how to learn anything

Commit. You want to learn something? Commit to learning it. Stop making it into, “It would be nice.” Set a time each day, and go do it. That’s commitment.

Bank on consistency. You’ll get a better return on investment for all of that time and effort, being consistent, than you will with a binge of effort. It’s great if you meditate one hour on one day, but you’ll likely see more of the benefits of meditation if you implement ten minutes a day across six days.

Stop talking about/thinking about the circumstances that make commitment difficult. Sure, yes, the circumstances do make commitment difficult, but talking about them to others or ruminating on them yourself won’t actually solve the problem of their difficulty. Adopt the mantra, “This is hard, sure, but I’m doing it.”

Create a metric for goals or for your progress. You don’t have to be into goal-setting, to learn something, but you do need to have at least some metric of progress, some metric that lets you know when you’ve learned it to your satisfaction. Otherwise, you could spin on a hamster wheel of endlessly telling yourself that you’re “not there, yet.” And if you know that you hate goal-setting, consider that maybe you’ve been doing it wrong. Maybe you’ve been making yourself a slave to goals, which felt gross and unfulfilling, so you quit setting them. Understandable. Just know that not everyone regards goals this way. Shifting your mindset and how you relate to your goals—making them into markers of pride in your commitment and hard work, and really relishing in that pride—can be uplifting. The choice is up to you.

Stop expecting it to be easy. Learning isn’t easy. There are inevitable frustrations. Stop thinking that because you are overwhelmed, don’t know what you’re doing, or are making mistakes, that you’re not learning. You are learning. When we learn something, we move through three stages: cognitive, associative, autonomous. The cognitive stage is when it’s all mental effort and you have to think very hard about what you’re doing in order to do it. In the associative stage, it’s a little easier. In the autonomous stage, what you’ve learned feels integrated into who you are and you’re not needing to think through each step. If you are learning new communication skills with your partner, practicing positive self-talk, how to forgive, ways to lean into being more courageous? At first, in the cognitive stage, this will feel like all the effort in the world.

Celebrate the small wins, along the way. Too many type-A perfectionists skip this part, thinking that they will save their pride in accomplishment for the end-goal: the accomplishment. Unfortunately, that way of thinking can grind you down into a fine powder. It takes true strength to acknowledge yourself for showing up, for committing, for maintaining progress, for getting just 1% better. If you know you’ve got a long road ahead of you, it’s a sign of health if you routinely tell yourself, “Look how far I’ve come.”

Don’t quit. If you’ve truly committed to something at the outset, you won’t linger for long in a place of contemplating quitting. But if you find that you really, really, really want to quit? First, check in and ask yourself what your track record is with quitting. Do you finish the programs, books, projects, relationships? Or do you tend to quit them? If quitting is not your regular modus operandi, yet you’re really pulled to quit a thing, then okay—you’re probably getting the right signals. But if you’re someone who has a tendency not to finish what you start? Don’t quit, until you’re sure you’ve learned all you need to learn from the situation. Consider, too, that for those who tend not to finish things, sometimes staying the course—finishing the program, the book, being willing to keep talking with the friend until both of you are mutually resolved about letting the friendship go—can teach you something.

Accept that you’re going to learn what doesn’t work, before you learn what works. There’s no “hacking” your way through true growth. You’re going to write bad novels before you write good ones; run badly before your form improves; say the wrong thing before you say the right thing; choose the wrong relationship before you choose the right one.

Let curiosity lead. Watch a toddler learning something. When they try several times and can’t do it, they’ll whine, cry, get frustrated. And then, often, something pulls them like a siren song back over to the very thing that just frustrated them, because they’re curious to try again—particularly if a nearby adult is willing to help them try again, let them know that it’s okay to try, again. Curiosity leads, openness follows. And by the way? You are now the adult in the room who needs to be willing to let your frustrated self, try again.

Identify weaknesses, and put in a little bit of extra effort. When you are learning something, it’s good to identify the places that could use a little bit of extra effort, and apply some attention there. For example: several months after starting CrossFit, I began to recognize that there were specific common lifts with weights, that were my weaknesses. Even though I went to class consistently and really gave my all in each class, I wasn’t really getting better at these specific lift movements. So, I began staying late, practicing just those lifts after class—just a few reps of extra practice. Within a month, I had marked improvement. Had I not put in a little extra effort, I could have gone on for many, many more months just barely being able to do those lifts in class, and I would have been frustrated every time. The actual time that it took me to get better within just a month? An extra fifteen minutes after class. If you want to grow your bank account, think about small deposits. If you want to learn a language faster, conjugate just a few extra verbs each day. If you want to see more connection in your life, nudge yourself for just a bit more eye contact and initiating conversations.

When you have setbacks, declare who you are and why you do what you do. When I first started my coaching business, I had an almost maxed out credit card. The “business consultant” I’d hired to teach me about marketing bailed on a call (and she claimed I had not dialed in for the call, thus she refused to give me a refund). I was scared, furious, enraged, scared, livid, sad, scared, frustrated…did I mention “scared”? I took a walk after that failed call, caught between dual urges to burst into tears or scream right there on the street. And then, I walked my ass back home, resolved. I wrote down everything my business was going to create. I wrote down how I would never, ever treat anyone who hired me in the same manner as I had just been treated. What’s more? I was DONE playing small, I declared. It took more time for me to parse through the feelings, but the declaration of who I was, was a powerful re-set.

Have a plan for a bad day. They are inevitable. Know who you’ll call, what you’ll do, how you’ll treat yourself. Make a list of the options, in case you can’t think straight when the bad day hits. My list includes going to the library to load up on new books, sketching with colored pencils, laying out in the sunshine, calling a friend, window shopping, buying a cup of coffee and people watching, re-reading a spiritual text, visiting a church or place of worship to just sit in silence—things that are free or mostly free. You’ll move through a bad day faster, if you know how you want to handle it when it hits.

Take constructive breaks. Getting tired and overwhelmed and avoiding something is not “taking a break,” even though that might be what you tell yourself or others. Those “breaks” are really just preemptive forms of quitting, letting momentum die down. A constructive break has a purpose and a timeline where you know why you’re taking a break, and you know when you’ll return.

Celebrate when you hit the milestone. Like, full on *celebrate.* Don’t skip the celebration—don’t run the marathon and then not brag it up. When things are going better in your marriage, let your glow show. When you’ve completed the first draft of your book, landed the entry-level job that is going to set your finances right again, your toddler has figured out potty-training, you made a big decision about stepping into faith over fear and you know that it’s a fork in the road, celebrate the accomplishment of that. Don’t just humbly shrug and say it was no big deal. It was a big deal. Absolutely, and always.

Celebrate in the way that is most authentic to you. When I held my book launch party for The Courage Habit, I had initially booked an event space in Berkeley, about an hour from where I live, because it was closer to the people I planned to invite. After a month of my book tour and being in and out of airports, it was book launch party time but…just wanted to be…home. So, I scrapped the event space and let everyone know that the party was now going to be held at my house. Some people couldn’t come because the party was farther away, but I enjoyed myself more—surrounded by friends at my home, and being able to just slip into my pajamas at the end of the night.

Reflect on what you’ve learned as you close a chapter. Who were you, at the beginning of it? And who are you, now? And what territory did you traverse, in between? This stuff matters. It also helps fortify you for the next time, because as you take pride in the path you’ve walked and the work it took, you’ll remember this feeling. Next time something new to be learned stands in front of you, you’ll know how to learn anything. You’ll know how to apply these same tools again, and each time you learn something anew, you’re better able to learn because you’ve had more practice with how to learn anything.

We exist for a short time on this earth, not nearly long enough to really soak it all in. If this fact makes you eager, curious, hungry, then it’s a gift. Let your insatiable hunger to learn be a guiding force in your life.


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