Pete Huang

Intensity and consistency in learning new skills

Currently every two years, the World Chess Championship takes headlines in publications that definitely don’t care about chess the rest of the time, and for the last 4 iterations (2013, 2014, 2016, 2018), Magnus Carlsen has come out on top as victor.

In casual browsing, I found a 2013 Sports Illustrated article that nicely summarized two studies that decoded some of the most crucial essences of chess mastery.

First, Dutch psychologist Adriaan de Groot uncovered what appears today to be obvious: that experience matters.

[Dutch psychologist Adriaan de Groot] flashed the chessboards in front of the players for a matter of seconds and then asked them to reconstruct each scenario on a blank board. The differences that emerged, particularly between the two masters and the two nonmasters, were “so large and unambiguous that they hardly need further support,” De Groot wrote.

In four of the trials, the grandmaster re-created the entire board after viewing it for three seconds. The master was able to accomplish the same feat twice. Neither of the lesser players was able to reproduce any board with complete accuracy. Overall, the grandmaster and master accurately replaced more than 90% of the pieces in the trials, while the city champion managed around 70% and the club player only about 50%. In five seconds the grandmaster understood more of the game situation than the club player did in 15 minutes.

Three decades later, in the 1970s, American psychologists William Chase and Herbert Simon produced a twist that immediately more interesting. Instead of giving valid chessboards, Chase and Simon gave random arrangements:

They tested the players’ recall for chessboards that contained random arrangements of pieces that could never occur in a game. When the players were given five seconds to study the random assortments and then asked to re-create them, the recall advantages of the masters disappeared. Suddenly their memories were just like those of average players.

In order to explain what they saw, Chase and Simon proposed a “chunking theory” of expertise, a pivotal idea that helps explain what Starkes found in her work with field hockey and volleyball players. Chess masters and elite athletes alike “chunk” information on the board or the field. In other words, rather than grappling with a large number of individual pieces, experts unconsciously group information into a smaller number of meaningful chunks based on patterns they have seen before.

I found these incredibly interesting. I’m reminded of chunking and these models when I hear people with at least some depth in a field talk about their work - when dancers talk about “texture”, when traders can reel off the interdependencies across liquidity, price, and all these other concepts that I don’t know, when comedians talk about their sensibilities and constructions of something as seemingly simple as a joke.

It is that level of understanding, where we explore the nuances of these chunks rather than the individual motions that compose them, that makes things all the more interesting.

How does the average person learning a new skill get to that level as effectively as possible? Do people develop “chunks” through sheer quantity, through intense periods (almost as trauma burns experiences into your memory), or through prolonged consistency (implying that the deep mental structures take time to form, like a muscle)?

Quantity matters

I think what’s clear is that quantity matters. We’re innately excellent at pattern recognition and matching. To be good at something, we need lots of input. More data means stronger patterns, of course assuming that future iterations are roughly similar to previous data.

Art & Fear described this well with a story:

The ceramics teacher announced on opening day that he was dividing the class into two groups. All those on the left side of the studio, he said, would be graded solely on the quantity of work they produced, all those on the right solely on its quality. His procedure was simple: on the final day of class he would bring in his bathroom scales and weigh the work of the “quantity” group: fifty pound of pots rated an “A”, forty pounds a “B”, and so on. Those being graded on “quality”, however, needed to produce only one pot -albeit a perfect one - to get an “A”.

Well, came grading time and a curious fact emerged: the works of highest quality were all produced by the group being graded for quantity. It seems that while the “quantity” group was busily churning out piles of work - and learning from their mistakes - the “quality” group had sat theorizing about perfection, and in the end had little more to show for their efforts than grandiose theories and a pile of dead clay.

Of course, Malcolm Gladwell did us a tremendous favor in Outliers by marketing the 10,000 Hour Rule: 10,000 hours of practice to develop mastery in a field. It’s an easily understood idea applicable to all skills.

All Japanese All The Time (AJATT), a popular language learning blog initially centered around Japanese, described a method called 10,000 Sentences, where you focus on fully understanding 10,000 sentences in your target language after first acquiring those sentences in your daily practice: TV, books, articles, etc. This somewhat follows a similar idea proposed by Antimoon, a blog for English learners, who pegged the number at 10,000 words and phrases and a million sentences (though not necessarily unique sentences).

Intensity vs. consistency on the path to quantity

I wonder, though, what would be more important, if we were forced to choose: intensity or consistency?

The answer is definitely somewhere in the middle. There’s no way that I could learn French completely in a week by learning 1,400+ sentences a day (that’s a sentence a minute, assuming I never sleep). At the same time, learning 10,000 sentences over 30 years (less than a sentence a day) sounds like going nowhere fast.

But I think it’s fun to explore the examples where people have opted to focus on either intensity or consistency in their efforts to pick up a new skill.

First, intensity.

  • For a one-year period extending through most of 2017, Max Deutsch completed a project he called Month to Master. Each month, he selected a skill and an associated mastery level he’d want to get to within that month’s time. And he succeeded 11 times out of 12 (the 12th was to beat Magnus Carlsen at chess - only a little difficult if you ask me), particularly impressive since the challenges spanned creative output, content expertise, and physicality.

  • Take this Reddit post, where /u/T4NKie documented his journey from zero to C1 French in a year. As context, C1 is estimated by the Alliance Francaise to take about 810-950 hours to reach, and most online posts talk about C1 on the order of multiple years. T4NKie then says that replicating the intensity and method in Spanish has resulted in B1/B2 Spanish, which is 350-600 hours, in 4 months.

  • My own example with intensity involves my journey to learn to program. In 2013, I issued a challenge for myself: without ever taking a single formal class, could I, as a political science student at the time, learn enough in 8 months to compete with actual computer science students with 2 years of formal computer science education and get an internship as a software developer? Yes - I started from simple Ruby tutorials in April 2013 and had an offer in hand for Summer 2014 by December 2013.

  • NaNoWriMo stands for National Novel Writing Month. It’s held in November every year. Authors and aspirants alike write an entire 50,000-word manuscript in the month of November. That’s 1,667 words a day. Does it produce good work? Hell yes - New York Times Best Seller Water for Elephants spun out of NaNoWriMo.

But there are just as many stories about consistency in effort, if not more.

  • Karen Cheng learned to dance in a year, through a consistent routine of practicing every single day. To emphasize the point, she then started a now-defunct site called Give It 100, encouraging people to practice something for 100 days straight.

  • Though I have separate thoughts about his body of work, James Altucher recommends writing 10 ideas every single day as a way to build creativity, create luck, and find new opportunities. Similarly, as of writing, 432,000 people have joined 750 Words, a site that emphasizes writing 750 words every single day, with no social aspect, as a matter of building creativity and modes of expression.

  • The tech community has their analog: writing code every day. John Resig, creator of jQuery, a landmark Javascript library, wrote a blog post committing to writing code every day to continue work on his side projects. And then he did so for the next 3.5 years - every day from November 25th, 2013 through April 17th, 2017, he published some code to Github. Alright, well he missed December 11th, 2016, but I’m sure we can forgive him for that.

  • Jennifer Dewalt studied art at the University of Maryland and the Pratt Institute. Then, she quit her job and learned to code by creating 180 websites, from scratch and with associated blog posts, in 180 days. Today, she’s the technical founder of a company called Zube. This is certainly an exercise in both intensity and consistency.

I’m working on consistency over intensity

When I tried to learn French, I went to Lingvist and learned the first 2,000 words in about 2 months. But then I dropped it.

When I went on my first backpacking trip, I pushed hard on the first day: around 23 miles. But I lost morale quickly and bailed out sooner than expected.

When I read, I go on stretches of intense reading and focus, but only followed by longer stretches of slower pace and less energy around it.

I’m someone who loves having a goal and doing anything I can to chase after it. I love obsessing over it. Part of that is due to one of my personal mantras about self-discovery and trying new things (“If you’re going to flail, flail hard.”) that I’ll write about soon.

In the meantime, I’m working on emphasizing consistency in my life - to value the simple act of showing up today and tomorrow equally.