My favorite story is of an emperor who orders one of his subjects to draw him a rooster. The emperor waits and waits. Finally after a year, the emperor can wait no longer, and goes to visit his subject.
The emperor demands the drawing, upon which the subject whips out a piece of paper and, in seconds, completes a perfect rendering of a rooster. The emperor is furious and demands to know why he had to wait a year. The subject asks the emperor to follow him.
The two travel to a small hut. Inside are thousands of drawings of a rooster. “Your majesty,” said the subject, “It took me a year to learn to be able to draw the rooster which I gave you today.”
I knew when I read Charles Dickens that he was a master at creating intricate sentences. I thought it might be a good idea to study those sentences, but I didn’t. Neither did I ever do a detailed study of lots of jazz transcriptions even though this is how most people learn to solo.
I have waited to do both of these things until I felt I was ready to approach them with a measure of ease and experience. Had I gone ahead, my learning process would have been somewhat tortuous, full of uncertainty, with lots of effort and confusion. By waiting until I had a certain amount of background knowledge, I could learn as much in a week of study as I might have learned in a year.
But I waited ten years to learn that stuff! So is it a fair trade? Learn tortuously over a year, or easily after ten?
I had a piano student who wanted to learn Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue and would not be satisfied learning anything else. Because he was far from being able to play it, I started him down the very gradual path he would need to master the work over a couple of years. He quit after a lesson or two.
If you wait to learn something, you can be using that time to learn something else. It’s not wasted time. It’s a more efficient use of your time.
On the other hand, if you wait too long to start learning something that really interests you, you might never get to learn it. You also don’t get the benefit of being able to use that knowledge for all the years you waited. This is known as opportunity cost.
As teachers, we have to help our students decide when to scale Mount Everest and when to wait until the helicopter arrives. If a student is driven and passionate about something, it may be fine to let them struggle ahead of their abilities, because they will enjoy the struggle and it will teach them a lot. On the other hand, if the teacher can help them go shopping for the right gear and guidebooks, they’ll enjoy the climb a lot more.