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  • Writer's pictureDavid Knell

Get Your Face Wet

Updated: Dec 12, 2022

If you want to learn something—a topic, an instrument, a sport, a language—how do you start?

My answer is: get your face wet. 

The story goes that Michael Phelps, the great Olympian swimmer, didn't want to learn to swim when he was young because he didn't want to get his face wet. A wise swim instructor didn't throw him into the water as another might have done. Instead, she let him take his time, let him get used to the water, until he wasn't afraid to get his face wet. 

It can be tempting to dive headlong into a new venture, to make a large commitment up front, and if that's your speed, and you know it works for you, go for it. But for some of us, the initial excitement quickly turns into massive intimidation, and we soon slink away. 

Instead, try dabbling. Make no commitments. Buy no materials. Just try it. Take a small bite and see if you like it. 

When I became interested in Go, I read that once you have learned the three or four basic rules, you should play 100 games. You will likely lose most or all 100 games, but you will get a feel for the game and learn much intuitively. After that, I suppose, further study will have a more firm place to land than without this solid experience. I was fascinated by the advice; it has changed my perspective on learning a great deal. 

In his book The Art of Learning, Josh Waitzkin, the chess prodigy portrayed in "Searching for Bobby Fischer" and champion chess player and martial artist, calls this "investing in loss." When he was learning his first martial art, tai chi push hands, he was thrown to the ground dozens of times a night. He observed that those in his class who couldn't handle the embarrassment or hit to the ego that losing gave them stopped practicing with anyone better than them, and thus their growth was halted. Only those would made peace with losing over and over again gained the experience necessary to improve and, in Josh's case, become a world champion. 

Here are some ways to get your face wet:

Piano: Sit down and plunk at the keys. Play any two notes, and listen. Do they sound ill together? Try another pair. Which notes sound good together? Just play around for a while. If something sounds bad, it doesn't mean you are bad. You're just trying things and seeing what happens. 

Go/chess: Play 100 games. 

Language: Download Duolingo or another free language learning app and take some lessons. It's easy and fun! No need to actively try to memorize anything quite yet. Just relax, and you'll passively absorb and learn just as you did when you were a toddler. 

Topic: Read a few articles online. Watch some YouTube videos. No need to construct a learning plan. Just get an overview and follow your interests from there. 

Learning one of the most thrilling and satisfying experiences in life! Treat it like play and discovery, as if you are still a child, and it'll feel like play and discovery. 

Thanks for reading. 

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