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Baby Steps to Learning Something New

Image from: http://www.flickr.com/photos/nathaninsandiego/I had a really bad habit of trying to jump into the middle of something I didn't know very well, if at all, especially when it came to technology. I attribute it to my days of playing video games when you pulled the game out of the case, stuck it in, and then tried to figure out how everything worked. Yeah, there was an instruction manual, but who had time for it? This was reinforced by arcade games, especially the fighting games like Street Fighter II Champion Edition where there were no instructions other than then basics on how to punch, kick, jump, and block. But every character had special moves which made them more lethal. So before the days of widespread Internet access, we learned by trial and error. 

As I've gotten older, I've realized that this isn't such a great idea. Maybe it was working with high molar acids in chemistry lab, or maybe it was realizing how much time I wasted by fumbling around. In any case, I've learned that taking a more methodical approach is often the right way to go. Sure, I still jump into something with enthusiasm, but I do so knowing that I'm starting at the beginning of something, not the middle, and that I can formulate a plan to advance. In many cases I'm taking baby steps, like the baby flamingo to my right (my little girl loves flamingos, so you all get flamingos).

For instance, I want to learn how to play the penny whistle, like Sir James Galway does here. There is a process to learning a new musical instrument, even if you are already very familiar with another, like I am on flute. Playing a penny whistle is similar to playing the flute, but the embouchure is different. Also, the fingerings are not the same. So there's definitely a learning process. The first step is to learn the first few notes. Then one plays long tones of those notes. After that, one attacks a simple melody using those notes. And slowly but surely one increases the range of notes as well as the complexity of the music that is being played. It matters little that I have full range on the flute with the practiced capability of playing sixteenth and thirty-second notes. Sure, I can read the music readily for the penny whistle, but my fingers still have to practice to get used to where they need to be and how they need to flow to play the penny whistle properly. I must learn how to put the proper amount of air and form the proper embouchure to ensure each note is on pitch, not flat and certainly not sharp. And that takes time. That takes baby steps. I'm not going to sound like Galway overnight, nor am I going to play with the dexterity of this guy any time soon. Those are goals to reach for. I expect a lot of personal failure along the way.

But it all starts with baby steps. Anything worthwhile does. If there's something you want to learn or something you want to tackle, look at it objectively. Figure out what you can truly handle. Perhaps that means you'll have to take really small, even baby, steps. That's okay. The key is to steadily move forward. Make sure you've got down what it is you're learning before moving on. This is true whether you're learning how to swing a bat, play an instrument, learn query tuning, or become a great chef. Expect to fail, but don't let failure discourage you and certainly don't let it stop you. Rather, take the time to learn why you failed, what you didn't fail on, and how to avoid or overcome the failure on the next attempt. Maybe you took too big of a step. Or perhaps you just need to repeat whatever that step was until it becomes second nature. But keep taking steps forward.

K. Brian Kelley - Databases, Infrastructure, and Security

IT Security, MySQL, Perl, SQL Server, and Windows technologies.


Posted by Anonymous on 4 March 2010

Tuesday night I was having a conversation with my younger son, whom we call Turtle. It's a nickname

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