Sunday, December 18, 2011

You Can Learn Anything, Fast!

A while back, I came of with a concept that I called Learning Quotient or LQ, a metric of one's capacity to learn. Although learning oftentimes requires the acquisition and memorization of knowledge, LQ focuses on the mastery of skills and techniques, pattern recognition and the ability to figure out what you don't know.

When I first wrote about LQ, I suggested that one could take measures to improve her LQ, to increase the rate at which she learns (more stuff in less time) or the stickiness of what he learns (like riding a bike). I also shared that Iris didn't see increasing LQ as a particularly useful or attractive activity--why would anyone need to learn faster?

Well, that last part has changed over the last couple of years as Iris has transformed herself into a friggin' learnin' machine. We've been playing with ways to increase her LQ.

Before we start, let's talk a minute about the misguided notion of IQ or Intelligence Quotient, the nearly ubiquitous measure of intelligence. At first blush, you might associate IQ with LQ. You might even see them as the same thing. You might have heard things such as "a person's IQ never changes." You might have taken an IQ test and know your IQ number.

Here are a few things important to remember about IQ and intelligence.
  1. IQ doesn't exist. There's no such thing as a static capacity for intelligence and no bio-medical basis for statements made about it. IQ was invented by psychologists and psychiatrists.
  2. IQ studies are incestuous. How do you evaluate a new IQ test? Make sure that it yields results similar to previously approved IQ tests. (How much IQ does it take to see that as stupid?)
  3. Intelligence is not about knowledge or memorization. Winning at Jeopardy requires no intelligence. A computer could do it.
  4. Intelligence is not an innate capacity; it's simply a side-effect of LQ. Improve your LQ and your IQ will magically increase.

Learn Anything
Let's get down to the nuts and bolts of improving your capacity to learn. It all starts with deciding to start learning again.

Everyone of us enters this world a bad-ass, learning machine. We acquire mobility, language, math and science. We learn problem solving and complex communication. The more we learn, the faster we learn, gaining speed and momentum.

And then we stop!

Like a freight train having exhausted its fuel while steaming ahead at full throttle our learning stops. And like a freight train, the great momentum of our learning carries us forward for a long time, slowing ever so slowly, perhaps imperceptibly, until we perform almost no learning at all. We simply regurgitate what we're learned, make small incremental changes to it, and shift from learning to memorization and intellectual masturbation.

In the absence of active learning, many of us slip into Jeopardy-induced learning-comas, our life support flowing vicariously through the learning and insights of others. Some of us seek help to reignite the our dormant capacity to learn. We sign up for classes. We read books. We talk about how we're going to... But we don't.

The tragedy is that the answer is so close at hand. It's just been obscured by years and years of misinformation about learning. Learning does not come from instruction. Learning does not come from reading. Learning is not a side effect of googling. Learning comes in doing.

To learn, you must do.
To do, you must try.
To do anything significant, you must try repeatedly.
To try repeatedly, means you must fail.
To succeed after failing, you must see failing as a good thing and learn from your failures.
To learn from your failures, you must be become intimate with each them.
To become intimate with failure requires you to pay attention or to foofooize it: be present with your learning.

Be the Ball
I'll provide you a quick list of LQ tips below, but they all depend on one thing more than any other: be aware of what you're doing, i.e., focus; pay attention; be present. Nothing else matters if your focus is diluted.

Focus is one of those things that's simple, but hard. Even the awareness of being focused dilutes your focus. However, it's not a bad starting place. So, to start, focus on being focused. Here are some things to remember...
  1. It's easy to fool yourself into thinking you're focused when you're not. For example, if you're concerned about how well you're doing or whether or not people like what you're doing, you're not focused on what you're doing. You may think that you are, but you're not. Focus is about the trip, not the destination.

  2. Focus is not just a mental thing; it's a physiological, multi-sensory phenomenon. If you're learning to play the bass guitar and you focus exclusively on your finger position, but ignore the texture of the strings against your fingers or the tightness in your shoulders, you're not focused. What about that buzz the strings make each time you relax your grip? What about the friction of the string against your right index finger as you pluck it?

  3. OK technically, I'm now misusing the word focus as I'm describing more than one focal-point. So let's shift to the word awareness. Being aware requires you to pay attention to multiple focal-points that, when combined, provide the complete experience of what you're learning. To be optimally focused, you must become aware of and catalog the various sensory stimuli that compose the learning experience. Basically, you want to create a personal experiential checklist.

  4. Since you can't actually focus on more than one thing at a time, you'll need to establish priorities for each item on your checklist. If you're running, the focus-points that help you maintain balance will be more important than maintaining a relaxed neck and shoulders. However, you still want to allocate some focus-time to the latter. It's easy to become so focused on the primary stimuli, that you ignore the secondary and tertiary stimuli (hence repetitive stress injuries).

  5. Practice shifting focus (remember, we're focused on focus, which is not necessarily focused on the activity.) You can do this by counting, e.g, count ten footfalls and then check your neck and shoulders for tension. You can do this on the clock, e.g., a minute's passed, how's my posture? Focus on shifting focus.

  6. Once you've got the stimuli down, it's time to play with them. What happens if I lengthen my stride? What happens if I shorten it? When I press the strings a bit harder, that buzzing sound goes away. When I relax my grip, my fingers move more quickly and accurately. Play with your new toolkit of sensory focal-points.

Once You Focused
Once you've got down focus, or at least are working towards it, there are many techniques that can improve your LQ. Here are some...
  1. Go Slowly: There's no bigger waste of learning time than doing something quickly and sloppily. It's actually worse than wasteful; it causes you to learn what you don't want to learn. You teach yourself things that'll you'll need to unlearn later.

    Whether solving a math problem or learning a scale or running a mile, never do it faster than you can do it well.

  2. Break It Down: There are very few complex tasks that cannot be decomposed into smaller, simpler tasks. For example, it's easy to improve by a factor of ten your capacity to learn music if you breakdown long, complex phrases into short, simple phrases that you practice slowly. Don't try to put together the big phrase until you've mastered each of the smaller phrases.

    The same goes for math and science, languages, etc.

  3. Build It Up: Once you've taken apart a large complex challenge and mastered each of the components, you'll need to reconstruct the large complex challenge. This is the point where most people fail.

    When building up the complex composite you gotta focus on the seams, not the components. I've listened to many musicians trying to reconstruct the complex piece from the phrases they've learned. Phrase, pause, phrase, pause, phrase, pause... like a sputtering engine. The individual phrases sound free-flowing and easy, but the transitions from phrase to phrase are laborious and painful.

    Focus on the transitions. Start in the middle of one phrase and end in the middle of the next.

    Again, this works for language, math and science.

  4. Persist: The most important thing is to persist. However, persistence becomes counter-productive once you lose focus or begin to practice badly.

Of Course You Can
There's no doubt in my mind that, if you learn to focus and you practice well, you can learn anything. I've never seen anyone do the above and not achieve her goals.

Alright, get out there and learn somethin'

Happy Sunday,


  1. Tef: i've been thinking about a point you raised here:
    " if you're concerned about how well you're doing or whether or not people like what you're doing, you're not focused on what you're doing."

    I've been aware for a while that I rarely lose myself in something. There always seems to be a bit of me that's almost sitting beside me, monitoring the situation (usually other people) and myself. On the whole, it hasn't been a detriment - I think it helps me stay tuned in to everybody around me. But one interesting thing I've noticed is that during the infrequent times when I've 'lost myself' in an activity, I've also lost track of time. (Due to years of playroom experience, I can usually tell clock time to within 5 minutes).

    I think it's the difference between staying grounded and taking flight. Each good in its own way, but a different experience from the other. Time to try flying more often, and to see how that affects my learning. Thanks!

  2. Sree, I once had a great boss whose motto was "Build on your strengths and shore up your weaknesses."

    He didn't see either as good or bad. He talked about strengths and weaknesses like right- and left-handedness. We tend to favor our "strong" hand to the detriment of our weak hand. (I use detriment as one would in a budgeting exercise with a zero-sum budget.)

    He spent a lot of effort helping me to "shore up my weaknesses" (encouraging, pushing, insisting). I'm quite certain I would never have done so had he not made it so important. I feel grateful every time I think about it.

    I would characterize the experience as one of not knowing what I'd been missing. What I'd imagined would happen as I developed my opposite hand had been limited by my strong-handed perspective. It never occurred to me that the strong-hand could shift from one to the other.

    I'm looking forward to tales of your experiences flying.

  3. Hi Sree,

    I also have for the longest time been someone who observes herself from the sideline. In 2011 I tried in some specific situations a new approach by throwing myself in fully without any reserves or control. This has given me great benefits over the year, like improving my singing and drumming faster than I could imagine.

    On the other hand, I also have experienced more emotional responses to things that didn't work out as hoped. And because the sideline "me" wasn't there to rescue me, I have felt challenged to my bones.

    It has been an interesting ride of feeling more alive and feeling more challenged. I am holding on to this new approach because I believe that it is helping me to become more transparant. A person that is what she does and does what she is.

    While writing this, I am wondering about inspiration from a place of uniqueness. We all have strengths that make us differ from the ones around us. I believe that it is our uniqueness that inspires people around us. I find I want to inspire people more these days, and so have been focused on developing "me" to become more "me".

    As long as I control myself from the sideline, I do not allow myself to be me. I make controlling "me" more important than allowing "me" to create something new and unexpected. So, to create something new I have to be willing to let go of what is and make changes anytime.

    Thank you Mark and Sree for your inspiration through this blog that helps me take my life to new heights.


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