Learning curve

As you’ll probably have picked up if you’ve been following my social media recently, Steve and I have been spending most of our free time this year climbing stuff. It’s funny – we’ve been climbing together since we met, but this year things have really taken off and I’ve properly got the bug. I think the thing that made the difference was deciding back in January that this was going to be the year I climb my first 7a. That’s meant that rather than just going along and doing climbs that were relatively easy and comfortable, I’ve been pushing myself to try harder things, and putting some effort into getting my strength and fitness back to a good level. It’s paying off – not only am I climbing far harder now than I was at the beginning of the year, but I’m also enjoying it more. Fortunately Steve’s happy enough to enable my climbing habit (or perhaps he’s indulging me because it keeps me out of trouble).

In learning a new skill, I’ve always found there are different joys and frustrations at each stage of the process. Being a beginner can be frustrating; but there’s also the excitement of doing something new. Intermediate level is often where the novelty wears off, but without necessarily feeling particularly competent either. But set against that, there’s something exhilarating about the steep upwards slope of the learning curve before it starts to plateau with increasing experience. This is where I am at the moment with climbing. Week to week I can feel myself improving – I can climb things now that seemed impossible just a couple of months ago. And as I discover new things that my body can do, the world starts to look different; I can see possibilities that weren’t there before. 

Eventually that learning curve reaches a plateau, the improvements slow down and the gains become much harder. Doing anything to a reasonable level of skill is rewarding, but as you get better at noticing your mistakes it can feel ever harder to live up to your own standards. 

This is something I perhaps haven’t fully appreciated when learning things in the past – in my hurry to get good, and my frustration at not being, I’ve perhaps overlooked the fun that can be had from just enjoying each stage of the process (I think there’s a cliche about journeys and destinations that might be appropriate here). In the same way that adults sometimes complain that youth is wasted on the young, I catch myself wondering whether being a novice might be wasted on novices. 

Something else to bear in mind is that what works at one stage of the learning process isn’t always appropriate at another stage. In the sports and fitness world, many people at beginner level spend a lot of time tinkering around to find the “best” way to train, or experimenting with things that advanced people in their sport are doing. While there are certainly ways to make the learning process more efficient, there’s a danger that overthinking can lead to paralysis. Spending all your time trying to figure out the optimal plan, or researching different training methods can get in the way of actually sticking to something consistently for long enough to see the benefits. 

During the intermediate stage of learning in particular, the most important thing is “time on task” – playing your sport or doing your activity. If you’re doing something you find challenging, ideally with a little bit of guidance and feedback from someone more experienced than you are, you’ll almost certainly be getting better. Eventually, you’ll have to get smarter about how you do things if you want to carry on improving; but by that time you’ll also be in a better position to judge which “advanced” methods are worth your time, and which are just gimmicks.  

As well as making the most of each stage as it comes along, there’s something else to think about. Thinking about other things I do, one of the challenges when you eventually reach a plateau in your own training or learning can be staying motivated once you’re no longer seeing those frequent and obvious improvements. Mentoring someone who is at an earlier stage of the process has sometimes helped me to rekindle that passion. It’s win/win: they benefit from your experience, but helping someone else learn is a good way to remind yourself what you know – and you might find their enthusiasm contagious as you rediscover it through their eyes. 

Climbing in Portland

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