Why lifelong learning is key to success and how you can do it

What you are getting into: 4221 words, 24mins read

When it comes to skills, how do you measure yourself? What metrics do you use? How do you compare yourself against others? What are the skills that mean a lot to you? Do you want to be a jack of all trades master of none or do you want to be a Specialist / Artisan / Craftsman / Subject Matter Expert / Grandmaster? For this, let’s use the word Polymath (a person of wide-ranging knowledge) and Craftsman (a person who is skilled in a particular craft).

To each it’s own, one man’s poison is another man’s wine, both have specific contributions to the world. But that’s not the point of this discussion. Let’s look at mastering skills instead.

As Cal Newport argues in his new book Deep Work1:

To remain valuable in our economy, you must master the art of quickly learning complicated things. This task requires deep work. If you don’t cultivate this ability, you’re likely to fall behind as technology advances.

While deep work helps you to quickly learn hard things, you also need:

To learn hard things quickly, you must focus intensely without distraction. To learn, in other words, is an act of deep work. If you’re comfortable going deep, you’ll be comfortable mastering the increasingly complex systems and skills needed to thrive in our economy. If you instead remain one of the many for whom depth is uncomfortable and distraction ubiquitous, you shouldn’t expect these systems and skills to come easily to you.

Well, therefore to thrive and be better we need to go deep to learn hard things, which in turn will equip us with deep knowledge that helps us do our job better. Rather than amassing multiple superficial skills such as a low-level Polymath, we should adopt the Craftsman’s mindset — to master the skill.

Let’s dive deep into learning.

How we learn

Mindset (Fixed Vs Growth)

For a start, the mindset we approach learning is extremely important. Take a look at the flow chart below, which best describe you?

When it comes to facing challenges, overcoming obstacles, amount of effort, taking criticism, and viewing the success of others, how do you fare2?

In order to improve, we need to adopt the growth mindset. As the word growth itself already means to move yourself away for the better — in other words, improve.

Here’s a table for quick reference:

To dive in deeper, here are some good resources:

  • Read the book3
  • Read an article summary of the book4
  • Read the benefits of adopting the mindset5
  • Watch the TED talk6
  • Watch animated video summary7.

The mindset we adopt towards learning is extremely important, I cannot put more emphasis on this. In our lives we have a combination of fixed and growth mindset on areas of our lives and that’s okay. But towards learning we must always adopt the growth mindset, else we will always be trapped inside our own limitations (the stories we tell ourselves). Or worse, the opinions of others, especially loved ones.

Learning is a messy process (but it doesn’t have to be)

Truth to be told, the theory seems too romanticised. Many would argue that it doesn’t hold up in the real world, just like how theories learnt in school have absolutely no use for the ‘real world’ (argued by many, although I hold a different opinion).

The notion here is adopting the mindset, not a series of steps. It is futile to propose a series of steps when it comes to learning. If one adopts the growth mindset, then one needs to improve, if there is no improvement, then the strategy of learning needs to be reevaluated and readjusted. Thus, learning appears to be messy. The reason learning is messy because it entails figuring it out how to make sense of learning the material. There is no one true best way. Everyone learns differently.

At the base, there are 4 types of learners (infographic here8):

  1. Visual
  2. Audiotory
  3. Kinaesthetic (need to touch and feel the material)
  4. Read/write

The idea is to start from here to figure out what type are you, then develop a suite of tools and tricks to learn the material. You have to know how you learn before you dive into learning, then adjust along the way.

DiSSS

Learn by first deconstructing what you are intending to learn, select what is the key thing to learn, then sequence it out, finally identify the stakes on hand if you don’t accomplish it. Also known as the DiSSS method9.

For example, I want to learn how to shoot a free throw in basketball, here’s how I would approach it using the DiSSS method:

Goal: Shoot free throws with 90% accuracy

Outcome: Metrics will be calculated with 45 out of 50 free throws

Deconstruct:

  • Standing position
  • How my feet should be placed
  • How I hold the ball
  • How I breathe
  • How is my posture
  • Which muscle do I engage
  • Where do I look
  • Where do I focus at which point of time
  • How do I raise my hands into a shooting position
  • How do I shoot (this can be a separate DiSSS)
  • How much strength do I use when I shoot the ball
  • How will my body look like when I release the ball from my hands

Select: I would select shooting as the top priority

Sequence: Followed by muscles to engage, then breathing, and then the rest

Stakes: Weekly practice at least once, each session to clock 100 free throw attempts, to have a test at the end of 4 weeks.

If I were to practice free throws as I feel like without any metrics or accountability, chances are that the improvement will not be exponential. The idea here is to break a movement (or skill) into hundreds (or thousands) of small little steps, aiming to perfect the most important aspect first into order to get to intermediate level as fast as possible, all the while measuring with tangible metrics in order to visualise progress made.

Learning by application

“Knowing is not enough, we must apply. Willing is not enough, we must do.” — Bruce Lee

We learn best when we can apply the knowledge, even better if we are able to apply the knowledge across multiple disciplines10.

In a podcast11 David Heinemeier Hansson12, the creator of Ruby on Rails (a web development framework that has taken the world of web development by storm and in 2005, he was recognised as “Hacker of the Year” by Google and O’Reilly; clearly he knows his stuffs) goes through his learning process. He adopts just in time learning methodology, where he learn things only when he needs it. The benefits are two-pronged. One, he need not worry about not being able to apply the knowledge learnt. Two, it sticks in our better13.

There’s a caveat to note:

“I suppose it is tempting, if the only tool you have is a hammer, to treat everything as if it were a nail.” — Abraham Maslow

Masters have hammers and they are experts in looking for nails. Where amateurs just hammer away at everything. When first starting out, resist the temptation to apply the knowledge on every little thing you come across. Which is why in the game of sports, elite athletes have a wide repertoire of skills that can be applied on almost every situation. This separates the elite from the amateur.

Learning by application advocates applying knowledge learnt.

Learning by imitation

Another good way to learn is to imitate your heroes. In Austin Kleon’s book Steal Like an Artist14, he talks about copying your heroes. Not plagiarising, rather, it’s the attempt to do what your hero(s) have produced in the hopes of learning their learning progress. They must have gone through a train of thoughts to produce that masterpiece, that pulitzer price, that painting now hung in The Louvre, that ultimate deck which made their career, the advertisement that captured the hearts and minds of millions?

Don’t have to reinvent the wheel, learn from people who have already been there and done that. Step on the fast track of learning. Stand on the shoulders of the giants. Tap on their masterful knowledge.

Kobe imitated Jordan15, then he went on to be a hall of famer by himself. He got there based on years and hard work as well of tapping on the knowledge of previous masters by imitating their moves.

Find your hero, copy their styles, learn how they did what they did, then once your are comfortable, develop your own style.

Beginner’s mind

Zen parable — A cup of tea:

Nan-in, a Japanese master during the Meiji era (1868-1912), received a university professor who came to inquire about Zen.

Nan-in served tea. He poured his visitor’s cup full, and then kept on pouring.

The professor watched the overflow until he no longer could restrain himself. “It is overfull. No more will go in!”

“Like this cup,” Nan-in said, “you are full of your own opinions and speculations. How can I show you Zen unless you first empty your cup?”

This story has a few versions, you can substitute professor to anyone you wish. Cup remains the same, it will always overflow, until we adopt the beginner’s mind.

This parable is also beautifully illustrated in the movie Doctor Strange16. In the movie Strange is a egoistical uber talented doctor who is unable to continue work as a doctor after damaging the nerve endings on his hands in a car accident. When he eventually found his way to the Ancient One (the master), this scene:

In order to learn something new, sometimes it requires us to drop everything we know. As much as our learning process will be expedited with existing chunks (because we learn better by associations), it may be best if we approach the learning process as a beginner. Not trying to find out things and instead taking new things as they come along.

Beginner’s mind is curious.

Beginner’s mind is calm.

Beginner’s mind will try to figure things out rather than wait for answers.

Beginner’s mind wants to practice rather than thinking it already knows.

Beginner’s mind is not afraid to fail, only advanced mind is afraid of failure.

Understand the 4 stages of learning

  • Stage 1: Unconscious Incompetence – At this stage it’s very difficult to self-correct as you practice since you don’t know enough to identify what you’re doing wrong. Here’s how to characterise this stage: “I don’t know that I don’t know how to do this.”
  • Stage 2: Conscious Incompetence – This is the hardest stage, but it’s also the stage at which real learning begins. Here’s how to characterise this stage: “I know that I don’t know how to do this, yet.” At this stage you’re aware of what you’re doing wrong.
  • Stage 3: Conscious Competence – At this stage you know what you’re doing, and you’re doing it well, but you still have to pay attention and do things mindfully in order to avoid making mistakes.
  • Stage 4: Unconscious Competence – At this stage you’re so good at the skill, that you can do it without thinking. Most experiences of the state of flow occur at this stage.

Mastery by deliberate practice

Assuming there’s no problems with the learning process, we would want to master the skill we are learning right? Coined by Anders Ericsson17 and popularised by Malcolm Gladwell18 in his blockbuster book Outliers19, it promotes the idea: in order to get good at something we need to deliberately practice the hard things, things that makes us uncomfortable. Because it is the hard things that makes us better and stronger. Things that are easy usually means things we have already gotten good at.

According to the studies, Gladwell (or is it Ericsson? It’s highly debated) came up with the popular 10,000hr rule (of thumb) that it generally takes that long to become good at something. Take this with a pinch of salt, because it’s easy to question: ‘I have put in 10k hours, why am I not world class standard?’ The next probable question(s) would be: ‘Out of the 10k hours, what percentage are spent practicing the hard things? Is it a continual effort to push your limits where you feel pretty uncomfortable? Or is it a mindless practice just to clock the hours?’

Simple flowchart for understanding20

If you have mastered it, move on to hard stuff. Though not forgetting to practice the easy things, which used to be hard, but now it’s just your warmup.

To read more on this, read Anders Ericsson’s book Peak21.

Adjacent possible

The adjacent possible is a kind of shadow future, hovering on the edges of the present state of things, a map of all the ways in which the present can reinvent itself22.

The idea of seeking adjacent possible is combining two (or more) cutting edge, top of the line technology/knowledge into something even more awesome and amazing. That’s usually how the tech world progresses.

It’s a fusion of totally awesome knowledge into something pretty much that blows your mind.

Think Dragon Ball fusion…

Okay back to reality.

Case for mastering skills: When we combine two superb skill sets, we are able to create excellent breakthroughs.

Examples include:

  • MMA, combining different types of martial arts such as Karate, BJJ, Boxing, Muay Thai, Kickboxing, etc
  • Justine Musk (ex-wife of Elon Musk) on combining two expert fields together23
  • Scott Adams (creator of Dilbert comic24) advised to get good at two or more things and then combine them together, this idea is also endorsed by Marc Andreessen25 (co-founder of Andreessen Horowitz, a billion dollar VC company)

That’s usually how creativity begins. I firmly believe humans are wired to create. If we look at the trajectory of homo sapiens, humans have always created new things. First it was fire, then structures, then civilisations, and so on and so forth.

Welcome failure (making sandals)

If I’m not failing, then I’m not making progress.

I like to see improvement as such. I cannot fathom the idea of not failing and still win. Life is a cumulative of setbacks, suffering, and because of that, I learn and improve from it. Much of the world’s biggest business arrived from solving problems. If I do not have problems (i.e. mistakes), how I even get better? How would I seek out the adjacent possible?

Therefore, welcome failure.

But what happens if we aren’t equipped with welcoming failure? “I’m just not strong enough to handle it.” “This is too much for me to handle.” One may just crash and burn. Then welcoming failure would be a counterproductive strategy.

Josh Waitzkin, a young chess prodigy, puts it eloquently in his book The Art of Learning26. He describes a process called carved neural pathway. Imagine your brain as a thick jungle, while learning we are carving pathways in the jungle. For example, a fade away jump shot in basketball. The more we practice, the road gets clearer and clearer the pathway to accessing the skill gets.

“To walk a thorny road, we may cover its every inch with leather or we can make sandals.”

The hard stuffs are always paved and laden with thorns, acting as obstacles we need to overcomes. Which is the reason why we avoid them. Though ego plays a part in avoiding challenges (if you pick your opponents in order to maintain a no-loss record, can you still be considered to be one of the greatest?27).

So we make sandals. We toughen ourselves up. We learn techniques on dealing with adversities so we can actively seek out challenges that is beyond our limits. We prepare ourselves for war. Because we know that, it is only the hard things that are worth doing. Because we thrive on challenges.

Tell yourself: “Challenge accepted.

Illusion of competence

This is huge. Illusion of competence happens when we think we know the material, or we have mastered the skill, but in actual fact, we haven’t. The metrics we are using to judge what we have learnt or the skills we are practicing isn’t logical. A simple example would be times where the material we are studying comes up, and we understand it, but somehow we are unable to recall the material when we need it. Simply put it, we have not learned the material. Recognising the information if not equal to recalling the information. I know what is a fadeaway jump shot, but it doesn’t not mean I can execute a perfect fadeaway jump shot, like Kobe does.

In order to prevent this from happening, we test ourselves on the material. We try to recall it. Use flashcards. Write it out based on memory. Explain the material to someone else. Say it out loud. Journal it down. Anything to recall the material. The more we do it, the better the carved neural pathway is.

Therefore, it is important to be honest with oneself so as to not fall under the illusion of competence. Sometimes it is difficult to do it due to lack of time in learning the material. Sometimes we just want to dive in straight into doing it. I remember learning surfing in Bali. I signed up for a day’s lesson with a surfing school. A total of 4hrs worth. At the start we were given a short introduction by the instructor, who he is, how many years of experience he has. Then we were instructed to lay down on the surf board on the beach, how we should place our foot, how we should be laying down on the board, how we should place and move our hands, how to stand up, and how to keep our balance. Believe me I tried extremely hard to memorise because I was very interested in learning how to surf! The whole beginner intro lasted for 10-15mins tops. When it comes to the real thing, when the wave comes, I tried to execute everything I have learnt. Of course, as a pure beginner, I went under water 9 out of 10 times without even completing the whole movement. This is where the illusion of competence comes in. I have memorised all the steps, but when it comes down to the actual thing, nothing beats practice. When it comes to the real thing, my mind went blank. I realise I could only practice a single chunk at a time. My instructor was shouting at what I kept doing wrong. I kept on practicing the single movement I sucked at (standing up on the surf board at the exact time when the wave pushes you up, it feels like a window of 0.2-0.5secs) over and over again. This is where failure comes in. I need to practice on the areas I am weak in.

So test yourself. See where’s your standard to prevent illusion of competence.

Getting into the zone or flow state (and build your trigger)

Some call it ‘in the zone’, some call it ‘flow state’, whichever you prefer. For me, I interchange between both terms, but I know the science of flow28 originated from Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi29 (one of the hardest name to pronounce!). We need to be adequately challenged while using the best of our skills in order to achieve flow state. Take a look at the flow model below:

A more complicated version contain 3 conditions:

  1. One must be involved in an activity with a clear set of goals and progress. This adds direction and structure to the task.
  2. The task at hand must have clear and immediate feedback. This helps the person negotiate any changing demands and allows them to adjust their performance to maintain the flow state.
  3. One must have a good balance between the perceived challenges of the task at hand and their own perceived skills. One must have confidence in one’s ability to complete the task at hand.

So how does it feel like? To me, I try to keep it a simple definition, anytime where I lose track of time and when I come out of flow state, it feels like minutes but in actual fact hours have passed. When I was learning surfing, it felt like 30mins of surfing but actually 4hrs have passed. No doubt it was a beginner lesson, but because it was challenging to me and I received constant feedback, plus the fact that I was really interested in learning surfing, I went into flow state. I can tell you, the feeling is magical. I just want to get into flow state again and again!

The goal now is to find an activity that pushes your limits to its max even when you are just starting. I can tell you from experience that the feeling is magical, a win-win situation, its like getting the runner’s high. You just want to do it again and again. It is always the part where is feels a little bit uncomfortable but not so hard that you freak out and get paralysed by the sheer amount of work you have to put in, then you push a little bit more, up till the adjacent possible (metaphorically speaking), and boom, you are right there in the clouds. Standing on the cloud bubble soaring, for a moment, literally feeling like you are on top of the world. Then it’s gone. Only to repeat it another day.

The search for flow state is truly amazing.

Dealing with distractions

Now to the final and a hackneyed topic. How to deal with distractions.

I see distractions as anything is not aligned nor your direct focus. For example, you have set out to complete practice a specific skill for 60mins, i.e. practice shooting free throws. The main activity is shooting from the free throw line. Any other practice such as practicing dribbling, driving, or any other positions are considered a distraction. The activity is to put 100% focus on the practice of shooting free throws, to clock the hour of practice, to clock the quantity on number of free throws shot. Similarly, if you have set aside time to study a particular topic, i.e. understand how flow state works, the main activity is to focus your mind on understanding what flow state is. Therefore it is fundamentally important to not let our attention turn elsewhere, or get drawn to distractions.

Sounds easy, but it takes discipline30. Meditation helps, so does setting a timer31. I will recommend to start off extremely easy, say, 1min. Then move on to 5mins, 10mins, 15mins, 30mins, 45mins, 60mins, 90mins, and so on. It may take months and years to develop a discipline level so high that you don’t even have to force yourself to do it anymore32.

Distraction is the devil of achieving focus. But as what we all know, the ability to focus largely determines the outcome. So, learn whatever you can about dealing with distractions.


We would get to a point where we are pretty good at it right? What then?

Keep practicing. Take on bigger challenges. Find a worthy opponent. Set and accomplish a bigger goal. Push your own boundaries and limits. Search for the adjacent possible. Share your accomplishments. Teach it to someone. Pass it on. Use it to your advantage. Reflect on your progress, look at how far you’ve come.

Then do it again.

At the end of the day, when it comes to learning, Bruce Lee says it best:

“Adapt what is useful, reject what is useless, and add what is specifically your own.”

Footnotes

  1. Deep Work by Cal Newport, published 2016 (link)
  2. A caveat, this do not just apply to learning, it can be applied across multiple disciplines, such as business / leadership / relationships / parents / coaches / etc.
  3. Mindset, book by Dr Carol S. Dweck, published 2006 (link)
  4. Summary of the book, Mindset (link)
  5. 15 benefits of adopting growth mind by Alex Vermer (link)
  6. 10:20mins TED talk by Dr Carol Dweck (link)
  7. Youtube animated summary of Mindset (link)
  8. Online College — Types of learners (link)
  9. DiSSS, by Tim Ferriss (link)
  10. Mental models, Musingsofzen.com (link)
  11. Listen to the podcast here, 58:16mins by Becoming Superhuman (link)
  12. DHH Wiki page (link)
  13. Read only when you need it, Niklas Goeke (link)
  14. Steal Like an Artist, Austin Kleon, 2012 (link)
  15. Patrick Surlis, GiveMeSport, 2013 (link)
  16. Doctor Strange, IMDb (link)
  17. Anders Ericsson: If you want, check out his wiki page (link)
  18. Malcolm Gladwell’s wiki page (link)
  19. Outliers: The Story of Success, Malcolm Gladwell, 2011 (link)
  20. Written by a programmer to learn programming, but I think it is applicable to all learning of skills (link)
  21. Peak: Secrets from the New Science of Expertise, Anders Ericsson & Robert Pool, 2016 (link)
  22. Eddie Smith, Practically Efficient, 2010 (link)
  23. Quora thread (link)
  24. Dilbert comic (link)
  25. Link to the endorsement (link)
  26. The Art of Learning, Josh Waitzkin, 2008 (link)
  27. I’m talking about Floyd Mayweather, Guardian, 2014 (link)
  28. Flow state, Wikipedia (link)
  29. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, Wikipedia (link)
  30. I have written about discipline before (link)
  31. I recommend setting a timer on your phone. Check out this link for timer options. (link)Or you may be interested in the timer app I use personally. (link)
  32. Read my thoughts on building habits (link)

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