Tuesday, December 01, 2009

Thoughts on learning/improving skills

When I'm learning a new skill, I need a motivation to keep improving myself. Otherwise, I slip into my comfort zone after some time, and the skill improvement stops. I decided to give a thought to why this happens, and what can be done to remain motivated. More importantly, I thought about what I did to keep myself motivated in the past. Following is the output of the thought process:

  • Improving skills I'm already quite good at: Find a worthy competitor, whom you would be proud to defeat.

I'm an ardent fan of "Age of Empires" series of games, but had played only against computers for long. I considered myself an expert, and comfortably beat computers against heavy odds. Computer players only had hope against me in first 15 minutes, and not after that.

6 years back, when I started playing against online opponents, I started losing many games. Human players showed much more ingenuity, and many times broke into my defenses in pretty advance stages of game. But playing with better competitors took my game to another level, and within weeks, I was sort of reigning champion again :-). In our group of 10, only 1 was my match, and we always had to be in opposite teams (Usually, we played 3 vs 3 or 4 vs 4 games). The games went one sided whenever one of us wasn't playing. We usually started playing at 9-10 pm, and played till well after midnight, and sometimes even till morning.

This continued for few months and then 4 friends intimated that they won't be playing for 2-3 weeks. We didn't know what they were up to, but heard that they were 'training'. After 3 weeks, they said they wanted to play, and this time with both me, and the other strong player in same team. The game started, and our team knew something was different when all players of the other team chose archer civilizations. Our first attack was repelled too easily, and we were forced to go on defense. Maybe we were too surprised, or they were on a vengeance, but after 2 hours of struggle, we surrendered.

The next game saw us evenly pitted. We started on right side of map, and they on left side. We marched from right to upper left, and then from upper left to lower left, but were unable to halt their attacks from left to lower right corner of map. Within 2 hours, we were completely on left side of map, and they on right side. Finally, after another 2 hours or so, our perseverance paid off and we managed to win, but with our pride shattered. I too went on training, my game reached next higher level, and things were back to usual within weeks.

Moral: You need a benchmark to improve against.

  • Improving skills I'm bad at: Haarkar jeetna seekho
There's no pride to defend. So you need some other motivator.

When I want to improve a competitive skill, on which I'm bad, setting myself up against small material losses has proved to be big motivator. I was an acknowledged bad player at TT, and nothing could coax me to improve my game. Then one day, someone had the bright idea of making the losing team pay for evening snacks. Needless to say, this caused any good players to refuse to team up with me. So I had to team up with other bad players, and paid for snacks for few days. I'm not really sure how it happened, but suddenly I found the idea to my advantage. Every snack paid for after losing improved my game one little notch, and I was no longer considered a bad player only after 2-3 weeks. I'm only average now, but at least now people don't shy away from being my partners, and things like, "if you reach 10 points, you win", are the things of the past.

  • Improving non competitive skills:
Set tough, but achievable goals, and measure your success by how much you beat your target. Link the improvement in skill to achievement of some big goal. For example, when wanting to improve my 'Perl' language skills few years back, I decided to do next few small programs in Perl. Some weeks later, I embarked on the task of downloading, extracting and formatting data from a website for use in a project for my wife. After initial frustration of few hours, I found that perl was much more suited for such task than the traditional C++ or Java based programs.

The result: I did the task in less time than I had expected and also learned the Perl programming language.