3 Simple Tips to Learn Anything Today

3 Simple Tips to Learn Anything Today

On January 1, 2011 I actually set up my New Years’ Resolutions for the first time.  My process was a combination of three completely different tactics and I found this enjoyable.  I was staying at a friend’s parent’s home in Breckinridge, up in the back corner guest room.

I spent most of the morning writing down ideas, crossing things out, re-writing them, and re-reading my source material.  I used ideas from Leo Babuta of Zenhabits, Tony Robbins goal setting program, and a blog I’d found about “finding your passion” (which I can’t remember specifically, but my thoughts on which I’ll discuss in detail in an upcoming post). It was really hard.

I ended up with a list of five goals for the year.  Each was something I’d always wanted to dedicate myself to. These weren’t habit based like exercise more or drink less.  They were tangible goals such as make an iPhone game, write a novella, and create a dance song on my computer.

This year ended up being the first time I actually stuck to my goals.

By December 31st I had accomplished all of the tasks and learning on my list, with the idea being that I’d find my “passion”.  While I didn’t, I become even better at learning new skills, and have been tweaking my ideas since.

Here is the process I believe can teach you to begin learning anything today, effectively.  My goal in revealing this is to prevent the typical self-prohibitive habits of reading without trying and creation stagnation which I will discuss below.

Always Read While Trying  

Always.  When first beginning the habit is to try to read everything, watch videos, and talk to experts, before beginning to create.  This goes for speaking a foreign language, learning to program, learning to exercise, learning a musical instrument.  Everything.

On day one of learning, go ahead and read, but then put into practice what you’ve read.  Watch a tutorial video online, but while watching take breaks to actually try the software you’re attempting to learn or to write or draw.  Don’t work through the entire course and then move onto the next without building anything for yourself.  The brain needs constant repetition and muscle-memory through task orientation in order to get better.

Start Simple

Josh Waitzkin wrote in his book The Art of Learning about beginning chess mastery by starting with the very basics of the game.  His example was to only use kings, and then pawn and king to master the end game before digging into the individual other phases of the game.  This same principle applies to every type of learning.

If you want to begin weight lifting, start with one exercise, do it a few times a week and master it.  If you are learning Photoshop, start with one specific set of tools and practice doing several images this way. If you want to write music, begin with rhythm or melody and completely master it before moving on to the next section.

This is applicable to any type of learning where complex forms are the ultimate goal.  The common practice is to attempt making complete and skilled objects like those we are trying to emulate.  We want to be fluent in a day or paint a work of art in a week.  Start simple and master the foundations of your new craft and by the time you are creating full works they will seem an easy sum of individual parts you’ve already conquered.

Avoid Creation Stagnation

This is easier said than done, but is a habit that forms on the first day of attempting to learn something new.  You want to learn basketball, but begin only dribbling with your right hand.  You want to design websites, but always end up using the color blue or the font Avenir because they are your favorites.  The key here is to intentionally mix it up, often.

Step outside your comfort zone, do anything to force yourself to experiment!

This can actually be really fun, I like trying brainstorming, or creativity exercises where you have lots of weird, set constraints.  Want to make a song? Only use one synthesizer for all the sounds.  Try using gradients of just one color for an entire website.

Practice with constraints and learn on the edge of your abilities.  This pushes you to try new things and to move past any type of rut or stagnation.  I firmly believe this is a core component of escaping writer’s/artist’s block.

Whatever you want to learn is today at your fingertips.  There are more resources on the web than ever before, and people are being paid more for teaching a new skill than becoming a master.  Take advantage of this time, I’ll talk in the future about dealing with information overload and how to find a good teacher.  For now, pick a new skill, dive in, and try these tips.

Are you lazy?

Sitting on an airplane, in an airport, or a library seems the ultimate location to actually create.  There’s a subtle depth to the turmoil that surrounds an individual in these locations – yet the stimulus allows one the ability to hone in deeper.  Many people need utter silence in order to be productive.  I would argue that the slight hum of nearby activity grants a deeper experience of getting into the flow state.  It’s as if the barely perceptible slice of external life gives one the opportunity to shut down a section of the brain that is easily distracted.  While I would challenge everyone creative out there to spend a touch of time in a busy space with some headphones in and their phone turned off, that is not the purpose of this article. Or this site.

My goal is simple: explore the learning process, create while doing so, and uncover how one can go through the evolution of casual observer, to critic, to beginner content creator, to amateur, to adept, to master.  I am not fascinated with the top 5%, there are many people who study the best of us.  My focus is on the rest of us.

I realized at 23 that I had learned nothing in college.  I woke up to my first job hunt post school, and like many liberal arts majors was armed with a pleathora of soft skills I was unable to put onto a resume.  I applied to jobs as a recruiter for health care, as a law clerk at a firm’s library, as a video game production intern, and landed a position as a procurement specialist at an industrial supply company.  What the fuck?  When I went into an interview, I could often nail it – I had learned how to present myself and talk about complex ideas.  What I hadn’t learned was a real, tactile, practical skill.  Writing? Yes, I could write a five page essay on the differences between Norse mythology and the ancient Hindu pantheon.  I watched my friends with business degrees suffer through the same process.  We all accepted “jobs” and unconsciously agreed to sign into google chat every day to talk about the Bears, that new bar on Division, and hopefully not work.  We also all unconsciously agreed not to create anything.  Sound like people you know?  This was the first time I became envious of my father.

I think the typical model (in our imagination) looks like this: dad works some corporate job for 30 years, son comes along and creates something cool, fresh, hip, brags to friends and girls about it at parties, makes a little money, has some sex, goes broke several times, and “finds himself” in his early 30s when he takes a job at a medium sized firm doing PR, or marketing, or business consulting, or web development.  In reality I believe most of us end up taking some corporate job after school, and focus on rising through the ranks.  Even my friends with creative degrees such as fine arts, or music, tended to end up working in a more traditional business role.  My father is a college professor, who loves to teach, but I was envious because he also loved to write, and creates books.  I’ve never been envious of his audience, or his exposure, but purely that he could spend time creating something in the universe.  Do you know someone like this?  A friend? A relative? Your spouse? I will accept the argument that starting a business is being a creative.  However, I believe human beings are wired to create, and that getting into a flow state is the core human drive.

Think about it this way, what is sex? Especially good sex? Flow.  You lose yourself in it, your brain shuts off.  High-intensity sports? Flow.  Musicianship? Flow.  Acting? Flow. You see the pattern – the things our society values, the people we pay the most are flow addicts.  They are able to dive deep into this space and create from it.  Here’s the catch, they aren’t necessarily the best!  We will get to this in another article, but it would appear our core human nature drives to flow.  Even eating a good meal puts one into a state of flow; how often have you devoured a whole plate at a meal like Thanksgiving and sat back to realize you somehow just put down more than you normally could in an entire weekend?

How does this all tie together?  Regardless of your work, your real job, what pays you today, I believe that you, as a human, crave flow.  We are all addicts in some form or another, and have stories that enable us or prohibit us from chasing the dragon.  We numb ourselves to this via temporary or even pseudo-flow that comes through behaviors such as television, fast food, and internet masturbation.  All activities that almost simulate flow, but artificially do so, ultimately cause some minor form of damage that builds over time.

My purpose here is to help, to guide, to hold hands with you on the journey to finding flow through learning.  I challenge you to do so.  If you want a website to help you make money, or to give you the shortcut to success, I can send you to several.  If you cannot or will not challenge yourself to step outside of your comfort zone, I would ask you to leave right now.  I am going to make you uncomfortable, and I can promise you will grow.  The following posts will detail my own journey into learning, creating, building things.  I will focus on the process.  I will focus more on what doesn’t work than what does, because I believe that what works will be different for everyone, but the core of what doesn’t work is universal to us all.

I want to challenge you to do the things that are difficult for you in your life as I do in mine.  I will highlight resources that help me along the way, people who find better ways to do things or strategies that help me.  But understand that this will not be easy, you will face demons, darkness, frustration, and discomfort.  But also understand that you are not alone.  Please join me on this journey.

Here’s the TED talk on flow (thanks Edgar!):