How We Learn - How To Be Great, Talented and Skilled

We are fascinated by people who exhibit extraordinary talent. Whether it's a professional athlete, an actor or an exceptional achiever, we look at such people in awe, and use words like "magical" and "God-given talent." However, one of the top researchers in the subject of peak performance, Anders Ericson, wouldn't use such words because he believes "there is no evidence that any otherwise normal people are born without the innate talent to sing or do math or perform any other skill." He would agree that some people are luckier than others. Maybe the talented person was born at the right place during the right time or won the genetic lottery of having particular characteristics. But Ericson would also say that a lack of such luck does not prevent us from mastering a skill. You are free to develop proficiency at a craft of your choice as long as you are willing to suffer through years of rigorous practice. In this article, I will teach you how you can master a skill, and, most importantly, I hope to inspire a belief in yourself that it is possible to become skilled at anything you wish.

What Does It Mean To Be Skilled?

You have a brain. Most of what you do is a result of your brain. The basic building block of the brain is the neuron, and it's the connections between the neurons that determine your skills and actions. Therefore, if you are skilled at something, it means that you have modified the brain to be able to perform that skill. For example, no one is born with the ability to tie shoes - it's a skill taught from a young age. After countless repetitions of tying shoes, you don't even think about how to do it; you automatically execute the actions required. And that’s what being skilled means. Skill is a form of memory. If you repeat some action enough times (and in the right ways), the brain will form all the necessary neuron connections for it "learn" the pattern. As a result, when you see a basketball player make that last second shot that wins the game - don’t be surprised about it. Don’t be in awe. Don’t call it magic. They’ve done that shot a thousand times in practice. All the player had to do is be on the court, be at the right place, at the right time, and the brain’s neural connections formed through rigorous practice will take over from there.

Regular training leads to changes in the parts of the brain that are challenged by the training. The brain adapts to these challenges by rewiring itself in ways that increase its ability to carry out the functions required by the challenges.
— Anders Ericson, Peak

Why Can I Become Skilled At Anything I Wish?

The term you want to look for is “neuroplasticity," or the ability of the brain to change throughout an individual's life. Science has shown that the brain can change at any age if the person performs the right type of practice: “Practicing a new skill, under the right conditions, can change hundreds of millions and possibly billions of the connections between nerve cells in our brain maps" (The Brain That Changes Itself by Norman Doidge). You can become skilled at anything you wish because your brain is malleable and you can expand its capabilities. This is a compelling fact that dismisses the belief that our abilities are fixed and ingrained since birth.

Understanding the term neuroplasticity brings us to the first step of mastering a new craft: you must believe that you can learn the skill. Thinking otherwise is counterproductive and toxic to learning. The road to mastery is filled with failures and setbacks, and sometimes belief will be the only thing that prevents you from giving up before you reach your goals. In other words, you need to maintain a "growth mindset,” or a belief that you can learn new abilities through dedication and hard work, instead of a "fixed mindset," or a belief that your intelligence or talent are fixed traits.

How Can I Become Skilled?

At a fundamental level, the quickest and most productive way to learn is to utilize methods that most effectively shape the brains' neuron connections. This should make a lot of sense because the purpose of practice is to engrain new skills into the brain, so the quicker we can modify the brain, the faster we will learn. Although the brain is far from understood, researchers have collected various tips on how we can learn most effectively. I will introduce those tips further below, but first, let's try to understand the brain a little bit better.

Your brain has two types of memory: short-term and long-term.

  • Short-term memory helps you remember things you are doing now.

    • For example, if someone recites you a phone number, it is stored in the short-term memory. If you get distracted and start performing other tasks, you will quickly forget that phone number. It’s generally believed that humans can only hold 4-7 pieces of data in the short-term memory. Therefore, if you are multitasking, your short-term memory will be continuously cleared out to remember the most recent action.

  • Long-term memory holds information indefinitely.

    • For example, you can probably recall your date of birth or your mother’s name. When you first begin practicing a new skill, everything will be in short-term memory. But as you practice over and over again, the information gets encoded into long-term memory. And that's what you want to train: long-term memory so you can regularly utilize it.

As an analogy to training long-term memory, you can think of the various neuron connections in your brain as dirt roads. The more you ride over the same dirt roads, the more ingrained the tire marks will be. New skills and memory work the same way. You want to activate (ride over) the same neuron connections (dirt roads) over and over again. The more you do, the better the chances of remembering.

Nevertheless, simple, brute-force repetition is not enough. The only way to have a high-level understanding of the subject you are trying to learn is to create superior long-term memory structures. The methods discussed further below help you do that, but it's also worth looking up the term "chunking." This term will give you a more detailed look at how the brain stores and accesses information. However, for now, understand that being skilled at something means that you have trained your brain to respond effectively to various situations and that you do that by exercising your long-term memory.

Top performers understand their field at a higher level than average performers do, and thus have a superior structure for remembering information about it.
— Geoff Colvin, Talent Is Overrated

Where Should I Start?

The best way to begin training is to get a teacher who both, specializes in the subject you are trying to master, and has a proven track record of producing great talent. This may sound odd at first, but it's the correct answer. Teachers know the best learning strategies, and they also know how to cater them to the abilities of each student. They are especially critical in well-established fields, like chess and basketball, where multiple generations have passed on knowledge of how to best learn the subject. For example, if you tried to teach yourself basketball from a young age and ignored all the already existing advice on how to train yourself the best way, you would fail to become good enough. The competition, which practices with well-established teachers, would easily surpass you due to their information advantage.

Nevertheless, not everyone has the access or resources to get a qualified teacher. As an alternative, research the subject you are trying to learn. There's a high chance that someone has written about how to study the skill you want to master. Utilize that knowledge and follow the principles outlined below.

The Principles of Learning

Presenting an overall framework of learning is difficult because every subject is different and each person has their own unique strengths and weaknesses. Therefore, I will instead list various tactics and principles of learning. You should study, understand and memorize the tips discussed below and then use them to optimize your study.

These principles are very important because the idea that you can just work at something without a clear plan and strategy is false. This idea has been evangelized by the 10,000-hour rule, or the thought that if you work at something for 10,000 hours, you will get good at it. This is wrong. You can only get good at something by learning the right way. If you do not follow the principles of learning, then you will eventually plateau and never get much better.

‘Just keep working at it, and you’ll get there’ is wrong. Only thing that matters is the RIGHT sort of practice, carried over time.
— Anders Ericson, Peak

Applying The Principles

Lets first get a big-picture look at how you should approach improvement. There's a particular "flow" to learning, and I will illustrate it through the game of basketball. This example should give you an idea of how you can consistently improve and avoid plateaus.

Let's assume you want to become a professional basketball player. You will immediately see improvement if you begin to play basketball every day. However, eventually, you will plateau. How do you get out of that plateau? First, you have to identify the things that need the most improvement. Let's assume that you are missing your shot a lot. To develop a better shot, you should allocate time to only practicing shooting. This will allow you to perform more repetitions and will give you the space to dig deeper into the mechanics of how you move your hand and body. After all those adjustments, let's assume that during the practice your shot is looking great, but during a high-pressure game, it is still off. Again, you will have to identify your weaknesses: maybe the pressure of the game is getting to you, or players blocking during the game are changing the dynamics of your shooting. To fix those problems you will need to find techniques to train mental toughness, or you will need to adjust your practice to include people blocking. Whatever it may be, you need to keep iterating on your game until you become a master. If you keep doing this, day after day, you will see tremendous improvement from when you first began.

Here's a generalized list of what was described above:

  • You need to have well-defined, specific goals on what you need to work on.

  • You need to have feedback. Did the shot go in?

  • You need to get out of your comfort zone.

  • You need to be focused.

Define Goals

You must have well-defined goals of what you need to improve. Without goals, it is hard to track progress. Make sure to break down big goals into small ones, and also ensure that they are highly-repeatable and can be easily tracked.

Get Feedback

You need to get feedback on the repetitions you do. Otherwise, you don't know if you are training correctly. You should follow the adage of "perfect practice makes perfect" because if you are practicing the wrong way, you will learn poor habits. This is also where a teacher helps a lot because they can give a second opinion. Finally, feedback enables you to identify where you are falling short, which lets you figure out what you need to practice next.

Challenge Yourself

You must challenge yourself in each training session. This is called effortful practice. The key is to challenge yourself just enough: not too little, not too much. If it's too easy, you won't progress past your current abilities. If it's too difficult, you risk not improving, or you may even quit. One rule to go by is that if it doesn't feel painful (mentally or physically), it probably isn't practice.

Effortful practice is usually both emotionally and physically taxing. You typically don't want to work for longer than 4 hours a day, where each practice session lasts about 60-90 minutes. Any longer, and you will not be able to maintain 100% focus.

Generally, the solution is not ‘try harder’ but rather ‘try differently.’ The best way to get past any barrier is to come at it from a different direction.
— Anders Ericson, Peak

Maintain Focus During Practice

You must apply 100% focus during each practice session. No distractions. No multitasking. The brain's short-term memory can only hold seven pieces of information, if you get distracted, you move those items away from your short-term memory and forget part of what you were studying. In other words, multitasking hinders the brain's ability to transfer information to long-term memory.

It is better to train at 100% effort for less time than 70% effort for longer period. Once you find you can no longer focus effectively, end the session.
— Anders Ericson, Peak

Rest

You need to prioritize sleep and naps:

  • A day with effortful practice is significantly more tiring than an average day without it.

  • The more tired you are, the less focused you will be.

  • Your cognitive abilities degrade if you are sleep deprived.

  • Sleep helps consolidate information in long-term memory.

The violin students I studied at the [prestigious] Berlin academy found their training so tiring that they would often take a midday nap between their morning and afternoon practice sessions.
— Anders Ericson, Peak

Space Out Repetitions

You must repeat what you are trying to learn over and over again. Each time you do a repetition, the skill is further consolidated into the long-term memory. But blindly repeating is not enough - you must also space out the repetitions over a period of time. Spacing out repetitions is a form of effortful practice.

For example, imagine you are trying to learn the Spanish word “gato,” which means cat. If you practice by asking yourself "What is ‘gato'?" over and over again for five minutes, the answer will be in your short-term memory, and it will be easy to answer "cat." However, by recalling the word from your short-term memory, you are not exercising your long-term memory. To encode the word into your long-term memory, you want to wait a period of time before recalling the word. In other words, you want to space out the repetitions just enough where the practice is still effortful. The "space" may be a day, a few days, a week or even months. Eventually, after doing a lot of spaced out repetitions, you will be able to answer the question “What is ‘gato'?” after an indefinite amount of time. However, be careful, if you wait too long, making the remembering far too challenging, you will forget the word. This goes back to making the challenge not too easy, yet not too difficult.

Recalling > Rereading

A common studying mistake is trying to learn by rereading the material. Research has shown that rereading feels effective because the content seems familiar. However, rereading does not adequately train long-term memory. Instead, it is better to recall the content by forcing yourself to pull the information from your long-term memory, which exercises the brain's neuron connections. It's another form of effortful practice. For example, instead of rereading a chapter in the book, ask yourself to summarize it without looking at the pages. Make sure to also get feedback by checking your answers. Tools like flashcards are great for this type of training. In fact, flashcards paired with spaced-out repetitions is one of the most effective memorization techniques out there.

Be Wary Of The Illusion of Mastery

The "illusion of mastery" happens when you think you have learned a subject, but in reality, you have not. For example, if you cram for a test, you may get a good grade, but you will probably fail to remember what you learned in the long-term. Or, if you study by rereading a book over and over again, it will feel like you know the content of the book, but you would probably fail a quiz. Familiarity is not the same as mastery.

The lesson is that we are bad judges of our progress. Studies have shown that effortful practice feels less effective, but it produces excellent long-term results. On the other hand, tactics like rereading feel effective but produce poor long-term results. That's why it is essential to use non-negotiable instruments, like quizzing and testing, to measure your improvement. Keep in mind that it's natural to feel like you aren't making a lot of progress. It may take up to 6 months of well-designed practice before you have an epiphany that you've clearly improved.

Interleave Subjects

Interleaving is a tactic of studying multiple related topics at the same time. This is in opposition to blocked practice where you would solely focus on one issue. For example, books often dedicate each chapter to a single lesson. Instead of studying the same topic until you feel like you mastered it, it may be better to move onto the next chapter as soon as you have a basic understanding. Later, revisit the original chapter to study it again.

Interleaving is useful for several reasons:

  1. Interleaving is a form of effortful practice. When you study a single topic, you retain it in short-term memory, and it will feel fresh in your mind. On the other hand, when you mix up different problems, it will be more challenging to switch between them. You want it to be challenging!

  2. Interleaving allows you to make new connections and see the bigger picture. Different topics give different insights: knowing "B," may help you learn "A" better. True masters have a holistic understanding of their subject.

Other Topics

There are some more topics to keep in mind:

  • Generation: try to answer the question before looking at the solution.

    • You want to go through the steps of coming up with a solution. These are crucial learning steps, and they will help you solve new types of problems in the future. Only look at the answer after numerous failed attempts.

  • Elaboration: create your own description of the concepts you are learning.

    • Explain each concept in your own words. Create a metaphor or an analogy for it. The process of elaboration helps you connect new ideas to existing ones, which will then strengthen your understanding of the topic as a whole.

  • Reflection/Metacognition: reflect on your progress and solutions.

    • After each practice session stop to ask questions like: "What went well? What could have gone better? What might I need to learn for better mastery?" The process of reflection accelerates learning by helping you make new insights.

  • Practice material in different environments.

    • Humans have many different types of senses: sight, hearing, touch, etc., and all of these participate in our learning process. Therefore, if we always study in the same environment, we may be unable to effectively transition to a new environment because different environments evoke different senses. For example, if you are practicing a sport, a quiet gym with no one around may be much different than a packed one with people shouting. Or, if you are studying by typing on the computer, try sometimes using pen and paper instead.

  • Simulate the learning environment to be as close as possible to the real-world environment.

    • As noted earlier, learning is akin to memorization: you are training your brain to respond to a particular situation. Therefore, while you may have an easier time learning a related skill, your skills are not directly transferable. For example, even slight changes to the weight or shape of a basketball could have a significant impact on a players ability to make shots because they trained with a particular ball size.

  • Doing is more important than collecting knowledge.

    • Traditional schooling puts a lot of focus on reading. While you should read a lot, you want to emphasize doing. For example, you should read the math books chapter, but also make sure to solve all of the problems at the end of it.

  • Consistency is key.

    • Work. Rest. Work. Rest. One of the most challenging parts of the journey to mastery is the sheer amount of work required. Often, persistence is more important than intelligence. Instead of focusing on results, put the focus on maintaining a steady regimen.

Quick Case Study: Math

Let's try to put all of these concepts together by looking at a hypothetical example of how we could get better at a new skill. This example will focus on math, but these steps could be applied to almost any other topic.

  1. Get a teacher if you can.

  2. Look up resources on how to effectively learn math. Maybe there is an online course you can take, or perhaps someone has written about how they approached studying it.

  3. Create a study plan for all the various things you will need to do:

    • You will need to read.

      • Whether it's an online course or a book, there will be many new topics to learn. One learning concept to utilize for reading is interleaving. Instead of studying the same chapter over and over, you should instead spread out several chapters over a study session.

    • You will need to remember information.

      • Math has various terms and formulas to memorize. For this, you can utilize recall and spaced-out repetition. First, create a set of flashcards for each chapter. Then, do spaced-out repetitions: review the flashcards the first day, then again the next day, then after 4 days, then after a week, then after a month, etc.

    • You will need to do problem sets.

      • Usually, at the end of a chapter, there are a set of problems to do. Do everything possible to try to solve them, but do not look at the solutions.

      • If you succeed at solving a problem, then repeat it the next morning. You should repeat the problem and space it out as many times as you need to until you honestly believe that you understand it 100%. Keep in mind that just because you solved a problem doesn't mean you grasp all of its subtle intricacies. For example, if you recently learned to play a song on the guitar, you wouldn't just stop playing it - you need to repeat it multiple times to perfect it.

      • After you succeed doing a problem, reflect on its solution: "What are the key ideas from the problem? What went well? What might I need to learn for better mastery, or what strategies might I use the next time to get better results?"

      • If you fail at solving a problem, don't look at the solutions. Just do the question again later. Consider also restudying the chapter. If you keep failing to solve it no matter what you try, then look at the solutions.

  4. Practice every day.

    • Remember that consistency is critical. To achieve mastery, you need to be able to practice almost every single day. You shouldn't be taking long breaks. Even if it's 30 minutes a day, it's better to do something than nothing.


Action Steps

  • Think about what skill you would like to master.

    • Do you have a deep desire to learn something, but you didn't feel like you have the ability to do it?

  • Choose something you would like to learn, like a new language, and get after it!

    • Keep revisiting this article as you learn so you can make sure that you are taking all the right steps.

Related Resources