Author Archive: Brian

How to Learn Something New

The Learning Process

How many times have you thought, “Man (woman?), I wish I could learn how to play piano/karate/basket weaving (insert your own new hobby desire here, obviously).”

I know I do all the time. And a lot of times (read: all the time!) it’s a struggle to understand where to start, how to get into it, and what to do. It all looks daunting. There’s so much to learn about everything!

Step 1: Watch Limitless, get NZT.

Just kidding.

So what are the steps to learning something new? I struggle with this a lot, but I always come back to my tried and true methods for learning things. There IS a method to madness. Before I lay mine out, I would suggest reading some books on change, which is both a mental and emotional process. One of my favorites is Switch: How to Change Things When Change is Hard.

The Method

So let’s follow a simple method. Your first thought is “Wow I really want to learn this! Let’s do it!”. Then you start researching how to get started. You get easily overwhelmed with the amount of information, decide it’s not for you, and then you just turn the TV back and and kick your feet up.

Don’t do that! It’s really easier than it seems. Step one is to get started. Don’t worry about where you start, the key is to start learning some things, applying them, and writing them down. Begin organizing some thoughts on the matter by taking notes. The key here is to engage your brain and emotions into the new skill or hobby. Because when you do this, you create an emotional connection (a very strong driver of habits) as well as engage our ever-so-powerful subconscious mind.

You’ll probably still be overwhelmed and feel like you’ll never get it, but don’t worry about that yet. Push those thoughts out and just enjoy learning a few tidbits here or there and engage your mind as fully as you can into it. Disregard your plan to learn, how to go about things efficiently, and generally admit you know nothing about what you’re doing. This is always the first step.

  • Step 1: Engage in the activity

Once you start doing this, your emotions and your subconscious mind will be making some behind the scenes deals that you won’t realize. They’ll start acting on the new information and organizing, understanding, and developing an approach to the new inputs. This is what that part of the mind was designed to do. To maximize this, we need to engage regularly and consistently (say 5-10 minutes a day) to get that fire stoked. Then we must feed the power of that mind through rest and sleep. We have to take the time off and get enough sleep to allow the mind to start wrapping it’s little fingers around the concepts. It needs to create a new category and filter for this information, through which it will start understanding it better (this is a process called reticular activation). Sleeping is like an amplifier for the subconscious mind, and without sleep it will be like trying to run a marathon without training.

What you’ll find now, is after an initial period of time that may be a day or two up to a couple weeks, you will begin to see patterns and have understanding of this new jumble of information like you didn’t in the beginning. Your subconscious mind will begin feeding your conscious mind it’s work, and you’ll be able to consciously configure plans and understandings of the material. It is this part of the process that most of us (myself included) always think we need to start at, and when we can’t wrap our little conscious minds around it, get frustrated and quit. Don’t be that person, allow our brains to pick up things the way it’s naturally supposed to!

So the next step is to now take your conscious understanding and to begin to develop further ideas and plans around learning it. What do you know so far? What do you NOT know? And realize there will ALWAYS be things you DON’T KNOW that you don’t know. These will come later. But for now, we want to start constructing an organized plan for our new activity. First, what are your goals? What have you learned that you like and don’t like? Does anything about this hobby cross-pollinate with other things you have learned (this is an incredible way to advance the process that will be discussed later)? Create a plan that works for you.

  • Step 1: Engage in the activity
  • Step 2: Create an organized plan around the activity

Once you have a semblance of a plan, the next logical step is to start acting on that plan. This step is incredibly powerful and often misused. There is an optimal way to execute a plan, and it may not be what you think. Practice makes perfect is a commonly heard, but often misunderstood phrase. To get better at anything, obviously we must practice. But the key is the frequency of that practice, not it’s volume. For instance, two different approaches to learning something may be:

  • Practice new skill 4 hours every Saturday
  • Practice new skill 10 minutes every day

Which one is better? The first gives you 4 hours of practice a week. Wow, you will probably get way better, right? The second is only 70 minutes of practice a week. Ugh, that’s like, WAY LESS TIME. Well, that second one will allow you to learn something MUCH more quickly than the first. Why is that?

Because with the second method, you are using all the systems of change and learning to their maximum potential. These are a plan of attack, your subconscious mind, and your emotions. By constantly engaging these, we create new neural pathways much more quickly in the mind that form habits (emotions). Then, our subconscious mind is constantly receiving new information to further understanding of material, and it will work on this constantly for you throughout the day, and especially in your sleep (make sure you’re getting good quality sleep, which is a topic unto itself). Think of the subconscious mind as interest on an investment (cross-pollination of subjects going on here!). Daily practice is like compounding interest, whereas weekly practice is simple interest. You will get more out of your investment by compounding it. The investment is the skill, and the interest is the frequency of practice.

So, we need to create a frequency schedule. Not everyone has time every single day to practice something. But I would highly recommend not allowing more than 3 days to pass before practicing the skill again if you are serious about learning it. Start small, with 10-30 minutes of practice more frequently.

  • Step 1: Engage in the activity
  • Step 2: Create an organized plan around the activity
  • Step 3: Create a frequency of practice schedule, with no more than 3 days between practice sessions at 10-30 minutes of practice per session

Now we have our machine running. We’re hitting on all cylinders, getting our emotional minds engaged (creating desire and interest), our subconscious minds engaged (amplifying understanding), and our conscious minds (being able to actually execute the skill). Keep up this schedule until you come to your next “ah-ha”. Keep learning new things, keep practicing. Your mind will tell you what to do next very soon. Eventually, it will say, “hey, you should have been doing this all along, add this to your plan!” Planning is, and always will be, an iterative process, not a one-and-done idea. As you practice, a better plan will manifest itself, and so it’s time to revamp the plan.

  • Step 1: Engage in the activity
  • Step 2: Create an organized plan around the activity
  • Step 3: Create a frequency of practice schedule, with no more than 3 days between practice sessions at 10-30 minutes of practice per session
  • Step 4: Update your plan to include all new information you have

Now, you are traveling at about 50mph on the learning curve. You’re getting better, you’re understanding more deeply, you’re obtaining a level of mastery of the subject. How do you reach the next level? You NOW need to up the volume. Your mind is now growing stronger on the subject, and it needs more nutrition to feed it. The nutrition here is the volume of information and practice.

I would recommend first adding in additional days of practice before adding in more time each day. So if you had three days a week of practice, first increase it slowly until you can get to ideally seven days before increasing your amount of time each day (Note: this is dependent slightly on the type of activity; if it is a physical activity, you need to take into account the fact your body physically needs time to rest, so if it’s strenuous, you actually don’t want to get to seven days, and perhaps 3-5 days is the ideal frequency). So perhaps you’re practicing seven days a week now. It is at this time that you should increase the volume of time, so perhaps go to 30-60 minutes a day. Obviously this is individual to each person, so you’ll need to keep practicing to find your optimal amount of time you can stay engaged and actually learning. If you find yourself getting disinterested, note how much time you spent practicing and just move onto something else. This is your subconscious mind telling you it’s full of info for the day, and it’ll need a break of input to sort it all out.

  • Step 1: Engage in the activity
  • Step 2: Create an organized plan around the activity
  • Step 3: Create a frequency of practice schedule, with no more than 3 days between practice sessions at 10-30 minutes of practice per session
  • Step 4: Update your plan to include all new information you have
  • Step 5: Increase training frequency and information volume

Wow, NOW we’re getting somewhere. You’re probably a black belt at this point.

Not quite. Here we are again at another crossroads. You’ve probably learned something you didn’t know you didn’t know finally. Holy crap, is that embarrassing. You mean I’ve been practicing wrong the ENTIRE TIME? Don’t get disheartened. This “failure” is one of the, if not the biggest part of learning (Les Brown has some great speeches on this). You have reached an amount of understanding that allows you to look critically at what you’re doing and understand you’re doing it wrong. Have you wasted your time? Obviously not, look at how far you’ve come already! It’s at this time that it’s time to revamp the plan again. Add or subtract what you need to, keep training, and we’ll get to the next plateau.

  • Step 1: Engage in the activity
  • Step 2: Create an organized plan around the activity
  • Step 3: Create a frequency of practice schedule, with no more than 3 days between practice sessions at 10-30 minutes of practice per session
  • Step 4: Update your plan to include all new information you have
  • Step 5: Increase training frequency and information volume
  • Step 6: Revamp your plan again

The Madness

We’re at a point now where you’re fully engaged in this activity. You’ve created real neural pathways that keep you focused on it, learning new things, and getting better at physically executing the skill. Now that we’ve created the method, what’s the madness?

The madness is simply that it’s a never ending process. “Mastery”  is relative. Perfection cannot be obtained. And this always trips us up. We think we have to be perfect and we think mistakes mean we should quit.

If you change your mindset to one of never quitting, you will truly become a “Master”. This is merely a mindset of always learning, getting better, and accepting mistakes and failures as learning processes. As long as you know that you always have room for improvement, you will be on your way.

So what do you do during the madness period? You repeat Steps 5 and 6 as often as you need to. Constantly change your frequency of training and learning to optimize what works for you, and revamp your plan as often as needed to make sure you’re focusing on the right things.

You’ll find that what you’ll start noticing is that there is always a lagging part of your skill. In everything in life, we have a limiting factor that, unless improved, will not allow us to push forward. So the trick is to improve this part of the skill until you are better at it, then find your new limiting factor and work on that. That’s what is happening when you practice and revamp the plan.

Summary

So follow this plan and I promise you that you will find yourself able to learn new things as easily as anyone. The biggest step is Step 1. Get started, and you will figure it out along the way.

  • Step 1: Engage in the activity
  • Step 2: Create an organized plan around the activity
  • Step 3: Create a frequency of practice schedule, with no more than 3 days between practice sessions at 10-30 minutes of practice per session
  • Step 4: Update your plan to include all new information you have
  • Step 5: Increase training frequency and information volume
  • Step 6: Revamp your plan again
  • Repeat Steps 5 and 6 constantly as you find your limiting factors to continue perfecting your skill

A Tale of Happiness

Happiness

This infographic popped up today. What do I get out of it?

First, the facts are that there are certain parts of the world that are happier than others, as clearly explained in the infographic. Those parts are mainly in Europe, South America, and Eastern/Southeastern Asia. The unhappier parts are the USA and Canada, Africa, Australia, Russia, China, and various other scattered countries.

I believe immediate thoughts of a lot of people are “But America is the greatest country in the world! The rest of those that are unhappy are poor/undeveloped/insert any other comment here!”

Let’s take a step back. First, the DATA IS CLEAR. Second, why does status have to come into play here? And I believe that question is what we face in America.

We base our happiness on what we perceive makes others happy. In the media/social media world, this is all material possessions or perhaps certain experiences (read: meals people can’t stop taking pictures of!) people are having. We crave what those people have, thinking that is what makes them happy. Thus we set ourselves off on this mad race to obtain these things through any means necessary, often to the detriment of our own personal finances (there is no question we have a debt problem). We constantly turn our eyes everywhere besides ourselves, always feeling unfulfilled. In one way, this helps drive the country’s success. I’ll admit that having this drive makes people innovate and come up with ways to get what they want to make them happy. Sadly, it is only part of the equation.

The other part of the equation that we don’t do here in America (and I would bet is similar in many of those other countries of lower happiness) is actually take honest looks at ourselves and see what we want/need. We are taught here that are needs and wants are unnecessary. Many religions tout that only by serving others can we be happy. We constantly turn a blind eye to what our body and mind is trying to tell us, and we wonder why we can’t figure out why we’re not happy. This, I’m telling you, is crazy.

To begin to understand what makes us happy, we have to each individually look inwardly. What makes one person happy will not make another happy. We know this on the surface, but we never apply it to ourselves. It is as true as morning and night. Humans have an emotional system that is very highly linked to it’s mental and physical systems. Ignoring one of them is detrimental to the others. To make sure we are truly happy, we have to take care of ourselves physically (exercise, eat right), mentally (learning, challenges, games), and emotionally/spiritually (reflecting, being honest with emotions, keeping track of your needs/wants).

Physical Nurturing

We all know what this is. Some, but very few, actually do it. This includes exercise and nutrition. I would say more focus on the exercise than the nutrition, but nutrition (and actually exercise again) is making large strides into mainstream. It is well known that with 3-5 days of moderate exercise for at least 30 minutes will drastically improve the quality of your life from both your physiological responses (which affect physical, mental AND emotional/spiritual) and by reducing your risk of getting diseases which could later on affect the quality of life. Think of exercise as your free (mostly) insurance policy on living a longer, happier, healthier life.

Nutrition is the other side of this equation. In fact, I’d say that the split is 80% nutrition and 20% exercise. See, all the studies on exercise fail to account for the differences in nutrition. You could exercise every day of your life, but if you eat low quality food, you’ll only be able to improve your well being 20%. Granted, you CAN improve yourself by just exercising, but why do something half-arsed?

Eating right, which means getting the right needs OF YOUR OWN BODY (this is a very individual thing, much like the overall concept of happiness!) with regards to macro (protein, fat, carbohydrate) and micro (all vitamins and minerals) nutrients. There is a lot to study here, but to simplify it: eat whole, natural foods from the outside aisle of the grocery stores (veggies, fruits, meats, dairy) in a wide variety. You need so many different nutrients, and these are prevalent in some foods but lacking in others, so eating a rich and varied diet is the only way to ensure you’re getting the maximum amount of nutrients. You can supplement to help you, but in general try to eat healthy and varied foods.

Packaged foods and most foods from fast food restaurants are devoid of MANY micro nutrients. Macro-wise, you’ll be getting your needs all day with no problem. So why do you feel sluggish and bad after downing a days worth of fried chicken fingers? You’re getting a massive influx of macro nutrients that your body has to metabolize, but it doesn’t have the helper micro nutrients to allow it’s systems to function properly. Essentially it’s like putting diesel in a car that needs regular gas; both of them on a macro level are fuel, but only the regular has the right micro make-up to run your car.

Take care of yourself physically, and you will be on step 1 of 3 to happiness.

Mental Nourishing

Mental nourishing is arguably my favorite past time. I love to read/learn/think. I can do it while I do other things, such as working out or bantering with friends. We all think daily, but it’s how we exercise our minds and our mental abilities that help with our happiness.

Our minds need to be constantly challenged and fed. Just like our physical body needs exercise and nutrition, so too does our mind need these counterparts. For the mind, exercise is learning new things, and nutrition is learning the things that we are interested in.

We actually do this quite a bit in America. We have unlimited access (like most of the world does now as well) to information on the internet and elsewhere. Simply by pulling up a Wikipedia or something similar and reading some new stuff do we exercise our mind. Reading, thinking critically, and anything that forces us to learn something new is mind exercise. Our mind craves this in a primal way. It is hardwired to want to learn more. By disregarding this primal function, our mind is being deprived of something it needs. This cannot be, and is not, good.

Second, our mind “nutrition” is learning things we are interested in. The reason this is important is that now there is a drive to learn something new, and learn something we want. This keeps us focused and energized. This is what drives us to choose a major in college or a career in life or just a new hobby. Think about a time when you were learning about something you were truly interested in. Think about how much more connected you were to that on a mental level than when you were just learning some subject in school you weren’t too interested in. Both exercise the mind, but the focus on your interests nourishes the mind in a more fulfilling way.

Am I saying only learn things you are interested in? Nope! We all have a need to learn a wide variety of subjects, especially to live in a world as complex as the one we’ve created for ourselves. Exercise and nutrition go hand in hand. So spend time doing both to help reach step 2 of 3 to happiness.

Emotional/Spiritual Cultivation

This, I believe, is our number one killer in happiness levels.

To cultivate our emotional/spiritual side is as necessary as the other two. It is 1/3 of the formula to happiness. Do you only want to be 2/3’s happy? I hope not! So what is going on here that we are missing?

First of all, I believe that we think of emotions as detrimental. We think they will ruin our chances in business, prevent us from reaching our goals, and whatever other reason we may personally come up with. There is truth behind there, as we must be able to discipline our emotions with our mind (mental exercise anyone?!) to make sure our emotions don’t take us over. The reason for this is that emotions are VERY POWERFUL DRIVERS of our lives. But that is why we must HARNESS them for good rather than ignore them entirely.

Also, emotions are an absolute natural part of life. If you’re ignoring a natural function of your body, your depriving it of nutrition. Your body has a need for emotional nutrition, think of it as an existential micro nutrient. We don’t ingest emotion (well, maybe we eat our feelings over a bowl of ice cream) but rather we have to allow it to flow through us naturally. We must address it and not ignore it. The same is true for the spiritual side of life; they are highly connected but a bit different in that the spiritual side is connected to your beliefs about the bigger picture of life and life beyond.

The spiritual mistake I believe we are making is believing it is spiritually nourishing to ignore our emotional needs for the needs of others. These two are NOT mutually exclusive. They are mutually INCLUSIVE, along with everything I have already written about. Yes, helping others and giving up some of ourselves is a nourishing part of life that we must take part in. Being selfish ignores this part of our life. But the opposite of that is completely ignoring our own needs and wants. And I believe that needs and wants are what we need educated on.

Needs are essential to staying alive. These are are food (nutrition), shelter, security, connection. Things that if we lack we immediately begin to feel it like a nagging in our inner mind. What we don’t realize is that what I have written about above are all NEEDS. We NEED to have good nutrition and physical health, we NEED to have our minds exercised and challenged, and we NEED to address our emotions. You cannot turn these switches off (haven’t you seen Equilibrium?). By ignoring these, we have already broken the chain of happiness, and no amount of want-getting will cure that. But wants are not bad at all!

Wants are the joys in life. It’s our interests, hobbies, jobs, or whatever we crave to enhance our lives. It’s like an amplifier. While you need to have all the basic needs to be happy, once you have those met you need to address wants to continue to be happy. Life is a process and not an event, and therefore it takes constant work and inputs to make it rewarding and fulfilling.

Now before you say “this isn’t me”, I want you to take an honest look at yourself, and maybe then get a second opinion. We are VERY GOOD at convincing ourselves nothing is wrong. We can go years thinking we’re doing everything right, because our mind is a powerful thing that just tries to help us survive in any way it can. As I said, emotions are powerful, and if we’ve bottled powerful emotions, we essential block our connection to them. This leads us to believe we don’t have anything wrong. If you don’t find yourself feeling a bit emotional (save anger, this one is a manifestation of ignoring the others) then you’re likely blocking them. Please explore it until you can find out what’s going on.

 

The Problem

The problem is we try to pop in wants in place of exercise and eating right, in place of our emotions, and in place of what our TRUE needs and wants are. We look at others and see what they are doing, assuming that is a NEED, and go for it. But you cannot compare yourself to someone else, because you are NOT that person. Your self is a unique combination of physical of physical, mental, and emotional/spiritual needs that are unlike any other. Only by exploring what those are can you truly reach step 3 of happiness.

The Solution

The solution is simple: begin being honest with yourself about what you need. This takes becoming very introspective. Review your thoughts and feelings. Get help if you need it. Journal on a regular basis and review that to see if you recognize patterns of feelings and behaviors. Start eating right and exercising. Read some books. By putting all of these things together, you can create your own happiness.

So back to why some of the countries who are undeveloped/poor are happy? Because they are addressing what truly matters to them in life. Their free time, their hobbies, their friends, their life experiences. They aren’t constantly trying to fill voids with a material item, likely because those material items are much harder to come by. It’s actually quite cruel for us to live in abundance, because we can so easily try to replace our needs with wants and forget who we are.

You may also be wanting to point out that some of the other countries are unhappy for other reasons. I get this. There are turmoils, wars, and injustices going on all over. That will affect the overall happiness of that country. But I believe that those things are happening because there is an imbalance in those countries where those in power are people who are ignoring needs for wants of power and acceptance. If everyone learned to take care of themselves first, the world would be a better place.

So stop looking at what others have before addressing your needs. We can use others as ways to explore the various wants in life, but never to the detriment of our needs. Life will not be fair in this regard, and we cannot all obtain the same wants, but we can all take care of our needs and be happy with the small wants we get rewarded along the way. Always learn from everything. What makes those other countries more happy than the US? Likely the more relaxed emphasis on jobs/careers/success and personal time. Be grateful (gratitude journal!) and be smart.

Afterward: Happiness Checklist

Here’s a quick checklist to becoming happy based on what I just wrote about:

  • Physical (need help? get a personal trainer!)
    • Exercise –  minimum 3-5 days a week
    • Nutrition – eat healthy whole foods with good combinations of micro/macro nutrients
  • Mental (need help? get a tutor or get into a continuing education program!)
    • Learning new things
    • Learning things that are interesting to you
  • Emotional/Spiritual (need help? see a therapist or find a trusted friend to open up to!)
    • Addressing your own emotional needs
    • Connecting with others and helping them address their emotional needs
    • Spiritual practice (based on your own beliefs and not those imposed on you by others)