We have all heard the euphemism: "It is just like learning to ride a bicycle." What many of us seldom remember, is how hard it was to learn to ride that bike in the first place.
During graduate school at MIT, I decided to learn something new every semester. My rule was that it needed to be unique from my daily engineering grind. It could be familiar, bizarre, or something I just never got around to learning. In my second fall at MIT, I decided I would learn to ride a unicycle.
On September 6th, 2012 I pulled the trigger on a cheap, 20-inch unicycle on Amazon. It arrived two days later. I opened the massive box and began assembling the device. There was not much to it. First, I unboxed a single wheel and two bearings pinned between a pair of chrome pedals. Next, I pulled out an inverted U-shaped post with a seat protruding. I clamped the end of the seat post around the bearings. Done. With just a touch of air to top off the tires, I took it out to the courtyard of my MIT dorm near the Charles River for an “adventure.”
I had read online about how to ride it and envisioned a concept of how to start. The yard had a small handicap ramp with a railing. Perfect. I could steady myself with the railing, place my foot in the lower pedal, and then get a little free momentum if desired.
1, 2, 3…I hit the concrete. All it took was for me to let go of the railing and in half a second I lost the battle with an unstable oscillation. The unicycle shot out from under me.
Thump. Clang. Repeat. I hit the concrete again. And again. And again.
The other students must have thought I was out of my mind, but there was a reason for my persistence. I read somewhere that it takes about 15 hours to learn to ride a unicycle and that most of that time was spent falling over. For only two hours of humiliation and potential bodily harm a day, I could pick up a completely new skill in just over a week.
All I had to do was accept failure as the normal process of permanent learning.
I don't remember the exact number of hours it took me to get going. Fall after fall I would make a little more progress. Eventually I could get a few pedals in before losing balance. Finally, I made it all the way to campus riding high on only one wheel.
How do people truly learn? I don’t mean superficial knowledge. The “cram the night before the test, ace it, and then have no recollection of it the next semester” type of knowledge. By “truly” I mean how do people completely internalize something until it becomes part of their autonomic nervous system? I am talking about the type of knowhow that is hard to forget and completely innate. That gut instinct or knack that is demonstrated by some of greatest innovators and leaders of our time.
This type of learning requires a similar progression as learning to ride a bike, or in my case, a unicycle. It consists of learning through process.
I illustrate this process in the image below. I call this the Permacycle. The first step is to accept the challenge of learning a new skill. Challenge often leads to failure. Anything worth calling a challenge has a high risk of some type of failure, but that is a good thing. Learning is the result of each turn of the challenge-failure cycle. Learning builds skill, the purpose of our endeavor. The entire process is enhanced by the faster the feedback loop is closed. Each pedal is labeled with grit. Grit allows you to push the challenge-failure cycle forward. Without it, you give up at the first sign of failure and go nowhere.
As a mentor, educator, and now father, I reflect on how this concept can be used to improve education. A course designed to exploit the framework of the Permacycle would employ these 5 tenets.
The details of how these tenets could be implemented in an undergraduate course is the topic of another article. How they could be implemented to improve the state of graduate education could be the topic of another thesis.
What skill do you think this analogy can help you learn? How would you implement this philosophy in education? Let me know in the comments below.
Thank you for joining me as I hop on another unicycle and begin my journey in writing. I would like to thank my former MIT colleague Frederick Daso for inspiring me to publish. Please check out his articles on Forbes and LinkedIn.
Think Beyond is a monthly series about life, technology, entrepreneurship, and adventure. Tune in next time for “Getting electrocuted for science. My experiences as a human test subject.” For updates, follow me on Twitter or visit my Website.
Dr. Forrest Meyen is an American engineer and scientist. He is a senior member of the technical staff and Sembler startup office program manager at Draper. He is also a member of the NASA Mars Oxygen ISRU Experiment Science Team and focuses on solid oxide electrolysis characterization, modeling, and control. At Draper he contributes to analysis software for Sierra Nevada's Dream Chaser, engineering support for DARPA's Fast Light Weight Autonomy drone program and develops wearable technologies for astronauts.