short period of time as far as guitar learning goes, but I can already play a simplified version of the Hotel California song. I now aspire to learn to play several other, more difficult songs.
Break it Down and Practice
I started learning guitar by learning chords. Every chord in guitar requires pressing a few strings in a specific pattern with one hand. The other hand is used to strum the strings to generate sound. To play music, we need to quickly switch between chords with one hand while strumming the strings in a rhythmic pattern with the other.
We don’t learn this synchronised action between the two hands at the same time. Guitar instructors break down complex patterns into small pieces. For example, I first learnt how to make the chord shape with one hand without worrying about strumming or singing. The first day I tried to make a new chord shape with my fingers, I found it impossible to bend my fingers in the required manner. I struggled on the second day too. However, with just a few minutes of practice every day, in just a week or so, my fingers adapted and I was able to start making the chord shape.
My instructor then taught me some simple strumming patterns. This also follow a similar approach of daily practice leading to incremental improvement. Once I was somewhat comfortable with the left and right hand individually, the instructor asked me to practice putting them together. I will start doing this at a slow speed and then slowly over time my speed increased with daily practice of just a few minutes.
The next chord that I learnt was easier than the first. Once I knew a few chords and was comfortable with some basic strumming patterns, I started learning songs. And so on.
This approach of learning applies not just to Guitar, but really everything. Driving. Sports. Mathematics. Language. Public speaking. Leadership. If you don’t know how to drive, standing on the side of the road and watching the fast moving traffic during the rush hour would appear daunting. However, you first learn the operation of clutch, gear and steering on an empty road. Then you start to learn how to drive on a less busy road. You learn parking, changing lanes, reversing the car, changing gears one by one incrementally. You then learn to drive at a faster speed and in busy traffic. What is not evident standing on the side of the road watching the busy traffic is that when you are driving, you are literally only dealing with the road, vehicles and surroundings immediately around you. Hundreds of vehicles and the road behind your and ahead of you does not matter in that moment.
Take mathematics. Every concept builds on top of the other. You break the concept into pieces and learn them one at a time. When someone puts the concepts to use to solve a complex problem, it looks just as beautiful and difficult as a piece composed by a great guitarist.
Finding the right teacher is critical for learning any skill. Your teacher should be someone you respect but they don’t necessarily need to be the best in their field. An expert may not always be the best teacher since they may assume things that are hard for you to be easy since those may have come easy to them. You ideally want to find a teacher who is patient, gives you positive reinforcements regularly and keeps you disciplined.
Learning to play Hotel California was a personal goal and achieving this goal made me very very happy. I did not know it was possible to feel happy about achieving a goal without any external validation, acknowledgement and visibility.
Learning requires motivation. For me, the motivation for learning guitar came from my fascination for rock music. Being able to play my favourite rock songs on my guitar gives me joy. My motivation is intrinsic. I do not require external validation. We will have this kind of intrinsic motivation for very few things in life. In most cases, we learn things due to extrinsic motivation like getting promoted at job. E.g. I don’t have a similar intrinsic motivation for learning programming languages but I do it because it is required for my job.
The problem with extrinsic motivation is that it only pushes us to learn what is required but nothing more. I never became good with developer tools like profilers and debuggers. The reason was that every time I was stuck debugging or optimising some code, I would want to focus on the problem at hand rather than stepping away from it to learn how to effectively use these tools. When I was not dealing with a problem that needed me to use profiler or debugger, I did not feel motivated to take out the time to get better at using these tools.
I believe that motivation to learn something comes from a place of humility, admiration, belief and patience. We need acceptance that we don’t know something. We need a genuine awe and admiration for the thing that we don’t know — having role models helps with this. Motivation requires the faith that hard-work will allow us to learn the new skill. We also need patience — we need to accept that there are no shortcuts. This is perhaps why learning is easier for kids — their minds are usually not polluted with ego that only comes from being subject to years of judgement. They are usually gullible and believe what they are told — when someone they trust tells them that they can learn something, they believe it. Finally, kids have a natural inquisitiveness for doing what they see others around them do.
My seven year old son recently started learning piano. It has only been a few months and all he can play right now are simple nursery rhymes. There was a talent show in his school and my wife and I were wondering whether to send him to the talent show. The idea of making him feel comfortable in front of an audience and perform his skill was tempting — it is after all an essential skill in today’s world. However, after some discussion, we realised that if we subject him this early in his piano journey to external judgement, we run the risk of taking away his intrinsic motivation to learn piano with an extrinsic motivation of looking for validation from others. Currently, his motivation to play piano comes from seeing me play guitar — he wants to play music like his father. Seeing me play guitar gives him confidence that he too can learn music. This motivation is intrinsic. We decided not to send him for the talent show to keep his motivations pristine.
My guitar instructor tells me that I need to keep practicing the old pieces that I learnt every once in a while. His point is that we never know when and where we may need to perform and if we haven’t rehearsed a piece in a while, we may be rusty at it. The first time I learn a song, it could take me several weeks. However, rehearsing it just a few minutes every few weeks is all I need to keep it fresh on my fingers after that.
The importance of rehearsal is not unique to guitars. One of my pet peeves with software engineering is the fact that there are so many tools and so many programming languages. In the early days of my career, I found myself needing to switch between languages frequently. My first project was in Java. Second was in Python. Then I moved to writing C++ code. Every time I stopped using a language, I used to forget it very very quickly. I used to think that there is something wrong with me since I seem to be the only one who forgets things so quickly — other people around me seemed to have a much sharper memory. I now know that everyone forgets. I also know that spending just a few hours quickly refreshing old things is all that is needed to keep them fresh in our minds.
There is a joke that runs in the PhD students circuit — People with a bachelors degree often feel like experts in their chosen field. On the other hand, people who pursue PhD feel like they know nothing since through the course of PhD, they get to really know the breadth and depth of their field and what they already know feels insignificant in comparison.
Whenever my guitar instructor organises jamming sessions, I feel like an imposter. I feel that everyone around me knows so much more than I do. Before I picked up the guitar, guitar skill was binary to me — people either knew how to play guitar or they didn’t. Now that I have played guitar for a year, I know how deep and vast this domain is. I now know that I could spend several lifetimes learning guitar and still would have only scratched the surface. Guitar skills, just like any other skill, are not binary. It is a continuum. The moment you know your first chord, in a sense, you know guitar. And yet, even after learning guitar for ten years, in many sense, you will still not know guitar.
We can’t look at the mountain ahead of us and get daunted. The key is to just go back to taking baby steps every day — When we look back after years, we will realise that we have come a long way along. Feeling like an imposter isn’t always a bad thing. It keeps us humble which is a key requirement for learning anything.
The approach that I followed for learning guitar can be applied to learning anything — Mathematics. Sports. Public speaking. Leadership. Language. We need to have the belief that with practice we can learn anything. We need a good teacher. We need to give it the necessary time. We need to break down the problem into smaller pieces and take small steps by practicing every day. We need to rehearse. We need to find intrinsic motivation. Nothing is impossible for us — we just need the right ingredients in place.