How to learn to learn new things

The short answer is that (like everything else!), you learn how to learn new things by learning new things! Yeah, I know it’s, confusing (or trivial?) but it will hopefully make sense soon.

Pick up anything you like and learn it!

If you want to learn how to draw, you need to pick up something to draw (let’s say animals). The more you draw animals, the better you become at drawing animals, and it will then be easier to learn how to draw other things, like human faces (I know, humans are animals too but that’s not the point).

Now, if you want to learn how to learn, you need to pick up something to learn (let’s say drawing). The more you learn how to draw, the better you become at drawing, and it will then be easier to learn how to learn something else.

Get your feet wet and cold

The first thing I do is to pick something I really want to learn. Usually it is something that I would like to do or that I find challenging. It’s actually best if I can identify areas where I’m clearly behind the average. For example, I know that I’m rather good at intellectual tasks, but I also know (because people told me!) that I’m quite ignorant in practical, day-to-day tasks. This is why I’m currently learning how to take care of plants, how to clean my apartment or how to cook better meals for others and myself. Realising what I’m bad at is a pleasant activity in itself.

When selecting the thing I want to learn, I am really open. It can be anything. I have no shame. I recently learnt how to clean my fridge and freezer. I also learnt that buying a mat and installing it at the doorway is a good way to avoid dirt spreading everywhere in my apartment when I invite friend over (I told you I have very low practical skills). The only limit is my imagination and ability to break my self-esteem and make fun of myself. It doesn’t have to be a “useful” skill. The whole point is that by learning something, I understand better the process of learning, and this makes it easier to learn other things.

For example, when learning how to clean my freezer, I realised that some chunks of ice had coagulated under the shelves. Since the first step of cleaning a freezer was to turn it off (because my dad told me, I couldn’t figure it out myself), everything was starting to melt down, and soon a lot of water was starting to accumulate at the bottom of the freezer. I figured out (by myself!) that I should take the chunks out before they melt and fall (I know, that’s pretty smart). So I started taking them with my fingers one by one (that’s not so smart). It was a long and very inefficient process. At this point you have to realise that more and more ice was melting down, and a large pool of water was starting to form out of the freezer. As I was barefoot, it started to be quite cold, which made the situation even more dramatic. But soon I had a brilliant idea: if I take a bucket and place it under the chunks, I could then shake the shelve and make everything drop at once in the bucket, without getting my feet wet.

Why am I telling this story? First, because this solution might sound trivial to anyone more experienced in cleaning a freezer or more experience in cleaning the household. But it wasn’t obvious for me, and this is what matters. I’m my mind, this was a big win. So the level of the activity doesn’t matter to actually enjoy the process of learning something. And the whole idea is to make learning an enjoyable process.

Now, how did I came up with this brilliant solution? Because I used to play Minecraft, the popular sandbox-game that dominates on Youtube in the gaming category. Minecraft is actually a good game to develop one’s creativity and ability to solve practical problems. It’s also a good game to learn how to create automatic and ultra efficient magma-based slaughtering machines that are ridiculously more powerful than the ones of our glorious modern meat industry, but maybe the developers (or the gods?) weren’t expecting the players (or us, sapiens) to do this. Still, in Minecraft, when you dig a block of sand above you (this game is all about digging and collecting blocks), it is destroyed and all the other blocks of sand above it are freely falling down, waiting for you to continue digging them one by one, if you’re not already dead because they felt on you. Luckily there is a glitch that allows you to destroy all the block of sands at once and collect all of them: you have to place a torch under the blocks of sand. I knew this because I saw a Youtube video explaining how to do this. Is this another weird rule of Minecraft’s physic or a bug exploit, I don’t know. But this is what I had in mind: cleaning the freezer is like digging sand blocks in Minecraft: you can put something under and everything falls in nice and clean at once.

What practical advice can we take from this story?

  • Select something and take some time to try it on your own.
  • Do your own research about how to do it (tutorials, books).
  • If possible, find a coach or someone who has done it before.
  • At the same time that you learn new theoretical concepts, try and do the thing yourself. In my experience, I need to actively study, understand and assimilate individual concepts that I weren’t even aware of at the beginning. Once identified, I need to experience them, again and again. Then they will start to feel more natural, and in the end everything becomes linked together.
  • The last step is to ask for feedback, if the feedback isn’t already obvious.

On this subject the book Peakis quite enlightening. If I remember well, it mostly come to the points mentioned above. It’s a little more scientific reading though.

Making progress at something by doing something else

One last thing: by learning different things, you learn not only how to learn better, but you also unlock new ways of understanding things that you have already been learning. In my case, studying mathematics helped for studying Western philosophy. Learning about the relation between body and mind tremendously improved my rock-climbing abilities (as well as many other things like cooking, writing or just being creative). My experiences in programming, gaming and business management helped me to realise and solve my rampant addiction to Facebook and to my phone, which used to cause a high level of anxiety in my life. Physics helped me master cup-and-ball (hurray, best challenge ever).

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