I'm Just Stupid, I'll Never Get It...
The title of this post is a common fallacy that people struggle with and let block them from learning effectively.
I want to write a bit about how I’ve approached learning and how to learn effectively. I don’t claim to be the world’s foremost expert in learning but I’ve generalized my process to things like:
- Fortune 100 R&D Power Engineering at a global leader
- Software Engineering
- Handwalking — Watch me do stairs HERE
- Zero to Backflip in 3 hours
I’ve compiled the information in this post from books written by Harvard professors, Nobel prize winners, biographies, and I like to believe came to the following conclusions based on scientific evidence.
Then, I distilled it through my own experiences, BUT I am not attached to any of these ideas. I am attached to the truth and I would invite you to be so as well.
Now, before we take a look at learning principles, first a few notes to frame our conversation…
### Anything can be Learned
I think of learning like stacking rocks. It is mechanistic. I define it as:
Rewiring the neurons in your brain into networks–or patterns–that act in concert to perform a function, or functions, through feedback driven stimulation.
Now consider the implications of that definition. It reminds me of a well written function in programming; the more generic your neural networks are… the more useful work they can do for you–and on more type of activities.
From a purely physical standpoint, the real trick to learning is constructing high quality neuron networks that mesh together into a greater whole. Constructing quality networks translates into quality thinking which translates into a quality life.
Before we get started I’m going to touch on a few concepts that are pre-requisites to learning.
In my experience going through school and tutoring others is that the single biggest block to learning is insecurity. People often compare themselves to others without taking into account the years of intentional or unintentional brain shaping those others have experienced.
I avoid wasting time feeling insecure or stupid–but some times I feel that way, I choose to get on with it rather than wasting energy in a non helpful state. State is everything, you will learn nothing in a state of fear and anxiety. So make sure to manage this. We all feel anxious sometimes.
The key is to notice this has nothing to do with your intellectual abilities and everything to do with your sense of self-worth, social standing, and growth mindset vs. fixed mindset.
Instead of asking: ‘why don’t I get it..,’ just relax and carry on. What am I missing? What are the people who do get it doing differently?
Ego Is The Enemy
When tutoring my older brother, my sister, and my college roommates in math I noticed they all struggled due to one cause: insecurity.
A mental state of anxiety will block you more effectively then NFL linemen. As your fear response centers active resources are shunted from higher level thinking to a more primal response–fight, flight, or freeze.
Do your best to be like a baby. Babies do ‘stupid’ things and are utterly oblivious. You and I learned how to feel insecure. Conciously cultivate filters for negative emotional noise.
View learning as a mechanistic activity. A process. Assume that, whenever you try something new, that you will suck. When I learned how to backflip I looked like a fool. When I went to my first interview I was embarrassed, but I never blamed–myself because I knew sucking was part of the process.
Try embracing this belief: suck first, be great later.
Insecurity Comes from Cognitive Error
Say Bill and I are learning to bowl together. Bill is improving quickly and I am getting gutter balls.
Why is that?
Please, let’s not insult Bill by making an assumption that he is a ‘natural!’ It disregards all his past experience that culminated into him being good at bowling. That experience doesn’t have to be bowling! Bill might just have better general purpose neuronal networks from other finesse related sports.
You can’t never truly make a direct comparison between your performance and other people without taking into account their entire life experience. And, this is (tragically) impossible to do–because you cannot see inside their head and see how they have cultivated their thinking. Every thought we have is the clip of the shears: strengthening one nueral network by trimming away another.
The cognitive bias that insecure people fall prey to is: all you see, is all there is. Our brains are primed to jump to conclusions about causation. Resist this urge and take in the bigger picture.
You brain has the same potential as any ‘smart’ person you meet. Remember the following.
1 Other brains are made of nearly identical components
2 These components are developed by prior experiences
3 Continuing development leads to inequality in performance over time
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Stay aware of the associations your brain makes. If you have a negative initial experience–and you don’t reframe it–it will develop into a limiting belief that will actively block you.
This is a cognitive fallacy. This fallacy will lead to false assumptions such as: other people are naturally gifted and I am not.
Often these beliefs are invisible, so use your past and other people like stack traces to hunt them down. and squash these brain bugs.
Think of it this way, when you program, you look for code smells. You should do the same with your brain. Treat your brain like the codebase for Google or Facebook.
Neuronal ‘smells’… it’s a thing, I swear!
Note: There are many cognitive errors. Research them and guard against them. Nobel Prize winner Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking Fast and Slow is an excellent practical introduction.
This is a complex topic and unraveling insecurity requires a lot of digging. I recommend Awaken the Giant Within by Tony Robbins as a practical introduction to seizing control of your insecurity. Other than that all I can offer you in the scope of this article is: have courage, and take baby steps.
Ego is the Enemy is also the title of a great book by Ryan Holiday. Check him out to learn more about this topic.
Remove Self = Be Rational
Here is something for your mental toolbox: imagine you are an alien anthropologist looking down at humanity. Look at the multitudes. Would there be much distinction from one human to another?
One human-ape is a little hairier, a little louder, or decorates their ‘nest’ with more objects than the other… but is there much of a distinction, fundamentally, from one human-ape to another human-ape?
From that perspective, no, I don’t think so. But if you said yes… then imagine a species of technologically advanced octopuses, do you think the biologic differences would be obvious to you?
Our brains are far more alike then they are different. Neurons from one brain to another are nearly identical. 99% of what is in Einstein’s raw biology is inside YOU.
Genius is a Myth Propagated by the Insecure
I have yet to find a case of ‘genius’ without years of unexamined effort or special circumstances behind it. Genius is a relativistic oversimplification based on lack of information about the lifecycle and experiences that lead to certain baby human-apes development.
Consider Einstein and Mozart. They are not special in their biology. What distinguishes them is their consistent effort over years training their brains and refining their neuronal networks on a specific vector. In english: these two people dedicated their entire lives to their fields and only saw results after two decades of work. When was the last time you spent twenty years moving in the same direction?
If Mozart and Einstein are geniuses at all, then they are geniuses of dedication.
I would argue that Mozart was actually slow given 1) the sheer amount of practice and 2) the amount of privileged training he received from the world’s best court composers. He was literally mentored by the best court composers of his time!
People often tell my sister she is a talented artist–and she is amazing. But I remember she used to be terrible. Her drawings weren’t any more ‘inspired’ then any other four year old with a crayon. The difference is, she refined her skills. She committed.
The most common obstacle to learning is the person in the mirror and the common belief life is outside of your control. You are a boat on the ocean. Sure, you have to ride the waves and catch the wind but the responsibility of your progress is up to you.
If the wind dies, then get out the oars and row.
We use words like ‘genius’ and ‘talent’ to let ourselves ‘off the hook’ so we don’t examine our own shortcomings. Realize this belief is rooted in fear and insecurity and that your brain seeks security because it has an evolutionary bias to do so.
Next time you see a ‘genius’ recognize it is simply obsessive dedication and smart training.
Now. On to the actual principles of learning.
### Principle 1: Favor Principles Over Methods
For any skill there a few key pillars that lie at the core. When you are learning something new, don’t focus on the specifics of what is being taught. Look for the underlying 1 or 2 ideas that tie them altogether.
Focus on the essential and throw the rest in the trash.
This is how I made my brother (who is half a decade older than me) and my dad refuse to play Age of Empires with me, at 12, by focusing on resource management and battlefield initiative. That’s it: I focused on my economy and was aggressive.
I knew my brother was the weaker player between the two so I’d attack him early. Instead of attacking my undefended territory my dad would rush to my brothers aid and of course my next attack would be against his undefended workers. I’d exhaust them, running back and forth, using their natural instinct to help each other against them. Their attention focused on trying to defend two locations their economies went undeveloped. Meanwhile every spare ounce of effort on my end went to investing in more farms, more miners, because I knew that I’d reach a point of critical mass and turn the engine of my economy from growth towards war. Then I win.
In college my roommates stopped playing Deadliest Warrior with me. I focused on 2 characters, the quickest and most fragile, and only used them. This meant as my skill progressed I wouldn’t hit a ceiling. My roommates constantly changed characters to find the right ‘one’ they could beat me with and the skill gap just grew wider.
The right attention on the few important things equals victory. Look for those things and then invest in them completely.
A good programmer is lazy. So, is a good learner.
This was how I procrastinated my way through highschool with, usually, straight A’s. It was how I was on the honor roll all four years in college and only attended 20-30% of my classes. How I had the tackling record at my highschool.
I remember in algebra I was pestering the teacher about something, and he asked me, basically what my deal was, I knew how to apply the ‘equation.’ That wasn’t the point! I didn’t want to memorize the equation. I wanted to understand so I didn’t have to.
So, I could generalize!
On the tree of knowledge there are a lot of leaves, but only one root. Don’t get distracted, get yourself in the dirt and start digging.
Spend time upfront struggling and looking stupid on the basics so you can look smart later.
By chance, early on, I learned that frontloading my efforts on concepts let me simplify and chunk ideas together; therefore generalizing my understanding.
Instead of memorizing this equation or that equation in math I understood the bigger picture. This meant everything I learned added to everything else and I could tie concepts together into. I wasn’t siloed.
Don’t memorize recipes, unless you are only going to do something once, instead learn how to create recipes.
It means you understand.
Tool: Arguing Ad Absurdum
In math there is a concept of taking the limits of a function. Which just means looking at the behavior of a function and asking what happens if x goes to +/- infinity or goes to zero. By looking at the extremes of a function’s behavior you can get a feel for the trend of its behavior. This is invaluable and the same idea can be applied to any argument or premise.
When faced with a new idea, I always ask: where is this going? What is the trend? What is the breadth of behavior I can expect from this new idea?
Look at the extremes. Argue Ad Absurdum.
Principal 2: Committment and Incremental Gains
In his seminal book Outliers Malcolm Gladwell examines how extremophiles, like Bill Gates, came to be where they are. What he found was that tiny advantages over many years gave them the ‘edge’ at every stage of life. This lead to further advantages, which lead to still further advantages culminating in a massive advantage over time.
For example, in hockey the oldest players (born in January) are the largest kids in their age group and the most coordinated. This means they get more playing time, which means, they attend more select camps which means that by the time they come of age they are vastly superior to the youngest kids in their year. This is why the majority of professional hockey players are born in the same months of the year.
This is the power of incremental advantages over time.
You don’t win in life with some giant daring move–you win with small paper-cut type attacks on life.
It is the same with learning. To your brain, all new things require rewiring; your brain needs to physically change itself (the importance of sleep cannot be overstated). There is no distinction between learning guitar, walking on your hands, or learning abstract concepts. They all require you to form neural networks.
I can’t overstate this.
Next time you get stuck, think of the topic in question like doing pullups. If you’d never done pullups and someone asked you to do 20–would that make sense? No, you’d have to train, build up endurance over time.
Similarly with your brain you need to ‘build up’ your understanding of pre-requisite topics to understand the target topic.
Spend the time upfront to embed the core and foundational things into your brain. This is an investment that will always pay off.
Principal 3: Develop a Method
The method I use to learn is something I call DISE. This is very similar to Tim Ferriss’ DSSS approach.
I won’t spend too much time on it here, but look it up and consider it. If you prefer, develop your own approach.
Principal 4: Harness State
State is critical to assimilating information. You need to stay calm and analytical when breaking things down. Be relaxed when figuring things out. And get excited when putting things together.
When Dissecting Use Your Alien Brain
When dissecting remove yourself from the problem. I imagine myself as a vast alien intelligence looking down on the earth. Then considering the issue at hand. I turn it around and look at it. Stay rational. Detach yourself when analyzing
Stay Calm, Relaxed, and Curious
It is so key to be relaxed and curious. For me this comes from the simple belief that learning is just a mechanistic process. I simply ‘logic’ myself into emotional control. Once, I’m calm all I need to connect my past experiences to the new concept and viola I learn it.
This process is unique to each of our environmental and experiential inheritances so there will be disparity in learning speeds for certain concepts for certain people. Relax. Do what is necessary for you to understand.
Imagine that your past experiences form a landscape of lego blocks. A new topic is like a series of lego blocks you are trying to attach but you might not have all the block you need to have this new thing fit with what is there. Sometimes you need to go and fill in the gaps before it all ‘clicks’ into place.
Get Physical and Get Excited
When I come to a new understanding I make an effort to get excited–even if the material isn’t. I start talking fast and gesticulating wildly. You might find me dancing around with my laptop singing or shouting when I get something. I’m trying to create an emotional context with which to anchor the concept that I have just assimilated… by acting like a child.
Emotion is a primary anchor of determining importance and indexing in the human memory. If you don’t believe me just think about what you remember from your childhood. Chances are it’s a trauma or Christmas or something exciting. Not what you had for lunch on Tuesday that one day in October when you were five.
The importance of learning the fundamentals cannot be overstated.
Consider that most people go through life without learning life fundamentals. The basics of how to grow, how to sleep, how to move their bodies, and how to nourish themselves.
Don’t play around with the basics. In this article I’ve put forward some basic components to learning. Each of these topics could use their own book (and most of them have their own books). What I suggest you do is start with understanding your brain and how it works.
When you begin to see yourself–at least when learning–as a ‘machine’ that you can adjust–your ego withers. After all does it make logical sense to direct anger at a badly programmed computer? No.
Don’t direct negative emotion towards yourself. If you’re frustrated it is likely because you’ve been badly programmed.
Time to start refactoring.
 Thinking Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman