I recently returned from a week-long bioinformatics training workshop put on by the wonderful people at VertNet. Soon I will write directly about what I learned there (plenty of useful, thought-provoking, and just plain awesome stuff) but first I want to consider something else. Between sleep and tea sipping on the flight back, I found myself reflecting on the particular mental state I drop into when I am trying very, very hard to learn something new and difficult. I think of it as the stretch point.
What is the stretch point? It’s a particular mental space beyond your comfort zone, and it’s not exactly fun. In fact, it’s kind of painful and frustrating. If someone else’s knowledge is a creek flowing by, I feel like I’m trying to carry it in my cupped hands to the little bucket of my brain twenty feet away: I get there, slowly, but no matter how tightly I hold or how quickly I move, much of it still runs through my fingers. Still, this repetitious suffering is oddly satisfying, a mental workout that is close cousin to lifting really heavy weights.
I’ve found ways to push through this stage faster (and more thoroughly and mindfully). Efficiency hinges on finding people who don’t mind question after persistent question and requests to wait, stop, say that last thing again. The questions serve to check my understanding: so if A is true, then is B also true? What about A under these different circumstances? How exactly do you test that? How does that relate to this other thing? I’m trying to extrapolate, to find ways to break the system in my mind so I find holes in my mental concept.
You see the need for a patient teacher.
It’s the immediate feedback, I think, that connects neurons faster than just staring at the information alone. When you’re getting more of it right and making more of the connections, you know because the other people tell you. When you run up against a mistake in your understanding, you know because they tell you. When neither of you knows the answer, you know, because you wind up staring blankly at each other.
The VertNet workshop provides a good example. I spent a great deal of time at the stretch point that week – part of why I was so wiped out when I finished! New concepts abounded, from playing with GIS programs for the first time to chewing over new four-dimensional research problems1. Luckily, feedback was also plentiful. Much of our material was cleverly organized into tutorials, so we followed along and were allowed to blunder off the path (they warned us so many times to make sure our clipped layers were the same extent for niche modeling…!), and then we were dragged gently back onto it when we discovered that our next step wouldn’t work. Sometimes that meant solving the mistake ourselves, with judicious use of swearing at the computer screen. Sometimes that meant calling in the workshop leaders for targeted troubleshooting.
I find myself spending time at the stretch point whenever I begin a new project or attempt a new skill. Maybe this is an extension of my career stage: every research project I start is new in a way that underscores just how little time I have under my belt working in this field. I have to find the most relevant literature, understand the open questions, figure out new methods or how to apply familiar methods to new data. I have to figure out where the project is going, and what questions we’re answering, and why those questions matter, and how to answer them using best practices.
Spending all my time in this place would become exhausting too quickly – there’s only so much information you can shove into your brain before your brain is done. I do think the limits of my capacity have been slowly growing, though. It’s nice to balance the stretch point with calmer times: writing, for example, or reading, or kicking around ideas with colleagues. But sometimes it is important to seek out the stretch point. It’s a useful and interesting place to be in when the mind is ready and I seek it out when I am in knowledge-gaining mode. I kind of enjoy the familiar pain of stretching my mind, the same way I complain on my way to the gym but pick up the heavy weights anyway.
This is how we get better – by pushing. Muscle soreness, after all, is just the collection of microtraumas that will ultimately make you stronger.
1 That is, considering both space (3 dimensions) and time (the 4th).