Friday, July 29, 2011

Assimilating Learning

When I was in college, we paid a whole bunch of money to get knowledge stuffed into our heads, yet we took the entire month of December off (as well as the usual spring and summer holidays). I didn't understand it when I started classes, but I sure as heck did by the time I graduated. It was all about assimilation.

Cornish is an acting conservatory. This is a fancy way of saying that most of the school year, they owned me from seven AM until eleven PM. My classmates and I worked our butts off. But very often, we'd batter our heads against the same problems over and over. Then the winter holiday would roll around. We'd go our separate ways for a month, and we'd get lost in the flow of family, work, holidays and whatever else suited us. When classes resumed, the issues that had held us back before break had magically vanished. Why? It wasn't the eggnog.

Assimilation. Turns out there's a huge difference between knowing something and owning something. Those long breaks built into our course structure were there for a reason - everything our instructors tried to teach us, all of the technique and all of the physical conditioning work - it needed time and space to sink in. We had to assimilate it, to take what we'd learned out of heads and let it settle into our bones, into our blood and into our breath.

It's the difference between learning how to ride a bike and knowing how. When you get on a bike, do you think about how to make it all work? When your folks first took off your training wheels, do you remember how much concentration and thought it took to remember to keep the handle bars steady and to peddle at the same time? Do you remember the point at which you'd assimilated the learning and no longer had to think about riding as you rode? Yeah, me neither. All of the effort and all of the heart-pounding anxiety over riding the bike slipped away unnoticed.

Assimilation is the final step in learning anything. It's the point at which you've incorporated your lessons into who and what you are. It's also the point at which you forget all of the pain and effort that went into learning in the first place. You take your knowledge for granted. That's both good and bad. Good in that you don't have to think about what you know and how you know it. It's bad if you have to teach someone else and can't remember how you learned it yourself.

The important bit here is to not take yourself and all you know for granted. If only because at some point, you're likely to have to teach someone else how to ride a bicycle.


  1. Ha! And you were complaining it's hard to come up with a fresh perspective at the end of the week. Well done! This is very much a Taoist perspective, too, that the rest phase is just as important as the work phase. Yin and yang.

  2. "Turns out there's a huge difference between knowing something and owning something."

    ~framing and putting above dusty piano~
    As you say, maybe if I stop thinking about how to play, I'll be able to play better.