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November 27th, 2020

It’s just like riding a bicycle, but why?  Some things certainly aren’t like riding a bicycle. Don’t solve a calculus problem for a decade and it’s not going to be suddenly obvious when one finally comes along (if it ever does). Most of the time, such experiences are more about a process of solution.  It’s not just how did I do this back then? It’s how did I figure this out back then?  Strangely, the process of discovery often provides a better way to wedge into the issue, perhaps because it’s a story and it simply has more potential points of memory when compared to the final conclusion.  Remember one aspect of learning the skill and adjacent realizations are close on both sides of the timeline, and then it becomes like knocking down old sticky dominos until we’ve got it figured out again.  But what about that bicycle?  Why does that stick with us?


There’s an eerie similarity between the phenomenon of beginner’s luck and the ability to get on a bicycle after years of no riding and pedal away without an issue.  If we don’t practice, how do we maintain the ability?  As with everything that involves the brain and our abilities, you either use it, or lose it.


The trick is that we are always practicing the key skill for riding a bike, but that practice is hidden.  Every day that we get up and walk or run or climb or jump or simply move the body successfully through space, we are exercising the  Vestibular system.  This is an ingenious little piece of the inner ear that looks like three rings glued together at the same point, but all turned at (roughly) right angles to one another.  Altogether they form a trimensional organ that registers movement and acceleration in the three spacial dimensions.  This is exactly what you need to stay balanced on a moving bike, and luckily, it’s getting it’s practice and exercise while doing anything else that requires balance.  


Beginner’s luck, or what we might think of as innate talent probably functions on a similar trick a lot of the time.  It should be little surprise when someone who is really good at water skiing finally tries the same on snow only to discovery they have a knack for it.  In other situations the connections might be more subtle.  Someone who spent a childhood playing chess might be able to do acrostics puzzles very quickly, Someone who spent a childhood playing with legos might have no problem fixing your espresso machine.  The pairs might not be explicitly connected but success in both relies on subtler skills, ones that we might not even have names for, or ones that are generalized that we don’t immediately think of as requisite skills, like dexterity or spatial rotation.


In essence we have trained our whole life to become exactly the person we find ourselves to be today.  It goes to wonder, will your training today contribute to a gift of ability for the person you’ll become tomorrow?

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Podcast Ep. 957: Hidden Practice

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