Learning a New Skill by Giving Up on Speed and Perfection
Practicing imperfectly today instead of waiting to start perfectly tomorrow
There’s a big difference between the idea of learning something and the practice of doing it.
Many times I’ve thought of things I’d like to learn — speaking foreign languages, playing instruments. I told myself that when I was ready, I would find and plan the right steps. Then I would learn the skill completely. But I wouldn’t start until I knew what the proper steps were.
Thinking of it this way absolves me of doing anything today, because today I don’t know the perfect way. It always ends up being better to wait until tomorrow. Then months or years of tomorrows go by and I’m not any closer to my goal.
In practice, I’m seeing that learning can be a lot more piecemeal. It’s okay to just try something, imperfectly.
A year ago, in April 2020, I decided that I wanted to learn to play the ukulele. I bought a ukulele and several instructional books. I imagined practicing for a set amount of time each day, like I did when I was a kid learning to play the cello. Back then, I learned in a structured way, through taking classes and practicing each day, proceeding through music books on a set path.
I tried that disciplined approach with the ukulele. I worked with the book each day for a while, maybe a month. I learned some things, but slowly I stopped practicing because I missed one practice, then another, and then playing went on the list of things I was meaning to do. If I didn’t get a practice in I would wait for the next day until I had a perfect, uninterrupted time. Something would come up, and I’d wait for the next day. Then a few months went by and I hadn’t played at all. It became just another idea.
Finally, I decided to try again. I bought another ukulele, this time something smaller, less expensive, but more colorful and eye catching. I hoped that the way it looked and the novelty would make me want to pick it up. I started keeping it around the house out of its case, just ready to be played at any time. I made picking the ukulele up at all into a goal in itself.
Now I just pick it up and practice here and there. It ends up being almost every day, not because it’s on a to-do list, but just because I feel like it. Before work, at lunch, in the evenings for a few minutes. I practice a song or two and put it down. I think of a song I want to learn to play and look up the chords. I watch how-to videos on YouTube and play along. I think of techniques I want to hone, like strumming, and work on them a little each time. I refer to the books, but I’m not making myself work through them step by step.
Without any expectations on myself, I’m having more fun. The practice time isn’t perfectly structured, but I’m actually playing and learning. I’m not waiting for the perfect time to start — later/sometime/someday.
I’ve learned how to play several chords and a few songs. Every day I get a little better. If I had really concentrated, I probably could have learned faster. Should or could I be further along by now, a year after starting? Maybe. Probably. But I do know I’ve learned more than nothing, which is what I knew when I started.
Now that I’ve gotten this far, I’ve started to question what learning to play even means. Does it mean playing a few songs, many songs, reading ukulele music, learning finger picking techniques? I’m not sure.
When a discipline is open ended, the learning process never really stops. It’s just that — a process.
I’ll never step back and say, “Now I’ve learned how to play the ukulele. Now I’m done.” Hopefully I’ll just keep picking it up, here and there. Progressing, imperfectly.