Sock it to me, the owl of Minerva.
May 1, 2011 5:07 PM   Subscribe

How do you manage your knowledge? What do you do about the inevitability of losing the skills you don't practice?

Throughout my education and work life I've studied a lot of diverse stuff and used a wide array of skills: different scientific literatures, different software, different foreign languages, and so on. As leisure pursuits, I've also done random athletic stuff, some sketching, and a bit of dance.

But the things that I know best and practice on a regular basis are a small subset of all the things I've ever done. And this subset changes: I was comfortable with a different set of skills in the past, and I suspect I'll use very different skills in the future. The rest lie dormant, rusting.

I feel some regret that I'll never be able to perfect and maintain every skill I've ever learned. I'll never be fluent in every foreign language I've studied, I'll never beat every game, and so on. But I realize that it's not a realistic goal. On the other hand, it feels bad to let knowledge that took weeks and months to develop go to waste.

The questions, then:
  • What are some things you used to know or used to be able to do? How do you feel about not keeping up with them?
  • What are some things you've kept practicing, even though they might no longer be useful or required of you? (e.g., you played an instrument as a child and still do as an adult, but not professionally)
  • How do you decide what to "let go" of? Do you ever consciously decide?
  • How much of your personal identity is in the things you know or can do? Does your image of yourself guide which skills you maintain and which ones you don't?
Personal anecdotes appreciated.
posted by Nomyte to Education (12 answers total) 35 users marked this as a favorite
I used to speak Russian well enough that if I had stuck with it (or gone to Russia again for, say, a semester or year) I could have gotten really good at it. I liked speaking Russian, but the reason I no longer speak it is that I have had absolutely no need for it in my life. A lot of atrophied skills are like that; they're just not relevant enough to be maintained. I would love to speak a foreign language well, but I've never lived a life where it was actually needed.

I used to play piano, and then about 10 years ago I started having a lot of trouble with my hands and wrists. I was in grad school and keyboarding a lot; I was kayaking a lot; and I was playing the piano a lot. I had to give one up, and I chose piano. I chose it consciously. I miss it. I still have a piano and I still play a little from time to time now that my hands are in better shape, but I'm pretty much back to where I was at age 12 or 13, nothing like where I was at my best as a young adult. This I regret, and in order to be able to play the little bit I still do I had to let go of feeling bad every time I sat down at the piano that I couldn't play a Chopin Nocturne or a Beethoven sonata anymore, and remind myself to be happy with The Funny Little Pony or little uncomplicated etudes.

I read a lot of nonfiction--a couple hundred books a year--and I have gotten pretty comfortable with knowing that I'm going to forget a lot of it. Out of the books I read every year, there are maybe 5-10 that really stay with me. I've decided to just trust that my mind will hold onto the important stuff without me adding a whole layer of note-keeping or memory work to my process.
posted by not that girl at 5:45 PM on May 1, 2011

How do you decide what to "let go" of? Do you ever consciously decide?

Not that I can remember. Usually I realize I don't know that stuff anymore when it's put in front of me and I have no idea what it means. For example: Hebrew and calculus.

It's OK to let unused skills and knowledge rust, just as it's OK to get rid of old things you don't use anymore. If you have no use for it, there's no need to keep it around. Learn something new that inspires you or focus on doing things you already know and continue to enjoy.
posted by wondermouse at 5:49 PM on May 1, 2011 [1 favorite]

Especially if the skill is a fun activity, practicing it once in a while is much better than nothing: it slows the loss and lets you keep an eye on your declining skill level so you can take emergency action if needed. For example, I studied a foreign language for 10 years, then barely used it for 3, and during the last year have been meeting with a conversation partner (native speaker who's learning English) weekly. My fluency and recognition vocab have come back nicely, and I can tell that I could revive my active vocab if I made an effort to read and write more. And I've made a new friend.
posted by ecsh at 6:37 PM on May 1, 2011

The way I figure it, skills never really go away entirely. I quit playing the piano when I started college, but I figure if I ever want to start again I'll be better off than if I was starting from scratch--I'll remember the broad strokes of how to read sheet music, I'll know which keys are which, etc.

I tend to approaching programming and web design the same way--I learn enough to get through the project I'm working on and almost immediately forget the syntax of the language I was working with. But, I can pick those languages back up much more easily than I could the first time around.

Just because they're getting a little rusty doesn't mean those skills are gone.
posted by JDHarper at 6:37 PM on May 1, 2011 [1 favorite]

I have acquired a lot of knowledge that has slowly eroded away, and it really bugs me too. Around a year and a half ago I discovered the long-term retention technique of spaced repetition through this article about Piotr Wozniak and his program SuperMemo. At its heart it is basically an automated flashcard program where the computer algorithmically determines when you're due to next see each card, and the periods between views lengthen over time so you're not just treading water.

Since then I've been using the spaced repetition program Mnemosyne for foreign (and English) vocabulary and to store my chess opening repertoire, and it has been a big success. It always felt really pointless to study chess openings when the information would just leak out of me within a couple months; now I keep a fairly sharp repertoire that I would never have dreamed of trying to maintain before.

Not all the things you mention (e.g., playing an instrument) fall into the category of things that can be addressed through spaced repetition, but for anything that requires retaining knowledge in particular, I highly recommend it. It qualitatively increased my sense that I am moving forward in life, knowledgewise, and am not just on a treadmill.
posted by dfan at 6:37 PM on May 1, 2011 [12 favorites]

I've tried to keep practicing languages, a little bit, and I've put effort into keeping up on new developments in the field I studied in college, even though it's not directly related to what I do today. Being in an area where I have fairly frequent low-level exposure to the main language I studied helps a lot; I've forgotten a lot of advanced words but they come back when I hear them used in context on the radio or re-read an essay from my old textbook. Having learned it once helps a lot with picking it back up the second time, is my point - if you ever need to speak one of those old languages, you'll have a huge advantage in picking it up. And a little bit of intermittent practice can do a lot to keep things fresh.

As far as what I let go of - I have a lot of personal identity vested in being a person who's good with languages and well-knowledgeable in my field, so that's where I can get the motivation to put in the effort. But other languages that I've studied, I figure if I'm going to travel there I'll pick up a guidebook as a refresher course and I don't particularly need it until then.
posted by Lady Li at 11:50 PM on May 1, 2011

You think you've got problems? I am a professional, arrogant know-it-all, and the only thing besides a 'memorize on command' function that I seem so possess that I REALLY count on to stay at the peak of my game is that other brains don't have it, usually. Even stuff I half remember is usually completely unknown to the casual connection. Thank heaven!

Once the 5 pounds of brain dies and decays, it's moot, anyway, right? If you can't remember it all, you can try and figure out threads of commonality and underlying truths about the field. For instance, you may lose the ability to play piano, but you'll remember MOST of the music reading stuff AND you can recall that it took X number of years to attain your peak level in a skill that demands a,b, and c. Then, when you decide to become a study something else, you'll know you can do it with practice, and you'll know how long it will take, and you'll be in a position to evaluate the value of a goal, based on realistic assessment of the effort. That's worth a lot and is a residual element of all that work you did earlier that makes aging so rewarding and makes your effectiveness increase.

Personally, I try and refresh stuff I might need, while coming to deeper appreciation of the relevant field. In this, data is less important than process and structure.

You'll get random crap thrown at you in life, some of which will require YOU to solve/master. No matter what, you'll only be partially prepared. Carry mental tools instead of supplies and I think you are more likely to prevail over life, to the degree such a thing is possible.

If I got to choose what to remember, I'd much rather have perfect recall of a kiss from a girl named Becky I received in high school than mefi moderator Jessamyn's driver's license number, which I saw for 10 seconds 5 years ago and use as a cheap parlor trick to verify my apergery-ness to her.

OTOH, Becky's dead. Boy, I wish I could remember that kiss better. I guess there's nothing to be done but kiss some more girls? FML!
posted by FauxScot at 11:54 PM on May 1, 2011

I wouldn't worry about it. If you needed a skill or enjoyed doing it, then you'd be using it. If you're not using it then you don't need it or don't enjoy it, so where's the loss? Maybe the trick is to maintain your basic skills - like a decent level of physical fitness - which can be put to whatever need you have when you need them. The skills you learned in the past didn't go to waste anyway, you needed or enjoyed them at the time, life moves on and you have to move on with it. The point is to stay open to new things, new ways of thinking and new skills. It's the willingness to embrace the new, rather than cling to the old, which will keep your brain and body active and lithe into the future.
posted by joannemullen at 5:18 AM on May 2, 2011

This is one of the reasons I like hard copies of books on my shelves. I love reading on my kindle now, but I am afraid that what I read won't stick unless I remind myself of what is in the book I just read. I'm experimenting now with creating mind maps with book covers but it feels like reinventing the wheel.
posted by mearls at 7:58 AM on May 2, 2011

Knowledge isn't actually something you can stockpile indefinitely behind a locked door. Skills are in fact somewhat transient by nature - consider asking the winner of the 1972 Olympic gold medal in whatever for a 2011 demonstration of their world-famous skills. That's the way of the world.

It's like travel. They say travel broadens the mind. Which is great, because seriously, what else do you get out of it? Photos. Handcrafted folk art bird ornaments that gather dust just so you can say "I bought this in the Galapagos!" to anyone who'll listen. You don't have to go to the Galapagos every year, the experience of having been there is always with you. You don't have to still be able to play the trumpet part to Phantom of the Opera while stomping up and down a football field, to have had high school marching band be an influence on your life. Things come and go. I'm proud to have a passing familiarity with a wide variety of things, even if that passing familiarity is just the decayed remains of former skill.

Could I replicate the skill I showed in my 10th grade ballet recital? No. Heck no. Not even close. But I have better posture today walking down the hall of my office than if my mom hadn't signed me up for 6 years of ballet lessons.
posted by aimedwander at 8:01 AM on May 2, 2011 [3 favorites]

Regarding knowledge retention -- I've trained myself to use two key systems for remembering stuff.

First, I write everything down in evernote*. Everything - work notes, thoughts, recipes, project ideas, meeting notes, names of people I meet, new words I learn, everything. If I'm not at my computer, my evernote has its own email address, and I email my notes to it from my phone. I've trained and trained myself to write quickly and 'tag' my notes using a system that works for me. I can recall meetings, programming language notes, projects, etc. that I forgot I knew about in the first place, using search.

Second, flashcards - I make flashcards for all sorts of new things I learn each day. Stuff from podcasts, new words, people's names, and so on. I use a flashcard program on my iPhone that supports spaced repetition, and I use a style of note-taking that lets me review my cards very quickly and efficiently.

The impact is awesome - retention of what I read is much higher; as a software developer, I'm able to switch programming language contexts without my head exploding; it is also good general brain exercise.

Oh also - any time I read an inspiring article about memory or self improvement, I save it. When I'm losing interest in my flashcards or note taking I read them again to encourage me.

* The tool doesn't matter - what matters is that you develop a reliable system for yourself that fits your lifestyle, way of learning, etc.
posted by Terheyden at 5:50 PM on May 2, 2011 [3 favorites]

I do what dfan does, but I use the flashcard software anki. This is what I wrote in another similar question on using spaced repetition:
I use Anki for everything. I have 50+ decks at the moment.

I split academic subjects up into definitions & problems. For instance, in my number theory classes I have a definitions (and theorems, corollaries, proofs) and a problems deck. I learn the definitions (theorems, proofs, etc.) and then I'll open the problems deck, which consists of problems taken from textbooks (along with the answer, so I get feedback). I obtain as many textbooks as possible and fill the decks with definitions and problems. I get as many problems I can from the lecturer, and add them to the deck. I do this for most other subjects as well (have decks for combinatorics, multi-variable calc, logic, set theory. And again, all split up into two decks: definition and problems). These decks have definitely helped me pass tests, and remember things easily. Tricky proofs and problems are generally easier now, as I can just remember and 'see' what I need to do to solve it.

Outside of the mathematical domain I also fill up my decks with philosophy stuff (my other major). The only sub-deck in philosophy that has two decks (definitions and problems) are my formal and informal logic decks. Apart from that, my other decks are mostly made up of conceptual ideas and arguments. For instance, I have a "Philosophy of Time" sub-deck to my metaphysics deck, where I outline concepts like perdurantism, four dimensionalism, and so on. Since philosophy concerns itself mostly with argumentation, I'll ask myself questions like what is the concept of eternalism? What are some arguments against eternalism? What are some arguments for the position?

I also use Anki for martial arts.

I have a deck for ground fighting (BJJ) where I try to visualize a position I'm in. Like I'll ask a question like, "Your opponent has your back, with hooks in, what do you do?" Then I'll have in the answer area: "Obtain posture, keep elbows glued to ribs, hand fight, lean forward, scoop butt forwards, and so on." The key is to visualize the position with the question.

Finally, I use anki for remembering cognitive biases and fallacies. Wikipedia has a massive list. I had one or two every so often.

I should also say, I'm not memorizing the problems per se (I am however memorizing definitions and arguments). When I'm doing problems, I'm using anki as a tool for randomizing problems given to me. So, in the problems deck I'll open it up, and I'll do the problem, then check if I got it right or not.
posted by ollyollyoxenfree at 3:10 AM on May 3, 2011 [3 favorites]

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