“I was startled to learn that I didn’t have 20 years of experience. I had one year of experience repeated 20 times.”— Anonymous

When I first started playing the beautiful strategy game of go, otherwise known as baduk, I was encouraged to play many games very fast.  My mentors wanted me to finish whole games with other students in fifteen minutes.  This was a high contrast to the master players I watched who took fifteen minutes for just the first ten moves of their games.

Understanding the difference between those stages of learning is critical to “leveling up” your wisdom at any difficult skill.

The masters of the game encouraged me to play many games fast, not just so I would lose many games fast, although that was part of it!  What they were really doing was putting together rapid feedback loops so I would start to see which moves led to problems and which moves led to better outcomes.

Indeed, by playing many games quickly, I began to get better. Those games helped improve my play a little bit at a time.

True learning came after the games were played. The key was the Go-Master taught me how to review my games lost and won and learn from them.  It was then that I learned that the opening of my games had such flaws that even if it looked like I was significantly ahead of my opponent at the start, things fell apart in the endgame.  The flawed foundation collapsed.  

The rapid learning loops needed the addition of analysis and expert guidance.  With that, I rapidly improved my game.

Often the engineers I work with have had the first part of the learning equation. They have done many engineering projects.  However, they have not been trained in the skills of how to learn from their experiences.   For example, when I look at some experienced people’s programs, they look the same as a beginner’s program.  No matter how many programs they do, they are repeating the same experience over and over again. 

I have two suggestions for those looking to improve their skills.

  • First, start by looking at the endgame results of your project and consider the early stages.  How did the early stages contribute to the results?  If the project is late, look back at the planning and consider what could have been done better.  If the project has quality issues, what was lacking in the design?
  • Second, learning on your own is much slower than learning with someone who is a master at not just the game itself but the learning process.  Find a master who can not just review your work but review your process.

Doing these things will lead to the rapid improvement you seek.

Yours in the calm pursuit of excellence,

Alan Willett

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