Friday, March 22, 2019

Average, Perfectly

I will sometimes have “realizations” that feel very obvious in retrospect. They may even be re-realizations of things I already thought about, or even wrote about in the past. However, I forget some lessons pretty easily, especially when it comes to managing my own neuroses, and a “new” realization is usually an old one put into new words. Since I’m heavily verbal, new ways of describing things can be really important for me to unlock an idea or feeling, and sometimes it’s just an old idea or feeling, but a new way of getting to it. In this case, it’s related to an issue I have with with perfectionism that can cause me to lose steam and motivation.

The issue I have is that I frequently want to skip ahead when I’m learning new skills. I do things like play video games on hard mode for my first playthrough, or when I was learning guitar, I wanted to skip easy songs and start learning hard ones. I also approach my general lifestyle like this, where I imagine a better and more effective version of myself, often comparing myself to hyperefficient people and feeling bad when I don’t match up.

A few thoughts and concepts have helped me approach this issue differently, and trying to keep it in mind has reduced a bit of stress and helped keep me on track in some areas, so I thought I’d share them.


First, infinity.

There are at least two kinds of infinity that you can think about. The first I’m thinking of is the “really big number” kind, and the other is the “infinite space between two numbers” kind.

You can add 1 to another number, then add 1 to that, then add 1 to that, forever, and that’s the first infinity. For the other, you can say “starting at 1, now go halfway to 2. Now go halfway to 2 from there. Now go halfway to 2 from there, now do it again, and again..,” and you just get a number that gets infinitely close to 2 without reaching it.

Second, perfection.

Perfection, to me, seems a lot like the second kind of infinity, rather than the first. When we say “perfection is impossible,” we don’t mean “perfection doesn’t exist because you can grow infinitely,” we typically have an imagined maximum that you can’t reach, but you can get infinitely close to. There are some cases where that imagined maximum changes, because we have an inaccurate perception of our limits, so it can be useful to just ignore the idea of perfection and keep trying to scale up, as if we did have room for the first kind of infinite growth--I’m not doing that in this case, but it’s good to remember that it’s a thing you can do sometimes.

When I think of myself as a perfectionist, it looks something like “I currently have a conception of what the ‘best’ looks like, and I want to be as close to it as possible.”


Next, I want to talk about something that happened in one of my college classes.

The class was about neural networks--the computer, machine learning kind, and not very much about actual brains--and one of my classmates was taking that kind of class for the first time. We were talking about things afterwards, and he was very excited about building models that could approximate human brain function, but seemed a bit disappointed that most of the examples we used in class were “toy” examples, silly or tongue-in-cheek or small-scale.

In a classic case of “I know a lot of smart and wise things that I stink at applying to myself,” I asked him, “do you understand how the toy models work yet?” And he said, “no.”

“Seems like the toy models are a good place to start then.” Then I added something to the effect of, “yeah, we’d like to be building cool artificial brains that can do creative human problem solving, but with computer precision and speed. However, if you want to do that, there are lots of much simpler challenges that you need to be able to meet first. I don’t want to be a killjoy here, because it’s great to keep your end goal in mind and aspire to it, but if you can’t do the little thing, odds are you can’t do the big thing, much harder thing either. So starting with the little thing and mastering it seems like the way to go.”

I’m not really sure how “smart and wise” you can call that, because it’s really just the long way of saying “you have to learn how to walk before you can run.” He thought for a second and then said “yeah, that sounds reasonable.”

It is funny that I’m the one telling somebody else that, because I am really bad at doing that. I want to start doing the hard thing now. I hate sitting around and mastering the basics, because I just imagine what a much better person is doing and I want to do that instead. I get the general gist of the foundation and then I want to move on.

Later on, I struggle because my foundation is not, it turns out, well-founded. This happens more frequently than I’d like.


There is a case where I actually did do the smart thing though, and it worked remarkably well.

Back in high-school I used to play a lot of DDR (Dance Dance Revolution)--it was probably responsible on its own for keeping me from gaining a lot of weight given how much fast food and soda I consumed. Once I was able to clear songs on the highest difficulty level, I became interested in getting AAA ranks on songs, which you achieve by scoring all Perfects. Perfects, in turn, are acquired by hitting each step within a certain timing window.

I was kind of stuck though. I had the physical ability to pass any song in the game on its highest difficulty--at the time, anyhow--but I couldn’t seem to improve my Perfects. I could full-combo most songs--missing no notes--but I still had an annoyingly high number of non-perfect hits. I played and played, but my precision didn’t improve.

I asked a better player what to do, and they recommended that I tried getting AAA ranks on lower difficulties. I wasn’t sure how it was going to help, but I did it anyhow, since nothing else was working.

It turned out to be good advice! Playing much easier songs gave me the opportunity to focus entirely on improving my timing, rather than focus on improving it while I also tried to pass difficult songs. I was surprised to learn that my rhythm was okay, but I was relying on the faster tempos and rapid note patterns to help me maintain it. After I became comfortable AAA’ing most of the songs on medium difficulty, I ramped it back up, and scored AAAs on several of the songs I couldn’t before.

The moral of the story?


Returning back to the title, something that I’ve been trying to improve myself lately by shuffling things around a bit. Instead of asking “what does perfection look like, and how can I get as close to that as possible?”, I have been asking myself “what would an average person be able to do in this situation, and how can I do that thing perfectly?” This switch has had interesting results.

First, it has forced me to identify more milestones on my road to improvement in various areas. This helps keep me from feeling like I don’t know what to do next; instead of trying to assess a large gap between myself and the highest performers of something, I can assess the much smaller gap between myself and somebody who is average, or slightly above average.

Second, because I’m still asking myself “how can I do this thing perfectly?” it gets me to put a mental magnifying glass up to simple things, notice more nuance, and this keeps me from getting bored with those simple things as quickly. It also has the benefit of channeling my perfectionism rather than trying to resist or deny it.

As an example, I’ve been playing guitar for awhile, but I still can’t actually play any songs to completion because I mostly just want to practice cool riffs that are too difficult for me. So I asked myself “what would an average guitarist be able to do?”, and answered, “they should be able to play some basic songs from start to finish without giant mistakes.” That means practicing chords, which I don’t like doing because I find it monotonous.

But sure enough, once I start trying to play an easy song perfectly, I start noticing lots of little things to work on, little flubs in how I play a chord, things like that. When I start feeling “but this is so much easier than what I want to be able to play,” I can respond with “there’s no way I could be able to play a hard guitar part if I can’t play an easy one,” so it acts as a meaningful step towards my ultimate goal.

It also occurs to me that you can never actually do the really difficult stuff. It’s too far beyond you, there’s no point. You instead try to do things that are a little bit harder than what you can do until they are not hard anymore, and you repeat that until the stuff that used to seem crazy and difficult is just “tricky, but I’ll manage.” So lately, instead of trying to be like an average perfect person, I try and be average, perfectly. It seems to work better.

Thanks for reading. See you next time.