Art by Misaki Kawai

When To Not Learn

There’s a unique moment in time right before learning something new, and I think we forget how unique it is until the moment has passed.

Let’s say, for example, you have no idea how to make an oil painting. This fact disappears the moment when someone tells you the “proper” way to choose a brush, mix colors, or make a stroke on canvas. After a single instruction, your understanding of the correct way to paint is forever biased. All future decisions you make when painting will be in context of that information you have received. And with the exception of damages to the brain, one cannot revert to their original state of “unknowing.”

Admittedly, anyone older than a toddler will have some amount of bias when trying something new. When learning how to paint, a scientist might be very methodical about choosing a brush. A chef may try to apply their knowledge of combining colors in food to mixing colors on their palette. A musician may make short rhythmic strokes on the canvas. But I think that’s the beautiful and advantageous thing about this moment of unknowing. It is a period of time when you can play, and play in a way that only you can, with your proclivities, quirks, and all.

This is probably your only advantage as a beginner. The masters have their years of experience and have accumulated a body of work. You have your unabashed ignorance. In this case, ignorance is bliss. If you don’t know what is right or wrong, you also don’t know the limitations and restrictions of the craft. You also don’t have a body of work, so you have no hint of your own limitations. You can only stare at the limitless possibilities. You can freely experiment with and fluidly assume different styles and identities with nothing to weigh you down.

I am a visual artist and computer programmer by training and profession, and I have recently tried learning how to make music with no prior experience. For as long as possible, I held out on learning about scales, chords, song structure, and form. I forbade myself from using software like GarageBand or Ableton Live. I was curious to see what music I would make using only the skills, proclivities, and artistic aesthetics I already have.

I have found the benefits of this approach are:

  1. It’s fun. It feels more like unrestricted play and experimentation than the demoralizing beginnings of learning a new craft. It removes the pressure of doing something the right or wrong way.
  2. No limits. Since you have no concept of the right or wrong way of doing something, you also have no understanding of the limitations of your skills or even the craft itself.
  3. Efficient and effective learning. Inevitably, you will hit roadblocks when experimenting with something new. Why isn’t this working? How do I do this particular thing? I believe this is the best time to learn because you simultaneous learn how to do something and why it was useful to know. You learn just enough for what you need at the right time. No abstract learning. No cruft.
  4. Cross-pollination. Your existing skills and propensities will heighten and become more apparent to you. I never knew how much computer science affected my way of thinking or doing things until I applied it to my art, vice-versa. Applying a set of skills or ways of thinking to a seemingly unrelated craft will push both to new levels.
  5. Discovery. It may be a long-shot, but you may stumble upon something nobody has thought to do before. At the very least, you will have established a foundation for your unique voice to build upon.
  6. Hunger for more. One of the biggest barriers to learning something new is being confronted with the sheer magnitude of all there is to learn and how long it may take to actually get “good” at it. If you think of it less as learning and more as playing, you would probably want to try more things without the pressure doing something right or getting good at it.

For me, the last point I learned will likely have the biggest impact on me. By turning ignorance from a handicap to a weapon, I have become anxious to attack almost anything—film, hardware, culinary arts, furniture design, you name it. Now if only I can figure out that part about having infinite time…