Thursday, June 9, 2011

Learning 4/5—Play with Alternatives

This week, I've got a theme: Learning. There are five steps in the process of truly learning something and I'll be discussing one each day.
Choose to Learn | Don't Take Notes | Try it Out | Play with Alternatives | Teach It

Play with Alternatives (Part 4 of 5)
Understanding, like skill, is as much about breadth as it is about depth. Have you ever beaten a player running the best deck in the room because he doesn't know what makes it the best deck? Have you met the artist who can draw wonderfully but can't paint to save her life? Or the medic who can save a stroke victim but can't tell the difference between a cold and a flu? Serious rock climbers tend to have tiny legs while serious bicyclists tend to have tiny arms. It's not uncommon in the human quest to be the best at something that we focus so single-mindedly on it that we ignore related skills because they don't directly progress our goal.

While there is clearly marketability and legitimate merit in being that good at anything, mastering an entire discipline offers a breadth of understanding and ability that will improve all of your related skills, beyond the point you could have reached otherwise. It's for this reason that a quick-draw artist also practices his aim, that a juggler will toss more than just balls, or a great Constructed Magic player will flex her muscles in Limited. By learning the things outside our specialty, we gain a new perspective on our specialty and that can only benefit us.

If you've ever played a logic game, you have experienced that moment of discovery where you realize that testing for falsities is as useful as testing for truths. Zendo is my favorite example of a logic game. One player decides what rule or condition gives a set of pieces the "Buddha nature" and the other players build sets of pieces, then ask (or guess) whether they satisfy that rule or not. Determining that the rule has nothing to do with the number of pieces in the set is just as important as determining that the color red does. In order to truly understand something, you must know what it is not just as well as what it is.

That's what makes the study of the Universe so appealing to astrophysicists: We know so much about what the Universe is, but so very little about what it is not and so there remains an unknowably large margin of nebulous possibility. The point is, in order to better understand something, it is insufficient to test the bounds of what we already know; we must also test what we don't yet know.

In art, this can be trying a different medium; in sports, a different strategy; in engineering, a different shape. And we must be willing to try these things even if what we do know leads us to believe they won't work, because we don't know that they won't work and we'll never know if we don't try. This is the heart of invention and discovery. You cannot discover what you do not test.

In design, this can mean trying silly ideas that don't sound terribly reasonable just to see if they can lead to something unexpected, but it can also mean never being satisfied with a good mechanic until you've tried every permutation of it to verify there isn't a better mechanic. How poor would Zendikar have been if R&D had settled on a decent land-related mechanic like Embiggen and hadn't kept exploring additional options.

In school, most of the problems you are given to solve have only one solution by design. In real life, very few problems have only one solution. Being a good problem-solver is being able to find a solution to every problem. Being a great problem-solver is being able to find multiple solutions and determine the best.

The hard part is knowing when to stop. So you've found a solution that's better than your last, which was better than your first. How do you know if that's the best solution or if there's still a better solution waiting for you to discover it with just a bit more exploration? The bad news is that you don't. The good news is that the real world doesn't give infinite time and unlimited rewards for finding the best solution; everything is a balance of risk and reward, of effort and payoff. As long as you've got time before your deadline, you might as well keep searching, but why would you push your deadline unless you already have a lead on something better? And even if you do, will that solution be worth the extra time and resources required to find it? There's always a limit. And that's a good thing. Put down your pencils, the quiz is over. Drop the brush, the canvas is dry. Start the presses, this paper has to be delivered.

Check back tomorrow for the final part: Teach It.

1 comment:

  1. Good points. It seems the hardest thing for a set designer is knowing what to explore, and how long.