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Genesis of a Historical Novel

Monday, September 17, 2007

restless and dissatisfied--just like the pros

Gradually I'm becoming acquainted with my updated computer. Except for the box itself, which is a new black tower resting on bricks under the table (on bricks because I'm in the basement, and there have been floods here before...), it's still the same old gear: same massive 19" Dell CRT (works great), same Harmon/Kardon speakers, same Microsoft ergonomic keyboard. Yesterday I did switch to a new optical mouse, but mainly it's the same physical experience sitting here--it's just that the computer behaves differently: it's very noticeably faster, snappier. Now, when I click a command, it executes--immediately! I feel more in charge again, instead of feeling that I'm asking the PC to do me favors all the time, which is how it felt before.

I'm now running Windows XP Home Edition, which means learning a new user interface. I've decided to take this more seriously than I did when I got the old Windows 98 computer. I see I still have the Windows 98 Bible in my nearby bookshelf, and a bookmark about 12% into the text. That's as far as I got with my read-through by the keyboard.

I enjoy this thorough method of learning from the ground up. My gaining of familiarity with a subject tends to be slow, but total. I notice it's different from the way most other people learn. Most people seem to jump into the middle somewhere, and start working their way around from there. With a computer, for instance, I think many people move as quickly as they can to achieving some particular result with it, and build out from that early accomplishment.

This approach gains quick but limited--although always growing--proficiency. Why isn't that my style? I think the reason is that in that approach, you never know for sure how much mastery you've gained. How much more of this subject is there to learn? Do I know 60%? 80%? If you don't survey the field beforehand, you might never know (and probably, of course, never care either!).

Another, more important factor is one's attitude to learning in general. For each of us, this is different according to what topic is under consideration. I recall reading in a Scientific American article about expertise that one important difference between the expert or master and the average practitioner of any subject is the point at which one is satisfied with one's level of knowledge or command. In any skill, we usually reach a point where we're satisfied: we can do what we want to do, and don't push to improve beyond that point.

An example might be cooking: if you're not a gourmet, you may achieve a level of proficiency with a range of dishes that you're content with. You may learn more, but it will be slowly, unsystematically. But if you have a passion for food and its preparation (as, say, Kimmie does), you won't rest content. You'll be on the lookout for new techniques and ideas; you'll tweak already excellent recipes using promising new tips; you'll keep reading up on your subject and keep practicing it often. You may never come to a point where you say to yourself, "okay, that's enough--on to other things".

The greats are never content, but are always obsessed with improvement, even when they're already the best in the world, or near it.

I've plateaued in most of my activities in life--chess, drawing, guitar--but there are two in which I remain restless: writing and what I suppose I could call general knowledge. I'm not satisfied with what I know, or with how I express it. In a sense I'm driven by a feeling of lack in these areas. So I keep practicing: I read, I write. In my own opinion, I don't do enough of either one.

Well then. I'll finish off this bit of writing, so I can go read a bit over breakfast.


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