Good Will Hunting and the Shaolin Monk – Learning New Things Fast

People love certain ideas about genius. 

One of their favorite concepts is that of the born genius, the person with the innate ability to learn facts and data and complex things in minutes where it would take the normal person weeks or months or years to master the same things. 

Another favorite is that of the lone monk or recluse or whatever, the lone person who quietly devotes their entire lives to the study of one thing, going deeper into their chosen subject than most people even dream possible. 

The only problem? They’re both BS. With only a few exceptions that occur so rarely that they could never be counted on, neither scenario is anywhere close to reality. 

As much as we love Good Will Hunting, that’s just not how humans work. And as much as we admire the lone Kung Fu master, who wants to spend their entire life until they’re senior citizens learning one skill, which they only get to use right at the end? Pass.

The truth is, to differentiate yourself in this world, you need to learn things, whether those things are knowledge and data, or skills and arts. And these skills and knowledge and arts, generally, don’t come easy. At least, not the ones that matter. 

But there are ways to learn them without isolating yourself in a remote monastery, and missing your niece’s birthday while you learn to balance on logs. 

In Deep Work, Cal Newport talks quite a bit about how to master skills in as short a time as possible. In the book, Newport says that, in order to learn a new skill or business or art, you need to take a focused, deliberate approach to learning. 

In fact, there’s a name for such an approach – deliberate practice. Deliberate practice, in essence, is the practice of breaking down a given field (of whatever it is that you’re interested in) into topics for specific study, breaking down the giant field that you’re trying to learn into smaller, more focused components, knocking each of them down in turn, until you’re ready to take that knowledge of each area, synthesize them together, and apply the whole to whatever it is that you’re trying to do or create. 

Newport breaks down deliberate practice into two primary components:

  1. Focusing your attention intensely on the topic at hand – this is one of the primary themes throughout Deep Work, and it certainly applies here. To learn a given thing, you understand what it is, and focus on that thing until you’ve got it down. If it’s a big topic (like learning a whole new career, or trying to write a classical symphony), you’ll probably need to break it down into topics, study them individually, and keep that focus until you’ve learned it, then move on to the next. 
  2. Creating Feedback Loops to keep you on track – it’s hard learning new things, especially complex things, and it’s especially hard learning in a complete vacuum (which is one of the main problems with the isolated-master approach). To keep yourself on track, you need to regularly engage those who know more about the topic than you, people who can provide feedback and guidance on your progress, keeping you moving forward in the most productive way possible. 

To some people, this approach seems really looonnnng. They want to learn now! Aren’t there Cliffs Notes on this? Can I watch a YouTube video??

The truth is, if those resources exist, use them! There’s no limitation on what tools to use, with the provision that a.) those tools or resources are actually valuable and aid your learning, b.) they don’t come with a lot of distracting diversions and other mental baggage that will only slow you down, and (perhaps most importantly) c.) they fit within an overall deliberate practice of learning. 

That last part is key – to some people, this structured approach seems too long, too formal, too structured for their style of learning. But the problem, and this is backed up by study after study, is that the looser approach is the scattered approach, a buffet-style method that, while seeming to lead you to valuable nuggets right away, is actually wayyy slower than if you take the time upfront to define what you want to learn, what are the parts you need to master in order to learn the whole, and what parts do you need to learn now so that you can do something with your new skill while focusing on the deeper concepts as you go.

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