I’m trying to learn to play guitar, and it turns out its pretty hard. One thing is for sure though- I’m not going to get better at playing by spending time on facebook or twitter, by talking about how I want to learn to play, or by lamenting that other people have more natural music talent than I do. There is only one way to learn: you have to play, all day, every day.
I was pretty good at debate, but much like Antonio Banderas thats a skillset I can no longer use (though luckily Bucho didn’t shoot me in the hand). However, I know from the long arduous process of getting better at debate that I do have the capacity to get better at something as long as I apply the requisite effort. Therein lies the rub- effort. The thing is, when you suck at something it generally isn’t very much fun. We generally derive enjoyment from winning, from being good at things. Few people enjoy the practice. This is true of debate as well- most people never want to focus on the things they are bad it- its not fun. They want to keep doing what they have been doing, so they spend all their practice time going for politics even though that’s the only argument they have ever gone for. They spend research time cutting more “pc low” cards instead of reading about the K arguments they usually lose to. The problem with running away from everything hard is…. wait for it… you cant guarantee you only ever debate politics. When you debate something else you are going to lose. Is that fun? Probably not.
Why this long rambling overture? Well I have been getting a lot of questions lately that boil down to the following:
“I always lose to/am bad at X”
“Well, are you practicing/working on X”
That’s not a useful question because you already know the reason you are losing to x- you aren’t practicing it. Students generally want some kind of shortcut- just tell me how to beat X without me having to work at it. If there was such a magic bullet rest assured coaches would already be taking advantage of it. Unfortunately there is no substitute for hard work- and when work is hard that is generally a sign of how necessary it is.
Once you recognize that you have a problem somewhere you are already light years ahead of your competition. What do I mean by this? Well ask most debate coaches now a days how many students they encounter who respond well to constructive criticism. The number is shockingly low. It doesn’t matter if they are your own students, people you judge, people you work with at camp- most students just don’t want to hear it. After debates you can give a list of things they should do differently and the next round they will do it the same. There are a crapload of reasons for this beyond just kids are dense
Bad advice- there is a lot of it floating around out there. From bad suggestions in post rounds to facebook discussions to web forums. Many times after a debate I will say something seemingly in-controversial like “you shouldn’t double turn yourself in the 1NC ” only to be met with fierce resistance like “well its a strategic doubleturn, so and so told me…”. Stop. No, it isn’t. Its quite possible someone told you this, they were wrong. That’s one thing that is pretty important to grasp- you can be right and wrong about things in debate. Not all opinions are equally valid. There are a fair amount of people who have no business offering debate advice, but you can’t stop them from doing it. What students need to do is THINK. I know, that’s super hard. But remember,its only hard because you are bad at it. You are bad at it because you haven’t practiced it. Good judgement comes from experience,and experience comes from bad judgement. One thing I always tell students to do is not write down word for word what a judge thinks at the end of a round, but right down what THEY THINK about what the judge is saying. This is why many of you suck at taking notes- what you do is just write down what you hear. Computers compound this problem because if you can type fast you never have to think about whats important and should be written down, you can just write down it all. It turns out thinking about what you are hearing helps you learn- who would of guessed. This is why I always tell students to take notes on paper- it makes you learn good. When you get a piece of advice, from me or anyone else, don’t just follow it. Think it through- is this true in your experience? Why or why not? Does it make logical sense? Find other people and talk to them about it- what do they think? Why do you think something different from what they think?
Ego. In Kill Bill Vol 2 there is perhaps the best scene about how to learn in any movie of all time (which unfortunately you could never show in class without being fired). Its the segment entitled “The Cruel Tutelage of Pai Mei”. In this scene Beatrix Kiddo, aka the Bride, meets her new mentor who is, for the most part, a total jackass. He insults and degrades her, eggs her into a fight and then demolishes her. The scene ends with this:
If you can stop me… I suggest you try.
Because you’re helpless?
Have you ever felt this before?
Compared to me… you’re as helpless
as a worm fighting an eagle?
THAT’S THE BEGINNING!
What is this supposed to be telling us? Pai Mei is saying that the beginning of the learning process is to recognize our own ignorance, to shed the ego if you will. He can’t teach the bride to be a badass ninja assassin until she first accepts that she knows nothing, that she is powerless. This is a recurring theme many ancient forms of education from ancient Greece to Asia- students must first be broken down before they can be built up. While I don’t think debate should be taught in the model of the Agoge we have definitely lost something in this regard. People who have never been excellent at something often resist this process- it’s not fun to be broken down. But once you learn one thing really well you can look back with some perspective and see that when you really started making progress coincides with when you surrendered to self destruction. For most of you if you aren’t improving its because you need to get out of your own way- get busy living, or get busy dying.
Now I could offer you all kinds of evidence for this proposition- give you examples, refer you to journal articles etc. You could take it on faith and just trust me. Or, you could think about it. Look back at your life so far and all the things you’ve learned and see if it rings true. You could get some pie and talk about it. Or you could ignore it and just keep doing the same sh…