Every so often, I set myself the challenge of trying to learn something to which I’ve had little or no exposure; or I might try to learn something I’m convinced I’m not good at. As both an educator and a human being, I find it’s useful to remind myself what it’s like to start learning something from a low level of competence.
My most recent challenge of this sort is Morse code. Some years ago, I started trying to get my amateur radio license, for which you then had to learn Morse code, and I found myself completely unable to do it. I was able to memorize most of the letters, but I never got to the point where I could actually copy Morse code. Part of my problem was that Morse code is heard, not seen, and I am a much weaker auditory learner than visual learner.
But this time, I decided, I’m going to do it: my goal is to learn Morse code well enough that I can copy it at better than five words per minute, with better than 90% accuracy. I bought an audio CD with Morse code instruction put out by the American Radio Relay League, and I found a free audio course online.
What you’re supposed to do is to spend 15-30 minutes twice a day listening to the Morse code recordings and writing down the characters you hear. On the first day, I tried listening to 30 minutes of Morse code, but I couldn’t concentrate that long; I found it surprisingly fatiguing. Nor has it gotten much easier; I’m two weeks into this project, and 15 minutes is still the most I can do. Nor can I yet force myself to listen to the Morse code recordings twice a day; once a day was as much as I wanted.
But ever so slowly it is getting easier. Today I managed to copy a whole sentence in Morse code. It was a short sentence — “Code is heard, not seen.” — but it was very satisfying to finally feel a small sense of competence.
What I’m going through is normal, of course. Whenever I’ve tried to learn something new, learning is painful at first, and it takes what seems to be a long time to get any easier. There aren’t many rewards at first, and those few rewards aren’t worth very much, so you have to exaggerate the importance of early victories to yourself. And you have to ignore the feeling that you are completely incompetent, and just forge ahead, willing to be foolish. I think it’s important to remember to be kind to yourself when you’re learning something new.
This, obviously, is the sort of thing children go through all the time. It also occurs to me that many of the people who come to our congregations having grown up with no exposure to organized religion go through this same sort of thing. And in a society where we are increasingly disengaged from communal activities, it’s really hard to learn how to get socially engaged and build social capital. It can be quite difficult to learn something completely new. It’s much easier to sit at home and stare at the computer screen or TV screen.
Update, two years later: I found myself completely incapable of learning Morse code. Similarly, I find it almost impossible to learn foreign languages. I do not seem to have a very good auditory memory.