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).

Things I like to do

 

  • Make fun of myself
  • Challenge and surprise myself
  • Realise how ignorant I am
  • Climbing
  • Reading
  • Writing
  • Programming
  • Learn languages
  • Handwriting (notes, letters, calligraphy…)
  • Chess
  • Role-playing games
  • Solving problems and thinking
  • Helping others
  • Walking in nature
  • Selecting good food, cooking and sharing meals
  • Meet people
  • Witness or create authentic moments or things
  • Have authentic discussions

There is no failure

From February 2017 to June 2018 I worked on a project called ChineseMe, an online method to help people learning Chinese.

This had to be a success. I have an MBA from Peking University and a MSc in Economics and Management from ESSEC Business school. I studied Chinese since I was 14. I learnt web development as a hobby since 2014. I’ve read books, followed classes, met many entrepreneurs and discussed about every possible dimension about how to make an Internet-based business. In February 2017 I met a friend who is also passionate about Chinese language and was ready to finance the ChineseMe project and allow me to work on project full-time from Stockholm. I quit my job and went all-in, thinking that nothing could go wrong. I knew that most of the time, first-time entrepreneurs fail. But hey, what could go wrong? I was so well prepare and I had the best possible profile to make a breakthrough in the industry of online Chinese learning.

What happened next? Of course I failed. Big time. Or more exactly, the project was a fail. Believe it or not, I did almost all of the most common mistakes that you usually see in articles about entrepreneurship:

  • Focused on fame and results instead of caring for people
  • Released the first product way too late.
  • Over-complicated product.
  • No real differentiation.
  • No real market.

Even if I knew about those things, I was blind to them. This is another hint at one of my rule: I can only learn by experiencing it myself. At the end I was completely depressed, staying at home (I lived in the office) and not seeing a lot of people. How did this happened? I gave everything I had on the project, but I wasn’t doing it with my heart. I did it mostly for the adventure, because I wanted to show others that I could do it and because it seems to be the logical thing to do given my educational background. I didn’t truly do it to help people learning Chinese. If I cared about this that much, I would probably be a Chinese teacher. And I’m not.

What did I learn?

  • Do it. You will never be as prepared as now.
  • There is no failure. ChineseMe didn’t bring me money nor fame. But I learnt a lot about myself (precisely that I don’t and shouldn’t care about money nor fame).
  • Do not “create a startup” or “be an entrepreneur” because it sounds cool.
  • Do something that you like, and very likely, this will lead to something good. Money and fame are not ends to follow. They are just the potential outcome that may happen when someone does what they like. And even if it doesn’t happen, at least you’ve done something you like.
  • Ask yourself: do you see you doing this for the rest of your life? If the answer is no, don’t do it.
  • Do not think about what other will think. Do it for you.

The game is set

Last night at 3AM I woke up and felt the need to write this. It was a really strange feeling. I went out of the AirBnB where me and my family were spending the night, took a pen and my notebook and wrote this in one piece. Is this something that might me close to poetry in prose? I don’t know. But when I went back to bed I felt good and immediately felt asleep. It was a funny experience and I wanted to keep a track of it.


The game is set, the pieces are aligned, forever staring at the other side. Immobile, they wait for a human touch to lead their steps in a mystical dance.

Players shake hands and the world is suspended, for when their skin touch a contract is signed. They forfeit names and roles for a superior cause. And for the next hours, Black and White will oppose.

Beginners and masters play by the same rules. One move and another compose a mutual groove. Time passes and when the game unfolds, a masterpiece has been written in stones.

Make a step and you never come back. The pawns are launched, looking forward in an ultimate quest to one day become Queens, or open direct lines to the enemy King.

A contract ties two minds for the time of a game. In the space of a board a comedy is played. Who knows how long it takes to design a winner, when plans are confronted with only Truth to judge.

Signs showing that I was depressed

A list of things that showed that I was in a state of depression or mental breakdown in early 2018. If something similar occurs in the future, I hope I will be conscious enough to notice it.

  • Impossible to focus on tasks
  • Addictions to my smartphone
  • Addiction to Youtube
  • Addiction to online blitz chess. I was playing for hours without even enjoying it.
  • Hard to learn new things. I stayed in Sweden for a year without learning any Swedish.
  • Didn’t enjoy eating. I was either eating pizzas, sushis, or cooking very basic meals, mostly pasta and frozen things.
  • Had no faith in what I was doing
  • Thought that everybody was judging what I was doing. I was adjusting my behaviour accordingly instead of thinking about what I wanted to do for myself.
  • I wasn’t paying attention to my body. I was literally injured (right arm not folding and hurting) and it took me very long to go to a professional and fix it.
  • I wasn’t cleaning the apartment or taking the trash out.
  • I couldn’t write anything authentic or positive article.
  • I would work on something on my own for a few days and switching to something else, without focus.
  • I would try and find excuses about why I wasn’t efficient (like “the noise stops me from sleeping”)
  • Dandruff (scratching my he head a lot)