The Difference Between Hard and Easy

Shortly after launching Nice Translator, I became friends with a teenage user from Greece. He emailed me to report a problem and we continued chatting after I found out he was interested in learning to program. One day, talking about HTML, I shared a thought I'd recently had about learning: something is only hard when you don't know how to do it. This may seem obvious, but I don't think we generally approach new skills with that in mind. My Greek friend would look at my programming and say "Wow, that's hard to do.", doubting whether he could do it himself. Although I once felt the same way as I pored over tangles of code, that generally isn't how I experience it these days. Programming poses challenging problems, but it's not hard for me to do. And in between those challenges, it's really pretty easy. We treat difficulty as a trait laden within a skill when it is actually a subjective perception.

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Hard, Challenging, Easy

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First, I think we need to get a few things straight because I can already hear your brain trying to convince you that hard and challenging are the same thing and that easy is completely different. But, I see them as three distinct feelings we encounter when we try to do something, so let me clarify the differences: Hard: "There are barriers ahead and I don't know how to scale them." - We say something is hard when we don't know how to do it and, on top of that, don't know how to figure out how to do it. Break dancing is something that I've thought about doing but never put much effort into. As a result, I don't even know where to begin. Watching someone break dance looks like sheer magic, I don't understand how it's possible. To me, it seems so hard. Challenging: "There are barriers ahead and I know I can bust through them." - To the break dancer, what they do takes a lot of physical and mental energy; they're pulling out moves they've never done before and they don't know if they're going to work. But it's challenging, not hard. They have strategy and technique, they understand how it should work. If it doesn't, they know how to figure out what went wrong and tweak from there. Easy: "There are no barriers." - But truthfully, when they're really in the groove and having the most fun - flipping and spinning and doing all the things that look so impressive to me - that's when it feels easiest to them. That's when there isn't much conscious thought at all and everything is just flowing, one move to the next. We all experience this in one activity or another.

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Language is an example that we can all relate to. Most of the time, speaking your native tongue is so easy, you don't even have to think about it. Despite the fact that speaking is an incredibly complex skill, words often just flow naturally with thoughts. But if you find yourself writing a poem, or a blog post like me right now, you will no doubt come to moments where those very same skills suddenly feel incredibly challenging. And, of course, when you try to understand or speak a language you have little experience with, that same skill feels unfathomably hard. I find it impossible to believe anyone can understand and speak Arabic. Yet, my dad and his family do, with ease. Difficulty varies by person and circumstance - it is not inherently stitched into anything we do.

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The reason all of this matters is because how we feel about something we want to learn is so closely linked to how well we learn it and, more importantly, if we do at all. When I first approached learning to read sheet music I saw it as a complex and traditional-but-unnecessary component to learning piano. It seemed hard so I pushed it as far away as I could and just watched tutorials on YouTube. A few months later, after wanting to play a song I couldn't find a video for, I came back to sheet music. This time I decided to perceive it differently and noticed that in many ways it's much easier than learning from a video:
  • I can go through at my own pace, note by note
  • I can clearly see the whole piece, getting a feel for its different sections and overall musical landscape
  • I can mark it with notes
  • And, hell, if I can read text,why wouldn't I be able to read music? It's not that different.
Our brains avoid learning the things we've hastily labeled 'hard' or 'impossible' - can you really blame them? When you, instead, notice what specifically the challenge is or what specifically the advantages are, you suddenly feel much more motivated to learn and in that excited state more of it sticks. No surprise, then: I learned to read sheet music and now it's just a tool to help me do what I want musically (and the more I use the tool, the better I get with it.)

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What Makes Something Easy

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Don't worry, I haven't gone off the deep end! I know there's more to learning than just mindset. It takes action, practice, execution. But how do we know which actions to take? How do we know what to focus on? If we can agree that difficulty is subjective, then what is the difference between us in the time that a skill goes from hard to easy? What changes? Once we understand that, we can focus more pointedly on those areas and not waste time, energy and morale spinning our wheels. Here's what I think it boils down to: 1. An understanding of a skill's components and how they interact. This is probably what most people consider learning to be. This is learning the names of notes on a musical staff , how they match on a keyboard and are grouped into scales. In programming, it's understanding functions, if statements, iterators and on and on. There are always more and more components of a skill to learn. This is often the point people get stuck and begin feeling overwhelmed by how complex a new skill is. To them, learning all the components feels like learning the skill itself, but it isn't and doesn't bring any real satisfaction. The components of a skill are merely one piece of picking it up, perhaps the least important one. This is because you only need to know a small subset of its components before you can actually begin to apply them and feel the thrill of doing. 2. An understanding of what's important. This is why it's so important to begin understanding what's important for a given skill. How few components do you need to actually start doing what you've imagined yourself doing? Generally, we are taught by others from simplest to most complex. The problem is that importance doesn't follow this same organization and we spend an enormous amount of time picking up superfluous knowledge we won't use anyway. The master has a vision that they're aiming for and has come to understand what is actually important to get there. As students, we can drastically reduce the time it takes to  learn something new by understanding precisely what we want and keeping our minds actively questioning whether what we're focusing on is actually important to get there. The result is that you really feel the impact of your practice because you're immediately applying it and momentum quickly builds. 3. A process for handling new problems. When we say that someone is experienced at something, what we're really referring to are the processes they have devised in previous attempts to handle difficult situations. These processes are most specifically the difference between hard and easy. They allow otherwise difficult tasks to be performed in the background so our brain can focus on new things, on creation. When my mom begins a new painting, she calls upon years of predefined methods for composing the piece, sketching the subjects, laying the foundation layers of paint and building up the layers of detail. It is not what she knows about painting that makes her an excellent painter and defines her style, it's the processes she's personally developed over her life time of artwork. And when she writes about these techniques on her blog, she  really has to think about what they are, because ordinarily she doesn't, she just paints. I tend to be better at learning on my own which is a disadvantage because having a good tutor is really about passing down processes. The advantage of learning alone, though, is that I've noticed the importance of owning your processes. They need to be personal, even if they were passed down. When you feel a technique is yours, you feel responsible to improve it over time. Scales were created by musicians trying to create a process for identifying notes that sound good together. Recipes are the shared processes of chefs everywhere. Reading and memorizing this knowledge, these components, provided by other creators is great, but realize that what made them so good at what they do was their willingness to cut themselves loose and own their techniques.

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What I hope to communicate in this piece is that, I don't care what anyone says, you can do whatever the hell you dream yourself doing. The only thing preventing you from doing it is that pesky feeling that it's hard.

But that feeling can be shaken, quickly, by having a clear understanding of what you want, identifying the most important components to getting there and then forging away with an active mentality that is constantly accumulating new and improved techniques.

If it's something meaningful and exciting enough to you that you're willing to take a crack at it with this mindset pretty much everyday, I have a ridiculous amount of confidence that you will be successful (keep us posted!).


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