The Third Time

The Nine of Wands is about victory at the end of a long battle.

My Political Science graduate training officially began last Monday. Not with some grand orientation or intimate seminar, but with the first half of a two week intensive on basic math skills.1

It has been some time since I’ve thought about calculus, and that’s true for many of the other students in my class as well. That is to be expected. Which is why the professor opened the first day gently, reminding us that these two weeks are not our only opportunity to master the material. He said:

“This material will make a lot more sense the third time you learn it. But you cannot learn it the third time until you learn it the first time.”

It sounds straightforward, but it stuck with me.

Learning anything the first time is hard. The second time, it gets easier. With repetition, the concepts you once struggled with become second nature, allowing you struggle with the concepts that were once so difficult you couldn’t even struggle with them in the first place. It’s similar to what Michael Nielsen writes in his essay Augmenting Long-term Memory:

“After five or six such passes over the paper, I went back and attempted a thorough read. This time the purpose was to understand AlphaGo in detail. By now I understood much of the background context, and it was relatively easy to do a thorough read, certainly far easier than coming into the paper cold. Don’t get me wrong: it was still challenging. But it was far easier than it would have been otherwise…My somewhat pious belief was that if people focused more on remembering the basics, and worried less about the “difficult” high-level issues, they’d find the high-level issues took care of themselves.”

This truth is not limited to academic fields of study. It goes for anything—even even forming new creative habits. The first time you sit down to write, it’s difficult. Uncomfortable. The second time, it is painful, but less so. After several repetitions, it will feel more natural. Rather than focusing on the habit, you can begin to give your attention to the writing. As Nielsen says, it will still be challenging. But it will be far easier than it would have been otherwise.

It never gets easy. But easier is enough.

If you feel pressure to succeed the first time, don’t. No one succeeds the first time. The first time is just a stepping stone to get you where you need to go. As Annie Dillard writes in her book The Writing Life:

“It is the beginning of a work that the writer throws away…That beginning served to get him where he was going, after all; surely the reader needs it, too, as groundwork. But no.”

It was just for him.

1 Basic being relative as this “basic” course is about calculus and linear algebra.

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