Learning Curves and Diabetes

As a piano teacher focusing on jazz improvisation, I have the following interaction at least once a week:

New Student: I want to improvise and sound like (fill in name of jazz legend here).

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Me: That’s great. Can you play your major and minor scales? (For those who don’t know music — these are rudimentary pieces of music theory that have to be in place before any student can even BEGIN to venture into the territory of real improvisation.)

New Student: No, but I don’t care about major and minor scales — I want to play the kind of stuff (insert name of jazz legend) plays! HE doesn’t just play major and minor scales.

Me: Sigh…

To be fair, I’m exaggerating a little bit here. Many of my students are just fine starting where they need to start and are diligent in their studies. That’s because most of them understand, even as young adolescents, that a learning curve is a progression over time. You start at the bottom, and methodically move your way up. There are no shortcuts (something I’ve said nearly every week to some of my students, who still go home and try to find those shortcuts). However, a learning curve isn’t simply a straight line pointing up. A learning curve, as the name suggests, is a curve, starting slowly and eventually gaining momentum.

What that means for my students is that the first stretch is the most painful. You see, that’s the period where the information is collecting, but it’s not yet been internalized or synthesized to the point where that knowledge is available for instant recall and use. It’s a crucial period — those who have the willpower and the character to consistently practice during the initial period, when the movement upward is barely even perceptible, are the ones who can make it in music.

Learning to manage diabetes has the same kind of curve. And I think it’s easy for us to forget that — whether we are parents helping our child adjust, newly diagnosed ourselves and learning to adjust, or perhaps helping older parents adjust. I think back to when I was learning to count carbs. When I first heard about it, I was so overwhelmed I wanted to crawl in bed and just sleep for a solid month! I thought there was no way I could ever get to the point where I could just look at a plate of food and estimate grams of carbohydrates. And, for that initial period, I couldn’t! I guessed wrong all the time. But I continued to study, continued to quiz myself, continued to educate myself, meet with my doctor, and over time I started to “get a feel” for it.

Just like my students, the crucial thing was that I avoided the temptation to simply “give up” during the initial slow climb. And I remember watching other people my age with diabetes who had essentially given up — they didn’t count carbs, they didn’t calculate insulin, they didn’t analyze the results of their readings. And it wasn’t because they were bad people, or lazy people. I think it was mostly because they didn’t understand how a learning curve works.

Think about this — if things didn’t start to get easier and move more quickly once a critical mass of information was internalized, if learning never accelerated into the second half of that curve, wouldn’t you give up? I certainly would. If you don’t understand the nature of a learning curve — that is, if you don’t understand that things will get easier, why would you continue to torture yourself with the painfully slow pace of new learning?

We have to understand how that curve works, or we’ll never make it with this disease. And it’s not just newly diagnosed people that need to understand this, either. How often do we run into periods of change in our care regimen? What happens when the levels that had worked before shift and we’re back to ground zero? We’re faced with a learning curve all over again! Of course, it’s easier than the first time — after all, we’re armed with a mountain of knowledge. But we’re still looking at a new set of data that hasn’t yet coalesced into recognizable patterns. And even with all that knowledge going in, we still have to sit through a small period of “I don’t know” before the curve begins to accelerate.

Diabetes is full of learning curves. Understanding how they work can save us from a world of heartache and frustration. And let me conclude with a message specifically for those of you who are newly diagnosed, and may be struggling to keep the faith: Yes, it gets easier, and yes, if you persevere, the curve will start rising! So stay with it, and don’t give up — just ride out the curve.

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