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Don't forget square one...


"When you're done with square one, pick it up and take it with you."
Horse trainer Linda Parelli says that, and her take on amateurs-vs.-experts is that the amateurs forget the fundamentals. Her husband Pat, founder of Parelli Natural Horsemanship (the most successful example of passionate users I've ever seen), says the same thing. (In the Parelli training system, the fundamentals are called the Seven Games.)

My trainer Darren went to an expert-level workshop with Pat and a dozen other top horsemen. Pat asked each in turn what they were hoping to improve on. Each one gave an elaborate description of some very advanced, elite thing they were struggling with. Pat listened intently and when they had all finished, he shrugged and said to all of them, "Get your games better."

The problem the Parelli's see in those trying to transition from skilled amateur to expert virtually always comes down to something from the fundamentals that they either never quite mastered, or that they forgot over time. So, perhaps that's one more thing the superior performers do better than the rest of us--they keep practicing the fundamentals. This fits with the notion that experts practice things that aren't necessarily fun, which can include both the things they still don't do well, AND the non-exciting basics.

Bert Bates (my co-author) is a blackbelt level go player, one of the best amateur players in the state. But when a visiting expert--four belt levels above Bert--showed up at the local go tournament, Bert was surprised to see the guy reading a book on fundamental go problems that Bert had read much earlier in his learning. The expert said, "I must have read this at least a hundred times. My goal each time is to see how much more quickly I can solve all the problems in the book than I did the last time."

Some of the best athletes never forget the fundamentals--whether it's Tiger Woods practicing the basics, or a pro basketball player working on free throws. A good musician might still practice arpeggios. A programmer might... I don't know, actually. What would be the fundamentals that a good programmer might forget? I'll have to think about that one.

But the Parelli's have another piece of advice that I think is equally important--that you shouldn't get stuck trying to perfect the fundamentals before moving on. There's a girl at my barn who has been taking dressage lessons on and off for the last ten years. Both her and her horse are bored out of their minds because the trainer won't let them progress to anything interesting until they are virtually perfect on the basics. The Parelli approach is, "Keep moving forward, because you'll gain new tools that you can use to go back and perfect the fundamentals." But this is where the "don't forget square one" message comes in--the problem is with the people who do NOT use their new "superpowers" to fix what might be lacking in the basics.

I've been struggling with the same thing in skiing. I've been an intermediate/advanced skier for frickin' ever. I have a ton of fun, I can waltz down the steepest blues and the occasional light black. But... there has always been a flaw in my basic form/technique that has slammed me into a brick wall. The only way I can ever go further is by going back to correct and redo a part of the fundamentals... the way I weight shift. So all of last year, I pretty much sucked. I had to go through what Keith Ray mentioned in the comments: conscious incompetence.

And while we're here... Cleve brought up a great point in the comments to my previous how to be an expert post: how does "work on the things that suck" fit in with the whole "play to your strengths" thing? There are some great comments discussing it, but here's my take--I think the "work on the things you suck at" is within the domain you've already decided is something you WANT to get better at, as opposed to a weakness that just doesn't seem like you. In other words, I suck at about a million things which I am weak in and have no interest in pursuing. But... I love skiing, so if I want to get better, I have to be willing to work on my weak spots so that I can have more of what I want (fun, flow, etc.).

So choosing the thing you would like to be expert in is probably not going to be in an area where your nature/personality/interests are "weak". But within the thing you choose to pursue, you have to work on the less fun things, which include both the things you're not as good at, AND the basic fundamentals.

Are you helping your users take square one with them? Are there areas where your users may be missing some fundamentals they'll need? I guess we all have to figure out how to make the fundamentals less boring--apparently that's what the experts know how to do. And if you see me struggling and swearing down an intermediate slope at Copper Mountain, yell out "lift your inside ski!" as you fly by.

Posted by Kathy on March 4, 2006 | Permalink


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You know who teaches the fundamentals really well? Computer games! A couple of christmases ago I tried playing Prince of Persia on a Playstation 2 and found that every time a new ability/feature is added to the player's repertoire in the game, the player gets a chance to try it out.

But NOT in a pure training setting - you get to use it on a game level trying to advance just as usual. And that is key - that your training is guided and focused on a basic skill but still has relevance and direction.

This approach could easily be transplanted to business software design, to corporate training or to any complex product.

I also remembered a British study (http://books.guardian.co.uk/news/articles/0,6109,1396252,00.html) that showed that teaching school children grammar has no discernible effect on the quality of their writing. Getting them to actually write does work, however. This seems to indicate that you can also get too basic - that some fundamental skills don't help you much.

Posted by: Alexander Kjerulf | Mar 4, 2006 4:31:02 PM

The question is... what fundementals do good programmers forget?

Well, all it takes is about 10-20 interviews to learn quickly. Here is my list of things the average programmer has a hard time with:

- Proper OO design - is-a, has-a, how can you forget about that?!
- Recursion! I gave an "industry veteran of 19 years" an interview - BOMBED the recursion question. Badly, it was not even funny.
- Big-O notation and complexity of data structure operations.
- Trees - so many developers who spend all their time in Java seem to know nothing about trees.
- I'm going to have to mention recursion again. Any tree algorithm is trivial if you write it recursively. Iteratively and that is a mess.
- Bits and bytes - many people think just because we are operating at a higher level you can forget about those pesky bits. Think about it - the most expert developers you know can probably tell you what 2s complement is and can still remember how to construct bitmasks for both testing and setting.

All of these things seem irrelevant in today's database oriented, XML world. Until they aren't - I had a problem where one module of a C++ program thought the data type was 64 bits, and the next module thought it was 32 bits. Of course we were using pointers, so we ended up writing 10 million large negative numbers in to the database. I wrote a PL/SQL backfill script that looked for negative numbers and added 4,294,967,296 to each one.

I'll leave it as an exercise to the reader as to why this worked, and the nature of the problem.

Posted by: Ryan Rawson | Mar 4, 2006 5:03:49 PM

Really inspiring pair of posts, Kathy. I'm going to get that new brain book. And think about what I want to become expert in.

Posted by: Anne Zelenka | Mar 4, 2006 5:21:29 PM

As a software engineer (e.g. computer programmer) the basics that I forget are the underlying principles of computer science. The math. The way the hardware actually works. Concepts like Kleene closures and how to write a valid proof. Why? I spend most of my time coding. I don't use that stuff directly. But when I go back to it, it does for me what Parelli's "game" comment does for a horseman.

It's been many (15?) years ago now, but I used to be a horseman too. I took a seminar with Pat and was so blown away I told him he'd see me and my horse in California. I was just a kid. I doubt it'll ever happen now, since I'm not working with horses anymore, but I still remember him so clearly. I also remember him doing a couple of magic tricks after the show for me, one of which I learned a decade later. What he taught me in those few hours has literally changed the rest of my life -- the way I interact with my fiancee's dog, how I tell someone they're doing a good job or not. I'm not exaggerating. He's been a major influence on me.

It's a fond memory. Thanks for bringing it back.

Posted by: Xaprb | Mar 4, 2006 9:11:56 PM

This also afflicts businesses quite badly - a lot are off doing sopjisticated things and forget their customers basic needs. There's a book i've read recently that demonstrates this quite well and the effect it has on the offenders compared to better executing competitors: Simply Better: Winning and Keeping Customers by Delivering What Matters Most.

Still on my coffee table (which now has a space for my Pickaxe book en route from Amazon :-)

Ian W.

Posted by: Ian Waring | Mar 5, 2006 5:54:07 AM

And for the best way to improve your skiing, read Inner Skiing by Timothy Gallwey (http://www.theinnergame.com/html/Inner_Skiing_home.html). It has a revolutionary approach to learning that is sure to create passionate skiers :o)

Posted by: Alexander Kjerulf | Mar 5, 2006 9:34:11 AM

It was a very interesting article! Thank you for sharing it with us. And by the way - beautiful design!

Posted by: Ania | Mar 5, 2006 10:51:57 AM

For programmers: I have seen the emergence of Kata, the karate basic forms, for coders.


Posted by: dru | Mar 5, 2006 12:38:43 PM

Great post, Kathy (even though I am not a 100% Pirelli fan). The current era devalues the basics in so many ways--it's sort of a cultural disease. "Learning should be fun" "Reading is natural--children exposed to good literature will naturally learn to read" and so on.

But practicing discrete skills can be intrinsically rewarding in a meditative sort of way. I think the teacher's attitude and skill has a great deal of influence here. If the teacher has a dismissive or punitive attitude toward skill drills, the student may be reluctant; it the teacher presents them in different ways and as an opportunity for growth, then the student may be more willing. With older students the opportunity for skills-as-mindfullness-practice can be particularly helpful

"There's a girl at my barn who has been taking dressage lessons on and off for the last ten years. Both her and her horse are bored out of their minds because the trainer won't let them progress to anything interesting until they are virtually perfect on the basics."

Two thoughts:

One, a rider can't get very far on any horse in dressage unless she has very good control of her own body, and that's a bit of the basics that many people don't know how to teach. Flippity hands and floppity legs makes what the rider is communicating to the horse just so much static.

Two: if you are really interested in dressage, riding a great 10 meter circle in medium trot is just as interesting as riding shoulder-in.

Posted by: Liz | Mar 5, 2006 1:30:23 PM

Keep those tits up! I mean, tips! Keep those tips up!

Posted by: a | Mar 5, 2006 7:50:33 PM

One word: Refactoring

Posted by: vishi | Mar 5, 2006 8:05:02 PM

You shouldn't lift your inner ski today unless it's good old 2m long piece of iron.. :)

Posted by: SFT | Mar 6, 2006 5:47:38 AM

The fundamentals of good programming are:

1) Make your code simple to understand. Give things good names that explain what the code is doing.
2) Make things do only one thing. If something does two things break it down.
3) Do the research before you write the code. Use the right data structure, search your codebase for a component that you can re-use.
4) Write the unit test first. Make sure the code is well tested at every step.

I think surrounding code in a unit test framework does add a bit of "practice" quality to it, as alluded to in the Kata post.

Posted by: Charlie Evett | Mar 6, 2006 9:36:40 AM

I've found the path to improving is more a spiral than a line. You must constantly loop back toward the beginning to gain momentum to move forward. Few can appreciate the subtleties of the fundamentals until they've experienced the more complex skills. Each advance reveals a larger view of the "big picture." The fundamentals are the fine detail that make up the larger images. Gaining an appreciation of the fundamentals in context can inspire new interest in refining them. In combining them in new ways. Perhaps the amateur is happy with a creating a cityscape of limited variability whereas the expert seeks to portray panoramic landscape filled with complex mixtures of shape and color?

Posted by: JKB | Mar 6, 2006 8:32:04 PM

This rings true, I cant say how much. I learnt the violin many many years ago for quite some time. I wanted to play songs, while my teacher wanted me to play basics. If then, I was able to combine the two, it might have been smarter and I perhaps would not have lost interest. I wasnt disciplined to stick to the basics then and I did not have skill to play the advanced songs I wanted to play. But perhaps I would have made progress with the "go forward" philosophy.

Posted by: neelakantan | Mar 6, 2006 10:46:16 PM

Hi Kathy:

Your post rang true for me as someone who spent 10 years straight as a hard-core martial artist (the afro-brazilian form of capoeira). I was amazed at how despite TENS OF THOUSANDS of sit ups and push ups I did during the course of the year, if I ever missed more than three days of class, my form, reflexes and mental sharpness would go out the window. In the martial arts, so much is made about what color belt you have, but really all that matters is your reaction in the heat of the moment of a real fight. Even though I felt good about my dedication to learning the art (which included multiple trips to Brazil to study with the masters, as well as tons of workshops in the U.S. and teaching with San Francisco State University), I always felt like a beginner. Maybe it was nothing more than my own insecurity, but always feeling like there was more to learn made my training alive and exciting.

Posted by: Pamela Stewart | Mar 7, 2006 12:14:26 AM

Well it looks like the programmers are out in force tonight. This is a good post and is relevant to every trade, hobby and passion.

When it comes to working with customers doing the basics is the groundwork for building the passion in your customers and understanding the process of customer experience development.

Successful people do what others won’t. Most of us are lazy and the desire to excel escapes us dismantling the commitment to do what it takes to find that success.

There is no truer principal in business today. Creating great customer experiences for our customers is part of that principal. Everyone is looking for the easy way out, the secret to great customers or the miracle of customer loyalty and it already lies within their grasp. It's the basic fundamental concept of respect and then practicing the fulfillment that allows our customers to trust. Seeing it is one thing but laying aside our unwillingness is another.

Posted by: Tim Whelan | Mar 7, 2006 6:49:24 AM

You mentioned Tiger Woods. A few years back he decided that his game was not good enough (even though he was already the #1). First think about what that means. His own desire to get better than the best he can do is what drives (pun intended) him. He then spent, if I remember correctly, 8 months re-learning his swing.

Building off square one is where mastery comes from. If your basics are wrong, your skills will reach a ceiling. If you train your basics every day, you improve them and raise your skills. Play games and have fun with the basics. Integrate these basics into your advanced drills (or normal behaviour) and you can continue to get better.

Posted by: Michael | Mar 7, 2006 4:02:23 PM

Good comments about what differentiates experts from amatuers.

There is a strong academic evidence to suggest that 'experts' are those that recognise situations and appropriate responses rather than cognitively processing it through some decision-making or problem solving.

Thus Bert's Go opponent is developing expertness by going over patterns so that he can identify them quicker and act using the best solution. This is how he kicks ass.

So Spud, the novice programmer gets stuck on a problem, chews up three pencils, a pad of paper and a whiteboard marker before they think of using recursion. They have an "aha" moment and chew up another pencil while figuring out how to do it.

Meanwhile, Merlin the programmer-extroidinare looks at the problem and goes "recursion".

Enjoy becoming a skiing expert.

Posted by: Paul | Mar 8, 2006 1:53:10 AM

You know, I always learn something when I teach, often from folks who are just beginning to use OpenOffice.org. Basics are basics for a reason, I guess. ;>

When I go to swing-dancing workshops, there's a lot of emphasis on the Basic move (swingout from closed is the official name, I think) and how everyone, no matter how expert, can benefit from working on that. Like the weight shift thing you mentioned.

Posted by: Solveig Haugland | Mar 9, 2006 12:35:31 PM

Hi Kathy,

you are so right. This is a thing I recognize more and more often: The best programmers I know, aren't the ones that know a special tidbit of some API or framework or know how to do advanced algorithm magic but the ones who simply know when to begin a new class or factor out a method, how to name a variable... The simple (basic/fundamental) things are the things that are hard to get right...

Ciao Alex

Posted by: Alexander Schmid | Mar 20, 2006 5:38:09 AM

Lift your inside ski? That's so 90's. Get some shape skis set up a 50/50 balanced stance and then just tip and rip.

Posted by: scott rosenbaum | Mar 23, 2006 6:47:39 AM

Paul, I agree with you the way you view the issue. I remember Jack London once said everything positive has a negative side; everything negative has positive side. It is also interesting to see different viewpoints & learn useful things in the discussion.

Posted by: Brian | Apr 18, 2006 8:33:15 PM

Hi Kathy,

I just found your blog this week and I have been enjoying it. Thanks for all the great information and things to chew on...

My thought on reading this post is that its very similar to a concept that I've learned while training in Aikido: Shoshin. Roughly translated it means "beginner's mind". The idea is that no matter what level you are in your training, you should always approach things from the perspective of when you were new to the skills. A return to fundamentals, yes, but also a way to clear up pre-conceptions, and to prove to yourself that there is always more to learn. And it keeps you open to the wonder that you felt at the beginning of your training (which propelled you to keep learning).

One of the things I like best about Aikido is that I know I will NEVER learn how to do it to perfection. No matter how well I am performing the techniques, there is always something I can improve on. And I enjoy watching people whom I consider experts, like my dojo's sensei (a 5th Dan) and his teachers also continually re-examining basic techniques and saying how they're still figuring it out even though they've been doing it for decades.

I suppose that ties into the "how to be an expert" post and the general theme of your blog, being passionate, as well. If you want to be an expert, you have to have to be passionate enough about what you're doing to realize that you'll never master it 100% but still strive to do so anyway.

Thanks again for your insights! This blog is on my daily list now. :)

Posted by: Lindsay Donaghe | May 17, 2006 11:13:56 AM

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