The unossified mind

Why is everyone around me so definitive? So cast-iron certain. I guess it’s the human way, especially for the middle-aged, to assert: me, I know!

You don’t. I don’t. If our dominant story is “here’s how one does it,” we’ve lost our way, vanished into a retirement haze.

Notion for a novel

Does a notion get under your skin? I’d read Mantel’s 2 books, then watched the first episode of this Wolf Hall miniseries . . . too busy, fuggedabout it . . . But no, here’s the notion that compels: Cromwell is the moral f***ker, the frighteningly effective and frightening human operator who, underneath it all, retains a hidden code of morality. You all know someone like that. You want them on your side. I tell you, I’d love to write a novel featuring a “climate change Cromwell.” So onwards, let’s watch the remaining five episodes.

Decision time: 2017 Cycling Big Year

Let’s gamble on a big change, a Cycling Big Year. From January 1, 2017, until December 31, I shall:

  • Cycle each and every day
  • Commit five days of each week to at least one hour, plus two days at two hours minimum
  • Aim over the entire year to clock up 8,000 kms
  • Convert 45 weeks (i.e. 52 weeks less travel/hiking outages) into that 8,000 kms by roughly targeting 180 kms per week

A Hiking Big Year anytime soon?: Part 3

So the Tough Hikes Big Year is on the scrapheap. But I still plan to do something I call a Long Hikes Big Year. A calendar year that might involve four 800-km pilgrimage-style walks, each taking 5 to 7 weeks depending upon my daily commitment. The iconic one is, of course, the Camino de Santiago. Others might need to be constructed out of thin air.

If mountains no longer seem attractive, why do long trudges? Well, I believe I can ask my wife and others to join me for short stretches, so such walks need not be so lonely. Second, recent many-day hikes, such as the Coast to Coast, were both enjoyable and enriching. Finally, I reckon I can turn the notion of a pilgrimage into something that suits my hairshirt mentality better – maybe I can walk mornings and write novels in the afternoons. Wouldn’t that be interesting?

A Hiking Big Year anytime soon?: Part 2

A mainstay of my Big Decade was to be a year in which I tackle those daring, truly inspiring hikes, the ones most hikers quail from. You know them and I made a list of them, thinking to recklessly do one a month or one every two months or something like that. Here’s a version of the list (the list morphed, a hallucinatory dream): Grand Canyon, Tour du Mont Blanc, Corsica, Utah gorges, Western Arthur’s, etc., etc. Isn’t there some amazing scary one in Scandinavia? Shouldn’t I max out by interleaving other demanding journeys: the Overland, something in New Zealand, a remote stretch of the Australian Alps Walking Track?

A mainstay of planning for my sixties was to do the Tough Hikes Big Year (for that was what I dubbed it) sooner rather than later, “while the ankles and knees hold up.”

Well, five and a half weeks of less demanding, but rigorous enough, walking in the British summer and spring, left me with plenty of time for reflection, and the upshot of that reflection is surgery. I’m ditching Tough Hikes. Won’t do it, not me.

Why? A virtue of extended hiking is the quality thinking that emerges, and I realized that wrestling with pain up mountains appeals to me mainly for challenge value. The pain, you understand. Vistas and remote beauty can be rewards, but mostly it’s about testing oneself, and suddenly this held less relevance. Also, I don’t have a group of buddies into the adventurous walks. The most important factor occurred to me up on the North Yorkshire Moors: my beloved has no interest in TMB and the like, and I suddenly realized my chief joy in hiking is with her.

Excising a key year in my Big Decade is like taking a knife to my imagined hopes, so I’m grieving a little. But I’m sure this is the correct decision.

What does love of music mean?

I never bought a Beatles record. By the time I fell in love with rock music, at age 12, the period of this film was over. From then on their records became less poppy, deeper, and many of my friends loved them, and I loved some of their singles, but I never bought a record . . . Wanted to be a rebel, I guess. The new movie The Beatles: Eight Days a Week – The Touring Years is craftily constructed and very thought provoking, wheels-within-wheels kind of stuff.

Music hunting?

Just considering the option of making 2017 some kind of music Big Year gets my “hunting new music” juices going. Read this from a Spin review of Teens of Denial by Car Seat Headrest: ” . . . one of the most confident-sounding records ever made about depression, alcoholism, and self-defeat. The riffs scream out so jagged and unfiltered that you can feel the steel cutting into Toledo’s fingers . . .” I listen, I buy, and wow, this is the real deal. Raw and catchy and not by someone my age!

How to master a skill, courtesy of Anders Ericsson

The standout from my 2016 nonfiction reading will surely be Peak: Secrets from the New Science of Expertise, by Anders Ericsson (“the world’s reigning expert on expertise”) and Robert Pool (a science writer). Nine years in the making, oft cited in or popularised by other ‘how to” books, this is the real deal, a superbly written, logical book offering vital concepts.

I recall being very taken by a simplistic idea from Malcolm Gladwell’s 2008 bestseller Outliers: to master a skill, work on it for 10,000 hours. How exciting, eh? Pick a passion, throw energy at it for three hours a day, every day for ten years, and voila, you’re an expert. Well, Gladwell’s notion came from Ericsson’s research but Ericsson, in this book, goes out of his way to point out what Gladwell got wrong. Yes, much practice is essential, but it’s also about how you learn during practice. Time spent is necessary but not enough.

So let me sum up Peak (this is my reading, don’t blame me if you read something else into it). Other than skills affected by bald physical facts (small people won’t star in basketball, giants flounder at gymnastics), any skill can be mastered. Ericsson reveals at length that the idea of genetic disposition is nearly always a canard. Perfect musical pitch? Learn it. Chess grandmaster? Learn it. World-class swimmer? Learn it. The world is open to us.

How do you master a skill? Lots and lots of practice. Three levels of practice exist. Most people go for the first level, a kind of beginner’s practice where you take a few lessons, flail around and eventually achieve enough mastery to be able to “do it.” Most people stop there. Repeating a skill without systematically seeking improvement guarantees stagnation.

Second level – deliberate, focused practice. Both adjectives are important. Focused means intense – a focused practice session of more than an hour might be too tiring. Deliberate means aimed at precise improvements. Learning to play tennis and then imagining you can improve by playing in local competition is a mirage – you need to practise your volley, you need to improve your serve, and so on. Practice must be ambitious and meticulous. If you’re daydreaming during practice, it’s failing. To be frank, deliberate practice is harder work than most of us countenance. But deliberate practice works, step by step by step.

One of Ericsson’s most beguiling concepts is that the key to such deliberate practice is mental. You need to improve your “mental representation,” your mental map. Think, really think, conceptualise how to make that tiny improvement, how to get a bit faster, more precise, quicker of action or thought. Deliberate practice is Monty Python’s “my brain hurts.” Your nightly Sudoku, after your first month, is useless until you analyse why you’re failing four times a week, until you make incremental hard-to-make better decisions. Try, fuck it! Think!

Third level of practice towards mastery – this is Ericsson’s “gold standard,” and involves hiring a coach and pouring fanatical attention into every facet of your chosen skill-to-be. Not every skill is suited to the third level. Highly systematised skills, with well-developed training methods, can best use this approach. Ericsson’s examples: violin, chess, memory, swimming.

Peak offers no easy road to stardom, and I doubt anyone expects that from a book on expertise. But while the 10,000-hour idea, superficially enticing but quickly daunting (“ten years, you’re joking, right?”), offered little to “ordinary folks” such as myself, Ericsson’s work is intrinsically inspiring. For his notion of motivated and deliberate practice, his recipe that “it’s all in the mind,” can be used right now, to improve right now, to improve as much as you want, to reach any less-than-superstar level. Wanna get better? Work at practice, at thinking, at improving!

A mark of an important “how to” book is that executing the book’s “lessons” involves much subtlety. Ever since my read, I’ve had the feeling that I must read it again, to really understand what deliberate practice means. How do I know that I’m probably not ready to launch my new “hey, this is what Peak preaches” programs? Simple: all my current efforts at “bettering myself” are nothing like what Ericsson has discovered from his research, and I can’t imagine how to change my approaches. The journey begins with a reread . . .