How to Learn Anything on Your Own

I’ve been reading Robert Greene’s “Mastery” for the last couple of days and I like it a lot. It may be his best book yet. In a nutshell, the book is about how to excel at something, be it writing, physics, playing an instrument or boxing. In typical Greene fashion, he looks at numerous case studies of historical masters, to extract the common underlying principles of their success, giving you a starting point for your own journey to mastery.

One thing Greene really stresses is the importance of finding the right teacher for what he calls the “apprenticeship phase”. I completely agree with the idea, but there is one minor problem: what if you regularly choose to learn things that are so outlandish, there is simply no good teacher around?

If you are a lunatic by nature, like me, that can pose real problems. I don’t really live in a backwater town — I was born close to Frankfurt in Germany, and have spent the last couple of years in Munich; both rather big, international cities. Even so, it has always been difficult to find teachers for whatever craziness is currently ruling my life.

It started with skateboarding when I was a little boy — not a big phenomenon at the time in Germany, to say the least. As a dorky teenager, I really got into goth metal, but I couldn’t find too many guitar teachers specializing in that, either. And in my mid-twenties, I fell completely in love with Brazilian Jiu Jitsu, a sport that was basically unheard of at the time in Germany. Eventually, I moved to the States for two years, to get at least the basics straight. Keep in mind, this was all pre-YouTube!

Even my current dabbling in blogging could be seen from this point of view. It’s a very new medium, and I hardly know anyone else who blogs, let alone any pro bloggers (none I have regular access to, at least.)
So the reality looks like this: every skillset outside the norm, you will have to learn by yourself — unless you are willing and able to relocate often enough to master these skills. But for many people, at least initially, that isn’t really an option. The million-dollar question then becomes: how can you get good at something — master something, even — without access to a teacher?

The answer: in order to become very good at something, you can’t just focus on your topic of choice — you must become an expert at learning itself. This means understanding what the key elements of learning are, how they influence one another and how to combine them. It sounds like a lot of extra work, and it is. But if you go through this once, and focus on becoming an expert learner rather than a specialist at something, you will have gained the ability to milk this formula, again and again, for years to come — no matter what you set your mind on.

Learning how to learn is the closest thing in life to a superpower.

Henceforth, I present to you my current theory on learning, not as you will find it in a psychology textbook, but with a focus on “this actually works and makes a difference for me.” There are four key elements to this theory, and I’ll describe them in turn.

The elements of learning

1. The Aliveness Principle – Doing

The “aliveness principle” is something I borrowed from a martial arts teacher I very much admire, Matt Thornton. It basically states that in order to learn something, you actually need to spend a majority of your time practicing your target activity. So if you want to become a great boxer, hitting the heavy bags is all fine and good , but there is no way around doing full-contact sparring on a very regular basis. And if you want to become a great musician, studying music theory is very important, but playing your instrument is absolutely critical. You get the picture. No type of supportive activity will ever make up for practicing your target activity. This is where it starts — this is how you reach your destination!

As a result, adhering to the aliveness principle — i.e. DOING your target activity — always comes first, even without any source of external instruction. You CAN start playing the guitar today — just get a guitar and start making noise. There is no good reason to put it off any longer. In fact, doing so is highly counterproductive. Even assuming all guitar teachers were suddenly sent to Mars (as punishment for teaching “Smoke on the Water” to legions of aspiring guitar students), you would eventually figure out the basic chords and strumming patterns all by yourself. Given enough time (years, usually), you could become pretty decent at playing.

All that just by DOING your target activity on a regular basis, and for a very long time. Progress will be slow, but it’ll come.

2. The Source of Knowledge – Receiving

That being said, you’ll want to find the best source of technical input for your project. Ideally, this would be a real person, who, after many years of practice, has already mastered your target activity. But since the premise of this article is teaching yourself, you need to find the next best thing. It’s impossible to say what that may be in your case — it might be watching the right how-to videos on YouTube, or reading certain books; it might entail enrolling in an online class to learn more about your subject.

It doesn’t really matter which of these mediums you will end up using. What DOES matter is learning to determine whether or not a source is suitable.

The three criteria by which you should decide are:

  • A holistic approach over specialized instruction
  • A strong emphasis on the framework
  • A willingness to point out details to the uninitiated

Let’s take a closer look at these:

a) Holistic approach over segmented instruction

This means you want to choose a source of instruction that gives you a complete, yet somewhat superficial take on the field. Someone who knows the territory will draw you a map to make things clearer for you. That doesn’t mean it is going to be a very detailed map from the very start, though, as too much detail would overwhelm you. However, it does need to be a complete map.
What you have to avoid at this point — and at all costs — is any kind of specialized instruction, focusing on just one aspect of the territory. It is tempting to fall for that early on, because it will allow you to feel like an expert early on. Resist that need to feel important and cool, and go with the general instruction first.

b) Strong emphasis on the framework

It is not enough to find a source of instruction that is holistic, though. There are many sources out there that attempt to cover all the bases, and still they do a horrible job of teaching you. Why’s that, you ask? Because these sources provide you with all the elements, but no framework. It is simply not enough to be presented with a select number of moves — or tricks, or licks, or any other kind of smaller units that make up the building blocks in your field. These elements also need to be organized according to certain underlying principles and hierarchies that exist in every field. If you can’t access that level of deeper organization — either because the source is unable to communicate it or they’re simply too lazy to point it out — find a different source, quick.

c) Willingness to point out details to the uninitiated

So far, we have preferred zooming out over zooming in; we opted for a source giving us a complete overview and explaining to us the framework behind things. This is great and highly necessary. But whenever your instructional source moves down to the micro level — to actually teach you how to do XYZ — the game changes. Now your source needs to switch gears and zoom in, i.e. point out all the little details that make you better and more efficient at doing something. Many sources, it must be noted, are unwilling to go to that level of extreme detail: again, either because they are too lazy to do so or because they enjoy the gap between the initiated and the uninitiated, and want to maintain the distance. If you encounter such a useless source, turn away and find a stickler for detail instead.

3. The High Pressure Environment – Testing

Okay, now we are DOING our target activity on a daily basis and also RECEIVING high-quality technical instruction from a well-chosen source. That’s already pretty good, and by doing so, you can get to a pretty damn impressive level at something. But if you want to become extraordinary at your activity — and all by yourself — you’ll need a third factor in place. High pressure environment testing is what it’s all about. It’s one thing to practice the guitar by yourself every day, or to fiddle around with friends (doing), but standing on a stage and putting your skills on the line (testing) is another thing entirely. Some more examples: to write 500 words for yourself every day is a great way of making sure you spend enough time on your target activity, but it’s a whole different ballgame to publish your work and get feedback from strangers who couldn’t care less about you as a person. The most obvious example is, of course, sports. Every athlete will tell you that doing great in the practice room is not at all the same as performing in a tournament. This is why most people don’t like to compete — they simply can’t take the reality check.

This extra dose of reality is vital, though. It will tell you what your weak spots are, and what you can do to work on them. It will also teach you how we have a natural tendency to rationalize and gloss over certain uncomfortable truths — at least until you’re tested and can’t help but expose them. Henceforth, make high pressure testing a very regular thing. If you don’t, you will never push past your limits, and you’ll get stuck with the few things you already know and do well. Yes, that is comfortable, but it’s also a death sentence for growth.

4. The Outsider’s Perspective – Understanding

We are doing the target activity a lot now; we are receiving superb instruction, and we are testing in a high pressure environment on a regular basis — what the heck do we STILL NEED?! Just one more thing: I want you to know thyself. Not in a new age kind of way, but in a meaningful way. What ultimately distinguishes a good self-learner from a fantastic one is the ability to take a step back and look at what you are doing as though you were someone else. Only by detaching yourself from the process will you be truly able to identify those final missing pieces.

But aren’t we already accomplishing this by putting ourselves in high pressure environments? No, not at all. Quite the opposite actually: the high pressure environment forces you to be even more focused on your target activity and gives you even less of an opportunity to take a mental step back. It comes with the pressure. If only we could simultaneously be in the audience AND on stage, to see ourselves perform while not being the performer!

Fortunately, you can — by taking a video of yourself while you’re performing under high pressure and then LATER watching it with an analytical mind – AFTER you’ve calmed down from your high pressure performance. Trust me, video analysis is something that will rock your world if you allow it to do so. It can be tricky at times — at first, you will be appalled at some of the stupid things you do while performing under pressure. But that’s the kind of embarrassment that’ll prompt you to change — and develop — in record time.

There are some target activities for which video analysis doesn’t work (e.g. writing). But don’t take that as an excuse; there is usually a work-around. For a writer, that could mean having your work read to you aloud by someone else, and through that unfamiliar voice creating a sense of separation that wasn’t there before — same concept. Ultimately, it’s not about the medium, but about gaining a true understanding of your status quo.

Okay, there you have it — my current take on self-learning. Make sure you have all your bases covered and you’ll be able to teach yourself anything (that is, given enough diligence, patience and trust in the process).

Happy self-learning!