Most of the students in my seventh grade math class studied trigonometry.  I, on the other hand, studied something far more valuable to my long-term education: pen tricks.

Throughout my childhood I always noticed that all of the smartest people I knew could do pen tricks.  The bright kids at school could do them, my older brother did them – I even occasionally saw Jon Stewart on the Daily Show doing them.

The amazing thing for me was how effortless it looked for them and how hard it was for me.  When I saw other people do pen tricks, their fingers had full control over the position of the pen at all times like a miniature bandleader twirling a baton.  When I tried to do pen tricks, my fingers felt stiff and clumsy.  I couldn’t understand how it was so easy for them and so hard for me.

By the time I reached seventh grade I was determined to become one of the smart kids and I was going to learn some pen tricks.  My boring seventh grade math class was the perfect opportunity.  Every day in class I sat there repeatedly attempting pen tricks.  I started with a relatively easy one: where you spin the pen around your thumb using your middle finger.  At first the trick felt impossible.  I just didn’t feel like I had full control over my fingers and the pen was constantly crashing down on my desk with an embarrassingly loud noise.  Day after day I tried the trick.   After about a week of fruitless attempts, my fingers started to feel a little more agile.  I could even complete the trick a few times in between drops.  A week after that, I had the trick mastered.  I could do it hundreds of times without dropping – it was like breathing.

The whole process amazed me.  When I first tried the trick, it felt impossible – but with dedication and practice, the trick eventually became second nature.

I became obsessed with the feeling of learning these pen tricks.  I savored the first attempts that felt so unbelievably foreign and loved when the tricks started to take hold.  It was like my fingers were learning, right in front of my eyes.  I taught myself three different pen tricks that year – and then re-taught myself the same tricks with my left hand.

Somewhere between trying to look smart and constantly dropping my pen I figured out that I wasn’t learning how to do pen tricks, I was learning was it was like to learn any new skill.  Everything new can seem hard and foreign at first – the key is to not let those first feelings discourage you.  Before long, you’ll be twirling your pen happily like these pen trick masters.

Learning a New Skill
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  • You might use this example to make a distinction between learning a skill (“pen tricks”) vs. learning knowledge (trigonometry); while part of maths is the skill of doing it, a component is knowledge.

    How does learning a skill compare / feel / etc to acquiring knowledge about something? Are they similar, or different? Is acquiring knowledge the same as applying knowledge? Is that, perhaps, a domain-specific skill? Or can you generally apply all knowledge you’ve obtained? 

  • Ahh – good questions.  I’m not sure.  I think you have a point though.

    One possible answer to your question is that once you’ve acquired the right skills (study skills, organization skills, leaning skills) acquiring and applying knowledge becomes easy.

  • Does that match your experience? :-) Do most people find locating and employing the correct information easy? Or do people resist locating new information in favor of things they already “know,” and struggle to apply information they’ve “learned” because they can’t see it applied?

    Are more problems you run into based in lack of skill (something wrong technically), or in ignorance (someone didn’t know how to do the right thing)?