Jon Thysell

Father. Engineer. Retro games. Ukuleles. Nerd.

Tag: education

Revisiting how to practice the ukulele

A little over a year ago I outlined an index card based system for organizing my ukulele practice sessions. I designed it to help me retain old material while always learning more, to keep my practices structured but still interesting. I used it to create and execute regular practice sessions for several months with great success. In fact I even had the great opportunity to share my system at the first Port Townsend Ukulele Festival during Cathy Fink‘s session on practice tips.

Now, the system wasn’t without its flaws – the biggest complaint was its complexity. While I still believe in the system’s core goals, I’ll admit that the particular implementation I came up with isn’t for everyone.

With that in mind, and in light of this year’s ukulele festival, I thought I’d take another whack at the problem, and distill last year’s system into something a little more user-friendly.

Goals

My goal has never been to become a professional musician. I just want to be able to make some nice music for my family and friends without any notes, aids, and with a little more than a basic up-down-up-down C, F, G7.

With that in mind, the system needs to:

  1. Track all of the new material I want to learn.
  2. Track my progress with the material I’ve already started learning.
  3. Make it easy to create fun practice plans that balance learning new material with retaining old material.

The New System

The new system can be quickly summarized as:

  1. Keep a stack of cards, each with:
    1. Something to practice written on the face.
    2. How many times you’ve practiced it tallied on the back.
  2. When you want to practice, turn the cards face down and draw a random set. Remember:
    1. The more cards the longer the practice session.
    2. Try to have a mix of cards, ie. some with no tallies, some with a few tallies, and some with lots of tallies.
  3. After you’ve practiced each card, add a new tally to the back and return it to the stack.

Simple enough? Too simple? Let’s walk through the details:

The Practice Stack

The new system starts, like the previous one, with a stack of index cards. This is your Practice Stack. Size, color, lines or plain, it’s up to you. Just get a good sized stack.

Now, each card in your Practice Stack is going to represent some particular thing you want to practice. It can be a technique, an exercise, or even a whole song.

So on one side of the card, write or print exactly what you want to practice and for how long. If it’s a technique or exercise, give it at least five solid minutes. For a song, at least long enough to get through the whole thing two or three times.

You can be as vague or specific as you want, whatever works for you. For example, let’s say you want to practice picking your C Major Scale. You can write a simple “C Major Scale / 5 min” or a more elaborate “Finger-pick first-position C Major Scale with a metronome for five minutes”.

Personally I prefer being a little vague, one because it’s easier to write, but also so I have room to experiment while still using the same card. In the beginning, I might practice that C Major scale as slowly and accurately as possible, staring at the fretboard the whole time, but after a lot of practice I might decide to use a metronome to rock out that scale with my eyes closed. Being vague on the card lets me use one instead of two.

Your Stack is Personal to You

Now to start out your Practice Stack, I recommend creating at least a good thirty index cards. Remember, this is your list, so pick things that you want to practice. Your stack won’t be the same as anyone else’s, and that’s okay!

If you’re having trouble coming up with thirty, try the following for inspiration:

The only recommendation I have is to keep a mix of songs and techniques. It’s tempting to list out just the song’s you’d like to learn, but you’ll get much better if you throw in some technique practice.

Tallies Mark Your Progress

Where the front of the card keeps track of what you want to practice, the back keeps track of how many times you’ve actually practiced it. Every time you practice what’s on the front, you’re going to add a tally to the back. How you tally is up to you – you can use pen marks, stickers, colored squares, whatever works for you.

The goal is here is to give you both a physical representation of how much practice you’ve put in and also an easy and quantitative way to compare cards with one another. You’ll use this information to help you decide what to practice.

Practicing

When you sit down to practice, you’re going to draw some set amount of cards from your Stack. Remember:

  1. The number of cards you draw will dictate how long you practice.
  2. By placing them face down and choosing randomly, you’ll make sure that no practice is the same.
  3. By watching the tallies on the back, you can make sure you can get that balance of new and old material.

Now, what will happen is, over time you’ll build up this nice set of index cards with all of the things you’ve learned, and you’ll be able to quickly see the things you’ve focused on and the things you haven’t. It’s quite the feeling to have a physical artifact in your hand of all of the effort you’ve put into playing the ukulele.

Conclusion

That’s it! I hope this helps folks out there, especially those that were intimidated by all of the charts in the first iteration of this system. Does this work for you? Have improvements or other ideas? Let me know in the comments!

Happy strumming,

/jon

How I make the most out of my ukulele practice sessions

When I first picked up an ukulele over a decade ago, I didn’t know how to learn an instrument, didn’t have a plan, didn’t have any guidance, so my interest waned and my ukes became decorations. Last October I picked up the ukulele again, and now, nine months later, I’m getting better and better, in good part thanks to the system I’ve developed for keeping my practices fresh and interesting.

Update (26-AUG-2014): Though there’s still plenty to be said about my system as describe here, I’ve distilled a simpler version in Revisiting how to practice the ukulele.

The Background

It started back in April, when I went to a day of ukulele workshops. Up until then my practices had been fairly unstructured, focusing on a couple songs, simple exercises to build up my finger strength, and the sight-reading work I got from my then-tutor. I was all over the map, and didn’t know what I should be working on. Then at the workshops, I took the chance to speak with one of the teachers (a fairly well-known ukulele player) after his lesson, and explained my situation. This is more or less what he told me (I’m paraphrasing):

I’ve been touring and teaching across the country for years now, and I hit all of the major ukulele festivals and club meetings on the way. I get to see the same people year after year, and the thing I see is, most of them don’t really get any better. No matter which of my classes they take, and many take the same one again and again each year, most just stick with the one basic up-down strum, with the same basic chords, in the same keys, all the time.

If they’d only take five minutes every practice to work on some technique, like finger rolls or triplet strums, then in a couple weeks they’d have a whole new way to liven-up their playing!

I keep a list posted on the wall where I practice. When I find something new, a new technique or riff, I add it to the list. Then I practice the first item on the list for five minutes at the beginning of every session. In a couple of weeks, when I’m comfortable with the technique, I cross it off. In that way every few weeks I’ve got yet another tool in my toolbox. The thing is, the people who come to my classes, most are basically just paying to watch a professional demonstrate what all these techniques and styles look like. They don’t practice them, so they don’t learn them, and the next time I see them, they’re still just up-down strumming.

It’s great to keep learning new songs, but take the first five minutes of every session and practice a new technique before moving on to your song list. You’d be surprised how quickly your versatility will grow.

It’s probably the best ukulele advice I’d received, and since then I’ve been determined not to be another one of those one-key, “up-down strummers” the next time he comes to town.

Then later I got the chance to visit an auntie who’d started the ukulele the same time as me (with the same group) a decade ago. The only difference was she’d kept up with the practices since then. I asked her to play me something, but she said she couldn’t, because she didn’t have her songs sheets with her! Ten years of playing, with a band that had a regular set list, and she hadn’t memorized a single song!

I knew that I didn’t want to be like that in ten years. I didn’t want to be forever shackled to a song book just to make music. So I had some work to do.

The Plan

My goal has always been to play the ukulele well enough for friends and family. To pull out an uke and just play a variety of songs without any notes or song books. To be a little better than just up-down-up-down-up-down.

So how to make sure my practices led me there?

I came up with the set of constraints I’d be dealing with. Any practice plan I developed would hit on the following points:

  • I wanted to really commit regular practice, so I set my sights on an hour each day for five days a week.
  • As per the advice above, my practices needed to be a combination of exercises and songs.
  • I needed a way to balance learning new material with reinforcing older material. Learning all new material every sessions means I’d just forget most of it, doing the same material over and over wouldn’t give me enough of a repertoire to play for long periods.
  • I wanted to be good enough to play anything I practiced without notes.
  • I wanted an easy way to keep track of my progress, as well as all of the techniques I found interesting, or songs I wanted to learn.
  • The system must be portable, analog, and offline. I hate practicing in front of a computer; I want to be able to practice while camping or on the beach if necessary.
  • I decided what I really wanted wasn’t a set-in-stone practice progression to my goal, but something more flexible and randomized to keep it interesting.

The System

The basic system I came up with is this:

  1. Develop and maintain a backlog of songs and exercises that I want to learn and practice.
  2. Each “round” randomly select a set number of items to practice.
  3. For every practice session in a round, follow the practice plan.
  4. After a set number of practice sessions, declare the round complete and add a “tally mark” to each of the items I practiced.
  5. For the next round, I randomly select a new set of items to practice, making sure I have a spread of items with no tally marks (never practiced) to lots of tally marks (practiced plenty).
  6. Repeat.

Sound complicated? Here’s how it worked out in practice.

The Setup

The materialsI used the following items, in keeping with my portable and analog constraint:

  • A package of half-sized index cards
  • A pen and a sharpie
  • A hole punch
  • A loose metal binder ring
  • A notebook

Stacks of cardsFirst I took a stack of index cards and punched a hole in the corner. Then I took six aside and labeled the back of them with the sharpie:

  • Current Practice Plan
  • 0
  • 1
  • 2
  • 3
  • 4
  • 5

Then on the frontside of the “Current Practice Plan” card I wrote a big “DONE!”. You’ll see why later.

I’ll use six cards as dividers in the stack, and so looped them all onto the binder ring.

Then I started by creating the backlog. For each song I wanted to learn, I used the pen to write its title onto the front of a card. Then on the back, I wrote “Song”.

I did the same for any techniques I wanted to learn, with the name on the front and the word “Exercise” on the back. For example, I created cards like “Practice Scales” or “Waltz Strum”.

If you want, you can also add little tidbits of metadata about the item to help you. For example, and songs or exercises that were Hawaiian I marked with Hawai’i on the front and back.

The I took all of these new items and added them to the binder ring, underneath the “0” division. So looking at the back sides, the cards on the ring were:

  • Current Practice Plan
  • 0
  • My entire backlog, where you’re looking at the side that just says “Song” or “Exercise”.
  • 1
  • 2
  • etc.

Next it was time to decide on the parameters of my practice plans. I chose a round of ten practice sessions, or about two weeks real time. I decided on ten five minute items per practice, giving me fifty minutes per session, with some slack for warm up and mistakes. Five minutes may not sound like much, but when I say five minutes, I mean five solid minutes. If the item is “Waltz Strum”, then I literally won’t stop strumming for five whole minutes.

The First Practice Plan

The first practice plan was pretty easy. I simply took the backlog of “0” cards, and drew out ten at random. Okay, maybe not exactly at random, I picked ones that I was already working on, to make the transition smoother. I decided to have half exercises and half songs.

Then I took those ten cards and put them on the ring between “Current Practice Plan” and “0”.

Cards on a binder ringNow, looking at the backs of the cards on the ring, it looked like this:

  • Current Practice Plan
  • The ten items I chose, again looking at the side of “Song” or “Exercise”.
  • 0
  • The rest of my backlog, again looking at the side of “Song” or “Exercise”.
  • 1
  • 2
  • etc.

So now, flip the deck over, and flip through the front sides until you get to the “0” card. Flip one more time, and I’m looking at the first item for me to practice.

Now it’s time to practice! Or first, a detour about the notebook.

In my notebook, labeled “Ukulele Practice Log”, I mark every time I practice, how long it was, and anything of note. I also mark when I spend any significant time noodling, just so I don’t feel bad when I think that I haven’t practiced in a while.

I also make a copy of the current round’s items just for safe keeping. With the order of cards before me, I copy the list of items into the notebook and label it round one.

Now it’s time to practice!

Done after practiceI go through each item one by one and practice it for five minutes. When I reach the end, I hit the card that says “DONE!”

I mark in the notebook that I practiced the round, and repeat every day when I practice.

The Second Round and Beyond

After ten sessions, it’s time to start a new round! First, I take the all ten of last round’s cards, and on the back (the side that says “Song” or “Exercise”) I add a tally mark in the upper corner.

Now I have ten items that I know that I’ve practiced each for at least fifty minutes solid. And now it’s time to make a plan for round two. I want to a mix of new items to freshen up the practice, and some old ones so I get better at them. Here’s where the table comes in:

Balanced Growth, Balanced Variety

Round No Tallies One Tally Two Tallies Three Tallies Four Tallies Five Tallies
1 10
2 2 8
3 2 2 6
4 2 2 2 4
5 2 2 2 2 2
6 2 2 2 2 1 1
7+ 2 2 2 2 1 1

I’m on round 2, so I take eight random cards from the last practice (they have one tally) and two random cards from the backlog (that have no tallies). I try to keep it balanced still with half exercises and half songs.

Now I update the ring. I put the remaining backlog items back under zero-tallies, the two one-tally cards from last round that I’m not practicing this time under one-tally, and my new plan under “Current Practice Plan”. The cards look like this:

  • Current Practice Plan
  • The ten items I chose, eight one-tally and two zero-tally.
  • 0
  • The rest of my zero-tally backlog.
  • 1
  • The two one-tally cards from the last practice.
  • 2
  • etc.

My log bookNow we just repeat ourselves. I write the new practice plan into my notebook, and start practicing. After ten practice sessions, it’s time for a new round, so I add another tally to the back of each card, and shuffle them back onto the ring.

Now I have eight two-tally cards, four one-tally cards, and my backlog. I look to round three on the table, and draw out six two-tally cards, two one-tally cards, and two zero-tally cards.

If you watch the progression, you’ll see that each round we’re adding a little more of something new, while still remembering to practice the things we practiced before. As each round passes, you’re building up a living record of what you know, and how long you’ve practiced each.

The number of cards in each group of tallies will grow, though subtly pushing all cards into the coveted five-tally group. Think about it: with my starting parameters, every card in the five-tally group was practiced at least two hundred and fifty minutes each, or over four hours of solid practice.

Could you have practiced a single song for four straight hours with no breaks, no switching to something else?

The table was designed so that each round you should have enough cards in each group to satisfy what that round requires. But that will only get you through round six. Starting in round six, you’ll use the same distribution of tally-marks in each round, but even though the distribution is the same, because you keep adding tallies to the cards, the actual practice plans will keep changing.

But all those cards moving up the ranks have now created a problem. Rounds seven and beyond still need two new zero-tallies to meet the table’s requirements.

Here’s where maintaining the backlog comes into play. To get through round six, you needed to start with at least twenty cards in the backlog. But independent of your practicing, you need to keep on adding new cards!

Every song you find you want to learn, every technique you hear about, add a new card. That way you’ll never bottom out when it’s time to create a new practice plan for the next round.

Customization

The system is pretty flexible, so you’re free to customize it to suit your own parameters. Two weeks too long for a round? Make it fifteen sessions over three weeks. Five minutes per item too short? Make them ten minutes long for a two-hour practice.

Progression too fast or too slow? Here are some alternate tables with some different progressions for you to try:

Slow Growth, Less Variety

Round No Tallies One Tally Two Tallies Three Tallies Four Tallies Five Tallies
1 10
2 1 9
3 1 1 8
4 1 1 1 7
5 1 1 1 1 6
6 1 1 1 1 1 5
7+ 1 1 1 1 1 5

Fast Growth, More Variety

Round No Tallies One Tally Two Tallies Three Tallies Four Tallies Five Tallies
1 10
2 3 7
3 3 3 4
4 3 3 3 1
5 3 3 2 1 1
6 3 2 2 1 1 1
7+ 3 2 2 1 1 1

Conclusion

Ok, the system looks all great on screen. But does it really work? Well, I’m on round four now, and pretty much everything works as planned- except for the round length. I still keep to ten practices per round, but sometimes my round stretches out over three weeks rather than two. Also I don’t always sit down with the intent to do an actual practice session, some times I just noodle around and experiment in order to relax.

I find it a joy to add cards to my backlog, know that I won’t forget about all of the cool techniques or songs I find online. I’ve also tested the portability of my system, throwing everything into a gig bag with an uke and taking it camping and it works out just fine. As for the randomization, sure, sometimes I draw a card that I’m just sick of at the moment, so I draw again. Remember, ukulele is supposed to be fun!

Also note that this system, while I designed it to help me get better at ukulele playing, could probably be used to learn other skill sets. I imagine it’d work pretty well as guidance for an exercise regimen.

Whether or not you use my system, I hope I gave you some ideas on how to maximize your training sessions. I’m definitely interested in how any of you organize your own practices. Be sure to leave any comments below!

/jon

Rekindling a lost four-string love, Part II

My Ukuleles From Smallest to Largest

I first picked up an ukulele in the summer of 2002, but in ten years I hadn’t gotten beyond a half-dozen chords and one melody. By the time I’d moved to Washington State, my two ukes had become nothing more than decorations, empty hints that I was a musician (like guys who “accidentally” carry guitar picks in their loose change). If you haven’t yet, go read that story in Rekindling a lost four-string love, Part I.

Now, before I pick up my ukulele story in 2012, I first need backtrack a little to 2009, with my brief experience with another, inexpensive, “people’s instrument”. I’m talking about the tin whistle.

See, I like small, portable, entertainment. My favorite board games fit in a jacket pocket. I have packs of playing cards everywhere, in my bags, in drawers, even in my car. Now that I think of it, even back in college, when I was trying to learn the ukulele, I was also tried learning the harmonica. Harmonicas are legendary portable entertainment. The only problems were the breathing and all that tonguing. I could hardly keep my breath just being me, so playing wind instruments was just masochistic. Plus, I was trying to learn ukulele right? The harmonica quickly got lost in a drawer somewhere.

So, now it’s 2009, and I get the itch to learn an instrument again. I look at my ukes, but I think of my wrists, and I start shopping for alternatives. At the same time, I was also on a crazy personal mission to watch everything Star Trek, from beginning to end. Why you ask? Because I’ve been a self-claiming nerd for as long as I can remember, but when I really thought about it, I’d probably only seen a half-dozen episodes of The Next Generation as a child. So I set out to correct that.

Wait, what does this have to do with the tin whistle? Or learning the ukulele? Trekkies know the answer.

The Inner Light.

It’s one of the highest-rated Star Trek TNG episodes, and my absolute favorite. In it, Captain Picard, by virtue of a memory implant from an alien probe, experiences living an entire lifetime with a now extinct people. Most memorable is the titular song he learns to play on a little whistle. So now, sixty pounds lighter than I’d been in college, and with Captain Picard at my back, the idea of a wind instrument doesn’t terrify me anymore. I knew I’d found my new instrument.

Me and my Clarke Tin Whistle

Me and my Clarke Tin Whistle

I went online and bought myself a Clarke Tin Whistle, but much more importantly, I picked up The Clarke Tin Whistle Deluxe Edition by Bill Ochs. It was, by far, the best book on picking up a new instrument, any instrument, that I’d ever read. As I mentioned in Part I, I don’t have a musical background. And though I had a tall stack of ukulele books, most went straight into the grunt-work of learning an instrument, and just weren’t any fun. Frankly, I’d had enough of Mary and her damn little lamb.

But in Bill’s book, within a week, I had a half-dozen songs under my belt. Sure, Mary was in there, but so were others, longer, more interesting songs that sounded pretty even if I didn’t recognize them. Match that with the simplicity of playing the whistle itself, and I was having a blast. Presentation matters, especially for someone like me, with no musical background. And with the tin whistle, I had an extremely portable instrument that was fun to play, and with the book I felt like I was making real progress.

So why am I not writing about rekindling a lost six-hole love? Why did I put down that whistle?

Guilt mostly.

I felt like I should really be playing the uke. I mean I loved ukuleles. My grandmother had bought me one cause I said I was serious about learning it. I’d even bought an expensive one and dragged it around Africa with me. And so after a couple months, as I spent my time elsewhere, the little whistle went into the drawer along with the harmonica.

So why did it take another three years before I picked up the uke? Guess you’ll have to wait until Part III.

Update (02-APR-2013): Continue reading with Part III!

/jon

P.S. Though I set aside learning the whistle, I’d learned something else, something far more valuable. I’d learned that learning an instrument didn’t have to be all grunt work up front with all the fun at the end. That there was a logical progression to learning to play that didn’t need Mary and one chord over and over for hours. And in any area of study, it’s a powerful thing when you learn not just what you aim to learn, but the overall structure and progression for learning things of that category.

It just takes a good teacher. I learned my first programming language at age 8, but without any structure, any wisdom. I hadn’t internalized what it meant to program. It was through my high school computer science teacher that I got a grasp of how to learn a computer language. What to expect. What I needed to know to be able to use that language to solve the problems before me. That skill, learning how to learn a programming language, later became a cornerstone of my career as a software tester.

It’s the same thing with natural languages. When I learned French in high school, I didn’t really remember a thing later. Like most Americans, I had a scatter-shot of language education, especially grammar. Not that important if you’re a native speaker, as long as you’re surrounded by people who speak correctly, you’ll pick it up naturally. But for a foreign language, especially in my case, where immersion wasn’t possible or even encouraged, I was just parroting most of the time. I had no roadmap for turning my thoughts into words. But in college, I learned how to break a language down, to know what things I needed to learn, so that I could function in an immersive environment. By the time I was learning Swahili in Tanzania, I was driving my teacher crazy because I kept wanting to jump ahead of my classmates. I could see the bigger picture, and so knew ahead what I types of things I was going to need to know. But after ten weeks of training, when I was thrown in the deep end of completely on-my-own immersion, and I swam just fine.

Not to put too fine a point on it, but I ended up teaching computer science in Swahili. No way would I have been able to do that, if I didn’t understand how to learn programming, and how to learn a natural language. And computer science is hard enough to teach in your own language!

Taoism and the role of human institutions

Every human institution can be broken down into two parts: its inward, primary essence and its outward, secondary accouterments. Learning to distinguish between these primary and secondary things is an important skill for Taoists.

In our society, the essence of any institution is much more important than the physical trappings that surround it. Chuangtse says:

The primary things should stand at the top and secondary things stand at the bottom.

The text gives several examples of institutions and their secondary things, such as the mourning of the dead:

Weeping and mourning and the wearing of hemp clothes and hemp hemming and the gradations in the length of mourning are secondary things in the expression of sorrow.

Though reflecting the ancient Chinese culture of the text’s origin, we can make clear parallels to the modern Western institution of mourning. Here, the wearing of black clothes, the funeral, the wake, all of these things are secondary when mourning the dead: the important, primary thing is the expression of sorrow.

On the other end of the spectrum, an example can be made of the institution of marriage. On one level we have two people committing their love to a stronger relationship, and the joining of two families. On another we have the costumes, the rings, the cake, the registry, the party, the dancing, and the ceremony. Which of the two groups is more important?

The difference is the thing and its representation. Love and commitment are the primary essence of marriage; the rings, which only represent that love and commitment, are secondary accouterments. Accouterments that aren’t instinctual:

These … secondary things require the employment of the mind and conscious planning before they can be carried out.

There is a broader Taoist thread against such materialism, something I mentioned in passing when I asserted that Taoists value direct experience over formal education. While the primary things are often emotional, experiential, and culturally agnostic (like love), the secondary things are often material, learned, and culturally specific (like the exchange of rings).

The secondary things don’t come to us naturally; such traditions are passed down from generation to generation by education, often in the form of stories. Can anyone deny the influence of fairy tales and childhood stories on our expectations of wedding ceremonies? On the whole institution of marriage?

Don’t get me wrong, this isn’t to say that our traditions, these seemingly unessential secondary things, are altogether bad. They don’t need to be discarded, just not put at the forefront of our minds:

The ancients had this body of the unessential knowledge, but they did not put it first…

This “unessential knowledge” helps define a culture, and is a part of all human societies. Problems only arise when those secondary things are held with higher importance than the primary essences which they represent.

We know this to be true, in mourning, love, and even telling stories: that when we follow traditions for traditions’ sake, and only “go through the motions”, we risk losing what’s really important.

A marriage without a strong sense of love and commitment won’t last, no matter how lavish and perfect the ceremony. Without true sorrow, going to a funeral and wearing black and acting somber is just that: acting.

We see this often in religious ceremony, and we all know people who only go through the motions. Remember, the moral values of a religion are more important than the details of their ceremonies; the meaning behind the teachings more important than the teachings themselves.

We need the secondary things because they’re an easy shorthand for us to express ourselves, and to teach our values to our children. They’re loose outlines and reminders of what’s really important in our lives. Taoism can’t and doesn’t require the elimination of such accouterments; it only asks that people understand that they are in fact secondary, and to not elevate their importance beyond the essential things which they represent.


An earlier draft of this article was originally published February 01, 2008 under a former pseudonym of mine. I rescued it with WXR to HTML, and I present it here revised and expanded.

/jon

Taoism suggests experience over education

The following passage from the Chuangtse is one of my favorites:

A boat may be hidden in a creek, or concealed in a bog, which is generally considered safe. But at midnight a strong man may come and carry it away on his back. Those dull of understanding do not perceive that however you conceal small things in larger ones, there will always be a chance of losing them. But if you entrust that which belongs to the universe to the whole universe, from it there will be no escape. For this is the great law of things.

The Chuangtse is a key Taoist text, and a literal reading of this passage provides a level of understanding that coincides with the larger Taoist thread against materialism and the cleverness that a materialistic society values.

There is however, a deeper level of understanding present, one concerning the nature of knowledge and understanding itself. First, a problem is proposed:

Those dull of understanding do not perceive that however you conceal small things in larger ones, there will always be a chance of losing them.

Beyond just material objects, this also applies to knowledge and in particular knowledge that affects how we should act. Almost all belief systems proscribe a set of behavioral rules or suggestions for their adherents to follow. These suggestions provide the practical application of a belief system’s ethical and moral values.

As a species we’re addicted to telling stories and so ancient sages figured out pretty quickly that stories are powerful methods for teaching and spreading knowledge. In belief systems the world over, we have innumerable instances of stories meant to teach us how we’re supposed to behave. In the words of the above passage, we have knowledge (small things) encoded (concealed) within stories (large things).

So what’s the problem?

Cultures change. Language changes. Stories become translated and reinterpreted. Sometimes the author just wasn’t clear enough to begin with. When we depend on stories to protect our knowledge, we risk losing the original knowledge within the details of the stories themselves. When the stories are brought in and out of context with other stories in a belief system, we risk further degradation of the original signal.

Like a man with a strong back, belief systems can hijack behavioral suggestions by bogging us down with the details of the stories that contain them.

Most belief systems are founded on the principle that their behavioral suggestions flow from their particular conception of the nature of the universe. Christian behavioral suggestions for example, flow from God because Christians conceive of the universe as the creation of God.

Such a conception however, can lead to an education problem. Even without the benefit of stories, the more knowledge a belief system has, the more it is necessary for a system of education to spread that knowledge. Encoding that knowledge in stories may make the teaching easier, but there’s still a lot to learn.

It’s really a problem of derivation. If the end goal is knowing how to behave properly for the right reasons, the question becomes: How many of the stories do I need to know in order to act right? For most belief systems, that means learning a whole lot of stories.

So what about Taoism? Taoism proposes a solution to the story trap:

But if you entrust that which belongs to the universe to the whole universe, from it there will be no escape.

Don’t trust stories for their knowledge; you’re practically guaranteed to not understand them completely as the author intended. Instead, put your trust in observing and experiencing the universe directly. The ancient sages came up with some great ideas on what behavior leads to a positive society, and they didn’t get it from stories, they got it from observing how societies operate, asking questions, and performing experiments. In the end, it’s all very scientific.

Of course as human beings, even the sages like to tell stories, and as they’re generally trying to help others, they encoded their knowledge into those stories. The difference is, whereas most belief systems ultimately say: “This is the truth, believe it,” Taoists instead say: “This is what we observed to be true, but don’t take our word for it, observe the universe for yourself.”

In fact many Taoist stories actually make fun of people who insist on studying the writings of sages, rather than gaining first-hand experience themselves. Even more exult the inability of teachers to pass on their wisdom to their students, and how frustratingly we want to teach others what we’ve learned.

Taoism concludes that observation and direct experience are preferable to education. They provide their own list of observations on how people should act in order to create a positive society, but they also follow that list with the empowering offer for us to experience the world and derive the list for ourselves.

I discovered Taoism through the writings of Lin Yutang. If you’re interested in Taoism I highly recommend his The Wisdom of Laotse.


An earlier draft of this article was originally published January 23, 2008 under a former pseudonym of mine. I rescued it with WXR to HTML, and I present it here revised and expanded.

/jon