Brainjo Bite: The Illusion of Expertise (Brainjo Bite)

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All right, welcome to another Brainjo Bite. In the last episode, I talked about how frustration is the enemy, since that is the emotion or the feeling that leads to people to give up on learning to play an instrument, and that frustration happens when our expectations don’t meet our reality. And in that episode I gave two strategies for how to end frustration once and for all, because like I said, it’s the thing that causes people to put their instruments down, right? To stop playing. And so if you eliminate frustration, then you eliminate the reasons why you’d give up. 

But that being said, we don’t just want to not give up, right? We also want to feel compelled to keep coming back day after day, so we want to preserve our motivation to continue to make music and to continue to want to grow as musicians.

And so today I want to talk about the topic of motivation and what keeps us coming back. What is it that actually gets us to pick our instruments up day after day and play? Because if you get this right, then you’ll never lose your motivation no matter where you are in your journey of learning. And getting this right means not falling victim to what I refer to here as the expertise illusion, or the illusion of expertise. More on that in a minute.

So I would venture that most people who start to learn an instrument, including the banjo, do so because of a musician or musicians that they admire. So they hear someone, or more than one person, and they think I’d love to play like that someday. So I imagine you probably have a musical hero or heroes that have inspired you to play. Pretty much every banjo player I know has one or more banjo heroes that they can cite as being the people that inspired them to want to pick up the instrument and learn in the first place, and that’s great, we all need something to light that spark inside of us, because that’s what gets us started.

But problems arise when we use that source of inspiration as our primary yardstick of success. When we think that playing like that person or persons, it means that you finally arrived as a musician. In other words, when we think that the whole point of this learning endeavor is to reach that particular goal. And in that particular view, learning to play an instrument is like running a marathon and like a marathon, there is a finish line, which is in this case, attaining some particular level of skill.

And like a marathon, everything you do is ultimately about getting you across that finish line. And then once you’ve crossed that finish line, you’ve completed your goal and you’ve finally arrived, you’ve made it to your destination. The race is over and then you can bask in the enjoyment of your accomplishment and all of your struggles and effort will feel worthwhile.

Well, I would encourage you right now to abandon that way of thinking about learning music and learning the banjo because not only will it SAP your motivation at some point in time, but it’s not actually something you would even want to happen. And that brings us to the expertise illusion, or illusions, because it has two different components that I’ll talk about. The first illusion is the very idea that there’s actually a finish line, that at some point in learning you’ll reach a moment where you feel like you finally arrived, where you finally possess all of the necessary knowledge and skills and you have no more learning to do and can finally enjoy the fruits of your labor.

And the reality, however, is there is no finish line and that’s because the space of possibility with music is limitless, and so there will always be more to learn.

At the age of 90, cellist Pablo Casals was asked why he still practiced. Now Casals at that point in time had been playing music for over 80 years and had long been considered to be one of the greatest cellists of all time. And his response to the question of why he was still practicing at the age of 90 was, “Because I think I’m making progress.”

And I guarantee you, you can ask any musician at any skill level, whether they are satisfied with where they are at or whether they feel they have more to learn, and virtually every single one will say they feel there is much more to learn no matter where they’re at. So no matter where we are, the scope of what we don’t know will always be much larger than the scope of what we know, and that is actually a wonderful thing, which I’ll talk more about in a minute.

So the illusion that there is actually a finish line or a final destination in learning music is the first component of the expertise illusion. And the second component of the illusion is the idea that you would finally feel gratified when you’ve reached that finish line or reached some particular level of skill. That’s because thanks to how we’re wired, even if that finish line actually existed, that wouldn’t be the case because that’s not how motivation and reward works, and understanding how our reward system works is actually the key to preventing you from chasing the wrong goal and the key for understanding how you can sustain your motivation and enthusiasm for music throughout your life.

So your brain’s reward system consists of multiple interconnected areas of the brain, including some of the oldest parts like the limbic system, along with other areas that are more unique to humans like the orbitofrontal and anterior cingulate cortices. And it’s a system that involves billions of neurons and multiple different neurotransmitters, and it’s likely no coincidence that there is heavy overlap between this system and the circuits that are involved in controlling our movements. Since we are rewarded for the actions we take in the world, our brain largely exists to plan and execute our movement or our next action in the world.

And at its core, the purpose of the brain’s reward system is very simple. It exists to encourage us to do things that promote survival and reproduction, and to discourage us from doing things that increase our chances of death. And it does this by making you feel good when you do something that is good for you or bad when you do something that is not. And we humans find learning new things rewarding because acquiring new knowledge and skills makes us more capable humans, and the more capable you are, the better your odds of survival. It’s also why other things that promote survival feel good, like eating and sleeping.

But the good feelings generated by our reward system are short lived by design, meaning they wear off relatively quickly. And you can imagine what might happen if that weren’t the case. Imagine if your feeling of pleasure or fulfillment after a meal lasted forever, you’d never look for your next meal, right? At some point in order for the reward system to do its job, those feelings have to wear off. You’ve likely heard about research showing that people who win the lottery end up no more happier than people who don’t, despite the fact that most people believe that winning the lottery will lead to a life of more happiness. And that phenomenon has been described as hedonic adaptation, meaning that after any positive or negative event in our lives, we experience a temporary change in our mood and our affect, but then we go back to the state that we were before that event. And that’s because of how our reward system is designed. And like I said, that’s a feature, not a bug.

All right. So now back to the topic of learning music. So what’s been shown to be the single most rewarding part of learning? Progress. When we discover that we’ve improved a little bit, we feel really good. As I mentioned, our brain wants to reward us for learning new things, and the only thing our brain cares about is where we are now relative to where we just were. Because again, we’re wired to enjoy progress. And just like our brain wants us to keep looking for our next meal, our brain also wants us to keep learning and growing. It doesn’t care about our absolute level of skill, whether or not we’re intermediate or expert or whatever. It doesn’t reward us for that, it only cares about where we are today, relative to where we just were.

In the book, The Laws of Brainjo, I wrote about the day when I had my own personal epiphany on this subject, when realize that every stage in my own journey in learning the banjo had been just as enjoyable as the next, that my enjoyment of the process had zero correlation with my skill level. As I said, I was enjoying getting better. That’s it. That’s all that mattered. Now imagine what would happen if that mythical finish line actually existed, if there was a place where we felt we had truly arrived and there was nothing more to learn. We’d get really bored because the thing, again, we find the most rewarding about learning music, which is making progress, will be gone. So just like our lottery winner, we’d adapt to our new baseline and there’d be no more road ahead. There’d be nothing left to look forward to.

Think about the act of using a spoon. So at one point in your life, you couldn’t do it at all. You had to learn all the movements needed to manipulate the spoon so that you could get food in your mouth, and while you were still learning it, it was an interesting challenge so you worked on it consistently until it was no longer a challenge. So when it comes to using a spoon for eating, there actually is a final destination. Now you can likely manipulate a spoon with ease and you’re completely satisfied with all of your skills of spoon manipulation. And so as a result, you don’t really get much gratification from the act of using a spoon, and I highly doubt that you seek out opera opportunities during the day to use one.

So we don’t want learning music to be like learning to use a spoon. We don’t want there to be a final destination. So it’s actually a really good thing that there isn’t one. What we really want is to find activities that we enjoy where the potential for learning is endless, where this phenomenon of hedonic adaptation, where we adapt to our new normal, which is a consequence of how we’re wired, where that phenomenon works to our advantage, which in the case of music leads us to continued growth over time. 

And so whether you are a beginner, an intermediate, advanced, expert is a total red herring. It’s not the thing that matters. The only thing that ever matters is what is the next little bit of progress that you can make. That’s all there is, that’s all there ever will be, and that is an absolutely wonderful thing. That’s how you live an endlessly rewarding life of music and how you avoid being derailed by the illusion of expertise.

All right, thanks so much for watching and I will see you in the next Brainjo Bite.