rodney mullen and mastery

Jul 31, 2021 – Leo Robinovitch

Today, I fell asleep on the couch watching youtube and woke up halfway through a Rodney Mullen documentary.

Rodney Mullen, like Simone Biles in gymnastics or Derren Brown in magic, is one of the best that will ever be in their domain. World champ at 14, inventor of the ollie and kickflip, a laundry list of other accolades…there’s not much to dispute.

The podium finishers at the olympics this year in Skateboarding, while insanely skilled, won their medals doing stuff that doesn’t look much different than what Mullen was doing in the 80’s.

Around 2/3 of the way through the documentary, Mullen describes his process for filming a hard trick.

you have these motions that you know in your head

but what actually makes the trick for you is finally, you pack all that stuff for granted and you forget about it

then you’re focusing only on one aspect - where my eye is and back shoulder is when I see the edge of the table – and everything else is taken for granted and runs autopilot

as long as I can control that one thing and get a good start, I’ve got it

and that’s how it works for me - stack stack stack stack stack, bracket and put, like, a tablecloth over it, and focus on this last little bit and that’s what does it

This procedural layout makes so much sense to me, and I absolutely love the stacking and tablecloth analogy bit. He’s describing how we all learn and progress.

Some of the physical progressions I’ve undergone from my teens until now have really explicitly resembled this process, albeit always at a much lower level than Mullen :)

All of these things were accomplished by drilling fundamentals, implicitly or explicitly, until I could put them “under the table cloth” - they were no longer the awkward bits that needed active attention. Then I’d focus on the next awkward bit that did need attention, trusting that my body would execute the rest.

Shifting the effortful to the automatic, recognizing that there’s always the next effortful thing. If it’s all automatic, I’ve stopped trying to progress.

What’s wild is that the mechanisms of progression at insanely high levels, like where Mullen is, are more or less the same as those at really low levels. Sure, at the high levels, there’s probably better strategy - more thought put in to identifying the most important effortful bits to focus on for maximum benefit, maybe with the help of coaching and videos and the like.

But what it takes to improve at a low level and what it takes to improve at the highest levels is more or less the same. Progression is the continuous shifting of the effortful to the automatic, then incorporating it to take on the next effortful thing. It happens at a non-linear rate, which is why there are plateaus and large jumps. People are able to progress at different rates across different disciplines, partly due to talent and disposition and partly due to strategic approach.

This applies to less sporty things. A really interesting example is Andrej Karpathy, Director of AI at Tesla. Here is a video of him in 2009 teaching youtube how to solve a Rubik’s cube. The process it takes to gain mastery in solving a Rubik’s cube is similar to that of mastering Computer Vision.

There are things that impede progression, not all of them so bad.

Jumping between disciplines is a big one. I know people, and sort of am one myself, who will build a skill tree in one domain and then abandon it for a whole new domain. Sometimes some skills transfer, but more often you start over pretty much from scratch. What transfers is your improved strategies for general progression, not the skills themselves. The tradeoff between trying many things in life and getting really good at those things is real.

Boredom and burnout are common impediments, too. Looking at a discipline analytically, actively identifying your deficiencies and targeting them until other things become your limiting factor - this can get boring! Or it can be really painful! It may suck all the fun out of the discipline in the first place.

Another one is the harsh realization that despite your best efforts, your ability to level up in a discipline will never match the rate you require to feel satisfied. If your love for the discipline stems from your progression within it and not just doing the thing for its own sake, you need a rate of improvement that will satisfy you. Not everyone can start skateboarding at 10 and be a world champion by 14. If you’re trying your hardest to progress but still dissatisfied with the activity, you either need to adjust your expectations, change the source of pleasure you derive from the activity, or find something else to work on.

These days, much like my homepage banner, I’m thinking about progression in my role in relationships, programming, and surfing. I feel I have a good balance of satisfaction-from-progression and satisfaction-from-doing-the-thing-itself in all these things. I know that I may switch some disciplines again in the future, but I’m ok with that, and wouldn’t see it as a failure. My strategies for progression in any discipline can help carry me to where I’d like to be, and I’ll be sure to stop and smell the roses along the way :).