The astronaut attitude

Not everything has to be geared towards achieving a specific future purpose to be worthwhile.

Let me rephrase that:

Don’t try to live in the future. Appreciate the present.

My dad was a storyteller. He grew up on a farm in Saskatchewan, and he had a great fund of stories featuring hard work, honesty, thrift, and generosity. The theme, in addition to whatever specific value was being imparted, was that living by that value would pay off in the end. Hard work pays off in a satisfying career. My dad’s thrift as a child enabled him to lend his parents money when times were tight in the Depression. His honesty in remembering all winter that he had to repay a penny as soon as the roads cleared earned him a whole bag of penny candy from the surprised storekeeper. His mother’s generosity to a band of traveling Cree people was repaid with moccasins for him and his brother every year.

The corollary my subconscious pulled out of Dad’s stories was that you shouldn’t waste time on things that don’t have a purpose.

Or, as that annoying student used to say (there’s one in every class): will this be on the test?

This isn’t fair to my dad, who was great at having fun for the pure joy of it. But – you know how it is with your subconscious. It thinks what it thinks.

Work hard. Enjoy it.

In An Astronaut’s Guide to Life on Earth, Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield proposes a different approach to thinking about what you’re doing. An astronaut who gets all his or her job satisfaction from space flight is going to be a miserable astronaut, because space flight is such a small and uncertain part of the job. For one thing, there are years of training for one day of space flight. For another, many factors outside your control determine whether you’ll actually go to space. When the U.S. space shuttles were retired, astronauts who were too tall to fit in Russian ships had no chance of space flight. Congressional budgets, disaster investigations, illness, family events – all can mean you miss your window of opportunity.

Your sense of self worth, identity, and happiness can’t be tied up in an ultimate goal that might never happen. The training and everything else that goes into the job is hard, fun, and stretches your mind. Space flight is a bonus. You don’t determine whether you arrive at the desired professional destination, but you can determine your own attitude. Work hard and enjoy the process.

Chris Hadfield is the astronaut who recorded David Bowie’s Space Oddity IN SPACE, so it wasn’t a surprise to hear him talking about learning Rocket Man before he met Elton John, just in case. He pictured the most demanding challenge he could imagine – being asked to perform on stage with Elton John – then determined what he’d have to do to be ready to meet the challenge, then practiced until he was ready. It didn’t matter that he wasn’t actually asked to perform on stage. The important thing is that he was ready.

You might learn things you’ll never use, but it’s better to know them and not need to than the reverse. You’re getting ahead if you learn, even if you stay on the same rung of your career ladder. Learning is the point.

What does this mean for writers?

A writer’s chance of getting a book published and having it succeed with readers, like the astronaut’s chance of spaceflight, is affected by a whole range of things that aren’t in the writer’s control. Writing, studying the craft, writing, researching, writing, connecting with other writers, and writing (not to mention querying, networking, developing an author platform, etc.) are hard, fun, and stretch your mind. Don’t base your sense of self-worth and satisfaction on the end result. Challenge yourself, work hard, and enjoy the process!

Watch this!

After you read the book, check out this little video that sums it up nicely. I’m listening to the audio version of the book, which is especially wonderful because it’s narrated by Colonel Hadfield himself.



Forget to learn

Lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about learning. I’m studying banjo and fiction writing and Spanish at the moment. Sometimes things seem to be going well, other times, not so much. Thanks to the magic of the YouTube recommendations algorithm and the generosity of people in my FaceBook writing groups, I’ve found some terrific information recently that I think is going to be really helpful.

The Feynman approach

If you want to understand something, explain it simply.

You can do this in person, if you have someone handy, preferably a kid who will keep asking you “why?” I often discover how inadequate my own understanding is when I try to explain something to someone else. Of course, that can be embarrassing, and not everyone may want to listen to you flail around.

An easier approach is to explain it on paper. Here are the steps:

  1. Write the name of the thing you want to understand at the top
  2. Explain it in simple terms. Include examples and ways to use the iScreen Shot 2017-06-04 at 11.14.23 AMnformation.
  3. Identify problem areas where your explanation is weak or your understanding is shaky. Go back and learn more, then revise your explanation.
  4. Identify any technical terms or complexity, and try to simplify your explanation.

Here’s a post from Thomas Frank with more details, a video, and links.

And I recommend checking out Richard Feynman himself. He was a brilliant theoretical physicist and a great explainer.Here’s a website dedicated to him, and here’s one
of his books that even us non-physicists can enjoy.

Spaced repetition

To remember more, give your brain more time to consolidate the information, and give yourself a chance to forget a bit so when you come back to it, you’ll learn more and your recall will be strengthened. This is that “forget to learn” idea. The harder you have to work to retrieve the information, the better you’ll be able to remember it later. Two obvious ways to make retrieval harder are letting some time go by (giving time for interfering information to seep in) and focusing on something else (e.g., interleaving study topics, like ABCABC instead of AABBCC).

Thomas Frank recommends a flash card setup called the Leitner system with five boxes Screen Shot 2017-06-04 at 12.29.21 PMor piles:

  1. Review every day
  2. Review every other day
  3. Review weekly
  4. Review biweekly
  5. Review when you need it (i.e. before a test)

All the cards start out in box 1, and you move each card to the next box when you’ve mastered it. If a card’s in a higher box and you discover you don’t remember it, you move it back to box 1. Frank’s post lists several apps you can use for this. Duolingo, the language learning app I’m using to learn Spanish, seems to follow this principle.

Here’s Robert Bjork explaining the “new theory of disuse” which is behind this idea.


Practicing and engagement

Engagement is key to effective practice when learning a skill. You have to be there, focused on what you’re learning. This is going to be my challenge – I’ve gotten used to practicing banjo rolls and running through pieces I’m trying to memorize while watching Netflix, or even while reading (more difficult. Banjo picks get in the way of turning pages.)Screen Shot 2017-06-04 at 12.35.53 PM

Here’s what it takes:

  1. Focus when engaged in practice
  2. Minimize distractions
  3. Start slow, and increase speed later
  4. Practice repeatedly with frequent breaks
  5. Visualize the skill to reinforce practice

To reach a big goal, you have to really want it. You also need to be able to break it down into bite-sized pieces, and take pleasure in completing each piece.

This article, about a kid auditioning for Juilliard, explains this and more in a clear and entertaining way. I followed some of the links in the article, including this one, which includes a TedEd talk about how practice works, and this link to The Bulletproof Musician.

Do you have any tips on learning or resources you’ve found helpful? Please share in the comments below.



The great banjo quiz

Used to be, I was a little sponge. Tell me something and I’d remember it. Teach me to spell a word (we used the See It, Say It, Spell It method at Fairmeadow Elementary in Palo Alto) and I pretty much had it nailed. And it was fast and easy to retrieve, too.

Those days are gone. I don’t know if it’s the crowd of stuff in my brain, or maybe constant distractions interrupting the process of transitioning something into long term memory, or what. But nowadays, memorizing is a real challenge. And there’s a lot of memorization and retrieval involved in learning the banjo. Things like where all the A notes are or which string in a particular chord is the root note.

I wondered what other people have said about the best way to learn things.

The Knowledge of London

Anyone who wants to be a licensed cabbie in London has to take written and oral tests to prove they know 25,000 streets and 20,000 landmarks and points of interest, along with the shortest legal route for 320 sample runs and a quarter-mile circle at each end of the runs. It takes years to master the knowledge. For example, one native Londoner spent 5 years on it, and according to this National Geographic article, every day he would recite at least 30 of the 320 sample runs, working his way all the way up through the list and then starting over. “Knowledge boys and girls” – people who are learning The Knowledge – ride around London on scooters with maps attached, as shown in the introductory video on this official website.

Thankfully, I don’t have nearly as many things to memorize. How does this Herculean effort apply to playing the banjo?

  • Reciting and repetition – Daily review of the facts I’m trying to memorize, and going back over them later on, will help with retention and ability to retrieve the information.
  • Hands-on experience – Applying the facts in the real world of the physical banjo, like the Knowledge students on scooters, will make them more meaningful and useful.
  • Testing and retesting – Testing myself on paper and in person (trying to play a new piece from musical notation or guitar chords) will show what I still need to work on.


This Lifehacker article explains a bit about how the brain reacts to learning. You’re aiming to increase the number and strength of connections between neurons, and to build myelin that speeds up the signals. To achieve this:

  • Productive failure – Force yourself to learn without help (finally, my beloved trial and error approach is vindicated!). This is the principle followed by Project Euler (see this Atlantic article about it), which gives you progressively harder problems that you figure out how to solve using math and computer programming. Confusion and struggle help you learn better, because you’re doing more thinking, processing more deeply, and maybe invoking those emotions that make things stick. You end up remembering what you learned better, and being able to apply it more flexibly to new problems. On the banjo, I can apply this by figuring out a song on my own. Right now I’m learning The Sound of Silence from a guitar book, figuring out how to use the chords as a structure, find and play the notes, and add banjo type embellishments.
  • Distributed practice – This is that reciting and repetition idea from the cabbies. Spread it out over time, don’t try to cram it all into one concentrated session. Mix it up (this editorial explains it). For banjo, this means even if I feel like I know where all the D chords are and am working on the A notes, I should mix D chords into my practice sessions.
  • Sleep –  Solidify what you learn: have a nap after your practice, or practice right before bed. Here’s a very cool infographic about how to nap, if (like me) you aren’t naturally a napper.
  • Retrieval practice – Testing, in other words. If you practice retrieving information, it will be more accessible, and you can use it when you need it.

Deliberate practice

At first I thought this didn’t fit here – it seems more relevant to learning to play better than to memorizing facts. But experiential learning, where you learn by doing, through deliberate practice – applying your skills – connects what you’re learning to real world tasks and puts it in context, which forms bonds in your brain so you learn better.

I wrote about this idea in June 2016 (Practicing better). There’s lots more information out there, like this violinist’s article that is eerily precise in its description of how I’ve usually learned to play new songs (play it through to figure out the fingering and chords, maybe taking some notes, and then playing little chunks over and over and over till muscle memory takes over).

The violinist recommends:

  • Limit practice time so you can stay focused. Could be 10 minutes, could be 60.
  • Practice at your best times of day (Cal Newport says twice a day is best).
  • Use a notebook to plan practice, keep track of goals, and record discoveries.
  • Stop and think of other approaches when something isn’t working.
  • Use a problem-solving model to stay on task (define problem, analyze it, generate and test solutions, implement and monitor). It’s easy to slip back into rote mode.

The Piano Practice Assistant provides some concrete advice about this:

  • Use explicit, specific goals, like “play this passage without stumbling.”
  • Practice at a speed where you’re just barely not making mistakes.
  • Monitor with recordings to find ways to improve.

And finally, a USC study says to mix up your practice routine, so you’re solving the problem anew every time and thus processing it more deeply than if you just keep repeating the same movement. This also has the advantage of fighting boredom. Metro Music Makers suggests five things to do:

  • Branch out and try something new, like a different music genre.
  • Practice with a backing track to accompany you.
  • Learn a different instrument’s part.
  • Get out of your usual practice space.
  • Go back to the classics, the first things you learned, and try to improve.

Developing the ultimate quiz

I made myself a set of flash cards a while ago. Here’s what I covered:

  • Major chords. What notes are in them (1, 3, 5 based on the naming note’s scale), where the root note is, the distance between each shape as you go up the neck (3 frets from bar to F shape, 4 to D shape, and 5 back to the next bar shape), and then for each of the 8 major chords, where they are and which note is on which string for the first 3 inversions. An inversion is a fancy name for other versions of the same chord.
  • Minor chords. The same stuff, plus how you get from a major chord to a minor chord (you flatten the #3 note, which results in different shapes depending on what major chord shape you’re working with).
  • Scales. What notes are in the major (whole-whole-half-whole-whole-whole-half step) and minor (W-1/2-W-W-1/2-W-W) scales for the 8 named notes.
  • Seventh chords. Same stuff as for minor chords.

And then I made special flash cards for certain songs that had weird chords, like F# dim, and for certain practice routines, like 3-finger grabs up the neck of G-C-D or G-Em-C-D. I can think of other things I could make flash cards for, like picking patterns, musical notes, other types of chords, and little licks and embellishments.

Since I already have those cards, I’m going to use them, along with some of the principles summarized above, to develop the Great Banjo Quiz:

  • Schedule two daily 10-minute sessions for working on memorization
  • Divide the flash cards into groups
  • Study and quiz with one group at a time, and stick with that group until I seem to have it down. Read the cards, read them out loud, test by only looking at the cue side, and play the associated chord or whatever on the actual banjo.
  • Put the mastered cards into a separate deck. Shuffle the deck at the beginning of each session, and after every third card of the current group (the new stuff I haven’t nailed yet) pull a mastered card.
  • Log the daily plan, practice, and results. Modify the plan as needed. If it’s working, go ahead and make those other cards and work them into the plan.

How about you? Do you have any effective strategies for memorizing and retrieving? Please share them in the comments below.






I’m a fan of these

For everyone:

Barking Up the Wrong Tree –  Eric Barker’s weekly blog in which he concisely and entertainingly summarizes the research on some useful way you can make your life better. This week: motivating yourself to exercise, in one compelling introduction and 4 proven tips.

Study Hacks Blog – I just discovered this one via Eric Barker. Looks like great stuff on productivity. I used to be a huge fan of Merlin Mann’s 43 Folders site, in which he put David Allen’s Getting Things Done approach into action, but Mann has moved on to other things. It looks like this might replace that gap in my life.

99U – This is surprisingly good. It’s run by Behance, a company that makes fancy notebooks and such. The site has some really good articles focused on “creative professionals,” from doing better work to managing the business side better.

CollegeInfoGeek – This is designed for college students (obviously) but applies to anyone who’s trying to learn something new, remember things better, develop good habits, etc. I like his videos on the Feynman technique and spaced repetition.

For writers:

POV Your Novel – This is my real-life writing buddy Becki’s blog (formerly Novelarnia) and business website. Lots of good stuff for writers.

The Snowflake Method – How to plan and organize your novel. I’m using this approach with my current project. So far, so good.

Absolute Write – Loads of information for writers, including a resources section with links for agents, workshops, and writing organizations, plus a forums section.

NaNoWriMo – Of course. The official site of National Novel Writing Month. Then there’s Camp NaNoWriMo. Motivation, a blog with pep talks, forums. What more do you need?

Creative Writing Prompts – Just what it says it is. 346 ways to get your fingers moving.

Query Shark – Advice on how to write a successful query letter, and critiques of actual queries.

Gwen Hernandez’s site – Expert information on using Scrivener, from the author of Scrivener for Dummies.

For banjo players:

Banjo Hangout – Terrific forum with advice, instruction, and banjo tab sources.