How to learn anything.

Step-by-step instruction that will help you achieve great results in any, even the most complex, case.

When you see someone making a fire in the woods with the help of sticks, or preparing a great omelette, or confidently leading in the rapid tango, it is not easy to forget. Such virtuoso actions look very complicated, but you can master them if you follow the scheme exactly.

How to learn anything.

All skills have the same structure:

The key trick.
The pat/plapping barrier.
General provision.
The result.
Experimental capabilities.
Knowledge of this structure helps to learn any skills, and to find and recognize them in life. When confronted with a new topic, it helps to highlight what you might call skills, which means faster learning and a better chance of not quitting.

  1. The key trick
    I suppose you have already understood that key tricks open the way to new knowledge and give a forum for mastering it. They help you overcome the barriers that are inevitable in any learning. Some of the tricks relate to familiarity with the subject and the degree of self-confidence, others help to pay due attention to one part of the process.

Knowledge of key tricks allows you to take control of the situation.

Someday, you may begin to cope without them, but at first they will be your best friends.

The key trick may be to change your approach – for example, to intercept a pencil higher or separate proteins from yolks while preparing an omelette. Or you can focus on one of the stages: for example, to learn how to surf on a surfboard, you must first practice jumping on it on the floor of the room. And to make a full turn on a skateboard, first of all, you need to turn in the right direction eyes and head – and the whole body will follow them. The trick can lurk in important details: if you want to extract fire by friction, all materials must be dry and as far away from the ground as possible – you have no idea how much moisture the surface of the soil. <…>

The key trick first creates a deceptive impression: you think that if you know her, you will be able to do everything right. But then, getting carried away, you understand: it will not replace hours of practice, but will help to overcome them faster and more pleasantly – and in the end you will get the desired result.

There are several tricks in some skills – like drawing Zen circles: you can hold a hand higher, or you can put one hand on the fist of the other. Sometimes the key tricks are very small and seemingly insignificant. In street photography, the trick is simply to get close to the subject – and one thing will make your shots much better.

Over time, you’re likely to reach a point where key tricks are no longer as important to you. But by then they’ll have done their job – involve you in the process so much that you’ll continue to improve your skills.

  1. pat/ironing barrier (skills counteraction)
    Many of the tricks that give the initial advantage in mastering the skill are related to overcoming the “pat/handling barrier” (also known as the barrier to skills). You come across it when you find that you need to do something that contradicts each other. The name comes from a well-known task: patting yourself on the stomach with one hand and patting on the top with the other. It would seem that there is nothing complicated here, but try – and you will see that it is almost impossible. However, this task can still be solved by focusing first on one half of it, and then gradually connect the other half.

We usually imagine mastering skills too simplistic: we feel like we’re just learning them, first one, then the other. But in fact, the skills we already have can both help us master new ones and, conversely, slow down the process. We think: to learn something complicated, like driving a car, you have to coordinate a number of different skills. But it is just as useful to look at them separately: do they not interfere with each other? For example, gear shifting prevents you from turning the steering wheel – it certainly does not help. It is better to bring each skill to perfection and automatism independently of the others first, rather than to suffer trying to apply them all at once.

How to learn anything.

You come across the barrier of skills counteraction at any attempt to learn something worthwhile: the brain decides the coordination of neural pathways. And changing focus is not always easy: often, when a task overpowers us, we panic and drop everything. “I just can’t deal with it!” – we say. Those who are naturally capable of rapid learning, faced with difficulties, unconsciously concentrate on one element. Maybe that makes them a little pedantic, but you can’t get real understanding in a hurry. It’s important to be “out of time”. (For myself, I’ve discovered that if, learning something new, I set aside two hours for a “lesson”, then very quickly I forget about the timing and the process turns into a flow. But if I give myself less time, I start in a hurry.) Here, too, a key trick helps – it weakens the conflict of skills and promotes their harmonization.

If you understand the barrier, it becomes easier to master the skill. You concentrate your efforts.

Let’s go back to Zen circles. Here the barrier is not too high – although it stops people who have been convinced that they are “unable to draw” (or they have convinced themselves). The contradiction here is this: accurate and tidy lines require a slow pace, and the correct curve requires speed and skill. If you slow down too much, the circle becomes like an amoeba. Too fast – get an egg with jags – something like a cartoon character’s haircut.

Some skills have a low pat/ironing barrier and it is not difficult to start learning them. For example, if you build towers of stones knowing the key trick, the barrier becomes obvious only when you realize that the crazier the balance, the harder it is to continue building. You have to find tiny bumps and balance points at the same time and think about the finished tower. A successful balance point for three stones can destroy an already built tower of five. Moving a group of stones back and forth in search of balance and then creating it for the next tier is almost the same as stroking your stomach and patting on the head at the same time.

In other cases, this barrier is a major barrier to overall skill acquisition. As you may guess for yourself, the pat/ stroke barrier is very high in juggling. Here you should be able to throw and catch objects with both hands at the same time. The trick is to focus first on the flip and then on the catch. Sharing and gaining skills, you develop neural connections, gradually improving its “autopilot”.

If you want, you can give your level of competence or degree of concentration a numerical score. For example, you may have a “nine” for throwing up and only a “two” for catching. This assessment of the constituent elements of a skill (as detailed in Timothy Golvey’s excellent series of “inner game” books) is a great way to reduce the pressure that comes from trying to improve both skills at the same time. If it takes too much effort to overcome a barrier, the result is usually only disappointment. It is better to periodically return to the skill and revise the marks for each of the opposing skills.

In aikido, there is a technique called hajime that involves moving to a higher level than desired. “Hajime” in Japanese means “start” and is to do each action as quickly as possible. No matter how badly you do it, the main thing is to keep the maximum speed. It helps you get into the flow state and disable conscious thinking. Then you should perform the same movements as slowly as possible. This alternation increases awareness, and the brain deeply learns the basics of counteraction skills.

Skill counteraction means that we need to use two parts of the brain simultaneously. Our brain prefers to take turns, but if we turn off conscious perception, we can develop very complex skills that require different parts of the brain to work simultaneously. Conscious thinking (by which I mean verbalising all actions in the head and following these instructions) ensures that you are like a puppet. The sooner you feel an action and start doing it without thinking, the better.

Of course, the instructions can be helpful. When you learn how to drive, your instructor can put markings on the rear window to help you park. But after a while, you will have an instinct and you will always know exactly where you are. For those who are getting to know a case for the first time, it always seems amazing, but in fact we all know how to do things in front of our eyes. In XIX century masters could make absolutely round wheels, relying not so much on exact measurements, but on their own instincts. To do something in front of your eyes is to trust your ability to use an opposing skill.

  1. General security
    Before mastering any skill, you must ensure that you have the best chance of success. You need the right equipment or tools, time and willingness to learn. And you need to take your time. You might even think how to use non-productive time (comedian and actor Steve Martin, decided to learn to play the banjo, put on the instrument in each of the rooms at home, even in the toilet). You must remove all obstacles from the path.

Sometimes it is the right tools that help to overcome the pat/ironing barrier. <…> In street photography classes, the barrier is the contradiction between the speed of shooting and the unstable position of the camera, which leads to blurred images. You can overcome the barrier by using a small camera that focuses very quickly.

In any case, “the right equipment” means the right one for you. Tools should inspire you to continue training.

In photography on film, some people are attracted by the unexpected method of its expression with instant coffee and vitamin C – you will not believe it, this composition really works. It may be a little more difficult than using a ready-made developer, but it’s funny and unexpected.

When drawing Zen circles, it’s very useful to find a pen that you really like. Artists and illustrators usually have their favourite tools. Shu Rainer usually uses a Rotring pen, while writer and illustrator Dan Price uses Japanese Sakura felt-tip pens. I love the Pentel brushes used by manga artists – I think it’s even more interesting to draw Zen circles with them.

But the general supply doesn’t just mean tools – it’s also the environment and the people around. My daughter almost quit her guitar class, but when we changed teachers, she not only started to learn faster, but also really got carried away. The right teacher is very important. He doesn’t have to be a brilliant specialist – but let him make sure you want to improve in what you like. Just as doctors help the human body cure itself, teachers redirect our attention to help us learn for ourselves.

  1. Result .
    Any skill provides a certain successful result – without it we would not want to continue studying. The very fact that the skill, be it juggling or proving the Pythagoras theorem with origami, seems complicated, gives you an incentive, and regardless of your motivation (you want to look good in other people’s eyes, prove something to yourself – or both) it must have a clear, unambiguous and achievable successful result. Therefore, cooking as a whole cannot be considered a skill, but making an omelette is possible; driving a car – no, but turning with a handbrake – yes; swimming on a kayak or kayak – by no means, and performing an Eskimo coup – undoubtedly.

The clearer and more obvious the result, the more praise you usually get. We all crave attention – it’s a vital resource. In terms of evolution, man needs the help of others to survive – always, not just in early childhood. In the wild, it is much easier to survive in a group than it is alone, and the attention of others indicates that they belong to a “tribe. Of course, the need for attention may be beyond the norm, but some of it is really necessary. Even our own attention to ourselves is already a result, a pleasant warm feeling that we have achieved something, even if no one else knows about it.

How to learn anything.

For some people, public recognition can be a serious motivating factor. Coach and teacher Steve Chapman announces his actions in public and uses fear of humiliation as motivation. This fear overcomes laziness and distraction – here’s a good example of using one negative factor to fight against others.

A significant incentive and at the same time the result can be a sense of usefulness.

If you can cook a delicious meal, entertain someone, have a party, fix something, then you can take these actions as a reward in itself.

The skill necessarily brings the feeling of achieving a result, even if it is small. Drawing Zen circles, I found that I often fill the whole page with them, but I try not to overlapping each other. The effect of “bubbles” is an additional pleasure.

  1. Repeatability .
    You need a skill that can be repeated endlessly, which means it should not be too boring, stubborn or unchangeable.

Most importantly, it must allow you to constantly improve. Repeating it over and over again, you will see your own progress. And it’s truly amazing.

I’ve invented this activity for myself – every time I come to a coffee shop to draw a cup, spoon and saucer. Sometimes I carefully draw out all the details and create a real still life. And sometimes I am in a great hurry and make a sketch in just a minute. It doesn’t matter; the main thing is that I keep doing it, repeating the same simple exercise over and over again. I feel my self-confidence grow and I see that the drawings get better – I start to notice something I have not noticed before. But even when I’m in a hurry, I don’t get into the panic that comes over us when we’re afraid to do something wrong or for some reason not to finish. These petty inner fears can prevent any attempt to create or try something new, even if you are only doing it for yourself and without coercion. Pre-determined timelines and repeatability help to drive out these demons of self-doubt.

For marketers, the Holy Grail is the introduction of a game element: it’s repetitive, but always attractive because the result is new each time. Too much predictability is boring. No new omelette is exactly like the previous one, like a juggling number or a Zen circle – and there is always a chance that the next time you get better. That’s the nature of the game. To make it happen, there must be a possibility of repetition in the class: writing a novel is not a skill, but a short story a hundred words long – yes. Climbing Everest – no, but climbing the wall of the local rock climbing wall – unambiguously.

  1. Experimental capabilities
    Mastering any skill is a mini-lab, a place for countless experiments that expand and deepen knowledge of the subject. Experiments are not the property of science, it simply appropriated this naturally peculiar form of curiosity.

With the help of experiments, you are able to add flavour to repeatability. You can improve exponentially, achieving something that “just in practice” would take too much time. A long time ago I decided to master the J-rower skill which is used if you are the last or only rower to sit in a canoe. This technique is called so because the oar, if you look from above, must describe in water a shape similar to the letter J. I read everything I needed and tried it every time I was in a boat on the river. But I couldn’t do it. Then I talked to a specialist, my cousin Simon, who used to be a member of the Olympic Canoe Rowing Team. He modestly reported that he used to do C-rows himself. I thought it was an invitation to an experiment and decided: instead of following the exact instructions, I can have fun with C-, L-, J- and maybe even Z-rows. And I immediately got better at it – I found my own way to row more powerfully.

Every skill can be turned upside down and backwards to enjoy it. That’s how you master variables – learn how much they can change values and how they affect each other.

One of the biggest mistakes of results-oriented learning is that the process goes too fast and you don’t have time to experiment and fool around.

Keep drawing circles, making clay skulls and doing tricks on your bike, but forget about the end result and just learn for real.

Robert Twigger is a British writer, poet, philosopher and traveler. By his own admission, from early childhood he was interested in everything around him. That’s why Twigger has studied a lot and achieved success in a variety of fields. The book “Wicked White Pajamas”, in which Robert described his experience in teaching aikido in Tokyo, brought the author the Somerset Maugham Award. Twigger was involved in catching the longest snake in the world and in making a documentary about the adventure. In 2009-2010, Robert led a pedestrian expedition aimed at crossing the Great Sand Sea in the Sahara (about 700 kilometers long).

Twigger proves by his own example that it is possible to learn and improve any skill. In his book “Micro Master Classes”, he shares with readers his many years of experience – detailed instructions on how to master any knowledge and skill.