On Excursions and Distractions

One of the difficulties of learning any skill to mastery is learning to love the plateau. The plateau here is the reality that, as George Leonard points out, most of our time spent learning will largely be routine practice — not great leaps of progress in knowledge. Those who seek only the joy of acquiring a new skill will remain neophytes in a variety of subjects, and masters in none. Yet, as moderns, the conclusion of loving practice qua practice will take some getting use to, especially if the point is that you must practice ad infinitum.

So when one decides to embark on mastering a skill, presumably as all students at Launch School have decided, the continual grind of re-learning concepts, studying material, completing practice questions, and losing sleep over worrying about your next assessment eventually wares you down. This, I surmise, is part of the grander picture: what’s truly being broken down is our own penchant for constantly desiring the new. Yes, learning about Object Oriented Programming was likely a bit of a thrill at first, or at least a relief because we had been talking about ‘loops’, ‘methods’, ‘scoping rules’, ‘return values’, etc., since the orientation courses (don’t worry, they’ll all show up again). Even now, I can hear in my head: each returns the original object, map returns a new object with transformed values…

But after awhile, especially once you finish course 120 and make your way to take the assessment, all this new information about ‘self’ or ‘classes’ and ‘objects’, and those pesky ‘collaborator objects’ who seem to elude a concrete definition (personally, I say it’s anything assigned to an instance variable), will also become boring. You’ll pine for the days of talking about what ‘truthiness’ means, or the difference between a ‘while’ and an ‘until’ loop.

All of this is a long winded introduction to say that it’s okay to realize you’re frustrated and that sometimes you might need a break from the material. Many of us come from cultures where the slow, patient practice of Mastery-based Learning is counter not only to our own educational experiences, but to the culture at large. It’s unrealistic to expect us to be masters of mastery if we have only just been exposed to this line of thinking. It’s okay to take a break.

But we mustn't feed distraction.

Before I elaborate further I want to make a distinction between an excursion and a distraction. If we imagine the path of mastery as going up a giant hill or mountain, an excursion is a path that deviates from the trail — but only slightly. Perhaps it’s a more scenic route, or perhaps there is some kind of landmark, but it ultimately links back to the main path heading upwards. Excursions can be beneficial, they can help alleviate some of the tedium of walking on the same path for hours on end, but more importantly they help us on our journey upwards.

Another, albeit geekier, image would be that of a side quest. Within the context of a game, a side quest, as could be guessed, is an objective the player can complete if desired, but is not obligated to do so. However, side quests can sometimes yield experience or items which then help the player in completing the main quest.

Distractions, on the other hand, are of no benefit. To continue with our questing metaphor, many times games offer ‘mini-games’ that the player can spend time on. While these mini-games can sometimes be quite complex and thoroughly enjoyable, they usually don’t help the player come any closer to completing the main quest.

To translate all this: when we take a break from the curriculum, we should find activities that are excursions or side-quests, not distractions. I don’t think it would be hard for many of us to come up with a list of what our daily distractions are. However, sometimes the difference between the two can be hard to discern, and sometimes what starts as an excursion, ends as a distraction.

I’ll give a personal example: one of the things I did when I passed the 109 exam was work through Launch School’s Introduction to Regular Expressions. At the end of the book, Launch School recommends a variety of sources for further education, two of which I bought: Michael Fitzgerald’s Introducing Regular Expressions and Jeffrey E.F. Friedl’s Mastering Regular Expressions (personally, I think that once you finish Launch School’s book you can skip Fitzgerald and go right to Friedl, which thus far has been excellent). Since I try to study 8–9 hours a day, I allow myself an hour each day to take a break from the coursework and to work on regex since it’s a skill that I want to have in my toolbox in addition to everything else.

However, there have been times when I really did not feel like going back to the coursework, and the refreshing novelty of regex, or learning some basic PERL (as you do in Fredl’s book), could have easily gone from excursion to distraction. This mutation shouldn’t surprise anyone at Launch School; the instructor, Chris Lee, warns in some of the orientation videos of students disappearing for months to learn skills that they didn’t need at the time before returning to the curriculum. The time spent away was so long that their knowledge likely regressed, and in the end their excursions did far more harm than benefit.

We must always return to the path, to practice, to the plateau. For though excursions are welcome, they are not the path itself. Only by trekking up the path can we reach mastery, and somewhere along the way we’ll start to prefer the path itself.