How to Learn Anything

It’s New Years, and a lot of you are currently making resolutions and setting goals for the coming year. If one of your goals is to learn something new, or something that you’ve always wanted to learn, this post is for you. If that’s not you, keep reading — this is a cool story.

The hardest thing I’ve ever tried to learn is Calculus. Specifically, it was calculus as taught in a horrific course I was forced to take in University called Calculus 2 for Engineers.

The marking was brutal. Here’s how it worked:

There were three midterms and a final exam. Each midterm was worth 15% of the final grade, the other 45% was the exam. No assignments, no labs, just midterms and an exam. And were those midterms ever vicious! Each one had only seven questions, and they were multiple choice. It was common to have pages of formulae and calculations for any given answer, and if you made even one tiny mistake — a flipped minus sign, a minor addition error, etc — then BAM! There goes 2% of your final grade.

It was awful, and probably the most feared course in all of Engineering at U of O.

One of the most vivid memories I have of University is sitting in class after getting our second midterm back. I failed it, just like I failed the first one.

The guy next to me, a friend of mine, was in the same situation. He turned to me, and he said:

“Dan, we can pass this course. All we have to do is one hour of calculus every day for the rest of the semester. It’ll work. I’m sure of it.”

I probably said I’d “totally do it”, and I might have even stuck with it for the first week or two. But I didn’t follow through, and much to my disappointment (but hardly a surprise), I failed the third midterm, and the exam.

This is the only course I’ve ever failed.

That friend of mine stuck with his plan. He did one hour of calculus every day for the rest of the semester, and passed Calculus 2 for Engineers with a B+. Not bad, considering he failed the first third of the course.

So if you want to learn anything, whether it’s calculus, how to juggle, or how to speak Italian, all you need is discipline. You don’t need to be smart, you don’t need fancy tools or textbooks or courses, you don’t even need a teacher or mentor. All you need is discipline.

Do it for an hour a day.

What are you going to learn?


The Tipping Point

What are the steps in learning a new skill?

First you hear about it. You think, hey, that’s something I could do! And you set about learning everything you can about the subject.

You’re limited by knowledge. You don’t know how to write an iPhone app/design a website/golf anywhere near par, so you watch others and read and try to learn as much as you can. The more you learn, the better you get.

This is the amateur period. You don’t quite know what you’re doing, and you’re not yet a force to be reckoned with in your new field of interest.

What happens at the end of this phase? When you’ve learned as much as you can from others, and the only way to improve from here on out is to practice and gain experience?

Well, you’ve reached the tipping point.

…and you’re not alone!

This happens to everyone, and applies to any new skill. There’s always a point where you make the transition from “reading about training for a marathon is helpful” to “now all I need to do is run!”

You probably knew that already. Here’s the useful bit:

The way you study and improve is very different before and after the tipping point. Here’s how you can maximize your gains — how good you get at this new skill! — before and after that point:


1. Breadth is more valuable than depth.

You should learn as widely as possible. The more topics you’re aware of in writing ActionScript/snowboarding/beekeeping, the better. Being informed helps you specialize post-tip, so you can focus on whatever you enjoy most.

2. Learn from as many resources as possible.

I’m sure your friend is fantastic at hacking perl/home decor/figure skating, but it’s always best to get a second (or third) opinion. You have to do your due diligence. Find another mentor, pick up a great book, subscribe to a few blogs (or magazines!) or take a course.

Diversification is key, because it ensures you’re getting the whole picture. The more sources you hear from, the less bias. You want a balanced opinion.


1. Switch your focus to depth.

You know what you like about blogging/motorcycling/meditation, so focus on that. Become an expert. Your new goal is to be your friends’ and acquaintances’ go-to guy (or gal) about your new passion.

2. Share your knowledge.

Now that you’re one of the pros, it’s time to start paying back the web design/juggling/skydiving community. Help out on a few forums, start a blog, offer tutorials to close friends and family. Share your new love of your new favourite thing!

Regardless, I wish you well on your quest to learn something new. It’s an exciting time, and by keeping a few things in mind, you’ll be well on your way to becoming a maven in no time!