In this series I explore learning -- specifically, why it’s difficult and how to get better at it. Sometimes I'll use science, other times I'll call on my decade of experience and observations on teaching a range of subjects -- both formally and informally.
There's no single simple trick or hack. It turns out that learning is hard work. But we all want to be better at it, so we owe ourselves a little bit of hard work to get there.
From the outset, your expectations are a major factor in determining whether your educational venture will be successful or not. This may be surprising to many people. We're not used to the idea that we're actually in control of our ability to succeed in learning.
In my years of teaching -- everything from physics to music to engineering to software to skiing -- I've seen many students fail and many excel. I've seen many different failure modes at different stages of the learning process. Everything here is a generalization. There are always exceptions to the rule.
What I've never seen, however, is a student fail after dedicating 200 hours (for example) to learning something. The students that fail invariably fail in the early stages, before reaching some certain threshold. They fail before they reach their moment of clarity. That moment of clarity where it all “clicks”; we’ll call it the “pass” threshold. A student is very likely to excel after reaching the pass threshold. The failure threshold, on the other hand, is generally when the frustration of learning outweighs the student’s motivation to continue.
I’ve come to this conclusion after observing time and time again that when a student fails it’s because they quit entirely somewhere in the early stages. They drop out. Give up. Leave the classroom and never return. Resign themselves to never trying that subject again. Other times a student performs a "soft quit"--they'll remain physically present in the lessons or the classroom but have mentally checked out. That’s just as bad.
This quit-itude, I've found, stems from a misalignment in expectations. The student gets frustrated that they're not picking up the material as quickly as they hoped. Its almost as if they expect learning to be easy! (Check out the Dunning-Kruger effect.)
But learning is not easy. By definition, learning a new topic is the hardest part of that topic. Learning is the process of going from knowing nothing about a topic to knowing it intuitively. There is no greater mental challenge than learning!
Students that expect learning to be difficult and frustrating tend to succeed not because they're more mentally capable, but rather because the slow-going crawl of learning isn't frustrating to them. It's expected, and they manage their frustration and keep moving forward.
Many students have the mindset that certain things are simply inaccessible to them because they're not smart enough. "I just can't do math" or "I'm hopeless with computers”. But that’s not the case. Barring an actual learning disability, the odds are that you are mentally capable of picking up a subject. It’s just like people claiming they’re tone deaf; many people claim it, but very few people are actually tone deaf.
That mindset — the “I’m just not smart enough” mindset—is poisonous. You’re likely smart enough, you just need to manage your frustration and make sure you don’t quit before you reach your “a-ha!” moment.
I’ve seen it too many times: many students get excited about learning something, and when the first mere 20 or 30 hours of practice prove difficult or frustrating they'll invent an excuse to quit. "My fingers are too weak" when learning guitar or "I don't think I like the industry" when learning music production or "I can't even draw a straight line" when trying to draw (I'm guilty of that one!).
But what if I told you that you could learn a life changing skill, guaranteed, if you put 200 hours of tough, frustrating-at-times effort into it? How would that change your mindset? What if that skill could land you a job at three times the pay? Just imagine how much more willing you'll be to deal with the frustration of learning something new if you knew you’d get there and that the only enemy is frustration? All you have to do is keep pushing forward—even if you feel frustrated and demotivated at times—because you will get the subject to click.
That's what learning's really about: managing frustration. Learning will always be hard. But I believe--and I've seen, and I've done--that anyone is capable of learning anything with the right expectations at the outset. You just need to put in the hours--hours and hours of beautiful frustrating practice.
The right expectations, combined with an unrelenting drive and a good mechanism for dealing with frustration, is the first step in learning even the most difficult subject successfully.