On Learning How To Learn

On Learning How To Learn

Published on
November 20, 2019

I spent about an year trying to learn how to code before I realized I was doing it all wrong. I skimmed through tutorials, programming books, articles etc but had no success. I was making one of those classic beginner’s mistake.

I wanted to be competent at writing code right away, and make all those ideas in my head a reality immediately. I was impatient and didn’t exactly pay attention to what I was doing. Though I knew a lot about code and programming, I didn’t know how to build things.

So I quit learning how to code and instead focused on learning how to learn.

This paid off in huge ways. Once I learned how to learn, I learned a ton of things, and that too fast. Learning well became something internalized and happened on it’s own.

I want to share these insights and help you learn faster. It’s important we start with the basics, understanding how learning happens for everyone.

The Four Stages of Learning

Has it ever happened to you, that at some point, you bumped into a word, a video or an article or someone mentioned something. And you learned this new thing you love, about which you’re hungry to know more. So you research about it and your interest deepens. Somewhere along the line you love it so much that you dive all into it and work more. And within no time you get fairly competent at it, your friends ask for advice on how they can do it too? How they can learn what you learned, and learn it well. And surprisingly, if you think of it, All this happens over a period of a few weeks to months.

If you end up loving it enough and pursue it over the next couple of years, you end up being a master at it. But all this happens in your subconscious. This is your curiosity helping you learn things well out of interest.

But how do you do that with plain intent for something you want to learn? How can you learn well like your natural subconscious?

The answer is to understand how learning happens in the first place. And then apply that framework to what you want to learn.

As you learn anything, you go through the four inevitable stages of learning

  1. Ignorance
  2. Awareness
  3. Competence
  4. Mastery

We start with Ignorance

As we start out, we’re by default living in ignorance about things we don’t know. As we get introduced to something, our awareness grows and we build familiarity. You invest time on learning it well and grow competent. But we all start as a noob at pretty much everything.

Building Awareness

So the best way to learn is to make sure that you go through each of these stages well.

Let’s assume you’ve been in a state of ignorance on a subject and it’s time you fix it. To get competent, you have to first learn enough on about the subject and get familiar with it.

Here are few ways to do that:

  • Read introductory books on the subject and take notes
  • Hang out around people who do what you want to do, and jot down the jargons they speak & Google about it
  • Find out who’re the best people in the field and dig into their work & recommendations
  • Google the hell out of the internet

To be clear, The goal is not to just gain familiarity, but also to build a model of the subject in your head, on how things connect over different domains and subtopics.

For ex: If you are learning how to play football, you wouldn’t start by learning how to sprint. You would first learn how to pass the ball, then run with the ball, pass while running, dribble. All things essentially adding up one move onto another. So if you know each task and skill adds up to your goal, you will have meaning & purpose to your learning objectives.

So, create this model, a road-map that will help you achieve your learning goals. By understanding how all the pieces fit together, create a knowledge tree per se. Without this road-map, anything you’ll do is pretty useless. So talk to relevant people and figure this out as soon as possible.

You Don’t Need Years to Grow Competent

Once you have this roadmap, you have to commit. Commit that when you’re done with 10 days of research, you’re going to take action. Having a deadline for researching your road-map ensures you don’t get lost on the internet. So once you commit to taking action, your brain optimizes for the best options available to you. It’s easy to lose your way and keep researching forever. So, you’ve to make sure you’re not fooling yourself about this.

“The first principle is that you must not fool yourself and you are the easiest person to fool.” – Richard Feynman

Start where you think is the best based on your research. It might be a book, a tutorial or jumping onto your project and working on it. The goal is to create a feedback loop that tells you if you’re learning or failing. Keep moving and make progress.

If you stick at it and spend time everyday, you’ll get competent within a few weeks. And that’s the goal, to get competent as quickly as possible.

Seek Help & Feedback

One of the most common mistakes is to go at it, all alone.

Learning happens when you know what mistakes you’re making. And you need someone telling you that. The best way to do this, is to get help from a senior, a teacher, or a friend. Someone who already knows & does what you’re trying to learn and do.

If you’re learning how to play an instrument, get someone to watch you when you play. If you’re learning how to code, get someone to do code reviews for you. If you’re learning how to read fast, get someone to time you and help you improve with feedback. And the most helpful thing you can do is to have a mentor who will work with you and invest time in your growth.

Having some kind of social feedback, accelerates your learning experience. We use this technique over and over at our Bridge Student Accelerator. And it’s very satisfying to see our students learn fast and succeed big.

The most common misconception is that you need years before you can learn something well. You can learn things well and fast. It only takes years to master something. But knowing something well, and being a master at it are two different things.

For example, “When you’re learning how to drive, your rate of learning is pretty high early on. That’s because you suck at it and your brain picks up feedback pretty soon. You go from not knowing how to drive, to doing it without even thinking about it, within just few weeks. And most people drive at that level, for most of their life. You don’t have to sweat about improving your driving skills, because what you know, works well for you. Your goal is not to be Formula1 driver. So you’re okay with being just good enough at it.”

For most of what we learn in life, we end up being just good enough at things. Our brain wants to habituate things so that it doesn’t have to work as much anymore.

So as you learn new things, your goals is to get good enough to go on auto-pilot and then decide if you want to excel at it.

Being a Master

Being a master at something is the most desired achievement for many and people underestimate how much work you need to put in to get there. It’s funny people think that it’s hard to become competent but you can master something after that point.

If you imagine and plot your learning rate on a graph with learning rate vs time, it looks something like this.

It takes comparatively very little time to get competent and then takes years to master it. That’s fine, because you’re not going to master everything in life. And the ones who master things absolutely love what they are doing. Otherwise it’s very hard to keep at it for so long.

So if you put it all together there are some key takeaways that we should internalize.

  • It’s important build awareness to understand where you’re going
  • You can get competent quickly if you have a roadmap.
  • Get help because feedback is the cornerstone of improving fast
  • Mastering something takes years, So find what you love and work on it for the rest of your life.

I hope this has been a great read and has revealed a lot of inherent mistakes in your learning process. However, this is not the ultimate learning framework, mastering this makes you realize about something else that flips your world again, but that’s for another time and article.

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