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Setting Things Aside

Colin Wright
Colin Wright
Aspiring Generalist is an Understandary project.

Setting Things Aside
As I write this, I’ve recently dusted off a learning path (electronic music production) I’ve set aside twice already, but felt like revisiting—reattempting—again.
I’ve also set aside one thing I was learning (Mandarin) until I have a better next-step option available, and a previous educational endeavor (learning to identify every country in the world on a map) has been shifted from a weekly revisitation schedule to a monthly one.
There’s a common perception that when we set forth on an autodidactic journey we must either commit fully, 100% engaged and ready to remain so forever, or we dip our toes into the exploratory waters, find it not to be what we’d hoped, and walk away to pursue something else.
I would argue, however, we’re often best served by allowing ourselves more flexibility. It’s been my experience that learning often progresses more fluidly, enjoyably, and productively when we give ourselves permission to set things aside in various ways, for all sorts of durations, and for different purposes without losing (internal) face.
There are several reasons I personally set aside scholastic efforts before having achieved some type of mastery.
In the case of learning Mandarin, I cobbled together a collection of resources that helped me attain a foundation of fundamental knowledge, but in the process I learned enough to recognize I was almost completely lacking in the practical application of this knowledge: I now have a good sense of how the language works, can look at unfamiliar glyphs and generally figure out what they refer to and sometimes how they’ll be pronounced (based on the radicals from which they’re made), and I’m fairly confident I could pass the vocabulary section of HSK 1 (the first of multiple competency tests offered for Mandarin) without too much trouble.
But I’m certain my pronunciation needs work, and I have to think for a moment before I can both process what I’m hearing and come up with grammatically correct responses. And to flesh out that facet of my education, I’ll need to start speaking more and engaging with people using this language—something that will probably necessitate an in-person learning situation.
Thus, I’ve decided to set aside my daily Mandarin practice to make room for other things until that type of learning environment can be introduced into my routine.
From experience I know that when such an opportunity arises, I’ll need at least a few weeks to dust off what I know now—the knowledge I can currently casually deploy.
I also know there can be value in that dusting-off process.
I’ve twice attempted, and twice failed to maintain a steady habit around electronic music production (“electronic” referring to the technique rather than the genre: using Ableton and similar software to make music rather than just my voice and guitar), but this time around I’m feeling a lot more engaged in part because of what I learned through those prior attempts.
Some elements of what I need to know, especially the fundamentals of where everything is in the software, how the interface works, and how all these concepts fit together are well-tread territory at this point: I’ve been through this portion of the learning process before (twice).
Approaching those same concepts again, then, I’m benefitting from more “I just get this” moments, and that frees up the learning components of my brain to focus on previously unfilled gaps in my understanding, while also just enjoying the process and practice more because it doesn’t feel like such a slog.
Far from being admissions of failure or defeat, then, sometimes shelving things we pursue, for a time, can actually arm us so we’re better prepared for the next attempt.
We retain much (if not all) of what we learned from earlier efforts, and coming at these topics from a slightly (or dramatically) different angle the next time provides us with a rounder view of things. It also forces us to go over that old knowledge one more time, which is likewise beneficial.
There’s a spaced-repetition element to the dusting-off process, as well, which is a learning approach that tends to bear proficiency fruit even when other methods do not.
I’ve been increasing the gap between my self-testing of global nation knowledge for this exact reason. When I started learning to fill in a blank map with all the countries contained therein, I did it daily, sometimes several times a day, starting with individual continents before eventually doing the whole thing all at once.
After a few months of this, I did the map every other day, then once a week, then a few times a month.
At this point I’m at once a month and this information is fairly well embedded in my brain; the time between tests allows me to feel increasingly confident, but also locks in my understanding, as resurfacing such information repeatedly (and over time) encourages the brain to write it in increasingly permanent ink.
There are times when quitting is just quitting, and while sometimes that’s the best option, it’s important to develop the stubbornness and resiliency required for long-term learning if you want to go beyond the superficial and achieve more complete knowledge and know-how.
That said, sometimes deviating from these paths for a time can help us achieve that longer-term goal.
Setting things aside and eventually revisiting them can give us space to mull what we’ve previously learned, can help us reset and try again from a more favorable starting point, and can free up time and energy for other things until we’re where we need to be to progress further.
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Colin Wright
Colin Wright @colinismyname

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