Thursday, November 3, 2016

Incremental Gains

So the other day I was listening to an episode of the Freakonomics podcast called "In Praise of Incrementalism". It talks about how the gay rights movement followed the incrementalist approach in fighting for their cause to get to where they are now (in the US, at least) and how the journey of that movement may inform the #BlackLivesMatter movement of today's modern day US. It's a moving episode, and I highly recommend it if you're in the mood for listening to a podcast.

It made me think about the thing that has been occupying my mind as of late, which is an English Language workshop that I'll be conducting at the International Islamic University of Malaysia this weekend. I'll be handling two slots, which consist of a slot about grammar (snorefest, I know) and another on building confidence (in case you're wondering whether it's the act of making one's belief in their abilities better or the piece of infrastructure called "confidence", it's the former).

I have worries for both of them, as one would expect from anxious little me. I am struggling with finding a way to make a two-hour session on grammar un-boring. I've reached into my little bag of pedagogy and I have a few things prepared, but I'm not fully convinced if it's enough, and I am at a loss to find anything else to add to the session. I've never actually tried to teach young adults before, since the only teaching experience I have is in teaching people below 9, so it's a new kind of challenge to prepare lessons to people above 18. Not to say that I have no experience talking to such people. Indeed I have attended forums and events in which I have had to address young adults multiple times before, but never before have I ever had to talk to them about grammar, so we'll have to see how it goes.

The second slot is where incrementalism comes into the discussion. In building self-confidence, one needs practice. One is inclined to feel a lack of confidence when one feels that they lack ability in doing a certain thing. I would be very doubtful of my ability to play the piano because I know for a fact that I am very bad at it, and I know that I'm very bad at it because I've had very little practice with the instrument. I would, however, be more confident in playing the guitar, because I've been playing the instrument (on and off) for ten years now.

And in setting one's expectations in practice, one cannot expect to be able to play Beethoven after a day, or even a month, or even a year of practice. One needs an incrementalist mindset when thinking about playing a brand new instrument. So from 0% knowledge of the piano, work to get to 1%. Don't immediately set your sights on 100%. Yes, it's great to be ambitious about things, but in setting expectations for yourself in practice sessions, we need to take it one step at a time, increment by increment, from 1% to 2%, then to 3% and so on and so forth. Celebrate small wins, keep working to get just that little bit better, and before you know it you've reached great heights.

I am also reminded of the analogy of the ladder. One has to go up the ladder one step at a time. It may be slower, but it works, and ensures that the likelihood of one falling off the ladder altogether is minimised. So in climbing that ladder, one has to try one's best to focus on that next, immediate step above them and try to reach for that one and that one only at the time. Reach for the next one when you have already a firm grip on the step that you tried to grasp before it. Similarly, in anything that you're either trying to get better at, or in something that you want to achieve, at all points of the journey, one has to find out what the immediate next marginal but incremental step is and strive for it. It may not be glamorous, but it is the closest guarantee one has to making it work.

All this talk of incrementalism is directed at me too. I find that in the things that I want to achieve and be better at, I compare myself to people who are already great at the thing all the time. It's unhealthy in the sense that I feel down all the time and it demotivates me because I feel like that level in unattainable. I have to readjust my lens and set my focus on marginal incremental gains, as I have been saying in the past few paragraphs. That will help motivate me to get better because I will feel like those goals are a lot more achievable, thus motivating me to achieve those small steps going forward. As I've said so many times before on this blog, it won't be easy. But I guess it was never supposed to be.

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