Monday, May 22, 2006

Teaching, Learning, and Juggling

A few weeks ago I mentioned my quest to learn how to juggle.

Why would I want to take up such an odd activity? Not because it's hip or trendy, that's for sure. I suppose I always thought it looked cool. Even three-ball juggling has always seemed slightly superhuman to me. Just like anything with more than four legs is creepy--because that's just too many legs for me to keep track of--anyone using two hands to keep more than two objects in the air has, at a minimum, achieved a Jedi-like level of having his shit together, and may even have tapped some occult power.

But lots of things impress me, without filling me with the desire to do them myself. My admiration for juggling was crystalized into a desire to learn how when I read Robert Silverberg's Lord Valentine's Castle. In which an amnesiac vagabond joins a traveling circus and traverses an immense, alien planet and has loads of adventures along the way. And learns how to juggle.

Silverberg is intense. When he writes about telepathy, you get the idea that he knows what he's talking about. His stories about multiple personality cases have prompted people to write and ask him if he has multiple personalities himself. The stuff about juggling in Lord Valentine's Castle made me want to juggle.

In my whole life, I have only talked to two people who can juggle proficiently. Possibly I have known many more, but if so it never came up and I never found out. Anyway, neither of the two I knew were worth a damn when it came to explaining how to do it. One of them has never shown any aptitude for teaching anyone anything ever. I suspect that he lacks the basic empathy that it takes to be a teacher; in his world there are only the talented and the talentless, staring at each other across an unbreachable gulf. The other is capable of teaching, and in fact taught me many things. But not how to juggle. I think he'd just been doing it for so long that he'd forgotten how the baby steps go. It's like concentrating on how you tie your shoes--you may still be able to get them tied, but it's harder and it takes longer. I think that to teach you have to be able to do two things: you have to empathize enough with your student to know that they need to take baby steps, and you have to remember what those baby steps are. Both of my juggling acquaintances failed as teachers, but on different counts.

However, the second guy was not an utter failure; he at least pointed me to Juggling For the Complete Klutz. I picked up a copy at a used book store sometime in the mid-90s. I read it. The guidance made sense, and it stuck in my head. I still have the book somewhere, but I didn't dig it out when I recently decided to pull the trigger. I didn't need to; I could still remember how it went.

What about the intervening decade? Why didn't I learn to juggle right after I got the book? The answer is dead easy: failure of application. I read the book, digested the lessons, and took a stab. After a couple of evenings of practice I was not noticeably closer to juggling, and I gave up.

Even now, ten years later--even though I've been successful in all kinds of things that really matter--even though it's just juggling, it was still awfully hard to write those words. I gave up. Ouch. Didn't feel any better the second time. But it's true. Some sins are easy to admit. You can say "I lied" with a shrug and a devil-may-care grin, and it doesn't feel bad at all. But to say "I gave up" is genuinely unpleasant.

This time I learned how to juggle because I resolved not to give up, no matter what. I decided that I would practice juggling for half an hour, every day. Half an hour is a long damn time when you're bending or squatting every ten seconds because you dropped your balls. Go do squat thrusts for half an hour and you'll probably end up like I did, drag-ass tired and sweaty. The first two days passed with no noticeable improvement. On the third day I successfully completed a single transfer. And from there on it got easier and I got better. Within a week I was actually juggling. A month later my record is 120 throws with no drops; not spectacular, but long enough to give any onlookers some suspense.

It is not easy to try something new, especially if you're no good at it, especially if you look stupid while doing it, and especially if it takes a while to learn. I think it is probably good for our souls to try new things just so we can know what it's like to really suck at something, to really look stupid, and to really persevere until we learn it. When you're a kid you're forced to do this all the time, whether it's basketball or fractions or whatever. But as an adult you are able to armor yourself somewhat. There is no foolproof recipe for never looking foolish, but you can tilt the odds in your favor by sticking to things that you're good at.

Another great thing about learning to juggle is that they payoff is not worth anything. There is no status attached to juggling. I don't do it because it will impress anyone or look good on my CV. I juggle because it makes me happy. I'm to the point now where it takes some effort to think about the moves. It is easier to just sit back and watch my arms go crazy, zipping out here for a catch, there for a toss, as if independent from my body. It still seems impossible and kickass, and I'm the one doing it.

It is actually pretty easy to force yourself to do something new if you think there is going to be a payoff. I hate learning new programs, but I keep doing it because I need them for my dissertation. Sometimes I realize that I love using them, but that's later on. I didn't learn Photoshop because the learning process was fun. I learned it because it was a mythical barrier guardian that was preventing me from publishing my first paper.

Now I'm starting to wonder how many things I have not done because on some level I don't think I'll ever be good enough at them to justify the effort. Why bother trying to write a short story when I know the result will be embarrassingly amateurish, and when I can spent the same time and effort and produce a decent scientific paper? I can think of lots of good answers to that question now that it's explicit, but I wonder how many times I ask it subconsciously and fail to answer at all.

So, here's your homework. Go find something that no one thinks is cool, that will make you look like a dumbass at least until you're good at it and possibly even after, and spend some time learning how to do it.

And if you want to learn how to juggle, ask me quick, before I forget those baby steps.

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Blogger Mike Taylor said...

"Why bother trying to write a short story when I know the result will be embarrassingly amateurish, and when I can spent the same time and effort and produce a decent scientific paper?"

I take your point, but let me tell you from experience that writing a short story take a lot less time than writing a scientific paper. The reason? No-one can call you on minor irregularities. If I'm writing a vampire story and in my story the vampire wants to eat my liver as well as drinking my blood, then it's my prerogative to make the universe work that way: after all, I made it up. But if I'm writing a scientific paper and I want to mention in passing that Brachiosauridae as traditionally conceived may be paraphyletic, then I'd damned well better know (or find out) that this was proposed by Salgado et al. 1997, and what characters the argued supported the paraphyly, and whether those characters are good, and what others have written in response to the idea. All that takes time to work out - a lot of time. Whereas writing "The vampire wanted to eat my liver" takes as long to write as it takes you to type the characters.

So if you want to write a short story, go crazy. It won't take you any longer than it would take to chase down three or four tangentially relevant references.


I can't believe that's twelve years old!

5:26 AM  

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