DRMacIver's Notebook

Constraints on skill growth

Constraints on skill growth


Have you noticed how when you first start learning a skill, you rapidly get better at it? Then, after a while of that rapid growth, you start to plateau. You've seemingly picked all the low hanging fruit and are no longer improving. Why is that?

Well there probably isn't any one reason, and some of it is legitimately the low hanging fruit problem - some ways of getting better at a skill are easier than others, and once you've done all of those things you're left with the hard ones - but I'd like to suggest one reason that I think is underappreciated. It's because you've hit a constraint, and the skill you are practicing does not give you a good feedback loop for improving on that constraint.

The theory of constraints is a management philosophy thing. It is the very obvious common sense idea (which is to say that it's an idea that in the moment people find completely nonobvious and never think of): If something isn't where the bottleneck is, it doesn't matter how much better you make it. e.g.~it doesn't matter if you improve your widget production if the distribution system can't keep up with the new number of widgets.

This is true for skills too and ties in to a problem I talked about in Books by writers are the worst. If the quality of your written works is bottlenecked on communication skills, it doesn't matter how much you improve your writing skills your books are just not going to get much better.

Skills are generally improved by tight feedback loops, and often simply using the skill to achieve your goals is not a very tight feedback loop for the particular aspect of it you are constrained on, because there's so much else going on that it makes the feedback loop very slow.

To continue the writing example, say you want to improve your communication skills. You could write more books in order to practice that, but writing a book takes a very long time. You don't necessarily have that many books in you. You could instead practice these skills by writing essays, or even by having conversations with people on Twitter or in person.

This is the point I made in "why mathematics makes you better at programming": Different subjects and tasks give different feedback loops on different aspects of skill, so often the best way to get good at a skill is to practice a different but related skill.

Additionally, sometimes constraints are hidden from you. Often the constraint on a skill is anxiety management, or discomfort tolerance, or one of various other things that you don't even really think of as skills you can get better at. Sometimes the best way to unconstrain yourself are to go and do something completely different which force you to confront that.