February 3, 2017 reinierh

How to learn anything (Part 1)

Think you can’t change?

That you will never be creative? Or do public speaking? Or that leading a team is not your thing? You can. Without having met you I know that with the right approach, you can learn anything.

This article will recap how you can learn anything, and once you’ve accepted this is possible, I will follow it up with an article considering what this means for building an ambitious startup.


  1. Break it into chunks
  2. Mirror the greats
  3. Commit and repeat
  4. Practice with true and immediate feedback

There is lots of research on how individuals can learn faster, more effectively, and systematically. I will try to summarize some highlights on how to learn, practically and physiologically:

 Define what to learn, break it down into chunks

  • For example, your anxiety in public speaking might come from the moments before a presentation, triggering a ‘fight or flight’ reaction. Practically, define ways to overcome this specific part, or chunk, of public speaking anxiety. An example could be learning the controversial power-pose, or practicing slow breathing before you go on stage to counter the feeling of anxiety (alternatively you can practice your speeches in a lion cage).
  • Physiologically, learning can be improved by ‘chunking’ information into smaller bits, enabling complex sequences of parts to be broken up into smaller bits that are easier to store and retrieve in memory. A simple example shows how you can more easily remember the number 12101946 by chunking it into 12, 10, and 1946.

Mirror the greats in multiple ways

  • Learning from an expert allows you to mirror the best habits and tactics. Finding different ways to watch, experience, and study experts builds a repertoire of techniques to learn something. Practically this can mean duplicating speech patterns (and speeches) of great speakers to improve your flow and lower your anxiety.  
  • Physiologically we engage types of mirror neurons which unconsciously help speed up our learning. Specifically it is the act of physically reproducing the technique you are learning which is most effective, rather than just passively observing.  

Commit and repeat

  • Planning your emotional commitment is key, it comes down to willpower and planning. If you can commit to a plan to make ‘errors’ and systematically ‘fail’ for a period long enough to acquire a skill, then you can overcome the emotional hurdle of learning something new. Repetition is essential to habit forming and skill acquisition, so make a practical plan to find dedicated time without distraction to focus on learning a subset chunk of your skill. Most of all, accept in yourself that you are a great public speaker (in the making), this self-perpetuating perception of self is a powerful tool.

‘It’s all about their perception of self. At some point very early on they (great musicians) had a crystallizing experience that brings the idea to the fore, that says, I am a musician. That idea is like a snowball rolling downhill.’

From the Talent Code

  • Some current theories are that practically you will need at least 20 hours to establish a skill (fun TedEd talk by Kaufman), and maybe 10,000 hours if you want intuitive expertise (Malcolm Gladwell, ‘Outliers’), but the reality is not that simple. Practically it matters what type of skill you are learning. To keep it simple, skills which have clear rules and cause-effect relationships are easier to learn and take less time (such as learning to speak at volume levels that others can hear clearly), v.s. skills with no clear rules (such as ad-lib humour that others actually find funny). So if you want to learn to speak loud and clear, this is a lot easier than learning to being funny. I think the science here is best captured by Daniel Kahneman and Klein on establishing intuitive expertise in relation to the learning context. Good news is that regardless of the type of skill, physiologically there is evidence that physically repeating new behaviour coats neurons in myelin, which helps neurons fire faster and perpetuates this behaviour. It’s why you never forget how to ride a bike. The same goes for your bad habits, they die hard because the myelin makes it easy to fire those neurons.    

True & immediate feedback

  • Practically you need to find learning conditions that give you real and immediate feedback, if not you are learning false cause-effect relationships. Imagine presenting to your grandma, she’s going to hang off your every word! This will teach you that your bad jokes are funny. So practice in real circumstances that amplify your anxiety to present, and receive feedback on the skills you are practicing. Only then will you establish true intuitive connections with your progress. A coach can also help on the spot – the best coaches of top athletes have been found to focus on small corrections in the moment, not on pep-talks or theoretical feedback.
  • Physiologically we develop intuition by learning cause-effect relationships, encoding this unconsciously. In The Talent Code, Daniel Coyle describes a study of a winning UCLA basketball coach’s effective technique to focus on small corrections and in the moment adjustments for immediate feedback.

While there are many fun articles about learning faster which I find not entirely grounded in science, initial research I discuss above makes some compelling arguments – you can learn anything with the right approach. Sure, some things you will learn faster than others, using adjacent or complementary skills. More than this, the way we have learned to learn is embedded in our education systems and values, which has fallen out of sync with the fast expanding possibilities and multi-dimensional lives of today. As business leaders seek talent and how to train co-workers for the future, and individuals seek to manage multiple phases of careers in our lives – learning to learn effectively is now a key question.

‘Learning how to learn is life’s most important skill.’

Tony Buzan

Once we accept that we can learn anything, what potential will this new mindset unlock? Next week in part 2 (here it is) I will consider the implications in relation to entrepreneurship and leadership. Subscribe so you don’t miss it!

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Ps. This post was inspired by my working lunch with Inna Tan in Manila, she is facing her fears and taking on learning challenging new skills to realize her dreams as an entrepreneur!


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