Why is it in school we’re taught what to learn but not how to learn?
If education and knowledge is so important, both in school and in life, why is it that we’re not taught this basic skill?
Isn’t it obvious that one of the single biggest differences between ‘quick learners’ and ‘slow learners’, ‘good students’ and ‘bad students’, isn’t that some students are necessarily ‘smarter’ or ‘more intelligent’ than others, but that some students simply have better and more effective learning and study habits than others?
I think of all the things you could possibly learn, learning how to learn, must surely be one of lifes most important skills. It’s a wonder they don’t teach it at school.
“Learning how to learn is life’s most important skill.” – Tony Buzan
If you know how to learn, then learning becomes easy, and that’s exactly what I’m going to show you in this article…
What is learning?
Tony Robbins gives a great description of learning in this video.
Learning is making connections between what you know and what you don’t know.
Therefore when you’re asking someone to teach you, make sure they’re explaining things to you in simple language using words and examples you can easily understand and relate to, otherwise it won’t make sense to you.
e.g. There is no point in me telling you that Ayahuasca is “like a DMT trip but longer” if you’ve never done psychedelics before, or that a “locoplata” is like a “gogoplata” if you’ve never done Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu before. These examples wouldn’t mean anything to you. They wouldn’t help you. They would just confuse you.
What learning is not
Learning isn’t just knowing the ‘right’ answers, or that 5 x 5 = 25.
It’s about understanding how multiplication works and why 5 x 5 = 25.
If you know the ‘right’ answer, but don’t know why it’s the right answer, then you haven’t really learnt anything.
OK, now that we have a definition of terms, let’s look at 21 smart ways to learn:
1. Start with the top 5 books
Whatever it is you wish to learn, the first thing I recommend you do, is starting with the top 5 educational books/podcasts/videos on the subject.
The top 5 books/podcasts/videos are the top 5 for a reason and contain 95%+ of everything you need to know, and are often explained simply in a way that anyone can easily understand.
How do you find the top 5 books/podcasts/videos?
You do your homework and spend a few hours looking online at reviews to see which books/podcasts/videos get the highest ratings and reviews and you start from there.
For example: If you were looking for the best books on personal finance, you’ll find that books like Rich Dad Poor Dad and Think and Grow Rich are on almost everyone’s “must read” lists.
2. Copy the best
“Good artists copy, great artists steal.” – Pablo Picasso
I also recommend you read/watch/listen to the best in the world at whatever it is you wish to learn, and then steal their best strategies and techniques and make them your own.
If you want to become a great actor – watch the best actors.
If you want to become a great athlete – watch the best athletes.
If you want to become a great writer – read the best writers.
This is important. Successful people don’t always share their “secrets of success” in a book, podcast, or video, but it doesn’t matter, because you can still learn a lot about what makes someone successful simply by observing them and watching what they do.
“If you want to be successful, find someone who has achieved the results you want and copy what they do and you’ll achieve the same results.” – Tony Robbins
By copying the habits/strategies/techniques of the world’s most successful people and making them your own, you can dramatically shortcut your learning curve and save yourself a ton of money, time, and effort.
Here are some questions to ask yourself when modelling someone successful:
- Who has already achieved what you want to achieve?
- Who is the GOAT (Greatest of All Time) of what you want to do?
- What is unique about their approach/mindset/strategy/technique?
- What do they do differently than everyone else?
- What habits do they have that you don’t?
- What resources do they have that you don’t?
- What training have they done that you haven’t?
- What are the top 5 lessons you can learn from them?
- What mistakes have they made that you should avoid?
Note: It’s important to pay attention to what the greats actually do, instead of just listening to what they say, because actors/athletes/celebrities etc. often say one thing and do another. Advertisers also pay celebrities millions of dollars to promote products they don’t even use in order to deceive and mislead you into buying their products.
e.g. Many professional bodybuilders will publicly endorse protein powders whilst secretly taking large quantities of steroids, HGH, and TRT.
“I steal from every single movie ever made. I love it. I’m taking this from this and that from that and mixing them together. I steal from everything. Great artists steal, they don’t do homages.” – Quentin Tarantino
3. Learn the information in a variety of ways
Don’t just read books. Don’t just listen to podcasts. Don’t just watch YouTube videos.
DO IT ALL.
Learning a new subject is always most effective when you learn the information in a variety of ways simultaneously:
- Read books and blogs about it
- Listen to audiobooks and podcasts about it
- Watch documentaries, presentations, and YouTube videos about it
- Do lots of exercises, quizzes, and practice tests
- Join a club where you can learn along with other people. If you want to learn acting, go to an acting school. If you want to learn public speaking, go to Toastmasters.
- Try to teach what you’ve learnt to others and have them ask you lots of questions to see what you’ve learnt and what you haven’t, what you know and what you don’t
When you hear the subject taught by a variety of different teachers, in a variety of different ways (book/podcast/video), using a variety of different examples, you give yourself the greatest chance to learn the material. You might not understand or be able to relate to the examples given by one teacher, but the examples given from another teacher might make perfect sense to you.
See it. Hear it. Read it. Watch it. Do it.
Don’t just do ONE thing – DO IT ALL.
4. Do it
“I hear and I forget. I see and I remember. I do and I understand.” – Confucius
When it comes to learning a sport or anything with a high degree of practicality: acting, dancing, driving, martial arts, a musical instrument, public speaking, swimming etc. You have to do it. You have to drill it. Over and over and over and over again.
Book knowledge and theory isn’t enough.
If you want to learn to dance – dance.
If you want to learn how to drive – drive.
If you want to learn to swim – swim.
Practice beats theory any day of the week because it develops coordination and muscle memory, also known as feel, and feel isn’t something you can develop unless you actually do the thing you want to get good at over and over and over again.
Remember: “Practice makes perfect”. Not “study makes perfect”.
The sooner you go from theory to practice, from thinking to action – the better.
“If you want to learn to swim jump into the water. On dry land no frame of mind is ever going to help you.” – Bruce Lee
5. Record yourself on video
A smart way to shortcut your learning curve whenever you’re learning anything with a high degree of practicality: acting, martial arts, public speaking, swimming etc. is to record yourself on video.
Watching yourself on video allows you to see yourself as everyone else does, and it makes it immediately obvious as to what mistakes you’re making, and where you’re going wrong.
It’s one thing for your coach/mentor/teacher to see where you’re going wrong, and another for you to see it yourself.
6. Audiobooks and Podcasts
Audiobooks and podcasts are a winning habit, and they’re especially good for people who don’t like reading and/or don’t have time to read.
I listen to audiobooks, interviews, and podcasts almost everywhere I go, and what I love about them is that they don’t add any extra time to your day. You can listen and learn anywhere you are, no matter what you’re doing: driving, flying, walking, exercising, shopping, stuck in traffic, waiting for a friend etc.
In fact, if you made audiobooks a habit you could easily listen to one new book a week, or 52 books a year, just by listening during your daily commute to and from work.
It doesn’t matter what your interests are either: personal development, psychology, science, spirituality etc. there is an audiobook or podcast available on every subject imaginable for you to listen to.
PS: If you want to listen to someone but they haven’t released an audiobook and don’t have a podcast, you can still find interviews and talks you like on YouTube and convert them into MP3s with free online YouTube downloaders. I love doing this. I’m not just doing my shopping or walking through the park, I’m listening to incredibly interesting interviews and podcasts and learning new things from people like Adyashanti, Gary Vaynerchuk, Joe Rogan, Tim Ferris, Tony Robbins etc.
7. Arguments and debates
I consider watching debates to be one of the best possible introductions to a subject, especially if it relates to something like politics or religion.
Too often when we’re taught something, we only get to hear one side of the story. We’re only given one opinion, one perspective, one viewpoint.
If a child is raised as a Christian or a Muslim for example, they’re only ever given the arguments and evidence in support of the religion, but they’re never given the arguments and evidence against it, nor are they encouraged to think critically about it, or to challenge any of the information presented to them. They’re simply told to “believe” and to “have faith”.
Debates on the other hand are great because you get to hear all of the best arguments, evidence and reasons “for” and “against” the idea, debated on both sides by experts, as opposed to hearing a one-sided “because I said so”, or “it just is” type argument.
Note: Debating isn’t perfect. It has it’s flaws and weaknesses just like anything else. Debaters can be dishonest and disingenuous and misrepresent the other side in an effort to deceive the audience.
However, the pros easily outweigh the cons, because debating introduces you as a beginner to all of the different strengths and weaknesses of an idea. The speakers are generally experts in the field and almost certainly know the subject matter better than you do, and they’ll force you to consider many different ideas and perspectives you’ve probably never thought of before, and won’t hear elsewhere.
Here are some of my favorite YouTube debating channels:
Another great way to learn is by watching interviews with the masters, and taking notes on their advice and recommendations.
Evan Carmichael does a brilliant job of capturing great advice from the world’s most successful people and I highly recommend you check out his YouTube Channel
It’s also a good idea to do your own interviews if you can, and to contact people you admire and respect and ask them what advice and recommendations they have for you.
9. Question everything
Asking questions is an important part of the learning process.
5 Questions to ask when learning something new
- Why is this important? Why do I need to know this?
- What are the top 5 most important ideas and lessons presented in this article/book/lecture/podcast/video?
- How would I describe this teaching in one paragraph or less?
- After reading/watching/listening ask yourself: What don’t I know? What don’t I understand? What isn’t clear? What points do I need to clarify?
- How am I going to use this information and put it into practice?
This is a good start and you can add in your own questions also.
Don’t be afraid to ask questions if you don’t know something, and don’t pretend to ‘get it’ if you don’t, because you’ve either learnt it or you haven’t, and you either know it or you don’t.
“He who asks a question is a fool for five minutes; he who does not ask a question remains a fool forever.” – Chinese proverb
Speaking of questions, you should definitely be looking on Quora for the answers given to previously asked questions, and you should also ask your own questions too.
Quora is probably the best question and answer site in the world, with over 200 million visitors per month, with questions and answers on every subject imaginable.
Reddit is awesome. It’s a wealth of information and knowledge.
If you’ve never used Reddit before, it’s basically a website with over one million forums (known as “subreddits”) on everything from MMA to politics, philosophy to psychology, religion to science – and everything else imaginable.
If you’re wanting to learn anything, I’d highly recommend browsing through the subreddits and reviewing the answers to previously asked questions, and also asking some of your own questions.
Check out these popular subreddits:
12. How to read a book
How to read actively:
- Read S-L-O-W-L-Y
- Ask questions & think critically
- Think about how you will apply it
It’s a good idea whenever you’re reading a book or a blog article, to first skim over it, in order to get a sneak preview, and to get your mind ready and prepared for what is to come.
If you’re reading a textbook, go to the end of each chapter and see if there is a quiz or a summary, and if so, browse through the questions and take a mental note. This will give you a good idea of the most important points you need to remember.
When you’re browsing also keep an eye out for anything that stands out in the formatting, and for any common themes that appear throughout the book.
I also recommend checking out some YouTube book summaries to get a quick idea as to what the book is about, and the main ideas you should look out for.
Forget about speed reading or listening to audiobooks/podcasts/videos on 2-3x speed.
When you read…
Don’t be in a hurry to get to the next sentence.
Or the next paragraph.
Or the next page.
What’s the hurry?
What’s the race?
No one is timing you.
Why does it matter if you spend an hour or more on this page or chapter?
Why not just be fully present and let go into the moment and enjoy the process of reading a good book?
Take a note.
Draw a diagram.
Be content to sit on a sentence until a new idea or insight comes to you.
Think about the implications of what you’re reading and let the information sink deeply into your subconscious.
Instead of being in a hurry to finish the book, I suggest being in a hurry to implement what you’ve read.
I know that speed reading and listening to audiobooks/podcasts/YouTube videos on 2-3X speed is supposed to make you learn faster, but all it really does is encourage your mind to race. You want a mind that is open and relaxed and fully present with the material, not one that is hyperactive and racing through the information.
Ask questions and think critically
Don’t just read the words on the page, question them.
Remember: Just as anyone can say anything, anyone can write anything.
But that doesn’t make it true.
“Don’t believe everything you read on the Internet.” – Abraham Lincoln
Most of what you read in books, blogs, magazines, newspapers, online etc. is false and/or misleading, so get in the habit of questioning and thinking critically about what you’re reading and being skeptical, instead of automatically accepting and believing it.
I’ve written a 10-part series on critical thinking, check it out: Critical Thinking
Think about how you will apply it
“When intelligent people read, they ask themselves a simple question: What do I plan to do with this information?” – Ryan Holiday
How much of what you read do you actually apply to your daily life?
Too many people read books just to say they’ve read them. But they don’t apply much, if any, of what they’ve learnt into their actual lives.
Instead of having a goal to read a book a week, I recommend having a goal to apply one new action, habit, or lesson into your life.
Remember: Information isn’t power, it’s potential power, it all depends on what you do with it. Mastery isn’t achieved by the number of books you’ve read on a subject, or by how quickly you’ve read them.
I’d rather take 6 months to read one great book and to implement all of it, then to read 50 books in a year and implement none of them.
Think about how you’re going to apply what you’re learning as you go through the book.
Re-read what you’ve read
“Good books don’t give up all their secrets at once.” – Stephen King
Good articles and books are worth re-reading over and over again.
Some of my favorite books I’ve re-read over 10X, and each time I’m reading between the lines to see what I’ve missed the first time: an important concept, a pointer to something deep and profound, something implied but not said etc.
I think this is important, because I find that no matter how hard I try, despite my best efforts, there is always something that inevitably slips between the cracks and/or goes over my head and is missed.
It’s the same with a good audiobook or video. Listen and watch over and over again.
13. How to solve problems
I don’t agree with the conventional advice from people like Tony Robbins who talk about being ‘solution focused’ and spending 95% of your time on the solution instead of the problem.
I think it’s the other way around. I agree with Einstein on this one.
“If I had only one hour to save the world, I would spend fifty-five minutes defining the problem, and only five minutes finding the solution.” – Albert Einstein
I think that 90-95% of your time should be spent defining the problem and understanding everything you can about it, because the more you understand about the problem, why it exists, what’s causing it etc. the quicker and easier it’s going to be to actually solve it.
“The question ‘what shall we do about it?’ is only asked by those who do not understand the problem. If a problem can be solved at all, to understand it and to know what to do about it are the same thing. On the other hand, doing something about a problem which you do not understand is like trying to clear away darkness by thrusting it aside with your hands. When light is brought, the darkness vanishes at once. This applies particularly to the problem.” – Alan Watts
I believe one of the main reasons most people have difficulty solving problems, is not necessarily because the problem is so difficult, but because:
a) The problem is really several problems disguised as one
b) Only an effect or symptom of the problem has been identified, instead of the real root cause
Here are some questions to ask yourself the next time you need to solve a problem:
Problem solving questions
- How would I describe this problem in a couple of sentences?
- What do we know about the problem?
- Why does this problem exist?
- What is causing this problem?
- What else might be causing this problem?
- What is happening before, during, and after this problem?
- What are the patterns and symptoms of this problem?
- What assumptions are contained within this problem?
- Have I identified the real problem or just a symptom of the real problem?
- What would make this problem worse?
- Can I break this problem into other smaller and easier to solve problems? (Am I really looking at lots of little problems deceptively disguised as one big problem?)
- Who could likely help me to solve this problem?
- How would Albert Einstein, Steve Jobs, Elon Musk, or some other genius go about solving this problem? What would they suggest I do to solve it?
- Why do I need to solve this problem?
- What would the solution to this problem look like? What would it achieve?
PS: Don’t let anyone else define the problem for you either, because most of the time, the real problem isn’t actually what people say it is, and if you allow other people to define the problem for you, it’s likely to set you off on the wrong path from the beginning.
14. Take practice tests
“Real knowledge is to know the extent of one’s ignorance” – Confucius
One of the best and fastest ways to identify the gaps in your knowledge and understanding, is to take practice tests frequently.
By taking practice tests you’ll quickly find out what you know and what you don’t, and it’ll help you to quickly identify where your knowledge is weak and lacking, and what areas you need to focus on before the real test.
There are lots of free tests you can do online:
You can also write out your own list of test questions and then make it a game to go out and find the answers.
15. Try to teach what you’ve learnt to others
“We learn 10% of what we READ,
20% of what we HEAR,
30% of what we SEE,
50% of what we SEE and HEAR,
70% of what is DISCUSSED with OTHERS,
80% of what is EXPERIENCED PERSONALLY, and
95% of what we TEACH TO SOMEONE ELSE.”
– Edgar Dale
“The best way to learn is to teach.” – Frank Oppenheimer
In addition to testing: One of the fastest ways to find out what you know and what you don’t, is to try to teach it to others.
Many teachers say that the best way to learn something is to teach it, and the reason for that is that teaching forces you to not only understand the subject well enough to pass a test, but to organise the information in your mind logically, so that you can explain it to others in a way that makes sense.
“While we teach, we learn.” – Seneca
Sometimes we think we know a subject but we have difficulty explaining it. But if you can’t explain it simply to others, you probably don’t yet understand it well enough yourself.
“If you can’t explain it simply, you don’t understand it well enough.” – Albert Einstein
When you try to teach what you’ve learnt to others, and students ask you questions for clarification, it’ll quickly highlight the gaps in your knowledge and understanding, and you’ll soon find out what you know and what you don’t.
Also, different students will think differently and look at the subject matter from different perspectives, and they’ll ask questions and think about things you never would’ve thought about before.
Richard Feynman, the Nobel Prize winning physicist, was a big fan of teaching as a way of learning:
The Feynman Technique
Feynman technique summary
- Write down the name of a concept or technique you’re trying to learn at the top of a sheet of paper
- Explain the concept using plain and simple language
- Look for any gaps in your knowledge and identify any areas you don’t understand, or are confused about, and go back and review them
- Pinpoint any complicated terms and challenge yourself to simplify them
“If you want to learn something, read about it. If you want to understand something, write about it. If you want to master something, teach it.” – Yogi Bhajan
Pinpoint the exact point of failure
That last point is important: Whenever you have difficulty learning something new, there is always an exact point in which you start having difficulty with the subject matter.
What is it?
It’s not like you don’t understand any of it.
No. There was an exact point where you went from understanding to not understanding, from comprehension to confusion.
What is it?
Your job is to pinpoint the exact point of failure, the exact part where things start to become difficult for you, so that when you’re asking the teacher for help, you’re not giving them something overly vague such as “I don’t understand any of this”.
16. Tim Ferriss DiSSS Method
Tim Ferriss DiSSS method
Every complex skill is really just a combination of basic skills, just as every complex problem is really just a combination of smaller problems.
Therefore, one of the smartest ways to learn any complex skill, from a language to a martial art to a musical instrument, is to first break it down into each of it’s smaller components.
By deconstructing complex skills into each of the smaller components, you identify exactly what you need to work on, and you give yourself something specific to focus on.
For example: If you wanted to learn English, here are some of the skills you might identify:
Or if you wanted to learn Muay-Thai, here are some of the skills you might identify:
- Front kick
By breaking your goal e.g. “learning Spanish” into smaller mini-goals, you give yourself small milestones you can achieve and celebrate along the way instead of having one big goal e.g. “I’m going to learn Spanish” with no end in sight.
PS: You also need to identify the reasons you might quit. What are the reasons other people have failed?
Do an 80/20 analysis.
Which 20% of the skills should I focus on in order to get 80% of the results I want?
In which order should I learn these skills? What would be a good logical progression? What would happen if I did these things in reverse?
What are the prerequisites I need to be able to learn and do before I learn this step? e.g. algebra before calculus, headstand before handstand
You need to create incentives and consequences to motivate you to complete your learning goals. For most people learning a new skill is a “nice to have” but it’s not mandatory, and nothing bad is going to happen to them if they don’t learn the guitar, or the basics of that new language before their holiday.
However Tim suggests setting up consequences and incentives to ensure you complete your learning goals e.g. Donating $500 to a charity you hate if you fail.
17. Khan Academy
The Khan Academy provides thousands of free educational videos on everything from maths to science, philosophy to politics, and is used by millions of students around the world.
18. Get a mentor
It’s not always easy or possible, but if you can get someone to mentor you, ideally someone who has already achieved what you want to achieve, it’ll really accelerate your learning curve.
A good mentor can introduce you to the very best habits, strategies, and techniques from day one, and they can also prevent you from developing bad habits and from wasting hundreds of hours making lots of common newbie mistakes.
The great thing about a mentor is that it’s all personalized advice, tailored to you and your individual situation, instead of a “one size fits all” approach.
19. Mind Maps
Mind Maps are a great way to visualize brainstorm and organise information.
This video gives an excellent introduction to Mind Maps:
Mind Map Summary
- Write your central idea in the center of the paper with a circle around it
- Write subheadings related to the main topic on connecting branches
- Continue until you’ve finished brainstorming
20. Learn from your mistakes: When you lose, don’t lose the lesson
“When you lose, don’t lose the lesson.” – Oprah Winfrey
Whenever you’re learning something new you’re going to make lots of mistakes. There’s nothing wrong with it. It’s a natural and normal part of the learning process. Sometimes in order to find out what does work, you first have to find out what doesn’t work.
The most important thing however is to learn from your mistakes. And it’s one thing to say “learn from your mistakes”, and another thing to actually do it. Most people keep on making the same mistakes over and over again without doing anything different.
“The only real mistake is the one from which we learn nothing.” – Henry Ford
If you’re smart however, you’ll only need to make a mistake once before you’ll learn from it.
You’ll also learn multiple lessons from each mistake.
It’s important to learn from your mistakes because failures and losses aren’t for no reason. They’re feedback that something you’re doing isn’t working and needs to be changed or improved upon.
The next time you make a mistake instead of getting angry or defensive, ask yourself:
- Why did I lose?
- What was my mistake?
- Where did I go wrong?
- How did my opponent beat me?
- What can I learn from this?
- What should I do differently next time?
- Who else could provide some insight into where I might have gone wrong?
That last point is important: It’s a good idea to ask others what mistakes they see you making, because sometimes it’s easier for others to see where we’re going wrong than it is for us.
For example: Whenever I would get submitted in BJJ I would always ask my opponent: Where did I go wrong? How did you beat me? Why did I get submitted? What advice do you have for me?
I always tried to learn from my losses, and educate myself in my defeats.
I learnt a lot from this process and it really helped to shortcut my learning curve because my opponents were often better and more experienced than me and would often point out things I never would have thought of. Often subtle things, that weren’t obvious or easily detectable to beginners and newbies.
Finally, it also pays to take a big picture approach to your mistakes.
For example: Let’s say you go out one night and lose thousands of dollars gambling. You might conclude that your biggest mistake was that you “didn’t stick to your limit”, or that you played the wrong game, or that you got cocky, and didn’t quit while you were ahead. When in reality, your biggest mistake was trying to make money gambling when the odds of beating either the bookies or the casinos are terrible.
- Learn from your mistakes quickly
- Learn multiple lessons from each mistake
- Focus on the more important, big picture mistakes
21. Learn from the mistakes of others
Intelligence is learning from your mistakes.
Wisdom is learning from the mistakes of others.
There’s nothing wrong with making your own mistakes, it’s a very valuable and important part of the learning process, but if you can save yourself time and money and avoid making the mistake in the first place – why wouldn’t you?
“From the errors of others, a wise man corrects his own.” – Publilius Syrus, 85 BC
If you need to make every mistake yourself in order to learn from it, you’re going to waste a LOT of time, money, and energy.
My thoughts are: Why waste time, money, or energy if you don’t have to?
Why not shortcut your learning curve?
“Better to be wise by the misfortunes of others than by your own.” – Aesop, 620 BC
By learning from the mistakes of others you can save yourself thousands of hours and thousands of dollars. You can learn what to do and what not to do, where to go and where not to go, what to avoid, what’s inefficient, and what doesn’t work.
“Instead of learning from other people’s success, learn from their mistakes. Most of the people who fail share common reasons, whereas success can be attributed to various different kinds of reasons.” – Jack Ma, founder of Alibaba
So learn from your mistakes, but whenever you see someone else make a mistake, ask yourself:
- Why did they fail/lose?
- Where did they go wrong?
- What caused their defeat?
- What mistakes did they make?
- What should they do differently next time?
- What can I learn from this?
Let’s look at this on a more personal level. Take out a pad and paper and write down your answers to the following:
- What are the top 3 mistakes your mother makes?
- What are the top 3 mistakes your father makes?
- What are the top 3 mistakes your brother/sister makes?
- What are the top 3 mistakes your best friend makes?
- What are the top 3 mistakes your husband/wife/boyfriend/girlfriend makes?
What do they do that you should NOT do?
Be smart: Learn from the mistakes of others. Let their losses be your lessons. Let their failures be your education. Learn from them what NOT to do.
“It’s fine to celebrate success but it is more important to heed the lessons of failure.” – Bill Gates
PS: Don’t try to force it
Sometimes despite your best efforts, you just don’t get it.
You tried your best, but it just didn’t make sense.
I’ve been there.
Here’s what I think:
If at first you don’t understand the information presented to you, don’t worry, and don’t let it stress you out.
Most people, including most teachers, aren’t very good at explaining anything.
Most text books aren’t written very clearly.
A lot of people also use a lot of unnecessary jargon and acronyms when explaining things to newbies, which only complicates and confuses things unnecessarily.
If you’re not getting it, it’s probably because it hasn’t been explained very clearly, using examples you can easily relate to. Perhaps speaking to someone else, another teacher, using different examples, might do the trick.
If at first you don’t understand it, despite your best efforts, my advice is to let it go, go for a walk, and be OK with not knowing it for now.
Be OK with others getting it before you.
There is absolutely no point in getting stressed out about it. It doesn’t help anything.
One of the biggest learning mistakes I made when I was younger, was that I would get annoyed and frustrated whenever I couldn’t understand something, and I would tense up, and I would try twice as hard, and I would try to force it.
That’s not a good strategy however, because information is most easily absorbed into a mind that is open, relaxed, and receptive. Not a mind that is tense, rigid, and straining.
Believe me: You’ll get it when you’re ready. It probably just hasn’t been explained to you using examples you can easily relate to.
Often I don’t understand something when it’s first taught to me, and then I’ll speak to someone else, or hear a different example, and then I’ll understand it immediately, or I’ll go for a walk, lift weights, have a shower, talk to a friend etc. and then suddenly *BAM* everything just clicks into place and I’ll have several ‘aha!’ moments at once.
If you don’t understand something:
- Don’t stress out. Be OK with not getting it right now
- Give it a break, and go do something else
- Get someone else to explain it to you using different examples
Here are some additional bonus tips I recommend in regards to learning:
- Study location. You need to have a place where you can study, that is quiet, peaceful, and free from distractions. There is no point in trying to learn anything if you’re in an environment that is loud and noisy, or if you’re going to be constantly annoyed and interrupted by someone or something every 5 minutes.
- Study desk. Do you have access to a good study desk? Do you have a good computer and a fast internet connection? Do you have the right books and materials?
- Get rid of all distractions. Don’t try to kid yourself into thinking that you study better with TV or music on (unless it’s classical music), or by having your friends over because you don’t. Do yourself a favour and turn OFF your phone and remove all possible distractions before you even begin to sit down and try to study. If you CAN be distracted – you WILL be distracted. If the TV is on you’ll look at it. If there is music on you’ll listen to it. If you have someone else over you’ll talk to them.
- Learn actively. Don’t just sit back passively and listen to someone talk. Be an active participant in the learning process. Ask questions, take notes, think critically about what you’re learning, perform your own experiments etc.
“If you listen passively, a month from now, research shows you will remember 10-15% of what I said. If you sit and you actually take notes, and you never look at the notes again, just writing writing or typing it down, will cause you to retain 50-55%. And the reason is, it drives the groove deeper. But if you listen, you take notes, and you actively respond and activate the human nervous system while you’re learning, while you write, now you retain 80-90%, some people as much as 95%” – Tony Robbins
- Know your learning style. Everyone has a different learning style, and it’s important that you know yours. Personally, in order for me to learn something, I HAVE to do it. I can’t just watch you do it. I can’t just listen to you describe it. I have to do it myself. I think one of the reasons so many people have difficulty learning, is that other people are trying to teach them using a teaching style that doesn’t match their learning style. You need a teacher whose teaching style matches your learning style, who can communicate ideas and information in a way that you can easily understand and relate to.
- Know your why. Why are you learning this? Why is it important? Until you understand why something is important or relevant to your life you won’t be motivated, and motivation is everything when it comes to learning. If you’re not motivated to learn something you won’t. I did poorly at high school because I wasn’t motivated, and the reason I wasn’t motivated was because I couldn’t see the point of anything I was learning, or when I was ever going to use it in the real world.
- Have a learning goal for the day. Have a learning goal for the day. Something specific you wish to learn. Some kind of result you would like to achieve. For example: If you were learning English: “Today I’m going to learn the difference between nouns and adjectives.”
- Rewrite everything into your own language. Take notes in your own language, using references you can easily understand, and try not to use too many words you don’t use in everyday life.
- Explain it back to the teacher. When you’re learning you should also try to explain the lesson back to the teacher in your own words as you understand it so they can correct you. If you’ve really understood the teaching, you should be able to explain it back to the teacher. What’s most likely however, is that you’ve only partially understood it. Maybe you’ve got it half right. When you try to explain to the teacher what you’ve learnt in your own words, it’ll be immediately obvious what parts you understand and what parts you don’t, and they can correct you on the spot.
- Get the basic concepts down first. Whenever you’re learning anything new, it important to understand the key concepts and fundamental principles first, before moving onto the ‘advanced’ stuff. The reason this is important is because the ‘advanced’ techniques are really just combinations of the basics, so the stronger your command of the basics are, the stronger your foundations will be to learn the more advanced stuff. Remember: You have to learn how to walk before you can run. Before you can learn to write, you need to know the alphabet.
“It is important to view knowledge as sort of a semantic tree — make sure you understand the fundamental principles, i.e. the trunk and big branches, before you get into the leaves/details or there is nothing for them to hang onto.” – Elon Musk
- Think from the perspective of the teacher. Whenever you’re learning anything new, always think from the perspective of the speaker/teacher/writer. Instead of getting caught up in the words, ask yourself: What are they trying to say? What point are they trying to get across? What message are they trying to communicate? Remember: Most people (including most teachers) are poor communicators and struggle to find just the right words and examples to perfectly articulate their thoughts.
- Get a good nights sleep the night before. Make sure you get at least 7-8 hours of sleep the night before. You want to be fully recharged going into your study session.
- Timing is everything: Know when you learn best. Study when your energy is at it’s highest. For me this is first thing in the morning, right after a good nights sleep.
- Eat healthy and exercise. When you eat healthy and exercise, both your body and mind work better, and you have more energy, which makes it easier to concentrate and focus and study for longer. When you eat crap, you feel like crap, and your energy is lower which makes it difficult to concentration and focus.
- Eat smaller meals. Don’t eat too much. When you eat a large meal it just makes you feel tired and sleepy which makes it hard to concentrate. Try to eat a banana or a green smoothie or something else healthy before studying.
- Meditate. Have you ever tried to concentrate when your mind is busy and racing? It just doesn’t work. If your mind is going a million miles a minute, wandering every few seconds, it makes it impossible to focus or to retain anything. Information simply goes in one ear and out the other. Meditation is the antidote to a busy mind. It quietens and opens your mind and gives the information space on which to be absorbed. It also recharges your batteries which allows you to concentrate and focus for longer. I strongly recommend spending 20–30 minutes meditating before trying to learn anything new. And if you want the information to go in even deeper, meditate right after you’ve finished studying in order to give your mind a break, and to allow the information to go from your conscious into your subconscious without effort.
- Break your learning into smaller study sessions. How long should your study session be? For as long as it’s good for. If you can only concentrate for 30 minutes, then 30 minutes is long enough. But if you can concentrate for 1 hour, than 1 hour is the perfect amount of time. Most people however have short attention spans and can’t concentrate and focus for more than 30 minutes, so by having shorter 30-minute study sessions with regular breaks in between, you don’t give your mind too much to think about at any one time. This makes things easier on you and it takes the pressure off.
- Give it everything you’ve got. Whatever you want to learn, fully commit yourself and give it everything you’ve got. Focus all of your attention and energy towards it, become completely obsessed with the subject. Have a one track mind for it and think of nothing else. Absorb 10X more information than you should have to. Do 10X more study and homework than you should have to. Read/watch/listen to everything you possibly can on the subject. Don’t just learn enough to pass the test, learn enough to teach the subject. Learn enough to teach the teachers. Don’t understand it – OVERSTAND it. That’s how you become a subject matter expert on anything.
- Be consistent – don’t try to cram. It’s much better to study consistently for 1 hour each day, than it is to try and cram for 7 hours on one day. Imagine if you were trying to learn a foreign language such as Japanese… What would be easier? Learning 3 new words each day for one week, or only studying one day a week but trying to learn 21 new words on that one day? Just as smaller meals are more easily digested by your body than larger meals, smaller amounts of information are more easily absorbed by your mind than larger amounts. Spaced out your learning is the smart and easy way. Cramming and trying to do it all at once is the hard (and dumb) way.
One final thought…
If you know everything there is to know about Bigfoot, but there is no Bigfoot, do you know a lot – or do you know nothing at all?
Are you an expert or a fool?
Are you an expert on alien abductions? Area 51? Bigfoot? Conspiracy theories? Crop circles? Freemasons? The Illuminati? Reptilians? Vampires? Werewolves? The lost city of Atlantis? The Loch Ness Monster?
Do you spend a lot of time researching and studying topics that won’t make any difference whatsoever to your lifestyle and to your way of living?
I know it’s fun to learn about your passions, and I’m not saying it doesn’t have it’s place, but too many people waste a lot of time and energy learning a bunch of crap they don’t need to know and isn’t worth learning in the first place, instead of learning something valuable e.g. critical thinking that could actually make a real difference to their lives.
I suggest you prioritize your learning and start by studying the things with the highest return on investment, because there are a million things you could learn and you simply don’t have time to study everything.
Most things aren’t worth learning. Most things you don’t need to know.
Most things won’t make any difference to your life whether you know them or not.
Here are 10 things I recommend learning that will change your life for the better and provide you with a lifetime return on investment:
- Learning how to learn
- Learning critical thinking
- Learning cognitive biases/logical fallacies
- Learning how to make decisions
- Learning how to solve problems
- Learning how to influence/persuade
- Learning how to negotiate
- Learning how to sell
- Learning MMA (Mixed Martial Arts)
- Learning public speaking
- Start with the top 5 educational books/podcasts/videos
- Copy the best
- Learn the information in a variety of ways
- Do it
- Record yourself on video
- Audiobooks and podcasts
- Arguments and debates
- Question everything
- How to read a book
- How to solve problems
- Take practice tests
- Try to teach what you’ve learnt to others
- Tim Ferris DiSSS method
- Khan Academy
- Get a mentor
- Mind maps
- Learn from your mistakes: When you lose, don’t lose the lesson
- Learn from the mistakes of others
- Have a good study location
- Have a good study desk
- Get rid of all distractions
- Learn actively
- Know your learning style
- Know your why
- Have a learning goal for the day
- Rewrite everything into your own language
- Explain it back to the teacher
- Get the basic concepts down first
- Think from the perspective of the teacher
- Get a good night’s sleep the night before
- Timing is everything: Know when you learn best
- Eat healthy and exercise
- Eat smaller meals
- Break your learning into smaller study sessions
- Give it everything you’ve got
- Be consistent – don’t try to cram
If you liked this article you will also like my interview with Barbara Oakley who teaches the world’s largest online course on learning: Learning How to Learn
I also recommend you check out my 10-part series on critical thinking: How to get Smarter: A guide to critical thinking, cognitive biases, and logical fallacies – Part 1
Albert Einstein image credit: Naci Yavuz / Shutterstock.com Reddit image credit: chrisdorney / Shutterstock.com
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