How to Learn Anything – Part 1: An Introduction
“Live as if you were to die tomorrow. Learn as if you were to live forever.” –Mahatma Gandhi
There is nothing in life quite like the “eureka moment;” that instant when something that previously made no sense comes into perfect focus: “I’ve got it!”
How do we prepare ourselves to have more of those moments? This post is the first in a series that will explore ways to succeed in learning. Future posts will address effective strategies. This introduction lays the groundwork for those strategies by exploring attitudes and beliefs about learning that can be the foundation for success.
The way people approach learning, studying, and practicing, has much more to do with how well they learn than IQ does. Strategy matters more than IQ, and attitude lays the foundation for choosing and implementing effective strategies.
Beginner’s Mind – Successful learners start with the clear understanding that they don’t already know the material to be learned. This might sound obvious, but many students get caught up in fear around the fact that they have never seen the information before. The first step in learning is to make peace with the fact that “not knowing” is not only okay, it is the only way anybody ever begins learning something new. If you already knew it, there would be nothing to learn!
Curiosity – Not only is it normal and okay to not know information before you learn it, it is magnificent! It is magnificent that the world is filled with mystery; the possibility of eureka! exists precisely because there are things we don’t know.
The first step for building an effective attitude for learning is accepting that you don’t know it yet; the second step is to be curious. Be curious! The world is fascinating, and no matter what we already know, it is always filled with things to learn. Whether it’s algebra, history, or ballroom dance, there is something fascinating about it.
In massage therapy school students learn about people and their bodies, and how to help them – sometimes dramatically – through touch. What you can feel and what you can do to help people change is amazing if you know how bodies are built, how they work, and how to feel what’s happening within them.
The experience of feeling what’s going on in a body, the experience of feeling yourself help someone, and the ideas that underly the skills that lead to these experiences can all be nothing short of mind-blowing. There is nothing like the moment when students’ eyes sparkle with the excitement of having just wrapped their heads around a brilliant idea for the first time – except for the moment when they come up with the idea on their own. This happens all the time; the primary prerequisite is curiosity.
Meaning – Having set the stage for learning by acknowledging that it is fine to begin the project without knowing the material, and then adopting a curious attitude toward it, the next step is to focus on meaning. The goal of the most successful learners is not to “get through it,” memorize it, or pass a test. Their goal is to make meaning out of brand new information. By focusing on meaning rather than memorizing, the memorizing actually gets much easier – and so do the tests!
Asking “how” and “why” is one of the best ways to create meaning. Questioning is one of the most powerful learning tools. Without questions learning can be as impossible as trying to memorize a phonebook. Why does my knee jerk when it’s hit by the doctor with a mallet? Why does a headache disappear when we press on these spots in muscles? Aiming to memorize a lot of information may lead you into a meaningless jumble. Aim to understand, apply, analyze, and be creative with new information and you will find yourself remembering a lot of interesting things, with much less effort and much less stress.
These are the first steps in learning anything. Be okay with not knowing it yet. Be curious. Care about meaning. Ask why. Take it one step at a time. Above all don’t allow the fact that you don’t know it yet to scare you. Not knowing something is the perfect place to begin learning. Relax, learn one small thing, and notice that as soon as you really know that one small thing, that thing becomes easy. At every step of the way realize there will always be the next piece you don’t know yet. There is nothing wrong with that. There are “eureka’s” waiting for you right around the corner.
This is the first post in an occasional series. In the next post we’ll explore some strategies that help create meaning out of new information. We’ll find that many strategies commonly used are actually not very effective, and others – that could easily be utilized more often – are powerfully effective. In the meantime… learn something interesting!