Learning other people’s tricks

A friend of mine recently posted on facebook asking how to improve at music while feeling stuck in a rut, feeling paralysis at all the potential skills yet to be learned.

I replied with a skill that I’ve used to great effect in many different pursuits, including music, dance, mathematics, and programming: learning other people’s tricks.

In music (in particular jazz) that could take the form of learning to play someone else’s recorded solo. In dance, that could take the form of learning someone else’s choreography. In math, that could take the form of writing out someone’s proof of a theorem in your own words. In programming, that could mean reimplementing an existing open-source program.

Why do this? Several reasons.

  1. Creative pursuits like music/dance/math/programming often involve a lot of mulling and waiting for ideas to pop out of one’s background thinking. Those background ideas don’t come from nowhere: they are related to ideas you’ve thought before, even if they can be shuffled and organized in new ways. Putting other people’s ideas in your body, or under your fingers, expands the bag of tricks you have to draw upon when thinking creatively.
  2. In contrast to improving yourself by generating your own ideas, it’s easy to measure progress: just compare what you’re doing to what you’re trying to copy. If you tend to get discouraged by lack of measurable progress, copying others’ tricks can help.
  3. There’s no ego getting in the way. If you’re generating your own ideas, you can be paralyzed by wondering whether what you’re doing is good enough. One failure mode I’ve run into is not starting something because I just know it’ll be ugly. If I’m copying someone else’s idea, I can copy away without worrying about the quality of the idea itself; after all it’s not mine so it doesn’t reflect poorly on me.