Struggling to Learn New Skills? Here's Advice From Top Learners on How to Learn Quickly
Updated: Mar 25, 2022
It's 2015 I'm in my second year of undergrad and just finished my Core Humanities midterm. My brain is fried from having to cram all of that information on Gilgamesh and the Middle Ages just hours before the exam. And within minutes it seems like I had forgotten everything I memorized. I couldn't even tell you the supporting characters. All of that information lost. I passed my exam but I didn't learn anything about "how ancient and medieval ideas provided the foundation for the modern world", one of the main learning outcomes of the course.
This continued throughout my college career, especially with required courses. I passed the class but I didn't retain any of the information I was supposed to learn. It wasn't necessarily a lack of trying, I wanted to learn, especially with subjects that interested me like math or pedagogy (study of education), but I struggled to do so.
Last week I discussed Cal Newport's book Deep Work. He states to become successful in this new digital age then you need to be able to: (1) learn complex things; and (2) produce at an elite level. In other words, continually learning, is necessary for those who want to further in their career. Many successful individuals committed to a lifetime of learning like F.D. Roosevelt, Winston Churchill, and Benjamin Franklin to name a few. A majority of us want to learn, whether that be to further our career, learn a new hobby or learn a new useful skill like cooking. But we don't know how to.
I found the best advice from those who have spent 100+ hours studying the skill of learning and I'll be breaking down how to learn complex skills.
Why We Struggle - I'll go into why we struggle with learning
How to Learn - How to actually begin learning and the three phases
Why We Struggle
If it isn't a lack of effort on our part to learn then why do we struggle with it? Why, even when we gear ourselves up to learn a new skill like cooking, do we still falter? For two main reasons:
We don't know how to learn.
It is difficult and we tend to avoid hard things.
Memorizing facts is not learning. There's more to mastery than recalling facts. I know many of us who've attended school, whether that be recently or not, we were forced to learn seemingly random facts like: "what is the powerhouse of the cell?" or the Pythagoram theorem. I won't go into why or why not certain subjects were taught. But I know for many of us we didn't "learn" the subject most of us memorized the facts right before the exam in order to pass the test, just like I did with my core humanities course. School, at least when I was going to school (2000s and 2010s), didn't teach me "how" to learn, I was simply memorizing facts and rarely did I understand the principles and concepts behind these subjects. True mastery of a subject is more than memorization but we aren't taught the how.
Many of us forget: learning is difficult. In both So Good They Can't Ignore You and Deep Work Cal Newport says that the way to truly learn is to go into intense sessions of concentration and focus, in other words you need to deliberately practice the skill you're trying to learn. Deliberate practice is the technique used by masters, it is a focus on stretching your ability and receiving immediate feedback. Deliberate practice isn't easy, in fact it's difficult, time consuming and exhausting. But in order to improve past the level of "adequate" it is necessary. Most people when they "practice" a skill they are much more casual, they stick to what they're comfortable with, what they're good at because we tend to avoid uncomfortable, we feel good when we're skilled at something. I used to do it when I practiced piano, I would just play songs I was skillful at. I avoided songs that were difficult because I didn't like being uncomfortable or bad. But I wasn't actually getting better, my progress halted. Newport says "if you just show up and work hard, you'll soon hit a performance plateau beyond which you fail to get any better". We have to actively and continually dedicate ourselves to deliberate practice, to do something that is often unenjoyable.
"Deliberate practice is often the opposite of enjoyable".
How to Learn:
Now onto to how to actually learn a skill. I've broken this up into three phases: (1) the mindset; (2) the preparation; and (3) the methods.
Before you begin learning you must change your mindset. You must: first let go of the misconceptions you have about learning and then new ideas about the practice of learning.
The first is to get rid of misconceptions you may have about learning. One of them is you're too late to start learning this skill, there's already so many other people who started young. There's a piece of advice given to new investors, taken from an old Chinese proverb, "the best time to start investing was 20 years ago. The second best time is now". We can agonize over what could've been, how much of a great guitarist you could've been if only you started 10 years ago at age 10, but you didn't. The second best time is now, if you continue to focus on the past, your future will look the same as it does now. You'll say "if only I started to learn the guitar at age 20". Get rid of this misconception, it will only harm you. Another is "you either have it or you don't", while some may have an innate talent to pick up a skill quickly this generally isn't rue.
The second is to adopt a new way of thinking about learning and accept the following:
You're going to suck in the beginning and that's okay, don't expect perfectionism.
Don't expect to be good at the skill in the beginning.
Don't let fear stop you. If you never practice because you're afraid to fail or to look foolish, then you are never going to get better.
Forgive yourself for messing up.
Learning is a process. Don't expect to be able to master a skill quickly, it takes time and gradual improvements.
Once you have a clear mind about learning the next phase is the preparation. Before you begin learning you must find out what to learn. Ask yourself these questions about the subject/skill you'd like to learn and then research to discover the answers. You can find this information from: online articles, Youtube videos, books, podcasts, or connect with experts in the field. This preparation stage is extensive but it will save you hours in the long run because you will have a basic roadmap of what you need to learn; you won't waste your time memorizing useless information or practicing unrelated skills.
What are the basics that I need to know? What is the fundamental information you need to know? Focus on base set of knowledge or information necessary for everyone who learns this skill. We are emphasizing memorization.
For piano the basics are finding middle C on the piano, matching the musical alphabet (ABCDEFG) to the keys, playing the basic finger scale, chords, and how to play with both hands.
If you want to learn how to type then you need to memorize the home row ASDF and JKL:, where your hands sit on it, and the basic layout of the keyboard.
What are the underlying principles needed to have a better understanding of the skill? What concepts do you need to get a base knowledge for that skill? What are the building blocks needed before you can learn anything else? This question is focused on the principles, concepts, ideas of the skill. Understanding is the priority.
Back to the piano example, the principles that can help you learn music and piano in general is studying music theory. If you have a base knowledge of music theory (common patterns, chords, timing in music) and how its applied to songs and recognize those sounds. Then it makes learning anything on the piano easier.
For math, once you understand the basics (numbers, counting) then the base knowledge needed is learning arithmetic (addition, subtraction, multiplication, division), fractions and decimals, values. To name a few.
What are the most important sub-skills of the broader skill you're trying to learn? What are the critical small skills that make up the larger skill? Identify these key pieces. Think of the subskills as the branches of a tree that all connect into the main trunk (skill). Focus on a few key skills, think of the Pareto principle (80/20 rule) find the 20% of sub-skills that make up 80% of the ability to do the skill. Remember we are identifying these skills, not learning them yet.
The skill, "play the piano" is broad but the sub-skills or parts that make up the larger skill are: reading sheet music, hand-eye coordination (ability to use the hands, fingers, and feet to play the piano), and a sense of rhythm are a few critical skills.
Another skill like, "write online articles" is extensive but a few sub-skills are: research the topic, edit your work, clarity in the piece.
After you know what you need to learn (basics, principles, sub-skills) the final step is to do the actual learning. This is the how step, the deliberate practice. The focus is to actively and deliberately practice the skill. We have moved past passively watching Youtube videos and tutorials. Below are a ten techniques to use when you're learning a new skill:
Set a goal before every session - Go into every practice session with a deliberate goal in mind, something you'd like to accomplish by the end of the session. Don't go into a session without anything or you waste your time. If you practicing playing a video game then one sessions goal could be drilling a certain set of combo moves.
Practice the skills in a similar environment - practice the skill you're trying to learn in a similar environment that you are going to utilize it, you want to immerse yourself in a similar environment. This way when the time comes you are more likely to succeed in this environment rather than get "stage fright" and freeze. If you are interested in stand up comedy for instance you want to practice in a similar environment that you would experience performing on stage. You could start by performing in front of a small group and increase the number of people. Or if you want to learn a new language immerse yourself where the language is spoken so you can practice your skills in real world scenarios, not just the controlled environment of a classroom.
Teach others what you're trying to learn - teach someone else the skill you're trying to learn. Verbalizing requires to re-word your innate knowledge, you'll quickly know whether or not you truly know the subject. If you can't explain it to a 5-year-old you don't really understand it (read more in my article, Learning When Teaching).
Imitate, assimilate, innovate - from Jazz Legend Clark Perry, this technique gives you a built-in instant and guaranteed feedback mechanism (you can compare your work to the person you're trying to copy).
Imitate what you see - as a note you are not plagiarizing, trying to pass off their work as your own but instead using it to practice your own skillset. Find someone who you admire in this skillset and then copy their work to practice. For writers you can copywrite, find a piece of work you admire and copying it down word-for-word. In music it is when you practice someone else's song.
assimilate it into your practice - then you work on incorporating what you copied into your own work. In writing you put in an author's sentences, or how they organize their work into your own. And in music you can put in verses you like into your own pieces.
innovate or change what they did - finally after incorporating their work you can change it to match your own style and it becomes your own piece of work. In writing change the sentence structure or edit out words. In music tweak the verse, splice it up into different parts of your song or change the melody.
Focus on small incremental improvements - Instead of trying to learn a large amount of information or techniques at once (which will break up your focus, making your learning slower), focus instead on improving your skills incrementally, it may seem small but it's the compound interest of self-improvement, the effects are multiplied. Make a list of the small techniques/skills you would like to improve and over time you'll look back and realize how much you've accomplished.
Get corrective feedback - find a way for you to get feedback on how you're doing, this will let you identify what you need to work on. You can do this by finding a teacher, practicing with a group, taking a course online.
Space repetition - this is to combat the forgetting curve, which is basically whenever we learn a fact or skill we're just going to forget it over time. This is when you repeat the skill/concept/idea at spaced intervals so we don't forget it. You can use a tool like Anki, which is great for memorization and spaces the information out for you. Or simply create a calendar event on your phone (or an actual calendar) that repeats after a certain amount of time (weekly, twice a month, once a month, etc.) so you can practice old skills to not forget them.
Write it down - when studying a concept or principle, one of the best ways is to first write it down word-by-word so you can begin to memorize it. Then try to explain in your own words the concept (similar to teach others method), this forces you to capture data in your own words and allows for greater recall. Watch lectures on the topic, education Youtube videos, read articles or books.
Observe - similar to imitating, this time you are simply watching an expert in the field do the skill you're trying to learn. You are not passively watching though you are applying critical observation to skill development so you can learn it much faster. If you want to become a professional gymnast watch Olympic gymnasts perform their routines, or if you're interested in cooking watch a pro-chef in their element.
Test yourself - for memorization you want to work on actively recalling the information and not rely on looking up the information. If you're trying to learn a process then practice remembering this process without any external help, it will reduce the time it takes for you to complete this procedure. For example, if you are learning how to cook a certain dish, practice cooking the dish without looking at a recipe. Or for learning how to code, practice creating a simple algorithm without looking it up online. This will help solidify your knowledge.
You don't need to use all ten of these when learning a new skill but incorporating at least 3 of them will greatly improve your learning. One way to test your knowledge is to work on a larger project that lets you utilize all of the sub-skills you've been learning to build a project. I did this for my Google Capstone Project, I took many of the sub-skills needed to become a data analyst (knowledge of spreadsheets, data analysis using R, data visualization), and used all of them to create my dashboard.
Remember we struggle to learn because not only is "learning is not supposed to be easy it is supposed to be hard" but because we don't know how to do. And the three phases above: mindset, preparation, and methods are a step-by-step guide on how to begin learning complex skills quickly. Committing to a a life-time of learning can not only benefit your career but can improve your mind and life. Hopefully you found this article useful.
Blow are the resources I used for this article.
I will be writing a future article on how to master complex skills. This article is more about how to have an intermediate understanding of skills. If you would like to receive an email when that is published or would like more resources on learning and self-development subscribe to my newsletter Kelly's Bytes, here.