Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Braintenance: Critical Mass, Momentum and Learning...Learning About Learning

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Critical Mass, Momentum and Learning
Written by Douglas Castle and originally published at I am delighted (although I always grumble and whine about it) to be a Featured Columnist in THE NATIONAL NETWORKER Newsletter. You can enjoy the latest issue by clicking on, and you can obtain a free subscription at

Dear Readers:

I have always been a champion of executing a plan in increments -- a step at a time in a deliberate direction, with certain refinements along the way as warranted in the circumstances. I am still a proponent of this plan and execute strategy, but there is a consideration that I would like to introduce. It has to do with the paradoxical way in which we learn, versus the way in which we act.

We learn in chunks. We advance (in our knowledge and command of skills) in quantum leaps. We grow in sudden spurts, each a seeming epiphany or satori experience. Yet in order to get to the chunk , the leap or the epiphany, we must dedicate a certain critical minimum amount of time to doing an exercise, working at a job, mindfully meditating or watching a presentation in order to "build up" to these breakthroughs. It is as if we had to build up to a particular state in order to have this magic happen.

By way of example, I cannot increase my efficiency at working with a particular computer protocol unless I spend an hour or two immersed in it. If I just dabble at for fifteen minutes every day, or at sporadic intervals, I do not achieve the critical mass or momentum to make the jump. Once I've made the jump, I can sit down at the computer and execute the protocol more efficiently. Other examples abound...

If I run on the treadmill for fifteen minutes, I will neither break a sweat, nor find my stride. Even if I do this three times daily five day per week, I will still not stress my heart sufficiently to give me a significant cardiovascular benefit. It is this way with swimming, sparring, writing and so many other things in nature and in life.

Fond of metaphors, I have often used the example of driving up a mountain and taking one's foot off of the accelerator to demonstrate what happens (at worst case when momentum is lost). I have used the example of fissionable fuel being scattered all over the globe versus having it concentrated in sufficient mass in one place to illustrate critical mass. If you practice at your sport or your musical instrument too briefly each day, you will likely fail to "catch on" and advance in your playing ability. We need both mass and momentum to sharpen any of our physical and intellectual abilities. The interesting thing that does begin to happen with each hard-won advance ir that the one to follow it comes more rapidly and more easily - at least until the point of virtuousity, or to the point of physical or physiological limitation. It is absolutely true that one breakthrough leads to the next, but it is just as true that without the first hard-won breakthrough the subsequent ones may be eternally elusive.

Steps or increments provide a means to work toward a strategic goal (provided that the skills required to properly execute each step are already acquired), but learning requires critical mass and momentum. The picture that comes to mind is that of the stereotypical "larger-than-life" hero jumping from the roof of one building to the roof of another -- he requires a solid running start if he is to accumulate sufficient speed to scale the distance between the buildings. Failure to reach the ramp-up speed in time to make the jump will result in our hero looking like a cross between (why isn't that damned Spellcheck available on this Blogger Platform???) a Jackson Pollack painting and a hastily drawn Rorschach test pattern on the sidewalk many stories below.

Ironically, the much sought-after (this is an example of hyper-hyphenation) "Aha!" moment -- is not truly spontaneous; it is earned.


Douglas Castle
p.s. I am also going to be writing about the very controversial topic of procrastination as soon as I can find the time.

Labels and Terms: critical mass, momentum, accelerated learning, breakthrough learning, epiphanies, the process of growth, the science of learning, learning how to learn, Articles by Douglas Castle,


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