Never before has there been so much information readily available at our fingertips. Never before has there been so many free resources to learn new skills and expand our minds. But with this unprecedented access to knowledge, never before has there been so much confusion about what advice one ought to follow.
More often than not, what separates the people who seem to pick things up fast and excel at everything they try isn’t that they’ve stumbled on the best insights out there. Rather, it’s that they’ve learned how to learn well.
Here are 10 things quick learners do differently to pick up anything.
1. Use the 80/20 rule
In 1906 an Italian economist, Vilfredo Pareto, observed that 80% of the land in Italy was owned by 20% of the population. Taking the observation further he noticed that 80% of the peas in his garden were produced from 20% of the pods. Years later, economist Joseph M. Juran called this 80/20 rule the Pareto principle.
Productivity experts like NYT bestselling author Tim Ferriss have popularised this approach as a means to learning quickly. For instance, when it comes to learning a language a good question to begin with is: what are the 20% of the words that are used 80% of the time?
Find the 80/20 rule in the subject of your studies. What are the main ideas? What are the most important elements that yield the biggest return on investment? Start with these questions.
2. View failure as feedback
We often try to avoid failure at all costs. We typically engage in pastimes we feel competent in and try not to venture out of our comfort pits for fear of looking like a dork. We play it safe.
This isn’t the way we’ve always been. When learning how to talk, we would mumble and sing and talk gobbledegook for hours on end to anyone who would listen. When first learning to walk, we would crawl and stand and fall hundreds of times, sometimes hurting ourselves, and try again a few minutes later.
Think about all of the hobbies you had growing up–yo-yo, skateboarding, drawing, instruments, sports–every month there was a new fad every kid had to try. We were excited to learn, to improve, whether that meant failing along the way or not.
The greatest minds in history keep this childlike curiosity their entire lives. Thomas Edison, arguably the greatest creative scientist of all time, was racing to invent the light bulb before anyone else. He failed over 10,000 times.
When asked in an interview how he felt about his failures, without a missing a beat he replied:
“I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.”
There can be no learning without failure. Embrace it.
“Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication” – Leonardo da Vinci
The idea of the superhuman learner who reads 15 books on different subjects at once, while learning 10 different languages and writing 3 novels, is a myth. Multitasking leads to poor performance.
A study conducted by the University of London found that people who had their email on while doing work that required concentration lost 10 IQ points. If you haven’t slept for 36 hours, you lose 10 IQ points. If you smoke marijuana, you lose four IQ points. Too many distractions make us dumb.
Super learners, like Leonardo da Vinci, went through periods of intense immersion. Although he is famous for being a scientist and an artist, da Vinci didn’t take an interest in maths until he was 40. Then he spent five years learning everything he could about it.
With learning, we must simplify. We must give all of our attention to one topic at a time. Taking on too many tasks at once weakens our ability to learn.
4. Ask “why” five times to dig deeper
When we see someone perform a magic trick, we’re usually presented with three acts: the pledge, the turn and the prestige. An ABC if you like. To the magician, however, there are rarely just three acts, but dozens. In between A and B there is a further A1, A2 and A3 which the audience never sees.
Good learners look deeper than what is merely presented on the surface. Quick learners ask why multiple times, even when they think they know the answer. They probe further. Knowing is not enough, we must understand.
The next time you are presented with a subject you want to learn, ask “why” five times to dig deeper.
5. Keep a positive attitude
Positive psychologist Martin Seligman has done lots of research on learned optimism. While everyone has a range, everyone can improve their level of optimism. If you want to be a quick learner, optimism should be one of the first things you learn.
Optimists don’t feel happy all the time. Optimists feel the same amount of negative emotions as pessimists. The difference is that optimists bounce back quicker. If you’re faced with a setback, a rejection, or a failure–all of which are inevitable in the learning process–the more likely you’ll be to interpret it as helpful feedback.
We can learn to become more optimistic by simply challenging our instinctive thought processes. The next time we get an F on an exam instead of instinctively thinking, “I’m terrible, and will never improve,” we should challenge this assertion: “Did I study as hard as I could have? I’ll never ever improve? Not even if I spend 1000 hours more practicing?”
6. Practice what has been learned
Daniel Coyle, in his book The Talent Code, explains the three essential components of skill acquisition as: passion, deep practice and master coaching.
Theory without application is a huge waste of time. Benny Lewis, author of a popular language learning blog, said that he lived in Spain for six months and attended Spanish courses, yet still had terrible Spanish. He made the simple decision to start speaking it every day even if he looked like an idiot. In less than three months he was fluent.
We are physical beings. In order to internalize lessons we have to physically go through the motions. Imagine trying to learn how to play piano by reading about musical notation, or entering a boxing match after reading up on how to throw a punch. It will never work.
There’s a reason there’s the saying, “practice makes perfect.” Nobody ever says, “Reading theory makes perfect.”
7. Ask experts for advice
Most of the greatest learners in their field had mentors. In Robert Greene’s book, Mastery, which is all about quick learners, he dedicates a third of the book to what he calls “The Ideal Apprenticeship.” Greene believes that having experts and mentors is invaluable when it comes to learning:
“In the stories of the greatest Masters, past and present, we can inevitably detect a phase in their lives in which all of their future powers were in development, like the chrysalis of a butterfly. This part of their lives–a largely self-directed apprenticeship that lasts some five to ten years–receives little attention because it does not contain stories of great achievement or discovery. Often in their Apprenticeship Phase, these types are not yet much different from anyone else. Under the surface, however, their minds are transforming in ways we cannot see but contain all of the seeds of their future success.”
The great thing about living in the information age is that there are plenty of experts to learn from. While having one-to-one tuition from a master is useful, it’s not essential. We can find mentors on YouTube, or in books that we can learn from by imitation. As an aspiring artist I often copy the works of Leonardo da Vinci. Green sums up the apprenticeship phase as follows:
The principle is simple and must be engraved deeply in your mind: the goal of an apprenticeship is not money, a good position, a title, or a diploma, but rather the transformation of your mind and character — the first transformation on the way to mastery.
8. Do not pretend to understand when you don’t
I made this mistake when I went scuba diving in Cyprus. I daydreamed throughout the seminar expecting to learn while I was in the water. That was a big mistake. When you have heavy equipment on your back, being just a few feet underwater feels like you’re on the bottom of the ocean. It was terrifying.
On a ship, when an order is given it’s always repeated back to the captain. The captain needs to know that you understood his instruction. This rule came about because people were nodding along compliantly without really understanding what the captain wanted them to do. How many accidents happened because of this?
We learn so well as children because we have no self-image. We’re not trying to be seen as clever. If a young child doesn’t understand something, he will usually ask a million questions until he does. By pretending to understand something, you’re falling prey to an egotistic need to appear smart. Quick learners appreciate how little they know, then go about learning it.
9. Balance scepticism with open mindedness
Leonardo da Vinci said:
“Study the science of art and the art of science.”
“The most beautiful thing we can experience is the mysterious. It is the source of all true art and science.”
Both of these masters were scientific and creative in equal doses. They knew how to be scientific, but they also knew the limits of logic when compared to imagination. To be a quick learner you have to treat every past idea, no matter how it first appears, with a pinch of salt, while at the same time respecting it enough to test it out.
If you dismiss an idea too quickly, you are being too skeptical. If you get sucked into an idea too quickly and let it start dominating your life, you’re being too suggestible and open-minded. A quick learner takes what works, discards what doesn’t, and moves on.
10. Small rewards
From the outside video games seem illogical. We choose to spend hundreds of hours carrying out tasks that don’t need to be done, don’t improve our lives outside of the game, and we pay to do it. The secret video games have is the balance between reward and challenge. When you’re playing a video game you don’t need to wait until the end of the month to get your reward. You get it immediately. There’s an ongoing feedback loop throughout the task, sort of like having a mentor offering their feedback as you go.
We need to balance our learning with rewards if we’re going to stay motivated long enough to learn what we need to learn. Everyone’s reward may be slightly different. For some it will be having a cup of coffee after an hour of practice. For others it will be showing off what they’ve learnt in a performance of some kind.
Find out what your reward might be and implement it into your learning schedule. All work and no play…