If you've used some sort of learning techniques all your life, the core principles of learning should not mislead you.
Even so, we get hoodwinked and it's important to look at why we struggle with learning. Here's what I've learned about learning so far.
My wife cringed when she saw my first drawings on my iPad.
And I'd been drawing for well over thirty years—and many of those years as a professional cartoonist.
We were in Amsterdam, conducting a meetup when a couple of the participants pulled out their iPads.
They were showing off their work that they'd done in the cartooning course. I was impressed with their work, but the iPad hardly got my attention. After all, I'd bought two or three iPads over the years, and they all ended up as glorified e-readers. Even so, their work was so remarkable that I decided to buy one for myself.
But the moment I did a few of my first drawings, my wife, Renuka, made a face. She didn't say anything, but I could see she wasn't impressed. It seems like I'd taken quite a few steps back with this new tool.
Learning is odd. It should be logical, even progressive. Which is why we feel that we're bad at learning. But if we recognise what's really happening, we can move forward steadily. In this series we look at three sets of phenomena that I've personally encountered while learning.
1- New learning doesn't take you forward at first. It sets you back.
2- The learning phase is different from the application phase.
3- Getting to fluency isn't as difficult as it first seems.
Principle 1: New learning doesn't take you forward at first. It sets you back.
One of the toughest lessons when learning to drive a car, is stopping midway up a slope.
You stop and then have to reengage the gear, and the car seems to slip backwards. It's a sickening feeling, almost like you're going to roll backwards instead of going up the slope. And this backward lurch is often what we feel when learning something new.
New learning doesn't seem to push us forwards—instead we fall a bit back
If we're learning a new skill, like learning to write, or cook, or paint, our brain tells us we should be moving forward, but all we feel is struggle. Almost immediately we feel like we're hopeless at learning. It seems odd to believe that learning seems regressive, and yet we understand the logic.
When learning something brand new, there is too much to understand and to apply. It's almost certain that we will forget steps, make wrong turns and feel like we're slipping on the slope. But just as quickly, we're able to reengage the gear and make progress.
What's largely unsettling is that a single course can feel like an endless slope
On the cartooning course, for example, the participants will start off the week largely unsteady. By the time Wednesday comes along, their cartoons might look worse than the week before. It's only by Thursday or Friday that they seem to recover and there's a clear sense of progress over the previous week.
If a course is six months long, this lurch back and forth seems permanent. Yet, it's precisely what learning is all about and at first it bugged me a lot. And as you'll notice, at this point, I talk about my camera a fair bit because I feel that back and forth all the time.
I seem to get to a stage where I think I've mastered the menu items on one button, and then it's seemingly back to square one on the second set of buttons.
Over the years, I've learned that the back and forth movement is normal
We may momentarily lose faith in our ability to learn, but if we understand that it's something that occurs with almost unfailing consistency, we are able to keep going. And that was my first unusual lesson about learning.
Which takes us to the second part: The learning phase is different from the application phase.
Principle No: 2: The learning phase is different from the application phase.
If you join an article writing course, should you expect to finish at least a few blog posts by the end of the course?
It's not an unrealistic or even unreasonable expectation, is it? If you're about to do a writing course, it's more than likely you should progress enough to have at least a few blog posts before the course ends. And this was my second epic battle with learning. I'd expect to learn so that I could apply the concepts instantly.
I remember when I first started in marketing, and I was feeling out of my depth
I knew a lot about cartooning, graphic design and even how to run a moderately successful business. But my first marketing client was a sofa store. I'd never sold or marketed sofa stores in my life. Which is why I did what any sane person would do: I signed up for a course.
Not one, but three courses
I assured the sofa store owner that I'd be attending the courses and we'd sit down and work out his business strategy the moment we got back. To him, as well, it wasn't unrealistic or unreasonable at all. There's a vast chasm between the learning and application stage. Which is precisely why a client may not end up with half a dozen blog posts during an article writing course.
When you break up an article writing course you get markers along the way
Like a car journey, you go from one marker to the next. You may start with outlines, then move to the First Fifty Words, progressing week after week into different elements such as topics, sub-topics, objections, examples, case studies, headlines, structure and finally the next step. If the course is well designed, you'll get progressively better in phases.
Your education might go like this:
A + B
A + B + C
A + B + C + D
Do you see why you're not able to write the articles for the blog yet?
You would do fine if your blog post only consists of A + B or A + B + C because you've progressively moved ahead and learned those bits well. However, to write the article in its entirety, you're likely to need A + B + C + D + E + F + G + H, going all the way to J.
Without you repeatedly building on those elements, all you've got is an incomplete article. To expect to have all those articles on your blog while doing the course seems logical, but when you tear it apart, you realise that the logic falls apart quite quickly.
No matter what you learn, your brain assimilates the information in bits and pieces
And you already know that's how your brain works, based on past experiences. You also know that even when the learning is meticulously well organised in A, A + B, A + B + C, there's still a chance that you'll miss something, or misunderstand it.
Which makes instant application quite the challenge, doesn't it? Whether you're learning how to write headlines, learning a new yoga pose or taking on Photoshop, the scenario is remarkably similar.
For instance, I am going to the South Island to learn to take better landscape pictures.
I'm not “going to take” better landscape pictures. I'm “learning to take them”. Which means that my skill is going through a transformation, and in time that transformation will result in better photos.
But then landscape photography is complex.
As is the process of learning to write articles
Someone who does the article writing course will get to the point where they're far, far superior to who they were when they started the course. But because it's complex, they need to keep writing. They improve dramatically, but because of the complexity, there are more aspects to practice.
Anyone who joins the course to “write blog posts right now” is doing themselves a disfavour. And when they write in with their goals, I let them know that they're learning to write.
These two principles, the “going backwards principle” and the “learning vs application” are two that I have to remind myself about all the time. It's at this point that the third principle kicks in.
Most of us would like to go from being a complete beginner to a level where we're quite fluent. Yet, fluency seems like an impossible task. Or is it? What if getting to fluency isn't as tedious as it seems?
Principle No.3: Getting to fluency isn't as tedious as it seems
When I was starting out as a cartoonist, I had many influences, but the one that really caught my attention was Bob Staake's digital illustrations. Bob's work has appeared in The New Yorker, MAD, and TIME, and clients include McDonald’s, Cartoon Network, and Sony.
I assumed Staake might be using a pretty updated version of Photoshop to create such amazing artwork.
Imagine my surprise when I learned he was was using Photoshop 3.0.
Not Photoshop CC 3, but Version 3, the kind that was released back in September 1994. This version of Photoshop is so antiquated that modern computers don't support it, but Staake seems to have no problem doing magnificent art with it.
What Staake has attained is a factor of fluency
The features in that 1994 version of Photoshop are so few and yet it's that focus on a tiny bit that causes a person to get very good at the skill. One of the reasons why we struggle so much with learning is that we want to bite off the entire body of knowledge at one go. Yet, what if we were to get rid of 90 or even 95% of the elements and focus on just a few to get the result?
This type of learning seems to reek of laziness, doesn't it?
It reminds us of how some of us travel. We get to a new city or country and then set about trying to see everything. Every monument, every art gallery, every possible waterfall, river and lake. It's an admirable goal, but it gets us exhausted and we rarely get a feel for the place than if we'd spent a greater amount of time exploring a single, tiny area.
Fluency can be tedious if you try to take on the whole enchilada
A good teacher will pry apart the bits and pieces, giving you one morsel at a time. But should you find yourself having to learn things yourself (like most of us do) it's better to do less, get enough fluency and only then move on.
But isn't the Staake method a bit over the top, in terms of an example?
Admittedly it is. Photoshop has progressed a lot and it's possible to do things in a fraction of the time, and with far superior results than ever before. To simply use stone-age tools and methods is not the solution to our problem. Yet, the lesson is clear: we need to move towards tiny chunks of fluency.
For me, this method of slowing down was a difficult exercise
Like everyone else, I wanted to master the software or course at one go. But since I wasn't getting ahead in a hurry, I stopped trying to learn it all, focusing only on what was in front of me. Then once I had a concept or idea to play with, I'd watch 30-40 videos that explained that same feature over and over again. In doing so, I'd get a decent amount of fluency.
There is another less painful way, for sure—and that's to find a good teacher
One who takes on the entire universe of chaos, and then strips it down to tiny increments. And good teachers aren't always easy to find, which is why asking the modest, tiny questions are critical. You work on the little bit, over and over again and you get to fluency.
That's A, A + B, A + B + C and so on.
And that's what I've learned about learning over the years.
1- You don't tend to go forwards, but instead fall a bit back
2- The learning phase is different from the application phase.
3- Fluency needs to be acquired by asking tiny questions, instead of trying to solve the big, overarching problem.
It's hard to be a beginner. It's frustrating, and yet these three principles have guided me through my journey. I hope they'll be of use to you as well.