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The Practicing Mind: Developing Focus and Discipline in Your Life — Master Any Skill or Challenge by Learning to Love the Process

Thomas M. Sterner · 1 HN points · 2 HN comments
HN Books has aggregated all Hacker News stories and comments that mention "The Practicing Mind: Developing Focus and Discipline in Your Life — Master Any Skill or Challenge by Learning to Love the Process" by Thomas M. Sterner.
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Amazon Summary
In those times when we want to acquire a new skill or face a formidable challenge we hope to overcome, what we need most are patience, focus, and discipline, traits that seem elusive or difficult to maintain. In this enticing and practical book, Thomas Sterner demonstrates how to learn skills for any aspect of life, from golfing to business to parenting, by learning to love the process. Early life is all about trial-and-error practice. If we had given up in the face of failure, repetition, and difficulty, we would never have learned to walk or tie our shoes. So why, as adults, do we often give up on a goal when at first we don’t succeed? In his study of how we learn (prompted by his pursuit of disciplines such as music and golf), Sterner has found that we have forgotten the principles of practice — the process of picking a goal and applying steady effort to reach it. The methods Sterner teaches show that practice done properly isn’t drudgery on the way to mastery but a fulfilling process in and of itself, one that builds discipline and clarity.
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Jan 04, 2015 · 1 points, 0 comments · submitted by simonreed
Good article, i discovered it right after i bought my violin (could have been after i got a viola, can't remember). I think you can apply these tips to learning, say, rust programming, or convex optimization. I also think a random beat generator is sort of similar to backing tracks i record in Garage band or ableton, and you should leave pieces/charts you're learning out on the stand next to your computers, and look at them often, 5x/hour.

Another tip, always remember the first time you tried to play a clarinet, cello or violin (if you can). Those for me were special moments.

Here's some other (comprehensive) books about practicing, which go from mechanical prescriptions about washing hands and brushing teeth beforehand, to the zen, in the vein of the motorcycle and archery books, like long tones/long bows/drone notes/son filé (the last is Galamian's term, his violin technique book highly recommended).

Kenny Werner, (recommends pianists practice long tones ?!)


Bruser: (Gerald Klickstein' book is also good, i remember)

Julie Lieberman has soem good violin-specific eg

+e^x for Kenny Werner's book.

Kenny Werner's philosophy if you can summarize it in one sentence - is if you are a trumpet player - you must master breath control, fingering so by the time you are in performance - you are truly playing without thinking of the mechanics.

There are many analogies to really focused coding, Kenny Werner's philosophy, and Mihály Csíkszentmihályi's concept of flow [1]. You must master the syntax, the grammar, the idiosyncrasies, the rules and unwritten and written customs, and the is-isms of the language before you can "effortlessly" write code in a given platform/language. This is one of the reasons beginners to programming may stumble on the hike - they are so focused on the writing of the lines of code that they are often pushed by themselves or their otherwise well-intentioned teacher to produce code. The building blocks of code are not the lines of code - it is the concepts and the system and framework and mental model behind it (the whiteboard so to speak).

"This year, forget about the year as a whole. Forget about months and forget about weeks. Focus on days."

An excerpt from Kenny Werner's book that I just pulled out of my giant stack of books Jenga style (p.85).

> Practice

Perhaps music feels great as long as you're fifteen feet away from the instrument, but as you move closer, a different energy takes over and your connection dwindles...

How can we retain the bliss of freedom as we approach our instrument? We must let go off all desires and focus on love. To have the nectar flow through us, we must honor our inner being, and practice receiving what is being given. We must practice and strengthen this conviction daily. We may even have to go outside of music to do it. This is really important, because playing, being so addictive, pulls us easily from the true goal and draws us back into more mundane realms.

But when you have made the inner connection, playing becomes more like taking dictation from within. Work with the thought, I am the master, I am great. Then just put your hands on the instrument, trust them, and eventually it will be so.

"Do not fear mistakes. There are none." -Miles Davis


Good stuff.

Here's something i periodically reread about simple practice and a trumpet teacher that most trumpeters know, Laurie Frink:


and some of my favorite blogs about becoming musician and earning a living (2 completely different things) are by HN'er Sivers:

(i think there's others, i can't find them)

Incidentally, if you're in NYC this coming week you can come see Kenny Werner play during his residency at The Stone (
Galamian's book -- loved it!

> convex optimization

I assume you are minimizing -- maximizing is easily NP-hard.

So, get some supporting hyperplanes of the convex epigraph and use linear programming to minimize subject to those hyperplanes as constraints. Then add a constraint and try again. There is also a cute way to do central cutting planes that can be better numerically.

So, for many non-linear problems, if are maximizing, then the dual is a convex minimization, and that can help. This can be called Lagrangian relaxation.

I never thought that how to do violin practice was so tricky -- just work to get the fingers on the notes, in time and in tune, and then do it a lot until get a lot of facility (hear the note(s) just before playing them), sometimes return and play very slowly and deliberately, and then work on expression -- the fun part.

But then I never made much progress. The best I did was the D major section of the Bach "Chaconne", and that was fantastic fun -- I played the repeated notes that made them sound insistent! I regard the end of the D major section as the climax of the piece and find it fantastic.

I find it interesting that you're response to studying a field that has entire conferences dedicated to it is "So, just do this!"
> interesting

It worked for me, in violin, As we know, things should be as simple as possible but not simpler.

My approach to learning mathematics is quite different from learning to play violin but also is based mostly in independent study.

In violin, I got started when I was a math grad student at Indiana University. Of course there is a terrific music school there, and at the time my dorm was next door with a lot of music students. One day one of the violin students, darned good, a Stern protege, put his violin under my left chin, and I was off and running, took a violin course in the music school.

After some years of work from Galamian's book and just self-teaching, I went for some lessons. Sure, I started with the "Preludio" of the Bach E major partita. Of course early on there is a fast shift from 1st position to 5th; I happened to get the note after the shift right; and the teacher exclaimed "You could play in an orchestra!". Gee, that shift is the main issue for playing in an orchestra? I doubt that!

Maybe he thought I was sight reading that music! Not a chance! I'd worked hours on each note, note by note, checking intonation over and over, etc. That shift I'd likely done 1000 times.

I hadn't really been learning just the piece but had been using the piece as an exercise to learn to play violin, starting from very little! So, that shift to 5th position, at two places in that music, was the first I'd learned. Sure, I could have used that skill with that shift elsewhere. I learned the whole piece; the learning was a lot of fun.

But, I learned it, self-teaching.

I had a good ugrad math major but didn't like what the IU math department had me doing: Of the three courses they started me with, two of them had just what I'd already learned in ugrad school, and the third started with what I'd learned in an NSF summer program the previous summer. But there was other material I wanted to learn. So, IU and I didn't get along, and I went, got a job, and studied on evenings and weekends, independently.

That study worked out well and was, really, except two graduate courses all I needed for my Ph.D. I did the research for that independently in my first summer after the two courses.

So, my approach to learning has worked.

Computer science and programming? I've taught college and grad courses in it, but I never really took one.

What I'm saying did work for me. Of course if you want then you can try more complicated ways.

For the OP, she was concerned that her playing sounded mechanical. Well, once she has the notes on time and in tune and practices until they are "in her fingers" well enough that she can concentrate on the expression, then she should, just think about how she wants it to sound.

For convex minimization, once a guy had a 0-1 integer linear program with 40,000 constraints and 600,000 variables. He'd tried simulated annealing without much luck.

I looked at his constraints, and 16 of them were special, and I put them in the objective function with Lagrange multipliers. Then the dual problem was to maximize a concave function, and I did the linear programming and supporting hyperplane approach I outlined. After about 500 primal-dual iterations in 900 seconds on a 90 MHz PC, linear programming via the IBM OSL, I found a feasible solution, guaranteed from the duality, to be within 0.025% of optimality. It was fun! But I do recommend the central cutting plane idea.

That reminds me, somebody borrowed my Galamian and never returned it... I want to read that bit about vowels and consonants again.

I think all of this is about you need to figure out how to practice or learn CUDA or Mandarin or whatever for yourself. My dad's advice on learning math was simple "Stare at the book til something sinks in, do the problems, figure out if the answers in the answer key are right". For some students, that's all they need to be told

What this guy talks about at the bottom of page is similar, i.e. there are people who know the materials and teaching methods that have worked int he past, but the only person who can teach yourself is yourself:

> "Stare at the book til something sinks in, do the problems, figure out if the answers in the answer key are right"

In Rafe Esquith's classroom, he talks about how they take that a step further. They knock the ball out of the park on standardized testing because they specifically try to come up with wrong answers for a math question. They learn the psychology of making test answers by doing - and don't fall into the traps.

I know that feeling. Check out this book, which talks a lot about focus and discipline:
I just got this on my kindle since it seems to have pretty good reviews. Your comment doesn't really outright say that the book helped you become more focused and disciplined - would you say that it did or didn't?
I'm intentionally taking 4 days to reply to your comment because I didn't feel like I allowed enough time to say. In fact, I still don't think I've waited long enough, but I do at least feel good to say that it is working.

There's a few things going on, and they're specific to me.

Primarily, I'm a judgmental person. And mostly to myself. I judge myself really hard for not doing enough or going fast enough. This book is teaching me to stop doing that, even though it may sound "heroic" to always push myself. I think I get that impression from elite athletes, and I think "well I should be doing that to myself so I can be the best at whatever I'm doing." At some point along the way, I forgot that most of what I learned wasn't the result of that type of thinking. I learned everything from speaking to programming simply by doing, and not by judging myself in the process.

I would also say I'm impatient, but I think that's the same thing as saying I'm judgmental.

This book is like written Adderall in that it causes the same calming effect. It teaches you that it's okay to slow down and just do, and not worry about anything else in the present moment. I know that sounds kind of cheesy and "Zen" like, but I definitely have (self diagnosed) ADHD and I operate on two modes: one where I'm being productive and doing, and one where I'm learning. It's really hard to context switch between the two. So it helps to know that when I'm learning, or doing certain types of activities that I'm not used to doing, it's okay to go slower and not stress out about my perceived lack of progress. The net result: my work IMO actually ends up being better, and interestingly I learn faster because I'm not trying to do that so much.

Hope this helps. Your experience may be different.

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