Many years ago I read a science fiction story about a boy who was a prodigy on the piano. In this futuristic society, he was forbidden from listening to any of the old masters, like Bach or Mozart or Brahms or anyone else.
Why? Because his teachers wanted his gift to be pure; they didn’t want anyone to influence him. Eventually, he heard some Mozart, and as soon as he did, he was scared that he would be discovered, so he was careful to avoid playing anything that sounded like it might have been influenced by Mozart. But his teachers noticed, because gone from his repertoire was the fugue, and many touches that Mozart favored.
So what made me think of this? Last weekend (Late September 2015) I went to hear Dar Williams at the Lake Placid (NY) center for the arts. She is a wonderful comedian and folk artist, and comes across as a little ditzy but she said something really interesting: She had been influenced by Joni Mitchell, and as soon as she realized this influence, she destroyed all the cassettes she had of Joni.
And it got me to thinking…
I like to trade in the equities and futures markets, and I have been doing it for quite a while. When I was getting started in serious trading, I spoke with a friend of mine who has made his way very successfully trading on the Chicago Board of Trade, being a floor trader there. He told me that as much education as I might get, ultimately, before I would be truly successful, I would have my own style, perhaps incorporating some of the things I learned from other traders; but if I tried to just follow their rules and methods, I would not succeed. And indeed, this has been true for me.
There have been many books written about the stock market, and about how to succeed in almost any endeavor you can name, but most people who grab one of these books and follow exactly what the books say to do, do not succeed. Malcome Gladwell, in his book ‘The Tipping Point’, talks about his experience interviewing top tennis players. Asked to describe how they hit forehands, all of them talked about rolling the racket over the top of the ball to impart topspin. In high speed video taken of these same top players hitting forehand returns, not even one of them “rolled the racket” over the top of the ball.
I had a similar experience learning gymnastics. Most sensible people get involved in this sport when they are young, say, under 10 years old. But I waited until I was over 30, and it was a bit challenging. One of the early, simple tricks I wanted to learn is called a back extension roll. This is a trick where you do a back summersault, and when you are upside down, you press into a handstand. It really is not a hard trick, but I just couldn’t get it. My coaches, and other kids, (well I wasn’t really a kid at that point…) told me that it was timing, that it was just doing it at the right time, etc.
I had pretty much decided that at 6’2″ and not the strongest person on earth (though I was pretty darn strong then), that I just didn’t have what it took to do this trick. I would get upside down and press for all I was worth to try to get into a handstand, and it just didn’t work. I tried and tried, and tried some more, for weeks. Finally, I asked one of the coaches to do about 50 of them, right in front of me, so I could watch every nuance. He humored me. And… I saw something. What I saw was that his hands actually left the mat right before the handstand. I mean, they came came off the mat by 2-3 inches. And I know that, as strong as my coach was, there was no possible way that he was strong enough to do a handstand pushup with enough energy that he could throw himself all the way off the mat.
So I started looking a little closer, and I discovered what he was doing: He was using his legs. The trick had NOTHING to do with timing, nothing to do with pressing up with your arms or shoulders — not of that. It is a maneuver called a kip, where you shoot your legs out to get the energy needed to move the rest of your body. And as soon as I realized that, I could do the trick. Literally, in the instant that I realized what he was doing, I could do the trick.
What does this have to do with teaching? Even the best teachers and coaches may not be able to teach you want you need to know to succeed. They may not have any idea what they do to succeed themselves; they are capable of it, but will not be able to impart the information to you. Similarly, when I learned to trade futures, I could watch the teachers make many successful trades, but most of the time I could not make them. They cannot teach students beyond a certain level; and it probably is not the level where there can be any significant success. To reach that level, we must go out on our own, we must forget the influence of others in order to be truly successful. We can, and should, build on what they can teach; but we must also develop our own ways.
I think this is true in complex tasks; simpler tasks can be modeled, as we are taught in NLP. There are many studies of relatively simple tasks, such as shooting accurately or performing some particular physical skill well — we can find someone who does that well, and model it, and duplicate it. It will be very hard to equal or surpass them, though, unless we develop our own path.
And perhaps, if we could truly accurately model more complex behavior, then we could also perform that behavior. But it is well nigh impossible to model it if the people doing it don’t even know what they are doing.