On learning curves

Cue: TV announcer voice.

Last week on Running the Slant, I had an Extremely Obvious Epiphany.

And then I said, “Crap. I’ve been doing this all wrong.”

I’ve been approaching this website as if it were my old one. I never start a post by asking, “What does this have to do with running the slant?” I almost always start by asking, “What is happening in life right now?” And there is a wide gap between those two questions. One leads to a specific niche. The other leads to a personal blog.

Asking “What is happening in life right now?” is how I ended up with a blog post that I didn’t even know was about running a slant. I was just venting my frustration with New Year’s whiplash. The slant part happened naturally.

I cried actual tears when I realized this. I felt like I failed my fresh start. My knee jerk reaction was to scrap everything and go back to my old website because clearly, I have no idea what I’m doing here.

This, obviously, was an overreaction based on my own fear. But it was also influenced by our culture’s assumption that as soon as you start doing a new thing, you should be a pro at it. Like merge lanes in Pennsylvania, there is no longer an on-ramp. This happens to new coaches in the NFL who lose their jobs after one or two less-than-successful seasons. It happens to start-ups that can’t immediately prove their worth to investors. And in smaller ways, it happens to us in everyday life whenever we start a new thing.

We have unprecedented access to resources of all kinds, so starting something new is deceptively simple. But I think we’ve forgotten that it’s not just about acquiring knowledge. Actually learning something new takes time, and time is not a reality we like to confront in an instant gratification culture.

January is peak season for this brand of crazy. It’s the time of year to start multiple new things—new year, new you!—and, as we know, this is a recipe for disaster. We’re a week into this thing and I would bet most of us have felt like we’ve already failed in some irreparable way.

We are not failing, you guys. We are learning.

This is probably the first and last time we’ll talk about anything resembling math here, but a learning curve isn’t just an idiom; it’s an actual graph with one axis for proficiency and one axis for time. The more time you put into something, the more proficient you’ll become.

I am not great at learning curves. I want the straight arrow of forward progress. This is why I—and maybe you, too—feel tempted to erase the graph and start over again anytime I fail. It’s how millions of diet plans trip up on Thursday and “restart” on Monday; how I’ve repeated the same three weeks of a 16-week running plan for well over a year; how I almost convinced myself to shelf this entire concept and go back to personal blogging.

We want to achieve without failing, to know without learning. But real life doesn’t work that way. There’s a learning curve.

Last week, I learned that there’s a better way to write here. Instead of writing in the familiar day-to-day way, I need to start each post by asking, “How am I running a slant right now?”

I can’t overstate just how obvious this change is. This is more basic than white girls and pumpkin spice. I want to say I have no idea how I missed it, but I have every idea how I missed it. I’m a beginner, and beginners make basic mistakes. It’s part of the learning curve. And embracing that curve—not ignoring it, not shaming it, not trying to avoid it—is a great way to make actual progress on any new thing, no matter what it is.

So here’s to not starting over. Here’s to the sometimes mystifying, sometimes embarrassing ups-and-downs of doing something new. Here’s to time, and to patience, and to grace.

New year, same us. Still learning.

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