Saturday, August 22, 2009

You Can Learn Anything!

A Practical Guide To Studentship: Part IV
Are you someone who's never been able to do math? Perhaps you've been told that you're tone-deaf and can't carry a tune in a bucket? Do reading and writing come to you with difficulty? Do legal documents scare you?

Regardless of what your learning challenges have been, I'm here to tell you that there is absolutely nothing that you cannot learn how to do.

Step One: Abandon Disbelief
For those of you who responded with a smirk or a sense of doubt to my use of the phrase absolutely nothing, thinking "Hey, I can't learn to golf like Tiger Woods!" or "I could never learn to play guitar like Jimmi Hendrix", we have step one. An important prerequisite for great studentship is believing that you can accomplish what you set out to accomplish, even if you don't feel that way.

This abandonment of disbelief doesn't require a dialogue or counseling session; it doesn't have to be permanent. Basically, just set aside your doubts for a while. Try on the belief that you can do what you want to do. It's like trying on a pair of shoes. Just do it!

Step Two: Learn Slowly
When trying to learn something that we believe we can't learn, we make the experience less than enjoyable. This causes us to rush through exercises, assignments and readings. We get into the mode of trying to get them done, not trying to learn from them.

When we rush we incorporate inaccuracies into our learning. What we learn is wrong.

For example, the key to playing blazing fast guitar solos is to practice really, really slowly with a metronome. Importantly, you never want to play faster than you can play clearly and accurately.

When you play faster than you can play without making mistakes, you actually learn the mistakes, not the notes you want to play. Your so-called muscle memory acquires the mistakes and and can recall them. If you find yourself making the same mistake over and over, it's because you've taught yourself the mistake.

This is the case for anything that you learn, what goes in is what get's learned.

So, if you want to get more from your reading, read slowly. Pause and ask yourself what you read. If you can't recall or are unsure of what you've read, read it again. You'll be able to get through even the most complicated text.

If you want to learn math, do the problems slowly. Check your work and see where you made mistakes. If you did make mistakes, do the problem again. Make sure that what goes into your memory is the process of solving the problem, not making mistakes.

Most importantly, never conclude a learning session immediately after making a mistake. Always end on a solid run of the exercise.

Step Three: Repeat, Repeat, Repeat
It's nearly impossible not to learn something if you do it lots and lots and lots of times. In fact, what we often call talent could easily be summed up in terms of the number of repetitions required to acquire a new skill: the fewer the repetitions, the greater the talent.

Imagine two blocks of walnut. One has rough edges and a course texture; the other is relatively smooth and the edges square. Either block of wood could become a beautiful walnut cube, but one may require more planning and sanding than the other.

This is the case for any skill that we want to acquire. Some of us are the rough block and others the smooth block. The difference has no implication to our potential. It's just a matter of how much work it will take.

People often ask me how I'm able to do all I do with the piano and I always go back to spending eight hours a day practicing when I was music school. It's not so much talent as repetition.

Right Brained People Can Do Math
As a kid, I could never do math. I was totally right-brained as it were.

When I found myself in a position where it was learn calculus or never get ahead at work, I thought I was done for. Out of desperation, I started treating math like playing piano. Rather than memorizing or reading and reading and reading, I simply started practicing calculus problems. I bought five calculus books that came with the answers to all the exercises in the back of the book.

I spent hours practicing math, even repeating problems I'd already done.

I ended up getting the only A on the final exam. Ever since then, math has been easy.

Step Four: Pay Attention
When Iris and I talked about repetition, she recalled working in the tulip fields as a kid and getting paid based on the number of crates of bulbs she could process in a day. She remembers starting out with just a single crate and working her way up to twenty. Through years of repetitive work, she got better and better.

I said, "Yup, repetition really works."

But then Iris pointed out that there were many adults who had been doing the work for decades and still processed only ten or twelve crates per day. There were also families of migrant workers who would come in and process twice as many crates as Iris. They seemed totally dialed in to what they were doing.

As we talked about it, we decided that repetition works best when you really pay attention and are aware of what you're doing. If you're playing scales, be aware of how your fingers move from key to key. Are they tense or relaxed, is there a flow in motion or is it stilted?

If you're reading a book, how does your body feel? Are you really present or are you distracted? What are the words really saying?

A Second Set of Eyes
Sometimes, you can boost your awareness by having someone watch you and provide feedback. For example, as Iris has been learning to sing and to play drums, I often sit and listen to her, paying attention to her pitch, where she's placing her voice, whether she's ahead of or behind the beat and so on. Since Iris is just starting out, it's helpful to have someone else paying attention with her.

As we've been doing this, Iris has been picking up on these elements of awareness and starting hear them all herself. She records herself singing, and then plays it back listening with the same awareness. The process has improved her skills amazingly.

You Absolutely, Positively Can Learn Anything!
I totally believe that if you:
  1. Abandon Disbelief

  2. Acquire new knowledge and skills slowly and accurately

  3. Practice, practice, practice (slowly and accurately), and;

  4. Pay attention as you do so,

you'll amaze yourself with what you are able to accomplish.

One more thing: if you do the above, you'll never have to memorize anything.

So, what are you going to learn?

Have a great weekend!

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