Friday, June 24, 2011

Getting unstuck: Part 1

Continuing to build on what we've already learned and accomplished (...and some of the underlying principles of hypnotherapy)

Threads:                        Context, Learning
Relevant recent posts:     2/14/2011     Unconscious Learning
                                     5/13/2011      A frame for how we learn
When he dropped the idea of fixing his own swing and decided to take on a new teacher, his third since turning professional in 1996, Tiger Woods warned everyone who would listen: There is no quick fix. That was last August, and he was telling the truth.
        — Larry Dorman, New York Times, 3/9/2011

 What if we don’t like something that we do on autopilot, like our golf stroke that hasn’t improved for years? Or some aspect of our behavior we don’t like but seem unable to change?

How do we open up old learnings that have been on autopilot, separate what’s useful from what is no longer useful, and continue to build on what we’ve already learned? This blog entry continues where the previous post left off (see “A frame for how we learn.” ).

Old frame: Galton’s wall—abilities are innate and limited
Many people thought that, for a given individual, there were upper bounds of innate ability. In the mid-1800s, Sir Francis Galton argued that a person could improve at mental and physical activities until he hit a wall, beyond which “he cannot by any education or exertion overpass” (Foer, 2011).

New frame: A lot of what we’ve learned functions on autopilot
Let’s cast this in terms of the frame we developed in the previous entry about how we learn, again, using typing: Once we learn typing “good enough”—given the circumstances in which we are learning it—our ability goes on autopilot. Once it goes on autopilot, learning stops and we can use our ability without having to think about it. In terms of our frame, Galton’s wall implies that once something goes on autopilot it stays unchanged and on autopilot forever. That turns out not to be the case. Here are several examples.

What’s on autopilot can be opened and learning can continue
Assume you type well enough for writing a blog and emailing. Now you are jazzed about starting a low-overhead business in which you transcribe recordings of business meetings. How do you boost your current 50 words per minute (wpm) with one or two errors to 120 wpm with less than one error? Are your typing skills forever locked to what’s already on autopilot?

Of course not. But you may have to start over in learning to use your fingers with the kind of efficiency, speed, and accuracy your new goal requires. Assuming you undertake this task (which may require the rigor of taking a formal typing course), once you learn it good enough for accomplishing what you want, it all goes on autopilot again.

Refining what has been good enough: Derek Jeter’s swing
Derek Jeter has been the shortstop for the New York Yankees since 1995. His production as a batter has made him the clear choice for lead-off hitter since 2009. He is 36, relatively old for the demands of the sport, and his reflexes are a hair slower than they used to be. The past several seasons he has not gotten the bat to the ball as quickly nor as accurately as he once did.

Before the beginning of the 2011 season, Jeter worked with a batting coach studying videos of his at-bats, deconstructing what had worked good enough on autopilot for so long. He learned that tightening his swing by changing his stance and eliminating a habitual lifting and lower of his left foot would give him an additional few hundredths of a second as the ball approaches.

When the season began, Jeter’s first 100 at-bats were the worst he’d had in years. He continued to make small adjustments which gradually integrated into his swing as his refined batting mechanics went on autopilot. Although it didn’t magically give him the reflexes of a younger man, he is hitting better than he did last year.

Getting better
An excerpt from Foer’s “Secrets of a Mind-Gamer” article from which I quoted in the previous blog entry:

Amateur musicians… tend to spend their practice time playing music, whereas pros tend to work through tedious exercises or focus on difficult parts of pieces. Similarly, the best ice skaters spend more of their practice time trying jumps that they land less often, while lesser skaters work more on jumps they’ve already mastered. In other words, regular practice simply isn’t enough…. To improve, we have to be constantly pushing ourselves beyond where we think our limits lie and then pay attention to how and why we fail.

Cycling in and out of autopilot: Tiger Woods
Three times throughout his career he has hired a different coach to rework and refine his swing. Each time, he and the coach together have deconstructed what had previously functioned on autopilot. In dissecting Tiger’s mechanics, they eliminated what had been constraining and made adjustments in support of improved performance. In the course of this process, he has gone through a period where his old stroke has been tampered with and no longer works well and he has not yet learned a new stroke well enough to rely on it. His game worsens. It gradually improves as the new learnings become integrated with what remains useful of the old—and once again his swing goes on autopilot.

Woods’ most recent hiring of a coach and his reworking of his stroke is occurring in the context of his recovery from the very public and messy separation from his wife and child; you can appreciate that he is rebuilding more than his golf swing (see Reference, below).

The process of refining and building on old learnings
The process of refining and building on what had previously functioned on autopilot, illustrated in the above three examples, can be described as follows (see Footnote, below):

1)  Establish the learning context: What change do we want? What is no longer good enough? What do we want better or in what circumstances do we want more options? (Using the vignette above about ballplayer Derek Jeter as an example, he wants to improve his batting average.)

2)  Deconstruct and study what we already do that we want to be different: Break it into parts, like taking apart an old mechanical clock that no longer keeps time, or an engine that won’t start. (With his coach, Jeter takes apart his swing.)

3)  Separate what’s useful from what’s not—and keep what’s useful: Letting go of what no longer supports the outcome you desire, what no longer fits you, what no longer works. (Jeter and coach make small adjustments and eliminate a small step he had always taken with his left foot.)

4)  Disorientation: This is not an action we take, but an experience we have as part of the learning process; what had been on autopilot no longer works, and we haven’t yet learned any new options. As a result we can feel disoriented as we begin to learn what we do not yet know that supports our desired outcome. (Jeter’s batting average tanks; the old no longer works, the new hasn’t ripened.)

5)  Integration of the old and the new. This is not a conscious action we take, but part of our learning process that takes place unconsciously. As we continue to build on what we had previously learned that supports our goals and interests, new learnings integrate with useful old learnings and gradually become available to us on autopilot. (In the course of more than 100 at-bats, Jeter’s batting improves as more of what is new goes on autopilot.)

6)  Ratification: The feedback by which we consciously acknowledge we are in the process of moving towards our desired outcome. (Jeter’s batting average is now better than in the past year.)
This is a process that involves opening an old learning that had previously functioned on autopilot and learning something new, and, like any other learning, it takes time… and it decidedly does not come about by trying to do more of what no longer works good enough. In other words, we continue to learn as we go, not go as we have learned.

This description is not meant to be rigid
The ordered sequence above—describing the process of refining and building on old learnings—is meant to get you in the ballpark of learning as we go. The actual experience is less orderly with many of the steps occurring in parallel or being iteratively cycled through any number of times. For instance, the learning context may become clearer as you deconstruct and separate out what’s useful from what’s not; disorientation and integration can take place simultaneously.

Another example: Learning to continue to learn on the guitar
A story that underlines the disorientation that often occurs in the wake of deconstructing what had been on autopilot: I was self-taught on the guitar. By the time I got to college I was gigging and backing up other performers on their gigs. I knew I didn’t really know what I was doing—I didn’t know the names of the notes, didn’t know any theory, and there were other guitarists whose playing sounded like magic—they must have four hands or something.

Feeling stuck: Finding a teacher to help me get unstuck
After college, I continued to play out, but I wasn’t getting any better and I didn’t know how to get better myself. I asked around and found a classical guitarist from England who lived within driving distance.

Deconstructing and separating what’s useful from what’s not
At our first meeting he interviewed me and watched me play. Then he asked me if I was interested in doing the work to learn how to use my hands to play anything I wanted to on the guitar. “Yes, I am.” In the next lesson, he changed the way I held the guitar, the way I held my hands, and how my fingers struck the strings. I couldn’t do anything. Nothing. Even in trying to hold the guitar in this new way it would start to slip out of my lap.

Disorientation: The old no longer works and the new isn’t in place
In subsequent lessons, he gave me exercises which I practiced 90 minutes every day. During lessons I spent fifteen minutes striking one string with the same finger, once per count of four: Bong-two-three-four, bong-two-three-four. He’d say either “yes” or “no” for whether or not it was a good strike. I couldn’t tell.

After a couple months I started to be able to tell. Six months into it, as he listened to me strike each string with each finger, I began to cry (I was 24 and felt ashamed, but couldn’t help it). I told him I couldn’t play anything I used to be able to play, and I couldn’t play anything new.

It wasn’t that my playing got worse; it completely fell apart. I didn’t know how to use my hands in a way that produced music. I was disoriented and felt hopeless.

He told me he knew that, and that gradually I would be able to play with a control and fluidity that would never have arisen out of my old way of playing. He said I’d already made a lot of progress and of course I’d just continue to build on what I’d already accomplished. I wanted to believe him, but it didn't match my experience over the past half year.

Integration and ratification 
He was right. In the years I studied with him and afterwards, as long as I played, I continued to improve.

The process of continual learning: Staying unstuck
He taught me how to keep learning. Another way of saying that: He taught me how to keep from settling into the good enough of going entirely on autopilot. For the 30 years I played out, I spent my practice time working through exercises and stuff I didn’t quite have the chops to play the way I heard it in my head. When I was in my practice room, my wife would ask me to shut the door… it wasn’t music coming out of that room, it was me stumbling around working on what I didn’t yet know how to do.

The structure of hypnotic engagement
It is no coincidence that the gist of the six point description, above—the process of refining and building on old learnings—also forms the guiding principles from which I structure a hypnotherapeutic interaction in order to engage the individual’s unconscious resources on behalf of learning something new.

I first encountered this process in the context of learning hypnotherapy (see Footnote). It applies equally well to conscious learnings (improving your golf swing) and unconscious learnings (previous learnings you weren’t aware of learning, like your relationship to food, or how you form and maintain relationships with others).

A discerning outside perspective is useful (and perhaps essential)
To get ourselves unstuck and out of autopilot, even for an easily identifiable skill such as typing, hitting a baseball or a golf ball, or playing guitar often benefits from discerning outside help—we are simply not aware of enough of the details of what we do, particularly when what we do is on autopilot. A good coach or teacher helps us deconstruct what we already do and separate out what’s useful and build on that.

Changing unconscious learnings
Similarly, when we undertake to change and refine an old unconscious learning—that has determined our behavioral, thinking, emotional, or physiological patterns—a good therapist, particularly a hypnotherapist (I’m biased about this), is often useful to have on your coaching staff.

In an entry soon to follow I’ll provide several examples of undertaking changing unconscious learnings. 

Dorman, Larry (2011). “Woods sees some progress, but others are looking for victories.” New York Times, 3/9/2011. (see complete article)

Foer, Joshua (2011). “Secrets of a Mind-Gamer,” The New York Times Magazine, 2/20/11. The New York Times, 620 Eighth Avenue, New York, NY 10018. p. 35 (see complete article)

Shpigel, Ben (2011). “To increase production, Jeter tries subtracting a step.” New York Times, 1/28/11. (see complete article)

Picture credit: Stuart Franklin / Getty Images: Tiger Woods and teacher Sean Foley

Paul Lounsbury & Nancy Winston developed a framing of hypnosis and hypnotic learning based on their experience as students of Milton Erickson. The six point description I use here is altered slightly from theirs so as to apply to learning circumstances (e.g., modifying a golf swing or revamping one's technique of playing a musical instrument) which don't obviously involve anything hypnotic. Paul and Nancy founded and have led The Advanced Training Group in Psychotherapy Cybernetics (of which I have been a member since 1997) using their framework for facilitating learning in the group and its members.

1 comment:

Spero said...

Very clear, John, and very relevant to my work. Thanks for sharing. I'm struck by how neat and tidy the steps come across for something like a golf swing, batting average, or learning a new way to play the guitar. While those examples seem a bit more straight forward than trying to manifest a new way of thinking or being, I really appreciate the fact that the steps are the same.

I don't suppose you have a specific set of skills I could do for 90 minutes a day to learn what I'm trying to learn? :)