Pushing keys: Typing, piano and the one key to mastery

Most people who use computers learn to type reasonably well, and many become very proficient. On the other hand, most people who try to play the piano decide they suck and give up.

If you’re willing to accept those highly informal statistics as correct, then we should ask ourselves why so many succeed at one and fail at the other. After all, typing on a computer and playing the piano are fundamentally similar activities.

More alike than different

Press down a key on the keyboard (piano or computer) and receive a precise response from the equipment. Do this in sequences, combinations, and with varied rhythm or speed, you will get an output predictably and exactly equal to your input. While you’re doing it, you look down at your hands or you don’t.

For people who have tried to play the piano, some important differences will stand out: Playing a piece of music requires you to match the rhythm as well as the sequence of notes, whereas the copying of a document can be done ‘correctly’ at any speed. You rarely need to push more than one key at a time while typing on a computer. A piano has foot pedals and a much larger keyboard, and so on. But as a skill, piano playing is still functionally much closer to typing than it is to saxophone playing.

To be an effective typist or pianist, two basic understandings are required:

1) You must ‘speak’ the language (English or music)
2) You must learn the arrangement of the keyboard

And these basics are actually more intuitive for piano playing than typing. Anthropologists would tell you that music is a far more natural ‘language’ than language itself. It’s something shared by every culture. We all possess an inherent musical sense. And the vocabulary of music (pitch, harmony, rhythm) is more consistent and less subjective than that of spoken language. “C” doesn’t ever mean anything else.

The piano keyboard is indisputably more intuitive than a computer keyboard. Piano keys are arranged in a repeating sequence of ascending pitches on a fixed scale. Even though they’re not labeled, anyone can learn to identify any key on a piano with about 30 minutes of instruction. There is no logical way to memorize the arrangement of a computer keyboard, because it’s mostly random.

As an example, the letter “R” was moved to its current home in the top row by the company who purchased the original typewriter from its inventor. They wanted salesmen to be able to impress potential buyers by rapidly banging out the word “TYPEWRITER” using only the top row (take a look, it’s true). You cannot deduce the identity of any key on a computer keyboard. That’s why they’re always labeled.

So where are all the pianists?

Given their similar nature (key pressing guided by a language) and the arguably more intuitive nature of piano playing, why do so many succeed at learning to type where so many fail at learning to play?

It’s a simple matter of time invested. Many of us spend all day at the computer typing away, and we’ve practiced its language (English) constantly since early childhood. Practice is practice, even if we don’t identify it as such while it’s happening. All those hours add up. Casual students of piano, on the other hand, probably struggle to squeeze in two hours of practice a week. But for some reason, they seek other explanations when they fail to make significant progress.

Mastery is always earned by the hour

There’s nothing natural or especially easy about typing, and no matter what you might tell yourself, there’s no special obstacle (lack of rhythm, talent, genetics, coordination etc.) to acquiring less common skills like playing the piano. As author Robert Fritz wryly observed, “If we study the people who know how to play, we see that they push down white keys and black keys.” Skills are skills. People who work at them acquire them. They practice for hours every day. Mastery is always earned by the hour.

You can’t do a goal: How vague self-talk encourages procrastination

Suppose you ask what I’m doing today, and I say “looking for a better job.” You know I can’t literally look for a job, the way I would look for a lost dog or an Easter egg, but you still have a pretty good idea of what I’m up to. We give people general descriptions because we rightly assume they’re not interested in the hourly play-by-play. For a friendly update, generalities are good enough.

But if I ask myself, “What should I do today?” I better not answer, “Look for a better job.” Forty minutes later I would be making a to-do list or cleaning something, having decided to wait until right after the next meal to get started. I would do anything to avoid “looking for a better job.” It sounds… awful. Why is that?

You can’t do a goal

When you assign yourself a large goal (find a better job, lose weight, get organized, start a business etc.) as if it were a single task, the most likely reaction is discouragement and avoidance. The more complex the goal, the more overwhelming and unappealing it is to perceive it as one large chunk.

If you know you cannot ‘get a better job’ in a single day and yet you tell yourself that is what you’re doing today, you’ve already guaranteed that you will fail. And your ego naturally rejects a date with certain failure. He starts flooding you with excuses and rationales, and now you’ve endangered your daily opportunity to make real progress on something important.

Pick a single task and get started

Practice being explicit about what you’re really doing now as you grind away on long-term ambitions. Choose a single task, articulate it, and then go to work. “Looking for a better job” becomes “writing a networking e-mail to X to inquire about opportunity Y.” A clear, finite task is easier to do and is more likely to get done. You cannot pursue large-scale goals directly, and your self-talk should reflect that reality.

Be explicit about your most important current task, and execute on that tiny piece. Repeat. Repeat. Progress.

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