How To Learn Anything In 6 Steps
Josh Waitzkin, author of The Art of Learning and subject of the 1993 film Searching for Bobby Fischer, was always called a “prodigy” for his high performance level in chess at a very young age. As it turns out, Waitzkin hates that term because he says it is “dehumanizing” and denies the “human struggle” that was essential to his success. Frustrated by the perception, he decided to lay out his thoughts in the aforementioned book with the belief that anyone can learn to be the best if they follow some key principles. We’re not going to get in to each one here — you really should read the book — but a few concepts that stand out can teach you to learn almost anything. They are:
One: Don’t Be Afraid To Fail.
When you have a fear of failure, you’re always second guessing what you do. Waitzkin notes that the more we learn about something, the more likely we are to bring our egos and inhibitions to it. Meanwhile, a child is like a sponge. He just wants to soak up information no matter how wrong he may get it or foolish he may seem. Training your brain to be more like a sponge and less like a newspaper editor is essential to helping you learn anything. How exactly can you accomplish this?
First off, realize that it isn’t going to be easy. It takes time to train your mind, and you can’t do that if you’re trying to do three or four things at once. That’s why meditation is so important before you begin a task. Waitzkin recommends doing it at the start of your day and at the end of your work (but not before bed).
Successful meditation isn’t about clearing your head of what all is in it. It’s about learning to follow each breath. If you have thoughts in your head that keep inserting themselves into your meditation, that’s fine. Just follow your breathing, and don’t let a breath go by without noticing it. When you start to pay attention in this manner, it becomes easier to prepare your mind for learning. And when you’re prepared for learning, there is no type of failure that can stop you.
Two: Analyze Your Experience.
When you first settle in to a subject, there will be a temptation to get overwhelmed at all of the things you don’t know. That’s a normal part of the process, and it’s conquerable provided you don’t let a defeatist attitude seep in. One method that is helpful in getting you past this overwhelming feeling is to analyze your experience after having it.
When I was in college, my note-taking was always better when I took what I’d produced and rewrote the shorthand scrawling in a clear and legible manner after the professor’s lecture. By hitting the information immediately after hearing it and short handing it, I was better able to analyze each part of the class and break it down in my head.
Things that didn’t make my worn sheet of notebook paper crept back to the front of my brain from memory. The whole while, I was analyzing everything about what did make it onto the page, and it made me a better learner.
Preparing to fail, analyzing your experience, and rewriting your notes, are but a small part of the learning process. You’ll also want to journal about what you’ve just learned. Write down your thoughts and impressions on what you know and what you still don’t understand. Share your aspirations for the subject at hand and question yourself on what you’ll have to do to get there. It’s about being forward-thinking, not reflective. The more you do this activity, the more a foundation will start to take shape.
No, you don’t have all the answers yet, but you’re learning how to think for yourself on whatever subject you’re tackling. Many of those answers will be wrong in the beginning, but the more you practice journaling, the more often they’ll be correct. And that brings us to…
Four: Attack The Fundamentals.
Every subject, whether it’s reading, writing, arithmetic, or science, has its own set of guiding principles. They are the fundamentals. The things that you will need to know no matter what. In football, you need to know the object of the game, what your position is, and what each of the other players on the field are supposed to be doing. In written communication, grammar and usage are the building blocks of being an expert. Novelists go even further than that and must learn how to use words to establish setting, character, and plot.
Again, each discipline has its fundamentals. You must learn them to the point that you no longer think about them and they are ingrained in your psyche. This takes time, focus, and commitment over the long term.
Five: Break Down Your Understanding Incrementally.
Perhaps one of the best ways to learn anything and become an expert in your field is to be able to know it so well you can teach others how to do it. In my own college experiences, while prepping for a particularly huge test, you could sometimes find me alone in my room acting like I was teaching the class to an invisible classroom. I realized right away — and this is a concept Waitzkin endorses in The Art of Learning — that to understand things in such a manner, you had to break them down incrementally. That sometimes requires taking abstract ideas and forcing yourself to explain them in as accessible of a manner as possible.
Six: Always Be Challenging.
ABC. Always be challenging yourself to know more about a subject than what you already do. If there is nothing else to know — extremely rare — find another aspect of the same field or jump into something new altogether. In order to be an effective learner your entire life, you need to always be comfortable in the role of student, and you need to push your brain to read more and do more that may be outside of your comfort zone. For Waitzkin, he left the life of teenage chess champion and began learning Tai Chi and competing in martial arts events. He’s won several world championships by using the same concepts he did with chess. (Another reason why you should buy the book.)
If you’re going to lead, you must first learn to follow. Not to single anyone out, but I recently read an article celebrating the Millennial generation and one of the “virtues” the author listed was that they wanted to lead. As someone who’s just escaped his twenties, I can tell you that isn’t a virtue at all. Leadership isn’t something you should want to do. It’s something you should do because you’re drawn to it. And being “drawn to it,” means you have the knowledge, wisdom, and opportunity, to be effective. By becoming an expert in a field, you will lead because there are no other choices, not because it’s something you set out to do. But being an expert is impossible if you’re not first willing to follow. If you truly want to learn anything, then being a good follower will do most of the heavy lifting in getting you there. Good luck!