About two months ago I was digging through some old boxes as I was unpacking my new place and I ran across an old Rubik’s cube. I didn’t even know I still had it. I can remember asking my mom to get it for me at the store and I was so psyched because I couldn’t stop thinking about how cool and smart I would feel when I finally figured out how to solve it. Everything was going great for the first 5 minutes. But as I started tuning the different faces, flipping the orientation, and realizing that I had no idea what I was doing… slowly the confidence and enthusiasm just….
drained out of me. After about 10 minutes of struggle with something that seemed way above my comprehension level, I quit. I tossed that cube back into the box and tried to convince myself that this stupid toy has nothing to do with my intelligence level. Stupid cube.
Hasn’t something like this happened to you before?
You start a new pursuit…maybe it’s a business venture or an intellectual pursuit. Everything starts out great, but soon it becomes apparent that the task in front of you is not going to be as easy as you’d originally thought. Forrest Gump’s mom takes the cake when it comes to classifying life’s mysteries, so I won’t even attempt to coin a new phrase. I’ll tell you this though. Life can be really, really frustrating sometimes.
So what do we do when we encounter something- be it a personal, business or academic struggle- that seems completely over our current level of competence? How do we evolve as people, learn new skills and accomplish increasingly harder goals without losing confidence in ourselves.
I think the answer is in learning HOW to learn.
In a recent article on one of my favorite blogs Studyhacks, Author Scott Young talks about how we can create better systems for learning tough material. The method consists of 3 main stages. When I read the article, I decided to give the Rubik’s cube another shot. The results were pretty amazing
Stage One: Coverage
This stage is all about getting a broad understanding of the topic you are trying to master. Context is important here. This makes sense to me. I remember learning in a speed reading class a few years ago that the first step to reading a book faster was reading the summary page, the copyright/publishing information and any other contextual information available. In the context of the Rubik’s cube, this began with me researching how the cube was constructed and learning that it wasn’t just a random combination of colored squares. There are actually algorithims (step-by-step patterns) you can use to solve this thing. Knowing that there was a method to solving it made me immediately more confident and made the process a lot less daunting.
The purpose of this stage is help you understand the big picture so that the smaller pieces fall into place much faster. Young says:
For a class, this means watching lectures or reading textbooks. For self-learning it might mean reading several books on the topic and doing research.
A mistake students often make is believing this stage is the most important. In many ways this is the least efficient stage because the amount you can learn per unit of time invested is much lower. I often found it useful to speed up this part so that I would have more time to spend on the latter two steps.
If you’re watching video lectures, a great way to do this is to watch them at 1.5x or 2x the speed. This can be done easily by downloading the video and then using the speed-up feature on a player like VLC. I’d watch semester-long courses in two days, via this method.
Stage Two: Practice
This stage is pretty self-explainatory, but it’s essential.
One of the best ways to really benefit from practice is to get immediate feedback. It’s almost like playing sports as a kid. Your coach would teach you a skill, then you’d practice in front of them. As you executed the skill, they’d give you continuous feedback until you were performing at a high enough level to be competitive. Or until you were in tears. Either way, you’d know what you were doing wrong.
Self-coaching to give yourself immediate feedback is just as effective. The first step to the process is having an end result in mind, then using deliberate practice to get there. What is deliberate practice?
In a nutshell, it’s practicing specifically useful chunks repetitively until you get better at that specific skill, then finding the next relevant chunk to your overall goal…getting good at that piece, and eventually putting together all the small chunks into a bigger picture. This can be very tiring and frustrating…and it’s supposed to be.
For me this meant learning all the 8 sequential algorithms to the Rubik’s cube one-by-one and repeating them individually until I was proficient at solving that specific piece of the cube. My focus at this point was not solving the cube, but mastering the one specific algorithm I was working on which was, incidentally, a step in the overall big picture.
Cal Newport has a great article on deliberate practice here.
Stage 3: Insight
This step is all about filling in the gaps. Stages one and two are all about figuring out what you don’t know. But once you KNOW what you don’t know…then you need a specific strategy for filling in these gaps. Most people would make the mistake of trying to do more generalized study or practice harder here. The main way to fill in gaps is to attempt to actually teach what you’ve learned to someone else and see if you’re able to transmit the information in a logical pattern. You’ll usually find that even with things that you think you understand, it is much harder to actually transmit the information than to just grasp around in the dark, guessing and checking, assuming the whole time that you actually understand. The process is called the Feynman Technique.
Scott Young breaks it down like so:
The technique is simple:
- Get a piece of paper
- Write at the top the idea or process you want to understand
- Explain the idea, as if you were teaching it to someone else
What’s crucial is that the third step will likely repeat some areas of the idea you already understand. However, eventually you’ll reach a stopping point where you can’t explain. That’s the precise gap in your understanding that you need to fill.
From that gap, you can research the answer from a textbook, teacher or online. Generally, once you’ve narrowly defined your misunderstanding it becomes much easier to find the precise answer.
I’ve used this technique hundreds of times, and I’ve found it can tackle a wide variety different learning situations. However, since each might be slightly different, it may seem hard to apply as a beginner, so I’ll try to walk through some different examples.
For me, this really broke down to trying to teach someone else how to solve the cube. I tried to teach my girlfriend, but within the first few turns, I realized that the algorithms I thought I knew were not as hardwired as I’d initially thought. She also asked me some pointed questions about how to start the puzzle from a different side, or what would happen if I did certain steps in a different order. I didn’t know the answer to any of these questions, and it made me realize that I didn’t really understand the cube yet. I didn’t have sufficient insight.
Once I learned how to actually teach and transmit the information, I became much more competent in the skill. There’s a big difference between knowing how to do something yourself and knowing how to teach somebody else the same thing.
What improved learning strategies can do for entrepreneurs
As I went through this process, I realized the same way I was learning to systematically break down the Rubik’s cube could be applied to my business life (and life in general). We should learn to approach challenges with gusto and confidence that with the correct method of thought, we can solve any problem. Entrepreneurs rarely take the time to identify specific areas or skills that we need to improve, practice them in chunks, then seek deeper insight. We answer emails, post on Facebook, make schedules and think that THIS is the same as learning/improving. We need to start shifting our focus from routine, repetitive tasks to targeted skill improvement if we want to become the top 1% of our field.
The idea of methodically improving our business lives through enhanced learning technique is really exciting and fascinating to me.
What areas and skills do you need to systematically improve in order to get ahead in your start-up venture?
Leave me a comment below and let me know.
With the right strategy, you can go from THIS:
In any area of your life.