The first step towards being an expert: Learn

Rain Man screen capture. © 1988 United Artists Pictures. Credit: © 1988 United Artists

When I was in third grade, I took about three months of piano lessons. I worked very hard, and made it through my entire beginner piano book in that amount time. My teacher and my mother were both very impressed.

Apparently they were so impressed that I stopped taking piano lessons. I don’t actually know why I didn’t continue with my piano teacher, but I suspect it had a lot to do with my family barely affording food some months. What I do know is that I couldn’t actually play much more than chopsticks.

I would watch every television show I stumbled upon that featured piano savants. I remember one story about a young man who had never played piano in his life. He heard piano music being played in his home one afternoon, sat down at the piano, and played the piece perfectly.

Every time I’d watch a documentary or fictional tale of someone sitting down and immediately being great at playing piano, I would be inspired. I’d sit down, think of the music I wanted to play and…

Chopsticks.

I should point out that while we didn’t hear terms like “autism” back then, when I replay most of these shows in my head, the savants demonstrated many characteristics of the autism spectrum. This was well before “Rain Man.” This was back when we just called people like this “retarded” and actually meant the same thing as “mentally challenged.” We just labeled their gifts as miracles.

August Rush photo: Southpaw Entertainment CJ Entertainment & Warner Bros. Pictures

It never made sense to me. Clearly the brain could just play piano, so why couldn’t mine? What was I doing wrong that I couldn’t just make my fingers play beautiful music?

It may seem trivial and obvious, but the reason was because I didn’t take the time to learn how to play the piano.

Savants aside, if we want to gain a skill, the first thing we have to do is learn. As simple and basic as this is, we ignore it all the time.

Do you want to ride a horse like a rodeo cowboy? Go get a horse and ride it.

Do you want to paint the next Van Gogh or Monet? Go buy some paint and a canvas.

Do you want to be a great manager at work? Go manage people.

No, no, and no. While a crash course in any of these things has merit and value, it is not the best way to do it. If you want to get good at anything, there are three things you should do at the very, very beginning.

  1. Find a reputable source of information.
  2. Find a way to get more reputable information.
  3. Find a way to keep getting more reputable information.

Even if you have natural talent for something, you need a way to get more knowledge about it if you want to improve beyond your natural abilities. Maybe you can hop on a horse’s back and hold on with out falling off. Congrats, but you’re still no rodeo cowboy. Also, we should probably congratulate the horse on his talent at being ridden.

Gaining knowledge should be your first step in learning any skill. Practice is good, knowledgeable practice is better.

I spent twenty-five years learning to play the piano by just…trying to do it sometimes. I got to the point where I was decent — I could read music, and even play some difficult pieces if I memorized both hands — but I never got to the point where I felt comfortable that I knew how to play.

I’ve now been taking piano lessons for two and a half years. In that time I’ve learned what the markings on the musical pages actually mean, what all the piano pedals are used for (well, maybe not the left one), and a treasure trove of other things about playing piano music that never occurred to me during my “practicing phase.” After two and a half years of learning while I practiced, I’ve progressed far beyond what “just practicing” got me.

If you want to gain expertise in something, finding ways to practice is great, but without a steady stream of knowledge to aid your skill building, you will end up wasting a lot of effort.

And let me tell you, the chopsticks equivalent of horseback riding ain’t pretty.