The Secret to Learning Anything

One of my biggest interests in life is learning. If I encounter something new and exciting, I will get obsessed with it. I will read anything I can find on it, I will talk to people who have already done it and most importantly, I will practice it. The urge to constantly practice will be so overwhelming, that I will artificially have to restrict myself to avoid going overboard, as Radical Effort can actually be a very counter-productive approach.

As a result of my passion for learning, I’ve been asking myself for years how you can get better at learning itself. How can you make sure you WILL succeed at your chosen area of learning? I know it sounds really unworldly, but this is a question that has kept me up for many a night. I hate the idea of wasting time on sub-optimal methods, it just drives me nuts.

The question of learning became especially apparent to me about 10 years ago when I started Brazilian Jiu Jitsu (BJJ). For those of you that don’t know, it is a highly effective martial arts but also a very, very complicated one at a technical level. For the average person, it takes many years of consistent training to get halfway good at it.

Part of the reason that BJJ makes such a great research tool for “learning about learning” is that it has such a short feedback loop. Every new method you apply to foster your progress on the mats is constantly tested against the methods of your fellow students. They are also trying to get become skilled at this as fast as possible, and if their chosen methods are superior to yours, you will find out pretty quickly, as they will constantly smash you when sparring. It is as easy as that.

When I started my training, I would, metaphorically, just throw mud at the wall and see what stuck. I would write down every technique after class and organize these techniques by position into flow diagrams. I would do a lot of extra drilling outside of class. I took up weight training and plyometrics to improve my physical conditioning. I got instructional DVDs to watch at home. I visualized techniques. I even bought a home mat for my tiny student apartment to practice BJJ moves on my girlfriend.

Some of these things worked better than others, at least for me. So I dropped some of the methods that were yielding smaller results in favor of methods with a bigger return on investment. Essentially, I came up with my own weighted mix of methods that would yield the biggest results. Or so I thought, until I came across a new method or different kind of mix; then it was back to the drawing board to re-evaluate my current mix. After all, I hated wasting time on sub-optimal learning!

But it seemed to work. I was progressing a lot faster than other students at the academy, and trust me, I’m not a naturally athletic person. Other students started asking me questions about my approach, about my chosen mix of methods. I happily answered their questions and gave them training advice. I started to show them little technical details I had picked up from watching DVDs after class, or from drilling certain techniques a lot at home. Eventually, my instructor even asked me to teach certain classes for him. All very flattering and rewarding.

But then I encountered a new problem. When I started teaching my first classes I just assumed I would be a great success as a teacher. I had tried out so many different methods, I had found out what “worked” and now I would pour my distilled wisdom into the minds of those who had not. Or so I thought.

But my students did not excel, at least not to the extent I thought they would. I got really worked up about that. Was my chosen approach to BJJ only applicable to me? I tried to tailor my recommendations more specifically to the individual in front of me to little effect. Maybe I was overwhelming my students with too much information at once? I tried to simplify my way of teaching, again to little effect. I got increasingly desperate. Why was I failing as a teacher? Why were they not making the huge leaps in learning that I had expected them make? I couldn’t figure it out.

Now, after a quite a few years of teaching BJJ and other things, I think I have finally figured out what makes all the difference in learning; what separates the few high performers from the vast majority of average learners, besides consistent practice (that should be a given):

  • It’s not natural ability
  • It’s not intelligence (I have had a few not so smart students that are complete geniuses on the mat)
  • It’s not having the best teacher (contrary to what many people claim)
  • Nor is it being surrounded by success-driven people, the whole “you are you who you hang out with” spiel.

Being a high performer, someone who succeeds at everything they set their mind to, who makes the rest of us look like stupid idiots, comes down to one thing, and one thing only:

It is realizing, that when you want to learn something, you essentially have to teach yourself.

Sounds trivial? If it was, I wouldn’t have to deal with the following. Ninety-five percent of all people I have ever taught anything to, be it BJJ, Pick Up or productivity methods have the same thing in common: they EXPECT the knowledge or the know-how to come from the outside, from some kind of external source. Usually it is the teacher in front of them, but it might also be the textbook they are studying, the website they are reading or the YouTube clip they are watching. In any case, their line of thinking goes like this: I don’t have any know-how on subject XY, so I’ll go to outside source Z, so Z can transfer its knowledge to the hard drive that is my brain.

This is of course bullshit. It is this kind of passive, receiving kind of mindset, being told what to do, what to read, what to practice, that kills your progress in the first place. Exceptional progress in learning only ever happens when you take matters into your own hands. Trust me, worst case scenario, you CAN do without a live instructor and you CAN still become world class at something. It’s damn hard, but I have seen it done several times. But what you cannot do without is becoming your own teacher – even if you have a coach in front of you!

I repeat: Paradoxically, your main responsibility as a learner is to become your own teacher. It’s your job to learn about the spectrum of your chosen field and what it entails. It’s then your job to choose what techniques and methods to focus on that will potentially wield the biggest results. It’s your job again, to figure out the finer details and nuances that separate the average learner from the eventual master; even the best teacher in the world cannot do that work for you.

You cannot hand over responsibility for learning (and for success, for that matter) to a teacher. The teacher or the textbook or whatever external source, are the most overrated criteria for learning success there is. Again, if need be, you can do without them. But only YOU can teach yourself. And until this realization has sunk into the core of your being, you will not be consistently successful at anything you do. Being your own teacher is really the secret to learning and success.

2 thoughts on “The Secret to Learning Anything

  1. Hmmmm? This made me think! I love being challenged, and your perspective here certainly challenged me.

    “It’s your job to learn about the spectrum of your chosen field and what it entails. It’s then your job to choose what techniques and methods to focus on that will potentially wield the biggest results. It’s your job again, to figure out the finer details and nuances that separate the average learner from the eventual master; even the best teacher in the world cannot do that work for you.”

    Interesting…putting the responsibility on the student to learn the material, rather than on the teacher to teach it.

    Great post Nicholas

    1. Glad you liked the article! I checked out your blog too, it has some really great posts. I like how you get inspiration from everyday situations and objects and then turn that into something different. Looking forward to reading more!

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