How to Learn Anything: The Sonmez 10-Step System

Learning how to learn — also known as “metalearning” — is one of the most important skills you can learn. Yet, almost nobody knows how to do it.

Why is it so important?

Well, it all goes back that parable of the lady and the fish. You know how it goes: “If you want to help a lady out, don’t give her a fish. Teach her how to fish. Then she can eat all the fish she could ever want.”

Learning how to learn goes one step past that. You teach her how to teach herself.

School does a pretty bad job of this, and one reason I started The Polymath Project was to help fill this hole in our understanding.

So where do we go to figure out how to learn how to learn? Well, you can go to university, but — honestly — I’m skeptical. Research helps, but theories need to be tested in the real world. Don’t study theorists. Study practitioners.

If I wanted to learn how to lose weight, I wouldn’t consult my dietician. Instead, I’d go to the people who care a lot more than anyone else about being “lean and jacked” all the time: rock climbers, competitive fighters, and (to a lesser extent) bodybuilders & figure competitors.

Likewise, to learn how to learn, you can ask, “Who cares the most about learning all the time?” Immediately, two groups come to mind: value investors like Warren Buffett (who reads hundreds of pages each day) and — the group I want to focus on today — software developers.

Technology changes fast, and software developers have to constantly learn new languages and cultivate new skills.

Recently, I bought all the books I could find on the subject, and one of the most popular ones I found was John Sonmez’s Soft Skills: The software developer’s life manual. It’s 4.7 stars on Amazon, with over 200 five-star reviews.

The book has a nine-part section on learning how to learn, and here I want to share one useful part of the book that I’ve been calling the Sonmez 10-step system.

Here’s Sonmez:

“I’m going to take you through a 10-step process I’ve developed to learn new technologies rapidly; it’s the same process I used to create over 30 full-length developer training courses in under a year”.

Let’s take a look.

Phase II: The Learning Loop

Sonmez’s 10-step is divided into two phases: the research phase (steps 1–6) and the learning phase (steps 7–10).

The best way to understand it — I think — is by starting backwards. First, we’ll look at the second phase, the learning phase. Then, we’ll go back and look at the research phase.

First, something to understand: Acquiring information is not learning.

You can’t learn to write novels, ride a bike, wrestle, fill out spreadsheets, or write Java code by reading textbooks. Textbooks can help, but they only work when combined with practice.

Sonmez:

“If you want to learn something, what should you do? Well, ultimately, you’ll learn best when you take action and you’ll reinforce that learning and gain a deeper understanding when you take on the task of teaching what you learned to someone else. Your efforts on self-education should be focused on trying to get to the point where you can actually be involved and do something as early as possible.

In other words, practice should come before theory.

Well, let’s not get too theoretical here, but the key idea is that there are many things that can’t be expressed verbally. Textbooks and teaching can help transfer verbal knowledge, but they can’t transfer non-verbal, tacit knowledge. That stuff can only be picked up through practice.

What’s more, we can only understand some things after we’ve built a “web of context” that comes from experience. This is why rock climbing theory is much easier to understand after you’ve spent a few hours in the gym. This is also why you probably ignored your parents’ (sincere and wise) warnings of “Don’t date that girl she will destroy you.” You have to get burned to understand.

This is also why it’s kind of funny that we go to school before we’ve had much experience in the real world. Only later do we say, “Man, I wish I’d paid attention in Ms. Smellyfoot’s history class.”

Now, let’s look at the actual steps.

Step 7 & 8: Get Playing ASAP

One of the best ways to build the above “web of context” is to play. Our goal is to get playing as soon as possible:

“If you can gain enough knowledge about a subject to start playing around, you can tap into the powerful creative and curious nature of your own mind. We tend to absorb more information and develop more meaningful questions about a thing when we’re actively playing. … Baby animals tend to play a lot and through that play they learn important skills they’ll need to survive. Ever watch a baby kitten learn to hunt mice? We, too, learn by playing, by actively doing without really knowing what we’re doing.”

Actually, there are some theories that play evolved for this specific purpose — to help young animals practice the skills they need in the real world. Play fighting is a safe way to get ready for real-world fighting.

So here are the steps:

  • Step 7 — Learn enough to get started.
  • Step 8 — Play around.

Nobody reads the whole game manual before they start playing a video game. Likewise, when I started rock climbing, I just made sure I had a few basic rules (keep your weight on your feet and stay close to the wall) before I started playing around.

Step 9: Learn enough to do something useful.

Playing around gives us the context and tacit knowledge to go back and do more verbal, analytic learning:

“In step 8, you played around and hopefully came up with some questions that you couldn’t find answers to on your own. Now is the time to answer those questions. For this step, you’ll go through all the resources you gathered and learn … in depth.”

If you’re a climber, this may involve doing a Google search to figure out how to solve a problem you couldn’t figure out how to solve. Maybe you need to develop more technique? Or was it a strength problem?

For programmers, this may involve figuring out the syntax to do something that — while you were playing — you couldn’t figure out how to do.

Step 10: Teach

The final step is to try and teach what you’ve learned:

“[Teaching is] the only way to know for sure that you’ve learned something, and it’s a great way to fill in the gaps in your own learning as you try to explain it to others. It’s a process that will cause you to really dissect and understand the topic you’re learning about in your own mind as you organize the information in a way that will make it understandable to others.”

Teaching helps us (a) check whether we actually understand something and (b) “lock in” our knowledge, committing it for the long term.

Oftentimes, I think I understand something, but I won’t be able to express it in writing. This is a sign that I don’t understand the subject as well as I thought. It’s a humbling experience.

There are many ways to “teach”. You can write blog posts like I do. You can try to explain something to friends. You can even talk to yourself as you walk (okay, I admit I do this). You can record videos on YouTube. And so on.

Phase I: The Research Phase

Now, let’s go back to the first phase of Sonmez’s 10-step system. Honestly, I find these steps kind of boring, so let’s just speed through and just get the basic intuition.

While steps 7–10 above should be repeated over and over, steps 1–6 should only happen once. They’re the prep phase to help you get started on the good stuff (actually learning):

  1. Get the big picture — Scan articles, table of contents, Wikipedia pages, etc. to get an idea of what the field is about.
  2. Determine scope — Limit the size of what you want to learn. “Physics” or “philosophy” is too wide and will take decades. “Classical mechanics”, while still wide, might be a bit easier.
  3. Define success — Make a clear goal for your learning so you’ll know when you get there.
  4. Find resources — Gather resources from the internet, libraries, forums, etc. that might be useful for your learning project.
  5. Create a learning plan — Use what you learned in the previous steps to make a plan.
  6. Filter resources — With your plan in mind, narrow down your resource list (Step 4) to the most important essentials.

I don’t agree with all of this list. (For example, I’m not a big fan of either defining success or detailed plans because, in the real world, your definition of success changes as you learn. Also, in many fields, it’s really hard to measure success.)

But here are the parts that I do like:

  • Start with a big picture understanding.
  • Avoid the collector’s fallacy. The real learning comes from practice, not from having the best tools or resources.
  • Get to Phase II (the learning phase) as soon as possible.

Now what?

Now, some closing thoughts.

First, there’s a lot more on learning in Sonmez’s book. There’s a nice chapter on finding mentors and another one on how to detect and fill gaps in your knowledge. There are also some chapters on productivity, exercise, etc. Check it out if that stuff interests you.

There were two big lesson for me, though. The first lesson is that learning is a loop.

It’s not a pretty loop, and it looks something like this: play → study → teach → play → study → play → study → teach … and so on.

The other big lesson? Learning is about play.

I don’t know about you, but I plan to keep playing for the rest of my life.


Originally published here.