So, I’d heard about Moonwalking with Einstein on an NPR interview and was intrigued. I didn’t buy it, though, until I decided to start memorizing poetry and realized how hard it was. I’d always thought of myself as a good memorizer, based on that one time I memorized The Cremation of Sam McGee in order to waste class time.

Since it was so hard, and I liked the idea of memory palaces and tricks to learn poetry, I thought that part of my bardic education should also be memorization training. I picked up a copy of the book.

Moonwalking with Einstein

The book is very readable and is more of a memoir of Foer’s memory training than a how-to guide. For my purposes, though, it was an excellent introduction. More than tips, it listed other books which I could get (isn’t it always that way with books) and I have the first one here. I’ll review it when I’m finished.

Something that really struck me in this book, however, was this passage that he wrote about a time when his performance seemed to be plateauing and he was given a reference to the research on typing speed, of all things, to inspire him:

In the 1960s, the psychologists Paul Fitts and Michael Posner attempted to answer this question by describing the three stages that anyone goes through when acquiring a new skill. During the first phase, known as the “cognitive stage,” you’re intellectualizing the task and discovering new strategies to accomplish it more proficiently. During the second “associative stage,” you’re concentrating less, making fewer major errors, and generally becoming more efficient. Finally you reach what Fitts called the “autonomous stage,” when you figure that you’ve gotten as good as you need to get at the task and you’re basically running on autopilot. During that autonomous stage, you lose conscious control over what you’re doing.

In other words, just doing something a lot won’t make you get better at it. A bit later, he writes  two paragraphs on what does make people continue to improve after they’ve hit the autonomous stage:

What separates experts from the rest of us is that they tend to engage in a very directed, highly focused routine, which Ericsson has labeled “deliberate practice.” Having studied the best of the best in many different fields, he has found that top achievers tend to follow the same general pattern of development. They develop strategies for consciously keeping out of the autonomous stage while they practice by doing three things: focusing on their technique, staying goal-oriented, and getting constant and immediate feedback on their performance. In other words, they force themselves to stay in the “cognitive phase.”

Amateur musicians, for example, are more likely to spend their practice time playing music, whereas pros are more likely to work through tedious exercises or focus on specific, difficult parts of pieces. The best ice skaters spend more of their practice time trying jumps that they land less often, while lesser skaters work more on jumps that they’ve already mastered. Deliberate practice, by it’s nature, must be hard.

None of that connects well to the ideas of memorization for me, yet. I’m still very much in the cognitive stage. However, when I read this, I felt like it was written specifically for me. (Or, rather, that it was placed in front of me for a reason.)

This seemed to be an answer to what I was looking for when I asked myself what I could focus on during the ‘inspiration’ part of a moon in so many parts of my life which seemed monotonous. Perhaps I’ll grow to hate the idea, but, right now, I like to think about setting ‘deliberate practice’ goals for the inspiration part of the moon.

Aside from the guitar, I’m not sure what they would be, but I like the idea that they exist.


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