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Great Quotations and their explanations #10 “People seldom improve when they have no other model but themselves to copy.” Oliver Goldsmith

big fish little fish

Do you want to be a big fish in a small pond or a small fish in a big pond?  

The answer may depend on what you need out of life at the time when the question arises.  If you’d like to feel good about your status, bask in the glow of some admiration, win, be top dog, then the small pond is the place to be.  But if you want to grow, learn, develop, mature, you’re better off in the big pond.

Darn it!  That first list sounded so appealing but sadly it will hold you back.  Not everyone else, just you.  For anyone not as good as you – you little-pond-big-fish, you – they have someone to learn from (you), but what do you have?  Well, you do have something, but we’ll come back to that.

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Apart from the low-level glory of being the big fish in a small pond there is one other potential benefit, that being how it can propel you into the big pond. It’s a different route.  If you’re the best computer programmer in China (pop. 1,439,323,776) that might be a little different to being the best in Iceland (pop. 364,134), because statistically at least, there are 1,205 Chinese programmers at your level.  But… if there is some kind of international event where all the best programmers from around the world get to together, the specialist from Iceland might get the chance to attend whereas the handful of Chinese representatives is unlikely to include all of those lower down the programming ladder.  It’s like country singer Miranda Lambert says, “Everybody dies famous in a small town.”

By the way, it’s amusing that we have that figure for the Chinese population.  Assuming their census is 100% accurate, a 1% error would equal a difference of more than fourteen million people so it’s actually claiming to be 100.0000000% accurate.  Meanwhile there is an average of 36 births and 20 deaths every minute of every day in China so it’s a moving picture and if that number was ever accurate, it was certainly out of date within a second or so of being calculated.  

The first obvious learning point to consider then, is being amongst bigger fish will help you learn, because you are surrounded by people you can learn from.

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Human beings generally learn in spurts.  We get some more knowledge or skill and then spend some time plateauing and applying it.  After a while, we naturally acquire some more and then plateau again and we do this over and over.  Where do we get the learning?  Information is all around us so there’s never a shortage of sources, but if we focus on work for a moment, you’ll be attending training sessions of one sort or another, being sent information by your manager or your head office and you’ll have colleagues who know a bit more than you, or do things with a little more finesse and by being with them, you learn.

Watch and learn.  It’s more than a turn of phrase, it’s a process and the ingredients are:

An example from whom you can learn.  In academic circles we get used to reading about the masters of whatever discipline is occupying us, we would read what Shelley wrote, we can’t sit with him at his desk in Florence and eavesdrop his musings any more than we can get physics lessons from Isaac Newton at Cambridge University anymore.  Apparently he left some time ago and his answerphone makes no mention of a return date.  Now we collect their wisdom second-hand, by reading, watching video footage of more recent experts, listening to lecturers who pass on the master’s wisdom by performing the role of go-between.  We can also listen to audio books and throughout it all we can take notes, circle passage in books using highlighters in a bewildering a myriad of hues.  There are multiple sources of information and we just need to find the ways that suit us best.

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Curiosity or interest.  Or both.  You can learn things without paying attention.  There’s even some evidence to suggest people can learn while asleep, but the effects are a bit varied and the quantity of things ‘learned’ doesn’t really make it a prime channel of information-gathering – although I’m sure those people selling audio tapes of French dialogue buried in white noise to help you learn the language would disagree with me – but it stands to reason and there’s plenty of evidence to prove that being interested will help.  

This is why I have little patience with salespeople who do not know their product knowledge.  There are kids who know endless animal facts, some know all about cars, planes, dinosaurs or anything else that fascinates their amazing little minds, while people whose profession pays their bills sometimes come unstuck on basic information.  

Being interested in a topic helps you learn.  I mean properly interested, like if you were buying a car, you might end up knowing more about it than the salesperson selling it.  You might, and that salesperson is underdelivering, because he should still know more, it’s his product, his livelihood, “Oh forget it, if you can’t answer my questions send me a link to the website and I’ll talk to you about the money if and when that time comes.”  Because of that paradigm, many salespeople end up thinking the only thing the customer is interested in is the deal.  Why?  Because attempts to have conversations with the salesperson about heritage, values, qualities, design and development or small technological advancements often end up one-sided and the customer gives up asking.

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Abilities.  If you’re learning a physical skill your body and its history will play a big part here.  Many things can be acquired and developed, like dexterity, balance, speed, strength and flexibility, but there’s no doubt that the genetics you start with and how you’ve treated your body will be a factor in how far you can go – physically.  If you want play basketball, it helps to be tall and no amount of practicing tallness will really fix things.  If you want to run a marathon, you can, but to win one, you need a level of fitness that will be difficult to attain if you’ve damaged your lungs, or your heart, or your arteries, or if nature blessed you with Ronnie Corbett’s legs.  

The genetics we get given, but the rest is the result of the deals we strike with ourselves and our future when we live our chosen lifestyle.  

Choose typing instead of basketball and all you need are a number of fingers and thumbs, not even a full set and you can still get a good words-per-minute speed.  Want to fly a plane?  Go for it!  Douglas Bader re-learned after losing his legs.  Daniel Kish is blind but uses echo location in order to ride a bicycle.  He rides in traffic and turns street corners unaided by anything other than the clicking noise he makes with his tongue and his ability to interpret the sound as it bounces back to him from buildings and traffic.  Check him out on YouTube, it’s fascinating.  Helen Keller was blind and deaf but earned herself a Bachelor of Arts, became an author, a political activist and learned to talk so she could give lectures.  There are many more examples, and while they will always be a minority among billions, they are also proof that physical limitations need not be as limiting as that first reactive assessment suggests.  Sometimes it seems, people lack that little je ne sais quois to be something more than they already are.  And if someone with seemingly insurmountable barriers can do great things, what is your excuse? There but for me go I? (Quote #7).

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There are a few additional conditions which apply.  Age, weight, size, gender (because of its usual effects on size and weight, plus how male and female hips and shoulders are different), muscle mass and whether those muscles are ‘long’ or ‘short’, flexibility, strength and leverage, lung capacity, heart efficiency and other things we can certainly work on to change and improve, but which will be ultimately limited by how much we can do with what nature initially granted us.  

Then there are the mental aspects of physical skills like spatial intelligence which can affect our judgement about time and space (and therefore the speed of an approaching ball for instance), tenacity, resilience, courage and recovery rate.  Again, none fixed, but you soon recognise that what some people work for years to achieve, others seem to start with as a baseline.

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I like riding motorcycles and I like motorcycle racing as a sport.  A few decades ago, the limit to speed through a corner was adhesion.  The motorcycle leans and turns into the corner because the tyre grips and creates very high levels of friction while physical forces exerting on the mass of the bike try to push it straight on.  The more it leans the tighter (or faster) the motorcycle can corner but the greater level of friction is required to overcome the increasing shearing forces.  Lean too much (or go too fast) and friction is overcome by force and there’s a crash.  That’s no way to win a race.  But nor is going slower than the absolute maximum, because if you don’t find the limit, someone else will.  So, that particular ability to judge exactly how fast it is possible to corner without crashing would have been a key skill of a 1970s motorcycle racer and it would have more to do with feel through the seat of the pants than interpreting visual input.  There would be lots of other things too of course, including being brave enough to risk death or serious injury constantly and far more likely than for a car racing driver for instance.

Back in those former days of my favourite sport, for my heroes taking their machines to their limits lap after lap, finding that last degree of lean or that last mile per hour of speed meant risk and experimentation.  Consequently, among the hopefully infrequent crashes, every competitor had slides now and again, momentary losses of adhesion where a crash seemed imminent but somehow was avoided.  Luck maybe?  Not so much.  Lightning reactions to twitch their bodyweight and change the balance, lift the bike a degree or two, roll off a fraction of the power to put more weight on the stable front tyre and save the sliding rear, or a fraction more throttle to take weight off the sliding front and give it to the stable rear – intuitively rebalancing the bike.  Almost inevitably though, a rider saving a slide would lose forward momentum, so years ago slides cost racers places and wins.

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Then everything changed.  New tyre technology and the next generation of racers began to slide their bikes more.  Tyres no longer slid for a nanosecond then pitched the rider into the metal crash barriers, those days were mostly over, now they slid a bit, then a bit worse, then a bit worse, then…?  Who knows?  Maybe a bit worse or maybe you crashed having exceeded the limit of the slide.  Slides could still cost speed, but the fastest lap of a track now included almost constant sliding.  If the wheel isn’t spinning a bit out of a corner, you’re not giving it enough gas.  If the front wheel isn’t pawing the air while the bike is cranked over exiting the turn, again; you’re not giving it enough gas.  If the bike isn’t trying to backflip down the straight, with 260BHP powering 157kgs of machine and you controlling the wheelie with gentle pressure on the rear brake, guess what?  You’re not giving it enough gas (incidentally, that power to weight ratio is about 60% more than a Formula 1 car).  If the rear wheel isn’t lifting and wagging from side to side as you brake into the next bend, leaning in, front brake on hard until it starts to slide, rear landing and helping you steer, brakes off at the apex, gas on, rear sliding, front lifting and off you go again, well, you’re simply not braking hard enough.  The two wheels are almost never in line and rarely revolving at the same speed.  If the both wheels are on the tarmac it’s temporary and if one isn’t sliding, you’re going too slow and you will be passed.

Like anyone at the top of their game, winning races and championships, the best people have it down to a fine art.  I’ve been riding for 43 years and a handful of slides a lap are all I can cope with.  Meanwhile I help sponsor a fifteen-year-old female racer who after three years is already faster.  N-a-t-u-r-a-l- – -t-a-l-e-n-t.  It’s definitely a thing.  Learning to go faster? Also absolutely possible.

Just to close this loop, do the best racers know how to slide all the time like this without crashing?  Yes and no.  There’s still A LOT of crashing, but now they rely on protection from better riding gear and the bottomless budgets of their teams to fix and replace their damaged bikes.  In one weekend of racing, including practice and qualifying there can be a disturbing amount of crashes; 140 at Misano (Italy) a couple of seasons ago.  Even the best racers still crash.  British rider Cal Crutchlow finished 7th in a championship which included him personally crashing 26 times with repair bills ranging from €15,000 to €100,000 every time he fell off.

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Mental skills require only a brain and while younger ones are more ‘plastic’ and can develop areas for specific needs more readily, it’s something we can all do at any age, as long as our own brain remains healthy enough.

It’s an amazing bit of kit, ready to serve you, loyal to your commands, literal in its understanding of your wishes and working constantly to keep you alive and behaving in accordance with your deeper self-beliefs.  It’s those (largely sub-conscious) beliefs which help you continue to be good or bad at things like spelling, maths, remembering names and so much more.  So if someone says, “I’m a bit rubbish at spelling!” their mind will continue to support that contention and they are less likely to improve than if they say, “I’m getting a lot better at spelling.”  

Saying you are better is known as optimistic autosuggestion and its origins go back to the French psychologist and pharmacist Émile Coué and his “Tous les jours à tous points de vue je vais de mieux en mieux” (Every day in every way I am getting better and better).

A new belief, plus a wish or some desire, plus a process (which you get from the example from who you would learn a mental skill) and some practice and you can become good at the things you once thought you were bad at.

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Practice fires synapses and creates new pathways or opens-up pre-existing ones.  Consider adding up columns of numbers as an example.  If someone thinks they are bad at this kind of maths, they’ll find it hard, give up, make a few mistakes and discover they were right.  But working in a shop or bar a few decades ago would have forced them to keep at it, to go slow, check twice, memorise totals and gradually learn the relationships between numbers, how they take on patterns which repeat, how numbers are actually beautiful.  The jungle of synapses which before would fail to properly connect, slowly manage to do so, and pathways through the jungle become well-trodden trails, then roads, then great six-lane autobahns.  The synapses fire more readily when the pathway is frequently used.  You now know without hesitation that numbers ending in 6 and numbers ending in 7 make new numbers number ending in a 3, short-term storage of numbers improves and before you know it, adding up numbers becomes easy and with a shot of dopamine for a right answer, pleasurable too.  

Reading has to be learned but for you reading this, it’s difficult to remember what it was like before the jumble of letters took on recognisable shapes and started to make silent sounds in your head.  Now, with years of practice, the shapes on the page are understood and connected to the real-life thing they represent so quickly, the word chocolate (might be an Aero or a Flake!) can make your mouth water and that’s amazing.  It’s just a word!  It tastes of nothing.

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So imagine learning to read music (and my apologies to those who can do so because this example won’t be as useful for you), at first the crotchets and quavers are just more squiggles on a page, but eventually, you need to interpret sheet music – along with its words of instruction in Italian – instantly.  Only this way can you see entire sections and have your fingers automatically dance along keyboards, fretboards or any other part of your chosen instrument.  You get faster with repetition and practice.  Something alien becomes a permanent part of you.

This is where the idea practice makes perfect comes from and while it’s mostly true, it’s all too easy to draw a very incorrect inference from it.  People tend to assume that if they learn a thing and practice a lot, they won’t simply perfect that act, they will automatically be good at whatever the underlying skill is too, and that’s an entirely separate matter. 

You see, the phrase practice makes perfect is applied in circumstances where the practitioner could quite easily ignore the quality of the example from whom they are learning.  Because it’s possible to learn to do a thing badly, if you do just that and practice it, there’s a pretty good chance you’ll perfect the wrong way.  So it’s true, practice does make perfect, but what you’ve perfected is bad practice, not best practice!  To avoid misunderstandings the quote should be, Perfect Practice Makes Perfect Perfect and for that you need a good model to copy after.  The better the master, the better the lesson.  The better the student and the better the master and lesson the better the final outcome.

If what you want to learn has a demonstrable physical aspect, invest heavily in the input stage because it can be doubly hard to un-learn bad habits.

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Social skills are all those things we do with others, the engaging, listening, entertaining and informing, placating and hypnotising.  Learned and practiced through socialisation, but starting with the first hard-wired social skill we demonstrate as babies; building rapport.  This one allows us to fit right in with others around us, communicating that we are no threat, that we are not in competition, but rather that we are off their likeness.  We are alike.

Social skills are crucial and can be greatly enhanced or inhibited by aspects of a child’s formative years.  Later, we continue to develop via interactions with others through puberty and beyond but with a thousand obstacles and opportunities for humiliation, rejection, exclusion and schoolyard bullying, it is no wonder many reach adulthood having lost their infantile trust in others and eagerness to socialise in any and all settings.  Yet because these skills remain crucial for our adult lives, they are worth developing, perhaps for some; fixing and repairing, to get them to some sort of zenith. 

“People seldom improve….”  

Goldsmith is being suitably vague here.   You’ll note he’s not saying people never improve without a model to copy after, and I hope it stands to reason by now that if they copy the wrong model, they won’t improve either (might get worse!), so can people improve without a model?  

There are two opposing forces pulling at each other within us.  One is that we do have an inherent and underlying drive to succeed.  I say ‘we’ in the context of the displayed behaviour of most people most of the time.  So it’s entirely possible that Robinson Crusoe finding a trombone, but having never heard one nor seen one before, might still learn how to play it.  The experiment would get spoiled by its impurity – he has heard music and he will know some tunes and so these are the models he will apply to the unfamiliar instrument, but he might still manage to make it happen.  The other force is one which causes people to seek easier methods and which causes decay in many areas.  You can think of it as laziness if you like, but unless rigor is introduced, most people will do a little less and see what happens.  If the results are acceptable, they become the new norm.  Sadly, acceptable can mean not-as-good-as-last-time-but-it’ll-do and so without a compelling need to improve or a system of monitoring and measurement creating some sort of discipline, many people in many circumstances will let whatever it is gradually slide.

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Without some motivation or personal tenacity, the search for an easier life can equate to laziness and the skill decays.  You might not ever forget how to ride a bike, but without practice, other skills fall away.  Which skills haven’t you been practicing much these last few years?  Are there things you used to be good at but which you would now need time to polish up again?  It’s a common thing for most people but notice how it doesn’t fit, “Every day in every way I am getting better and better.”  In some ways we are allowing ourselves to gradually get worse.

There are two things to think about here.  One is that at some point you were improving and then slowed down, stopped or gave up entirely.  That happens.  The second is that without the activity, the skill can fall away, not vanish, just become less finessed.  So if you were reading this and thinking quite simply that practicing a skill creates improvement, you now need to add an element of maintaining it too.

Improving with a good model to copy after is such a shortcut, trying to do so without one, or with a poor model is plainly and dramatically inferior – don’t.  Unless you have no option.

Hang out with big fish as much as you can.

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Every athlete, team player, competitor, amateur or professional knows what it’s like to come up against super-talented opposition.  The likelihood is you get beaten by them, but that’s not the issue here.  It’s the common consequence of some small village cricket team playing a much, much better team and although they get severely beaten, two things are notable:  One is that the inferior team players all agree it was an amazing experience to play against the much better ones and the other is that they typically play much better than usual.  

They lost, but they played better than ever before.  They raised their game.  It’s not Hollywood so they didn’t beat the champions by one point/run/second/goal, but they miraculously played better than ever before and while also rubbing shoulders with such impressive talent, that felt great.

You see, the common experience here includes rapidly improving with one or more good models to copy after.  It can just happen.  This I found to my own advantage many years ago in that motorcycle racing phase.  Andy, a quick rider and my mentor at the time, took me to a circuit for practice ahead of a forthcoming event there.  While he lapped, I operated the stopwatch and recorded his times:  Quick and getting quicker.  While I lapped he did the same for me; not quick enough and not getting quicker.  “Try harder!” I did and went slower.  “Go faster!” I did not.  His turn next, a fraction faster until the limits of adhesion were overtaken by shear force and he crashed – ouch.  I ended the day with a lap-time that would put me midfield.  Not good enough, but I had no idea where to find the extra speed to knock off the two seconds a lap that would make all the difference.  I had tried hard and gone as fast as I could, all to no avail.

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That is until the event itself.  During the actual officially timed practice session, haring round with the other competitors in an attempt to get a good grid position, I lapped sufficiently quicker to shave off the extra couple of seconds.  Trying harder and thinking that I must go faster achieved nothing under those circumstances.  Following faster people was all that was needed.  That was news to both of us back then whereas in these more enlightened times, it’s simply obvious.

Modelling is the term used for closely copying another person’s behaviours in order to accelerate the process of improving at a discipline.  Johnny Weissmuller was born in Europe but swam for the United States in several Olympics.  He won five gold medals and fifty-two US national championships and set sixty-seven world records.  He was a faaaaaaast swimmer!  He’s often better known for playing Tarzan in twelve movies between 1932 and 1948 so if you’ve seen a black & white Tarzan movie, you’ve probably seen Johnny Weissmuller.

After Weissmuller’s five Olympic golds, Mark Spitz won nine between 1968 and 1972 and Michael Phelps won er… twenty-three between 2004 and 2016.  Twenty-three?  What’s going on?  I’ll tell you what’s going on; it’s modelling. 

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First, someone figured out that videoing a winner and closely watching his (or her) technique might be useful.  It turns out it was.  How about their training regime?  Yes, useful.  How about their diet?  Yes.  Sleep pattern?  Check.   Thoughts which focus the mind on victory prior to diving in at the crack of the starting pistol?  Absolutely check.  These days everything becomes part of the regime down to the last little detail.  To swim like Johnny Weissmuller, Mark Spitz or Michael Phelps, first start with the right basic body-building-blocks, then absolutely maximise its swimming potential through a micro-managed process of modelling success.  We’ve mechanized it and while it might take a little random romance out of entering the Olympics for the hell of it and because you did quite well at school sports day, it is the best way of exposing yourself to the risk if success.  

This modelling process is how you can still hang out with winners when they aren’t physically present.

In Quote 5, Von Clausewitz’s, “What genius does is the best rule and theory can do no better than explain why and how this ought to be the case,” I referred to those father-son F1 dynasties like Graham and Damon Hill.  It might be assumed that wealth and opportunity would make it possible for Damon to follow his father’s footsteps to world glory, but the bigger factor here is years of modelling.  Damon would learn to drive by modelling his father from the child seat in the back of the family car.  Posture, head carriage, breathing, attention, reaction and response to hazards all absorbed from an early age and replicated at the first opportunity.  Damon would start driving after years of first-person masterclasses from an F1 champion.

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It seems we need to fill our lives with Johnny Weissmuller, Venus Williams, Tiger Woods, Einstein, Shakespeare, Lionel Messi, Jessica Ennis, Malala Yousafzai, Isaac Newton and Mahatma Gandhi.  Well, yes and no.  We are sort-of doing that here with the collected wisdom of all these quotes, but there’s something else to keep in mind which I promised to return to from the end of the second paragraph.  That is EVERYONE has something you can learn.  No matter who they are, what age they are, what experience they have, how good or otherwise they are in other ways, you can learn something from themOpen yourself, dispense with your ego and learn from the best, because they are already the best at something when compared to your immediate colleagues.  What they possess to a high level may be a small thing but we are all a combination of many, many microskills, all of which contribute to the whole.  They are a living lesson from which you can learn something useful.  So if Einstein doesn’t show up today, it’s okay, you still have everyone else.  Don’t miss out, every day is a school day and apparently, those are the best days of our lives so make every day the best day.