Start Small to Learn Big: Learning in Manageable Pieces

Not sure where to start learning? Start small. Over time, enough manageable chunks will take us farther than we ever thought possible. In anything.

You gotta start somewhere. The journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step. One day at a time. Put one foot in front of the other. Slow and steady wins the race.

Sticking your finger down your throat yet?

I know, I know. These old saws have been thrown around and placed on bumper stickers so often they sound like the kind of thing a waitress with a heart of gold or a self-styled religious guru would say. They’ve lost all meaning. (Kind of like the word “tartlets” in that episode of Friends where Jon Lovitz guest starred as a food critic.) But this is sad, because the message is a good one.

The takeaway from all of these somewhat tired adages is that we have to bite off – and devote time to – a manageable chunk if we want to make progress. And over time, enough manageable chunks will take us farther than we ever thought possible. In anything.

When starting to put together a 1000-piece puzzle, chances are you employ a strategy for making incremental progress. Maybe you find all the edge pieces. Or maybe you look for a part of the puzzle that has a notable color scheme. You don’t just try to blast through the entire puzzle all at once, randomly choosing pieces and trying to force them together. The more effective strategy is to break the task down into sections, enabling you to see where you can make small connections that lead to larger ones. Further, you aren’t likely to make straight-line progress. Instead, sometimes you’ll try a piece here and there, until you find where it fits. Other times, after some work, you’ll be able to put big chunks of the puzzle together; but then still other times you’ll struggle – and even fail – to fit one piece before you pack it in for the day.

Okay, I’m running the risk of becoming hackneyed myself. If you train Brazilian jiu-jitsu and have ever answered “EVERYTHING” to the question from your instructor of “What do you need to work on?” you probably know what I’m driving at with this analogy and these sayings. Claiming you need to work on everything results in you working on nothing. So, in anticipation of that question from your instructor, think about where you like to play from. Think about the difficulties you have when you play from there. Construct a list of 2-4 things you could work on, and then commit to working on them.

This means drilling. It means positional sparring. It means taking notes and refining details. It means the unglamorous side of BJJ – the repetition and the commitment of those reps to muscle memory. But it’s that unglamorous stuff that leads to the slo-mo Neo-in-the-Matrix dodging the bullets stuff – once in a great while – where in a rolling session or a tournament match you see your opening a mile away and seem to be unable to fail, no matter what you do. In those cases, the only thing missing is the sunglasses and the rad black trench coat – you look that badass.

If that’s not enough motivation to start small and work from there, I’ll leave you with another adage. I won’t say it’s hackneyed, because then the source’s ghost will come back and kick my ass. But just remember it was a wise man who said, “I fear not the man who has practiced 10,000 kicks once, but I fear the man who has practiced one kick 10,000 times.”

Thank you in advance, ghost of Bruce Lee, for not dropping me like a ton of bricks.

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