Getting good at something happens in cycles. My latest learning adventure has been Lindy hop. After my first 2 lessons, I was emboldened. I dove into the deep end and got crazy serious about it. I’ve had a few rough nights where I didn’t feel super coordinated or leads did things like try to give me a lesson at a social dance or critique my style post-mortem. But really, it’s been a steady climb up the hill.

Then Monday happened. I danced almost exclusively with really good leads, and I felt like the worst dancer alive. Click here for visual. With some perspective, I came to my senses and realized that the guys were just pushing the envelope of my capabilities because I’ve gotten better. Coupled with my ever higher standards, feeling successful again is going to take much more work. Just as it should. Still, I thought that readers would get a kick out of a stick figure journey through the Cycle of Learning, which I present to you in solidarity and support of whatever it is that you’re trying to learn, yourself.


The first phase is infatuation. You’re in love with the idea of doing the thing. You watch the thing, you take lessons at the thing, you feel a sense of optimism about your success at thing. Yay, thing!

You steadily get better at thing. Since you started at zero, pretty much everything you do is gravy. It all feels edifying.

After a while, you hit your first speed bump. The sting of failure burns your nose and makes your eyes water. While some quit, the sort of hardy individuals who toil their way through this blog are likely to persist. Onward and upward, we say! New heights await! Go forth, undeterred!

And so you go. You may hear words like intermediate. improving. advancing. And these words perfume your experience and cloud your vision (both necessary to the process, mind you) so that the next plummet comes as a complete and utter shock. This is the death spiral for many. I quit the cello when I hit this. After a quick affair with the clarinet, I realized that the cello was the one and made a hasty return to lessons and discipline. I was so bad at clarinet that they actually moved rehearsal to a day and time they knew I couldn’t make. This tickles me now, but I was something of a headcase for a few months in 4th grade as a result.

So this emotional freefall is not a reflection of actually diminishing returns. It’s the goal that’s moved on you. As you become a more sophisticated student, you get a better grip on the task at hand, and this phase is one of readjustment to conceiving the picture as a whole. Think of it like stepping away from a pixelated image. Sure, it feels like you’re moving backwards, but it’s only because you now have a sense of what the actual thing looks like. That’s what we’re after. It’s my opinion that this pain is necessary. After all, if it didn’t hurt, it wouldn’t be learning. Humble pie is high in fiber and other nutrients that feed the soul. Trust me. I’ve been dining on it as a cellist, teacher, dancer and human for, oh, 30something years. It doesn’t make for perfection, but it sure does keep things interesting.

It’s important to suffer like this. Wheat from the chaff and all that. The best and brightest are always learning, always balancing the levity and confidence it takes to persist at and, in the case of things like cello and swing dancing, perform publicly- and the openness required to actively seek out faults and go after them aggressively.

Keep going. I’ll see you out on the floor. When all else fails, just shake it.






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5 Responses

  1. I love it better than the “fish dance’ the “bureau of silly walks” and the clarinet. I’m proud of you, for all the things you’ve tried and learned from in one way or another. Keep dancing Sweetie!

  2. Don’t forget that this is also a cyclical thing. That little “back to work” at the end? Brings you right back around to the beginning again, only now you’re going through the same emotional crapola at the beginning of Suzuki v2 that you were at the beginning of v1. It’ll happen again in v3 as well, and so on …

    I saw a really good doco one time with the Philadelphia Orchestra that was great, but there was one quote that was SO heartening, where the EFFING concertmaster of the OMFGPHILADELPHIAORCHESTRA was saying that he’s had so many times when he felt like he’d really “arrived” and then, as he put it, “The violin gods just punish me,” and he mimed a lightning strike at that point complete with explodey sound. Back to work …

  3. Love the drawing, makes me laugh.
    I heard one out of ten Americans take an anti-depressant. I probably should be one of them, but I find I always can pick myself up. I recently said “Shake it off, move forward” on Facebook. Yeah…we can’t dwell in our own self-pity.

  4. Wow, really interesting little article. I’m so glad I came across it. I’m probably currently in the second rise of learning clarinet. I’m the best in my school, and I get very little exposure to better clarinetists, other than my teacher. I can very easily see that once I move back to my home country for university (very soon), I’ll come face-to-face with reality, and my targets will be pushed higher again.

  5. This reminds me of the famed “Hype Cycle”, a well-known phenomenon of the data processing world. See

    In it you’ll find the following major stages:

    1. The Peak of Inflated Expectations
    2. The Trough of Disillusionment
    3. The Slope of Enlightenment
    4. The Plateau of Productivity

    Some things are just universal, I guess.

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