The Key to Learning Almost Anything
It’s not intelligence.
Iwant to tell you a story about beer pong. Really.
On July 4, 2016, my girlfriend (at the time) and I settled in at this BBQ to play some beer pong, which — and I can’t believe I’m going to explain this, but I feel like some of you may not actually know what I’m talking about when I talk about “beer pong” — is a cross between table tennis, bowling and basketball. You try and throw a ping-pong ball across a ping-pong-lengthed table into a plastic cup filled with beer. Really, this is where Western recreation has landed us in the 21st century.
Anyway, so we rack the cups six-a-side, and I start tossing. I never made a cup. I must’ve threw the ball upwards of 30–40 times. I’d never been great at the game, but there was something about being 33 years old and still unable to complete what felt like a basic motor function that sent me into a rage. I practiced on my own, still not able to sink the ball into the cup. I left that night sorta angry at myself, feeling defective and inferior, with my girlfriend rolling her eyes at me in the way that felt like icicles piercing through my body. I threw up my hands. I was humbled. But still not humble. Not yet.
Several months later, I was reading a book by Tim Ferriss — I know, I know, peak-broflake self-improvement life-hack drivel, but sometimes you’re just curious what all the fuss is about — The Four-Hour Chef, and I came across a section on how to shoot a basketball. I had no real idea how to shoot a basketball, I’d never actually seen the mechanics of spelled out before, and it was the first part of the book that legitimately piqued my interest. (Sorry, Mr. Ferriss.) So I studied up.
The very first step, before even gripping the basketball or setting your feet, he wrote, was to find your dominant eye. That sounded so rudimentary. I’m right-handed. Obviously, my right eye was the dominant one. Right? Thankfully, there’s a pretty simple test to find out for sure.
The test requires you to focus on an object while you extend both hands in front of your body and place your hands together to form a small triangle. You encompass an object like the face of a digital clock or a doorknob within the triangle, like you’re looking through a scope. You close one eye, and then the other, and see if the object moves out of the triangle. If the object moves, whichever eye is closed is your dominant eye. To my surprise, I was left-eye dominant. This combined with being right-handed is called cross-dominance. This is rare-ish, it’s present 1-in-7 adults, and — wouldn’t you know — it’s highly handicapping in sports that involve shooting things: sports like darts, marksmanship, archery, basketball, and … you guessed it: beer-pong.
This additional layer of complexity is, mercifully, a challenge has an easy solution: Instead of lining up the ping-pong ball in front of my right eye to aim, I lined it up in front of my left. I immediately started sinking damn near everything. I decided to take this newfound knowledge to my local dartboard, and also my local basketball court. My aim improved significantly. I started winning games of darts and pong. I even discovered darts would become even easier if I threw them left-handed. It was as if I had discovered some secret cheat code to throwing and shooting things. It’s a little late for me to get drafted by the Sixers as a backup point guard, but it’s still pretty cool, and the story is instructive on how to learn just about anything. I’ll tell you why.
You’ve all met a know-it-all in your life. You know how they grate on you. You know people who are brash and overconfident, stubborn and myopic. And, so many modern ills can trace their roots back to it: When you hear people say things like “America is the greatest country on Earth,” or “Why would you need to go anywhere when everything you need is right here,” or you come across the hubris it takes to run the world banking system right into the ground, or commit billions of dollars in seed funding to apps that don’t directly solve our world’s most vital challenges — but instead allow us to anonymously find out which one of our office coworkers has a crush on us. You’ve seen it: It’s pride gone pathological.
We’re told to market ourselves, to stand out, to strive, to achieve, to be louder, to be perfect, to optimize, to have goals, to be popular, to be a brand. But we are all very, very ordinary, and it is the desire to seem exceptional that agitates our ability to really, truly learn and listen. This pathology of pride human peacocking that prevents us from stepping through the gates of knowledge and into the room of enlightenment. It causes us to become drunk on our success rather than strengthened by it. We cannot learn in this state.
To truly learn or master anything requires humility. Cultivating intellectual and spiritual humility increases academic performance from primary school up through college. The Scientific Method is almost entirely rooted in humility. It requires first acknowledging that there are things that we do not know, or that the things we know are wrong, and then acknowledging that others will one day know more, and then filling our knowledge gaps. It requires an open mind, a willingness to question everything, and a commitment to embracing failure and being wrong. When I was reading how to shoot a basketball, I started at the beginning, went through the most basic of steps, questioning and relearning everything that I had done previously, before building back up.
“The fool who knows that he is a fool is for that very reason a wise man; the fool who thinks he is wise is called a fool indeed.” — Dhammapada
Humility is often talked about in the biblical sense, as an offshoot of meekness, as a pole apart from the vices and sins of overconfidence: avarice, vanity, arrogance, grandiosity, snobbery, jealousy and so on. But humility is more than the absence of excess pride. Humility is also the absence of memory and expectation.
What I mean by an “absence of memory” is believing that change is a truth, the past is a mirage, and that therefore it is possible (and likely!) that our minds and souls can be changed and molded. That by opening ourselves up to novel experience, seeking out growth, and by considering views and points that aren’t our own — views held by people with different life experiences who may or may not agree with us— and by considering activities outside our comfort zone and being persistent enough not to disengage from things that are difficult, we will know true humility. Where we are is not where we will stay. We are not defined by our skills or limitations.
What I mean by an “absence of expectation” is focusing on the present instead of the future, on process instead of result, and on valuing mastery over appearing smart. It means giving up the pursuit of being the “best” at something — there will always be someone better. It means extinguishing the desire to prove what we know. It means rejecting the idea of instant gratification or success, rejecting wholesale defense of our point of view, and checking our ego at the gates. To become humble, one must truly detach from the self, and let knowledge and experience wash through us the way the reefs soak up the ocean.
“Be humble, be harmless,
Have no pretension,
Be upright, forbearing;
Serve your teacher in true obedience,
Keeping the mind and body in cleanness,
Tranquil, steadfast, master of ego,
Standing apart from the things of the senses,
Free from self;
Aware of the weakness in mortal nature.” — Bhagavad Gita
Saying “I got it already, thanks” is a myopic algorithm, and one that does a disservice to both the learner and the teacher. Not only do we miss out something new and valuable, but we miss out on the potential of relating to someone, of connecting with them — as what we are really saying when pride gets in the way and we dismiss additional information is “this is not valuable, you are not valuable.” Disease of the ego increases our ignorance and loneliness. It’s the stem-rot of the brain and the heart.
July 4, 2016, my girlfriend at the time and I settled in at this BBQ to play some beer pong, we rack the cups six-a-side, and I start tossing. I never made a cup. I must’ve threw the ball upwards of 30–40 times. I’d never been great at the game, but there was something about being 33 years old and unable to complete what felt like a basic motor function that sent me into a rage. I left that night sorta angry at myself, feeling defective and inferior, with my girlfriend rolling her eyes at me in the way that felt like icicles piercing through my body. I threw up my hands. I was humbled. But still not humble. Not yet.
By the time I learned true humility, several months later, while reading about how to shoot a basketball and discovering the shocking truth about my dominant eye, it was already far too late to get back out and play some pong with the lady who rolled both her dominant eyes at me that fateful day. My girlfriend had left me. I was humbled all over again, and realized I had many new things left to learn, about things that were far more important than how to sink a ball into a cup.