Most people thinking about making progress with skill building or knowledge acquisition probably expect to see a progressive arc of evolution that increasingly builds on previous knowledge or skills. I learn concept 1, then 2, then 3 etc. I am able to get to 3 because of the knowledge I gained in 2 which I got to because of knowledge gained in 1. When I don’t perceive this progressive arc to be happening—I am at 1 and don’t see that I am making progress to 2–my assumption is that I am stuck in place. This can often mean that I give up on whatever skill or knowledge I am trying to gain, certain that I am stuck in place and conclude that whatever I am trying to learn/do is just not for me.
I want to challenge this type of thinking that is dependent on the assumption that if I do not specifically and consciously perceive progress in skill development or knowledge acquisition, then I am stuck in place.
Arcing Towards a ‘Click’ Moment
I regularly visit a chiropractor and he has been training a colleague at his practice for the last several months. The kind of chiropractor I visit is one where the practitioner must diagnose the patient by first making subtle observations about the kind of musculature and breathing rhythms the patient is in that day and then making specific spinal adjustments based on those observations. It is clear that there are subtle and nuanced observations that must be made in order to diagnose and respond appropriately.
For the last few months, based on conversations that the trainer and trainee have had while treating me and other patients around me, it has been clear that the trainee was struggling to accurately assess the breathing and musculature rhythms. Many of the conversations were the same month over month as the trainee struggled to pick up on the rhythms. In talking with him a bit in the office, it did not appear that he had cognitive difficulties and he seemed to be a reasonably smart individual. Further internet research suggests accurately reading chiropractic rhythms is challenging and requires quite a bit of effort and training.
On one of my recent visits, it was clear something had changed. The trainee accurately diagnosed the rythms and spoke confidently about what he was seeing. It was as though something had just ‘clicked’ for him.
Invisible, but not Stagnant
So we think about skill building or knowledge acquisition as a visible, progressive arc. In reality, while this is often true, it is often analogous to the individual who is observing a construction crew digging, say, a five foot hole for a foundation pylon and pouring concrete into it. To the observer there is little, if anything visible above ground while in reality all progress is taking place out of sight.
Put another way, in our previous framework of normal progression from concept 1 to 2 to 3, when ‘stuck’, the individual may think themselves hopelessly stagnated at 1, unable to progress to 2. In reality, they may actually be progressing, unaware, from -3 to -2 to -1 (where negative numbers are those steps they are not aware they are progressing through), working towards and past 0, the defining line for when their progress ultimately becomes conscious, much like occurred for our trainee chiropractor who struggled, unaware he was making progress, until finally it just clicked.
Don’t Be Deterred—Progress is Sometimes Unseen
If all of the above is an accurate description of how progress sometimes occurs, I think the takeaways merit some discussion, but the one that seems immediately apparent is that lack of immediately apparent progress on skill building, knowledge acquisition, or perhaps most relevantly, complex system integration (such as a new MD who is trying to synthesize years of training into a cohesive system of practicing medicine, or someone who has started a new job and is struggling to wrap their mind around new processes, people and environment) –this lack of perceived progress should not be a deterrent to the participant because very often we are making progress in ways unseen and are within sight of the finish line where things just ‘click’.
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- About the Author
Nathan Safran is a former Analyst at Forrester Research where he covered the Digital Home. While at Forrester, Nathan authored research studies on trends, attitudes and behaviors of consumers toward technology adoption and use.
Nathan has been quoted as a subject matter expert in publications such as the Wall Street Journal, USA Today and Fortune magazine. Currently, Nathan heads the Research Department at Conductor, Inc an SEO Technology Platform firm.
Nathan writes at exceljockey.com about the intersection of Business, Technology and Psychology. See the About page for more info. Follow Nathan on Twitter: @Nathan_Safran