You’re standing on the edge of a chasm, and you see someone waving to you from the other side. How did she get there? Did she leap, or is it too far? Did she bring a hang-glider and sail across it by air? Did she make the long trek down to the bottom and back up the other side? You want to make it across, but as you ponder how to do it, sometimes all you can see is a cliff.
We learn constantly. New hobbies, like playing the guitar, new routes to work, new ideas from books and other media. Most of it comes easily, but some things we learn are hard. Usually there is some component of being told what to do (the theoretical) and some component of doing, repeatedly, until we are competent at the skill ourselves (the practical). To learn a new route to work I look it up on Google maps (theoretical). Then I drive it (practical). I will screw it up a few times before it finally becomes ingrained in my mind. Then, I will take the new route without even thinking about it. I can even do it listening to the radio or talking on the phone.
When I was learning to fly, nothing confounded me quite like crosswind landings. A crosswind landing is a landing when the wind is blowing at an angle to the runway instead of straight down it. The idea (theoretical) is to fly the approach with the airplane pointed into the wind (crabbing) until you are just over the start of the runway. Then you remove the crab, point the nose of the plane straight, and drop the appropriate wing into the wind. (If the wind is coming from the left, you drop the left wing.) This bank angle prevents the wind from blowing you off course, but it also causes the plane to turn, so to counteract the turn you apply the rudder pedal in the opposite direction of the bank. (If the left wing is down, right rudder.) It is a dance that has to happen quickly, all the while maintaining alignment with the centerline of the runway and keeping up your airspeed so you don’t come crashing down.
That’s the theory. In practice my flight instructor couldn’t teach me this maneuver. We tried and tried, but I couldn’t coordinate all the variables. I was frustrated, he was frustrated, and there was no progress. With his honeymoon approaching, he handed me off to Lorne, another instructor. Lorne basically said nothing during the flights, except occasionally shouting out “short approach!” while killing the engine, forcing me to get the plane down on the runway as soon as possible. It was his idea of fun.
Lorne and I spent three days together, three days when, by chance, the winds were howling at San Carlos airport, and never straight down the runway. Lorne and I spent three days circling the airport, attempting crosswind landings, me failing, and Lorne saying nothing. Then, one day, I did it. I just did it. I don’t know why or how, but after that landing I was able to make the hairiest of crosswind landings without any problem. It just…clicked.
This is one approach to learning when you are stuck. Just try, try, and try some more until eventually it just…clicks. You may not know why or how, but if it clicks you can relax and never look back.
Unfortunately, sometimes it never works out. When studying for me CCIE Security exam a couple years ago, I had to memorize long configurations with 20 or 30 steps, and I had dozens of them to remember. I failed, terribly, the first time I attempted the exam. I couldn’t do the configs because I had been attempting to memorize them sequentially, and it was completely ineffective.
Between my first and second exams I almost gave up. But I had a flash of insight, and realized I was not remembering the information because I wasn’t learning it right. I went back to the configs and drew them out in flow-chart form, grouping related commands together in boxes and drawing arrows to show how the boxes related. My score jumped dramatically the second time, and the third time I passed the eight hour exam with two hours to spare. It wasn’t ever going to “click” for me in that case. It was simply a question of inventing a new perspective, of seeing the same material in a different way.
Look at this number: 147891125683. It has twelve digits. I just made it up. And then I memorized it, having looked at it only once. Try to memorize it yourself. How many tries does it take? In fact, I could memorize a fifty digit number seeing it only once.
The reason I can remember it is because I love to study memory techniques, and I know one for numbers. Assuming you don’t know the technique, you see a bunch of digits. But when I memorize the number, I see the following things around my old apartment building: Bunch of tires in the fountain, front door falls into a cave, doorman has a pot on his head, mailbox is full of down feathers, I smack the elevator button with a leash, elevator is full of foam. I’ll remember the number a few hours from now, even tomorrow morning. How does it work? Each digit is given a corresponding consonantal sound. So 1 is represented by a t or d, because they are similar in sound and each have a single downstroke, like the number one. The last letter in “fouR” is “R”, so four is represented by that sound. I then take two digits and connect the consonants with vowels. The first two digits, 14, end up as “tire”. (Or “door”, or “tear”, or whatever works.) Then I place that image in a pre-memorized list of places in my apartment. Done. You can find more on this particular technique here.
Some people consider this a cheap trick, but it’s not. I’m seeing exactly the same data as someone who is trying to memorize the raw numbers. I’m just seeing that same data in a different way, a way that happens to be far more memorable.
My point? If you’re trying to cross the chasm, you might make it across by trying to climb down and then back up, over and over, until you manage to do it. Or, if you look a few feet to the right, you might just see a bridge.