How to Learn Like the Best in the World
Leonardo Da Vinci squeezed in a lot of work in his 67 years.
Known as arguably history’s most famous polymath, he worked on everything from painting and sculpting to mathematics and engineering.
While it’s almost certain that he was born with some sort of intellectual gift, historians generally attribute the ridiculous extent of his achievements to his undying curiosity and his commitment to understanding.
Only a small portion of his work remains today, but even from the journals that have been discovered, we have 13,000 pages that show designs, sketches, ideas, and notations of mind-blowing breadth.
He was an uncompromising learner, and over time, he mastered that ability to the point where he could pick up almost anything in due time.
Although there may never be another Renaissance man like him again, most of us can at least strive to be more effective learners in our own pursuits.
Here are three interconnected ideas that will help you think and learn faster.
1. Build Knowledge the Hard Way
The first part of learning is knowledge acquisition, and it’s often neglected.
Increasingly, with the ease of access, people’s first instinct when looking to learn is to go to the most actionable and watered down source, hoping that they can immediately put into practice whatever it is they read.
While it’s alluring to succumb to the temptation of reading every article or book that promises 10 steps to success and riches and happiness, those 10 steps — even if they really are the secret — will rarely change your life.
Learning occurs when something is internalized beyond just the ability to regurgitate facts from memory. It’s something that you have to work for.
Reading a book or an article about how to think about the topic you’re interested in may not seem to be directly applicable to a simple task, but the thinking that such a source forces you to do results in a process that helps you go further later on than the promise of 10 easy steps.
Therefore, when the actual time of application and practice does come, you’re not left wanting to quit because it’s harder than you thought or because you’re missing a piece of the puzzle you didn’t even realize you needed.
Acquiring knowledge shouldn’t be as passive as reading a list and then aiming for action. It should be something that gets embedded in your brain.
You learn better when you have to think for it.
2. Master the Fundamentals Slowly
The second idea is to start really small and to work on the boring stuff.
This ties in with the knowledge acquisition phase because it similarly depends on you doing the extra work that may seem mundane and inefficient at the time but pays long-term dividends much later on.
For example, most people that blog or write on the internet start by simply doing, without any fundamental knowledge of basic rules and grammar.
Although that’s a good way to get over the fear of creating, it’s not necessarily the best way to improve quickly once you’re in motion. As you write more, you may be iterating and improving, but if you get the basics wrong from the beginning, your work could well be moving in the wrong direction.
The benefit of learning fundamentals such as grammar isn’t just that your writing will be cleaner or better, but it’ll also force you to understand the core logic of how language operates and interacts with itself.
When you build and refine your basic understanding and hone it deeply, you ingrain relevant mental models in your mind that automatically serve to provide you with feedback as you get better and better.
K. Anders Ericsson, the world’s leading authority on deliberate practice, backs this up with his observation that a thing that separates expert performers is that they can give themselves accurate feedback for improvement, whereas most other people are bad at judging their progress.
Mastering the fundamentals inspires rapid improvements later.
3. Set Deadlines and Overwhelm Yourself
The last section counters the logic of the first two, but it can be very powerful.
While setting deadlines and overwhelming yourself with big goals inspires behavior that may tempt you to take the shortcuts warned against in the first two sections, if you’re aware enough not to take them, then you have a very valuable tool in your hands.
Parkinson's law states that work expands as to fill the time required to complete it, and it’s true because it accounts for human nature.
Whether it’s procrastination or poor judgment of our own abilities, humans have a tendency to be inefficient if expectations aren’t completely clear.
Deadlines aren’t new. Most projects have them by default, and most people are aware of how effective they can be, especially when they’re near. That said, when combined with big goals, they can work like a superpower.
Although the reasonable thing for most projects is to set reasonable goals. The smart thing is to aim your targets 10x higher than you otherwise would.
Often, you’re not going to reach them, and that’s okay, because even if you fall short, a lot of the time the resourcefulness and creativity that the constraint of time and 10x goals inspires will take you further than you ever imagined.
Aiming big and failing generally still puts you ahead of reasonable targets.
How Important Is It?
In a world of increasing change, the only way to keep up is to change with it.
That means learning new skills, ideas, technologies, and everything in between. It’s something that’s becoming a life-long commitment.
Naturally, the better you can do so, the better your chances of thriving in your environment. Just because we have an intuitive process for learning doesn’t mean that it’s not worth actively refining as a skill.
In fact, in the near future, your ability to learn may just be the most impenetrable shield you have to protect yourself from the negative byproducts of a world increasingly dominated by technology.
The faster you learn at your job, the better you’ll get at it. The more efficiently you learn new skills, the more time you’ll have to put them to good use.
Don’t just learn things. Think about how you learn them.