On the Hills of Improvement

Danger always strikes when everything seems fine.

Seven Samurai

Major and minor.

The most basic concept of music theory.

Major. Happy. Nice. Good. We like this one.

Minor. Sad. Scary. Bad. We do not like this one.

But consider this very common chord progression…with one small difference.

Every single chord here is a major chord. (Yes, even with the sharp in the second bar. The 12-tone system is weird like that). Take a listen.

Now I’ll make one minor change.

Here I brought the first chord in the second bar down to its minor form. (This is the I-V-vi-IV chord progression you’ll hear just about everywhere). Oh no. I bet you’ll be writhing on the floor. Listen…if you dare.

Well, are you rolling on the ground crying? Listen very closely to that second set of chords. It feels as if the minor one “fits” with the piece better, does it not?

As humans, we love tension…but only when we know there’s a release. What I gave was a very basic example of that. It’s not necessarily a concept limited to music theory. The very concept of storytelling itself is based upon this sense of tension-resolution, spread out across hundreds of pages or hours of video. Yet why do we care?

We get attached. Our human minds get attached to characters. To concepts. To sounds even. Despite them being nothing more than digital signals, nothing more than ink on a page, nothing more than moving air, yet a proper writer can make it something more. Through great skill, a writer can bring out the very essence of a feeling itself, or bring to life a character so real you might know them yourself. 

The name of this game was Sansara, a game for children, a game which was perhaps enjoyable to play once, twice, ten times—but for ever and ever over again?

Then, Siddhartha knew that the game was over, that he could not play it any more.

Siddhartha (Herman Hesse)

And yet, no matter how much we love something, it will eventually become uninteresting to us. That’s diminishing returns

A psychological concept stemming from an economic one, essentially stating that output (in this case enjoyment) begins to taper off with time or repetition. To keep our enjoyment, we distance ourselves from what we love, into something we may not like in the slightest. A stringent chord, the darkest point in the story. We separate ourselves from what we love, in the hopes that we will come back and start riding the curve again.

This system of thinking is useful in the means of self-improvement, more specifically that of developing a skill. 

After approximately a week of being locked out of any sort of social media (personal messaging and streaming services were kept open), I developed a mindset for improvement which hasn’t worn off yet, as far as I’m concerned.

Following is an excerpt on progress from my presentation, modified to be read without a speaker.

As for now, I’m constantly refining the process above, and applying these new concepts as I go.

We often confine ourselves to time limits or arbitrary numbers we come up with beforehand

One hour. That should be enough. One hour of vocabulary.

You, at least once in your life, probably

Obviously, we don’t have infinite time to do whatever we feel necessary. We’ve got places to be, things to do, and sleep to have. At least two of the three. Our problem doesn’t mean that we should forgo scheduling in entirety, but we should stop our over-reliance on it. Instead of focusing on something as quantitative as time, we need to focus on the more qualitative point of skill. Given a long term skill we must constantly keep improving, we start off simple. Memorization? Start off with a simple matching exercise. Music? Start out playing a few measures WAY under tempo. If you’re “musically challenged,” (like me) just play the rhythms at that same slow tempo. Ride the curve until it feels easy to you. Until you CANNOT get it wrong. A common misconception we’ve all fallen victim to is that if you get it right once, you can get it right again. Repeat it a few times to make sure it wasn’t an accident. Make sure it’s fully cemented in your brain.

Here comes the fun part. You can take a break! Finally! All of however long that took finally paid off! It’s the resolution to your dissonance! 

Keep in mind, with time comes complacency. Don’t spend too long in-between sessions. Also realize that just like how sessions vary in length from activity-activity, so does the rest period. You may have to experiment. As you come back try something a bit harder. Do a fill-in-the-blanks exercise for those vocab cards. Go up-tempo on your music. Try not to be too ambitious. If you feel entirely lost upon return, one of two things is the issue: you’ve spent too long in-between periods, or are trying to make too much of a jump upwards. Modify your practice schedule until you have what’s most effective for you. And don’t stop there. Your schedule is ever-changing, as are your skills.

With all this in mind, don’t be afraid to pick up something. Try something. Grow your mind. You’ll be amazed where you can be taken. And if it turns out to be something wrong for you, it’s not the end of the world. There’s always something more.

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