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Artists and Slugs. Typing too.

I am typing this very slowly, without looking at the keyboard (much). This may seem trivial to those of you that learned to touch-type young, but I have twenty years of bad habits to overcome: five published books and God knows how many thousand emails, all written by poke and pray. I got pretty quick with my bad habits. But a chance exchange on Facebook lead me to think that time spent now learning to type properly might be a good investment.

FBMartin

As you can see, Martin (a professional writer, swordsman, and long-time good friend) put me on to the BBC Schools typing course. And if you can see past the dancing hippos with questionable Middle Eastern accents, it is brilliant. The course starts at the very beginning, with the home row:

asdf jkl;

And adds one pair of keys at a time: first g and h; then r and u; building up over 12 levels until the whole keyboard is covered (sans the numbers, tabs etc.). Most importantly, every step is clearly taught, and every error is apparent but not dwelled on; you just can’t get to the celebratory turtle dance until the right keys have been hit. The way the authors have structured the course is an essay in perfect pedagogy. Every new level begins with revision of the previous material, and there is constant praise and encouragement. I applied the same sort of discipline that I use for learning other skills, such as, oh, I don’t know, swordfighting perhaps? and worked through the levels at my own pace, repeating most of them several times before moving on, and going back often to repeat previous ones. In under a week, I can find any key without looking, though my current pace is a dilatory 12 words per minute with a mere 97% accuracy rate.

It is costing me ALL my self-discipline not to switch back, as right now this is WAY slower, and VERY frustrating. But all the evidence suggests that in the end, this dip in speed will be as a run-up to hitherto undreamed heights of productivity, if I can just stick with it. (I just deleted a correct letter because I used the wrong finger to type it.)

This is of course an excellent analogue for the perils of too much freeplay or sparring, too early. One gets into terrible habits that, while they work for a while, set a lower cap on ultimate performance, and make it harder to attain deep competence because going back to basics and getting it right entails a temporary but frustrating drop in performance.

Mastery of any skill is largely a process of taking a rational construct, product of the slow conscious mind (Kahneman’s System 2), and installing it in the super-fast adaptive unconscious (Kahneman’s System 1). This inevitably leads to a period of adjustment, where the techniques and theories of the art in question get in the way of the artist’s natural expression. And this leads us to a moment of choice: do we truly believe in this art?

If we do, then we accept a short-term dip in ability for a hoped-for long-term increase in skill. If we do not, then we should maintain our current skills. The artist, one who follows the art, should find dips in performance heartening. They suggest an improvement is coming.

One of the pitfalls of evolution in nature is that once an organism is adapted for its niche, it cannot accept a dip in reproductive success for the sake of a long-term gain. Adaptations that convey disadvantage in the short term are ruthlessly selected against. So we have slugs, masters of their tiny leafy pinnacle, genetically oblivious to the possibilities of scaling further evolutionary heights. Only human beings, artists, can deliberately seek higher ground via a descent into an abyss.

So, in terms of your training, are you an artist or a slug?

I'm sure you have an opinion: do share!

6 Responses

  1. It took me about two months to truly get back up to speed when I switched over from four-finger typing to touch typing. It was painstaking at first but as time went by it got easier and easier. I’ve since far surpassed my earlier plateau.

    I was starting to get more comfortable with my fendente mandrito, but we discovered last training session that what the cut I was throwing was more of a bastard child of a proper mandrito and a mezzano. Trying to cut a proper fendente felt very awkward biomechanically, but I’ll gladly take that one step backwards to get two steps ahead further down the line.

    I am friends with a number of professional musicians, and they all share two things in their practice that they do differently compared to amateurs: they practice fundamentals rigorously every day, and they practice what is hard instead of playing the easy parts. The latter in particular is the pitfall amateur musicians such as myself tend to fall into: they practice the passages they find easy to play instead of drilling down and working very very hard on what is problematic. It seems there is an obvious parallel to fencing here as well.

  2. Reading back into your archive, this post struck a loud bell, as I’m currently switching from my quite fast 9 finger qwertz hover type to a 10 finger neo2 touch type. Neo is the german analogue to the english Colemak or Dvorak ergonomic keyboard layout. This metamorphosis is frustrating and sometimes hurts my brain a bit, but I’m having fun believing in the late term rewards and in the way there.

    How did your exercises pay off? It’s been 3.5 years since you started touch typing. Any advice for others taking this path?

    1. I’m delighted you liked it! Yes, I benefit from having mastered touch typing every single day, and I am sure that dvorak was well worth the extra hassle. My advice would be to apply proper practising principles to learning the skill, and to take your time. When the frustration mounts, doing pushups is better than punching the keyboard 🙂

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