Why did you write Learn, Improve, Master?
I’ve always wanted to learn too much, but learning anything takes time. It looked like my choices were to cut down on the things I wanted to learn or to become a better learner. I chose the latter. I began studying learning science, cognitive psychology, and skill acquisition in search of ways to optimize the process.
After years of research, I had enough information to create a learning guide I could use for my life. Then I thought, “If I’m going through all this trouble to create a learning guide, why not turn it into a book and solve the problem for other people.” Had I known what I was getting myself into, I’m not sure I would have done it. I’m glad I was ignorant of the amount of work in front of me, and that I was so passionate about the subject, otherwise I don’t think this book would exist.
What sparked your love for learning?
I’ve always been curious; that’s what drives me to learn. There are too many fascinating subjects, everything has its own magic. So, I’ve always gone into different fields to study them. Some only on the surface, others more in-depth.
I think we all have this curiosity but many times it’s numbed down by our educational system. I was lucky to attend an unconventional school in my teens. The school encouraged a passion for knowledge and regarded learning as a noble activity to be pursued over a lifetime.
The school was founded on the teaching methods of the Greek philosopher Socrates. The essence of the method (known as Elentic or Socratic Method) is to draw out knowledge through questions (active learning) instead of feeding information (passive learning)—this meant I worked with study guides based on questioning instead of listening to lectures.
As a result, learning was something that happened from inside of me, rather than being imposed on me. This made all the difference. Learning became a process of discovery, that even when challenging, it was never boring or annoying. Having control over my learning, and experiencing it almost as a puzzle to be solved, encouraged the curiosity and love for knowledge that keeps me motivated to learn every day.
Why should we learn how to learn?
Learning is the most important meta-skill of all. When we get better at learning, we get better at improving anything else. The problem is that we don’t give the subject enough attention. We don’t want to learn how to learn, we want to learn the actual skill we are interested in, whether it is playing guitar, sports, painting, or something for our job. But if we worked on improving our learning abilities, we would optimize the time and energy we invest in every other skill.
But learning goes beyond efficiency. Becoming better learners improves our quality of life, both professionally and personally.
On the professional side, honing our learning skills is not only the best chance of becoming successful but maybe the only way of staying successful. We can no longer learn a set of skills and rely on them for an entire career. With jobs, industries, and technology evolving at an unprecedented pace—and many going obsolete from one year to another—only those who can learn and adapt quickly will survive and thrive.
On the personal side, I can’t think of anything more gratifying than adding more learning to our lives, whether to take on more hobbies and projects or to go deeper and pursue mastery in a chosen one.
Learning gives our life joy and meaning. I don’t know what I would do without my hobbies and interests. Playing guitar, reading, writing, sports, learning languages and everything else I’ve gone into has shone light through the darkness that insists on looming over me.
And history is full of examples. F.D. Roosevelt once said, “I owe my life to my hobbies —especially stamp collecting.” Einstein played violin for pleasure and relaxation—also to help him think. Winston Churchill was a prolific writer and spent a lot of his “free” time painting. George Washington loved ballroom dancing, and Benjamin Franklin Chess among many other interests.
There are a lot of amazing things to learn that can become our life companions, our shelters, and even part of our identity. But many times we avoid learning new skills or hobbies because it takes too long or it feels difficult. The goal of learning how to learn is to minimize both obstacles: we get to learn more efficiently and effectively—which also motivates us to learn even more—and we remove a great part of the confusion and unnecessary “hardships” of learning. The result is that we get to learn, enjoy, and benefit from more knowledge and skills in our lifetime.
Can anyone learn anything?
Yes. We are built to learn. With enough dedication and the right kind of practice, anyone can learn anything. The caveat here would be physical or mental disabilities depending on the skill in question, but even then, there are incredible stories of people overcoming what seemed like crippling disadvantages for their chosen craft. In essence, yes, we all have the capacity to learn anything, and all skills are “learnable.”
So, what stops people from learning new skills?
There are many reasons, but these are the ones I see most often:
People sometimes avoid learning because they find the process confusing and frustrating. They also feel like it takes too long or it’s too hard. Sure, learning a new skill can take a long time depending on how far you want to take it; and it will also be hard at times. But if people had a better understanding of the process and the tools to make learning work for them, I believe they would try to learn more things.
Another reason people are discouraged from going after new skills has to do with popular misconceptions about learning. Beliefs like “old dogs can’t learn new tricks” or “you either have it or you don’t” prevent people from giving learning a real chance. They end up quitting after a short time or don’t even bother trying in the first place.
Tied to these misconceptions are also the unrealistic expectations we have for ourselves. In the case of many adults, it has been so long they tried learning a new skill that they’ve forgotten how it feels like to start from the beginning and go through the process. They expect to learn things quickly and improve faster than they actually do. So when they miss their expectations, they blame it on themselves—instead of adjusting their understanding of what it’s like to learn something for the first time. They think “I’m not good at this,” or “I’m too old for this.” That’s the wrong attitude. Learning is challenging and even frustrating for everyone at some point, it’s part of the process.
Another point that adds to the challenge I just mentioned is that once we reach adulthood we are likely to be proficient at a number of skills; and it feels good to be so. It takes humbleness to go back to zero, to not know what we are doing, to make mistakes, and to face our incompetence. Being a beginner is hard, and many people choose to feel proficient in their limited set of skills —and stay in their comfort zone—than going back to beginner stages in new ones.
How should we approach learning then?
Three changes in mindset.
Trust the process: As I said earlier, we are built to learn. If you study and practice your chosen skill consistently and diligently you will get good at it. It’s inevitable.
Commit to doing the work: A great part of learning and mastering a skill comes down to doing the work every day. It’s the slow but steady compounding of our abilities over time that ultimately makes the biggest difference in our progress.
Be Willing to suck (at first): Those willing to make mistakes, look foolish, and fail are the ones that move faster through the process. If you put your ego aside and embrace being a beginner, you’ll learn faster than most. It’s important to note here that I’m not advocating failure, I’m advocating courage, which inevitably brings with it failures and setbacks, but as a side effect (consequence), not a goal.
Can you expand on that last point (willingness to suck)?
Sure. Throughout years of formal and informal learning, I’ve noticed that those willing to try things and make mistakes are the ones that improve faster. You see this often in learning foreign languages. The students who push themselves to practice despite making mistakes and “failing” are the ones who learn the language faster. The rest—including me—are too concerned about looking “foolish” and revealing that we are not good yet, so we avoid practice and we end up taking longer to learn the language.
We can’t wait until we are proficient to go out and try things; it’s trying, failing, and correcting that makes us proficient. I see too many perfect preparers, I’m one of them. We don’t want to jump into the water until we know how to swim, but we can’t learn to swim without going in the water. There’s no way to go around the process, we can only go through it.
Being a beginner is not always comfortable, but it’s necessary to learn anything. If we are not willing to accept the discomfort of sucking at first, we’ll never improve. And this goes for any craft. There are no quick fixes and no effortless learning or training strategies to become good at anything. Everyone has to start at the beginning and work hard to improve, even those with natural abilities. Shakespeare had to learn to write and Mozart to play scales, and both made plenty of mistakes doing so. And while we can’t deny some people move faster through the process than others, no one escapes it. No exceptions. None. Ever.
On the practical side, how should we start learning a skill?
All skills are composed of a set of sub-skills. In that sense, we don’t learn cooking, for example, what we learn is a set of principles and techniques (Food chemistry, knife skills, use of ingredients, cooking methods, etc) that when put together we collectively recognize as the skill and art of cooking. Learning any skill then implies learning a set of sub-skills. So, an important step is to first deconstruct our chosen skill into its components, build those individually (following the model explained in the book), and progressively put them together and refine them.
What about learning hacks?
The book (Learn, Improve, Master) is about optimization—getting the most out of the time and energy we put into the process—not hacks. Learning hacks tend to be about getting a type of result in record time, like winning a contest or match after only a few weeks or months of preparation. These hacks are not about learning a skill or optimizing our learning abilities, they are about finding loopholes and techniques in a field to get a specific outcome, which is then portrayed as a measure of having learned the craft in record time.
Mark Manson talks about this in his great book Everything is f*cked. He refers to a story he read of a guy who set out to “master” chess in a month. All the guy did was memorize chess moves from a program and then beat a high-ranked player. That’s not learning chess, much less mastering it. The guy hacked a result, not the mastery of the game.
Hacks give the illusion of learning, but they are superficial. It’s like that friend who figured he could beat you and your other friends at a fighting video game like Mortal Kombat or Smash Bros by doing the same move over and over—a low kick, or some type of projectile attack. That’s not mastering the game, Quenten!
With that “hack,” we could win against beginner/intermediate players, but we would miss the complexity and fun of the game: learning the moves and combos of the characters, improving at the game’s fighting dynamics, and mastering strategy. We would just have a move that many players don’t know how to counter.
On a different example, I’ve been getting a lot into writing, but I wouldn’t want to write stories following a formula that people like, and then say I hacked writing. That would not make me a writer (and likely, I couldn’t write anything other than the formula I learned.) I want writing to be part of my life. I want the skill, and I want to explore the different sides of the craft and how I can express myself through them. That can’t be done with hacking.
It’s cliché, but it’s true: ultimately, it’s about the path, not the destination. Or as Zig Ziglar more eloquently put it, “What you get by achieving your goals is not as important as what you become by achieving your goals.” (quote often attributed to Goethe or Henry David Thoreau) Hacking skips the becoming. We don’t get to develop the skill, build a relationship with the craft, explore its nuances, or make it an inseparable part of our life, even our identity.
This doesn’t mean we shouldn’t look for efficiency. In fact, the premise of the book is to maximize the time and energy we put into the learning process. But there is a difference between trying to optimize the process and searching for ways to skip it.
On a last note, looking for hacks, cheat codes, or shortcuts so you can rank in some measurement of proficiency just to prove you can do it is pointless. If you are not passionate about a skill or need it in your life—something to learn for work, for example—then trying to hack it is a waste of time. Just because you can do something fast, doesn’t mean you should do it. No amount of hacking beats simply not doing what you don’t give a damn about, or don’t need in the first place. And every second you spend on it, no matter how optimized, is still a second wasted.
What are common mistakes in learning?
A common mistake starting out is trying to learn too much at once. Learning builds on itself, it’s a progression, so we need to take it one step at a time. This is counterintuitive. We feel that we learn more when we work on many things at once, but little of it sticks. Getting better at anything requires focused time and attention. The right approach is to work on a few things and progressively add more as we become proficient.
Closely related to the last point is wanting to learn new things all the time, even if we are still struggling with what we learned before. I’ve seen this mistake often, and I’ve made it myself many times in martial arts, music, dancing, and learning languages. We are excited to learn new techniques, new moves, new grammar, but after the novelty wears off, we want to move on to the next thing without reaching proficiency in the previous one.
There’s a delicate balance between introducing new learning and working on improving and solidifying the old one. Even coaches and mentors are guilty of teaching their students new things all the time to keep classes “dynamic.”
But proficiency is built through drilling the same techniques—mostly the fundamentals—over and over, and over again. We need to control our need for novelty and accept “repetitiveness” as an integral part of the process.
Another mistake is being a “theorist.” Many people spend their time studying the theory of their craft (the conceptual side) and doing little practice. I’ve also made this mistake many times. It feels good to study theory because we move faster through it than we develop actual skills through practice. But, if we don’t practice, we don’t get better.
On the opposite side, I don’t agree with the “just learn by doing” approach. We can save ourselves a lot of mistakes and time by studying our art and the advice of those who have mastered it before us.
Ideally, there should be a balance between the two (theory and practice), what’s that balance? It depends. It depends on what we are learning, and our level. Some skills are theory-heavy, others are more hands-on. Also, early learning requires a significant study of theory, but as we get better, it all falls on incorporating the concepts into practice.
A mistake that usually comes in the intermediate and advanced levels is falling into a comfort zone. After a few months or years practicing a craft, the novelty and excitement start to wear off, progress becomes slower, and we settle into a routine—we show up for practice and just go through the moves. We become comfortable with our skill level and start easing on our practice and our standards. This state is also called the OK plateau. To get past it, we have to push our limits. We have to ask more of ourselves. It’s hard work, but it’s the only way to improve.
Can you give us a specific example of a mistake you’ve made learning a skill?
I took on the guitar in my early teens because I loved heavy metal, especially Metallica and Iron maiden. I wanted to play their songs, write my own, and start a band. That’s all good, but after a few years learning the instrument, I made everything about scales, theory, and exercises. I got strict about developing the technical side of the instrument, thinking that was the road to becoming a great guitar player. It wasn’t long until I sucked all the joy out of “playing” guitar. I lost sight of why I was learning the instrument in the first place and eventually stopped playing.
Practicing the technical side of your skill is important, but don’t forget to spend time doing what you enjoy most about it. It’s easy to turn practice into work, so be careful not to get lost in the practice to the point where you forget why you are practicing, why you are learning, and why you took on the craft in the first place.
What’s your biggest challenge at the moment?
I struggle with the same challenges as most people. I know what I should do, but find it hard to do it.
Developing skills is not easy, it never will be, but that’s also why it’s worth pursuing. In the book, I explain ways to optimize the process, but there is no way to skip it, we all have to put time and energy to learn anything. So I also make excuses, get distracted, procrastinate, and many times just “show up” and go through the motions, instead of making practice deliberate.
On the other side, there are times when I’m so much into something that I forget to eat or shower. During that time, I also don’t want to sleep, and when I finally go to bed, I can’t wait to wake up the next day to keep working on it. That drive isn’t necessarily pleasurable, I don’t jump out of bed with joy, smiling at what the new day of learning has in store for me. It’s more like an obsession; and it’s accompanied with pain—a deep frustration for how little I improve any given day. That extreme is not good either. If you are into something for the long run, it’s better to have a steady pace than burning yourself out over a few weeks of uncontrolled compulsion.
One last note about that, many times I look at the number of unread books on my bookshelves, my amazon book wishlist, or the list of skills I want to learn and I feel like I can’t breathe. It doesn’t matter how much I optimize the process, my life won’t be long enough to learn everything I want. So a big challenge has been to come to terms with that reality and narrow my focus. Limiting our learning and saying no to everything else is tough, but as Stephen King said about editing out good lines, “It’s a little like murdering children, but it must be done.” In a way, it is a good thing that we will never have enough time to learn everything we want, that makes us value what we do choose to learn even more—and choose it carefully.
Let’s talk about Mastery, what’s the most important factor for mastering skills?
That’s a difficult question, it’s like asking what’s the most important part of building a house or starting a business. There are many important parts and without their combination, you end up with something incomplete and weak. I understand the desire to find “the one thing” but as with many things in life, learning and mastery are complex subjects that depend on many factors that need to work in combination. Now, if we imagine we are already paying attention to all the different parts, the question could be: which ones would give us a higher return than the others? In that case, the answer is long term commitment and doing the work every day.
What stops people from pursuing mastery?
People think that masters are fundamentally different, or that they have a magical shortcut to get ahead. And so everyone wants “the secret.” But that “secret” has been revealed time and again: consistent and persistent deliberate effort over time. We just chose to ignore it because we want an easier, faster way to get the same results.
We have to remember that it’s just as difficult for masters and aspiring ones to do the work, the difference is that they do it. It doesn’t come easy to them, but they push through the pain, and that’s what makes them rise above the rest. As big-wave surfer legend, Laird Hamilton said, “Just because people are doing extraordinary things doesn’t mean they’re not ordinary people.”
An eye-opener for me was watching a YouTube clip of Usain Bolt training. Seeing him throw up during practice and keep going like it was just an unavoidable part of hard work made me realize how little I push myself. A part of me wanted to think that the scene was added for dramatic purposes, or to make him look larger than life—anything that would make me feel better about my own pathetic “efforts”—but he is that intense. After losing to Yohan Blake on the 2012 Olympic trials in Jamaica, Bolt said, “For the next month, the work that I put in to make sure I could silence all these doubters was just unbelievable. I vomited daily because I was pushing myself to the ultimate level.”
It makes you wonder what you could accomplish if you had the same level of commitment. People could argue that’s unhealthy, sure, or that we shouldn’t put our body and mind through such extremes. Valid points, but that’s what it takes to be at his level. And if you want to be the next Bolt, you better be ready to do the same.
It reminds me of people who want to eat meat but not have animals die. One comes with the other. We can dislike that reality but it will remain the reality. And the same goes for mastering skills. Mastery doesn’t come easily, it must be sought with effort and paid for with pain and sacrifice. There’s no way around it.
We can lie to ourselves and say Bolt is just talented or a genetic freak. But mostly, he’s just “Freak.” And the hard pill to swallow is that his willingness to go through the pain is also within our reach, we just don’t do it. We don’t put in the work. We are not as committed. We don’t do what it takes.
It stings to admit it, and our reaction is to come up with excuses to avoid self-loathing. But it’s true, and unless we are willing to take a good look at ourselves and accept we’ve been taking it easy, we’ll never develop the resilience to achieve extraordinary results.
However hard we think we are working, we can do much more. And that’s the difference: the willingness to go through the pain, to have our body ache, to be exhausted, to cry, to throw up, to pass out, to face our fears, to fail, and to stand back up, again and again.
Are you saying talent doesn’t matter?
We can’t deny that some people have natural abilities or traits that give them an edge. But it’s mostly just that, an edge. Even they have to work hard to master their craft.
We like to think that talent and natural traits play a bigger role in developing skills than they actually do because it protects our ego. The idea of “the natural” allows us to say “well, it’s easy for them, they were born to do that” and “If I were as ______ (tall/smart/strong etc) I could do it, too.” And just as delusional, we think that if we had those advantages we would have no problem putting in the work to develop them. It becomes an excuse to not do anything and still feel good about ourselves.
The truth is that our development is mostly under our control if we are willing to work for it. Talent and natural traits can help us improve faster or push our limits further, but the bulk of learning and mastering any craft is found in the compound effect of consistent and persistent effort over the years. In the search for mastery, talent is an advantage but not a requirement.
Any final thoughts?
Different skills have different levels of complexity and some take longer to learn than others, but everything can be learned through the right process. All it takes is a few hours of focused attention and deliberate practice a day. The challenging part is putting the time and effort day after day over months and years.
Learning and mastery require long term thinking and commitment. They also need us to delay gratification and make sacrifices. That’s the hard part, but it’s also the one that makes the biggest difference, and fortunately, it’s within anyone’s reach.
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