We tend to learn in sequence. Chapter one, two and three. But what if we broke the sequence? Would that enhance our learning?
In this rather sequential piece, you learn how I tend to break quite a few rules to get the results I want, and you'll find it works very well for you too. Tah, dah, time to jump the queue and learn in a whole different way. Let's look at 3 other ways to learn.
Learning Method 1: Linear learning is a myth
If you learned English, your first letter would not have been S.
Yet there are more words in English starting with S than any other letter. Wouldn’t it have been sensible to start with S, T, R as a sequence than A, B and C? And yet we stubbornly stick to A, B and C when learning or teaching someone else the language. Which almost seems to suggest that A, B and C is a logical sequence, but you can see it’s not.
With learning, we seem to run into a similar mental hurdle, both when we’re students or when we’re teaching someone else. We’re foxed if there’s no A, B, C sequence in place. Which is to say that whatever comes first, needn’t be the most important, even if we believe it to be so.
Let’s take the learner’s point of view and then go to the teacher.
Let’s say you want to learn how to put a sales page together. Surely there’s a sequence, you think to yourself. Look at any sales page, and you’ll notice there’s a headline. Logical? Not at all. If you were learning to write a sales page and worked your way from top to bottom, you’re likely to take a week or longer to get the job done.
The crux of a sales page is in the features of a product or service. Which is why when someone comes along and asks us: how do you start writing a sales page? We start from the bottom and work our way up.
The reality is that any learning can start almost at any point that gets you to a result.
Let’s say you’re given a camera and told to get into manual mode. Where should you start? There is no obvious place. Should you first set the focus? Or should you start fiddling with the aperture? And what about shutter speed and shutter priority?
If all of these terms are bouncing over your head, it’s because learning photography seems to be quite the opposite of the alphabet. Instead of a gentle A, B, C progression, you seem to be able to start anywhere, and it feels much safer to let the camera make all the decisions in automatic mode.
Which is why learning should start just about anywhere
Let’s take The Brain Audit as an example. When you open the book, there seems to be an orderly progression of chapters and concepts. Yet, let’s say you opened a random chapter and found it was all about how to create “reverse testimonials”.
What if you started there? Wouldn’t you be able to work your way through understanding and then collecting “reverse testimonials” for your own business? If you were to close the book without reading anything else, the concept would make perfect sense.
However, if you decided instead to randomly bounce to the chapter on “uniqueness”, and then back to “objections”, the seemingly random sequence would still be very educational.
Yet we seek an order from left to right.
Teachers, trainers and authors recognise this innate desire to follow a structure, and so we have to create a feeling of order. Chapter three must follow chapter two, and that comes right after chapter one.
In reality, the logic may not matter at all. Let’s say, for instance; you’re teaching someone how to take better street photographs. Where would you start? The answer is: just about anywhere. Let’s take three random points that will improve your images.
Shoot horizontal, not vertical
Go really, really close (the zoom lens is not your friend).
Get yourself in position before the event (hit and run is not a good option).
The three points barely sound sequential at all
Yet, if you were to dig deeper into each of these points, you’re likely to find that you end up with far better pictures even if you don’t know squat about ISO, Aperture and Shutter speed. Yet, every photography course I’ve ever been to—barring one—has always started at the “basics”. The reality is that there are no basics. There is no Point A, Point B or Point C.
You always start teaching—and learning—where you’re going to get the result you seek.
If you glance through the chapters of The Brain Audit and find that uniqueness is what your company most needs, you should start reading the last chapter, first.
If your testimonials are weak, and they probably are, the testimonial chapter should be your first port of call. As a teacher, your focus isn’t so much on being technical and following the book. Instead, you need to get going on the elements—any elements—that get the quickest wins for your client.
Do all teaching and learning follow this pattern of randomness?
Most of the time, yes, you can be as random as you jolly well, please. However, if you’re teaching, there’s an exception to this rule. If you’re conducting a course or training and there’s a portion that’s more time consuming, or complicated, then you should introduce this concept earlier rather than later.
In the Article Writing Course, for instance, we have a series of elements. The First Fifty Words, objections, case studies, examples, the three-part structure, and so on. The toughest part of all is the opening of the article, namely the First Fifty Words.
In early versions of the course, I’d introduce this section very late into the curriculum. Clients would struggle because they didn’t have enough practice, and that struggle was clearly pointless. In such a situation, getting in the tricky bit earlier in the course is an excellent idea.
And this is how I approach my learning too.
Most of the time, I pick on something that catches my fancy or something that I need to learn about and apply. I don’t necessarily have to read anything in sequence or even the complete book or course.
Later, if I feel the need, I can go back to it and pick and choose what I want. It’s something you might want to do as well, both as a teacher and learner. Look for the elements that are likely to get you the results you need and forget the sequence laid out.
It’s not as important as you think. On the contrary, when you get results quickly, you tend to go back and look at all the rest as well, which makes for a complete learning experience.
And controversial as this may sound, the randomness sets you up for the second point: A cluster moment in learning when things magically come together. But why does that cluster moment occur? Let’s find out.
Learning Method 2: There’s a cluster moment for learning
Can a plane cause an entire set of clouds to freeze over?
If you were to look up into the sky and see a sea of clouds, and then one almost perfectly formed hole, what you’d be experiencing is a rare cloud formation. A formation called a “fall streak hole”.
Usually high to mid-level clouds comprise of tiny water droplets. These droplets are colder than freezing but because of an unusual phenomenon, stay liquid. A passing plane with a few ice crystals is all they need.
In what seems to be a chain reaction, the droplets freeze, grow and start to fall. For ages, it looks like nothing is happening, and then all of a sudden, there’s a clustering effect. Everything seems to fall in place simultaneously.
With learning as well, we have this clustering effect.
For no apparent reason whatsoever, your learning explodes. I was watching my niece, Marsha, the other day. On Fridays, we have drawing and painting after a round of cheese and snacks.
For at least two years, Marsha has been doing some pretty solid work in her book. Nonetheless, she wasn’t able to see the shapes of the cartoon characters she was drawing. Then, out of the blue, and for no apparent reason, her sketching looked halfway like a Pixar illustration. This sudden burst out of the gate took me entirely by surprise.
One day she’s not making more than incremental progress, but the next day the leap is utterly breathtaking. Suddenly it seems like every possible instruction has clustered to create unexpected growth.
I always wondered why this clustering effect occurs.
It seems like the brain has all of these mismatched pieces of a puzzle. For a while, nothing seems to fit. Or if it does fit, there’s no overall clarity. Yet at one precise moment, enough pieces seem to come together, and there’s a feeling of clarity. Even though the puzzle isn’t quite complete, you and I seem to leap ahead in our learning.
In courses, you can almost see this clustering moment in action.
Clients often refer to a specific week of training with great fondness. “If only we’d have completed that learning much earlier in the course,” they say. What they’re suggesting is that the lesson was scheduled too early in the book, the videos or the course. Yet, what’s happening is that all the information that came before is precisely what causes that single moment of clarity.
For most people, this unknown moment is too unscientific.
They start with trying to learn something, then run into hurdles and give up. But I’ve learned that you have to stay with the subject matter long enough for it to “reveal its secrets” to you. And yet there could be a moderately scientific approach to understanding and applying a concept.
If you’re working alone, like I often am, you have to attack the problem from many angles. To speed up the clustering effect, I watch a dozen videos on the same topic. Or if I’m trying to understand a book better, I will listen to a dozen interviews done by the same author.
Every video, every conversation, every explanation may seem similar, but there’s always a different insight that slips in. It enables me to see the very same material explained in a different manner or with a tiny variable.
It might seem small, but it’s enough to cause that clustering effect
Much like the plane flying through the clouds, it creates an inexplicable, and may I say impressive, aha moment. The water droplets in my brain turn solid. And suddenly that particular piece of learning is a whole lot of fun.
Most of us would love to learn under a good coach.
Yet, the reality of our world is that we have to do a ton of self-study in many areas. It’s so easy to get stuck and give up. But if you approach your learning from many angles, you will get this cluster moment. And that’s how you (and I) can move ahead quickly.
Learning Method 3: To improve my understanding, I go back to the same concepts many times over
When we travel, we usually start our trip with an unusually lousy meal.
It’s not that we’re looking for something terrible. It’s just that after a long trip, we’re tired and hungry. Which is why we pick just about any restaurant. And why we ended up having purple pasta in Rome, or terrible paella in Barcelona.
However, once we’ve had some time to rest, to check out local reviews and speak to hotel staff, we get to a place where the food is fresh and tasty. If we’re satisfied, we avoid eating at every possible restaurant. Instead, we eat most of our meals at a single restaurant, with a few exceptions.
When it comes to learning, I tend to do something similar.
I might pick up a book or do a course and find it to be a lot like purple pasta. However, in time, I will find information that’s far superior to anything else. And that’s when I will go sample everything that the teacher has to offer.
Take, for instance, a book I read recently, by David Epstein.
First, I read the book, then I downloaded the audiobook and am now in the process of listening to it. In the meantime, I have been listening to dozens of podcasts where Epstein is being interviewed about his book.
In doing so, I’m eating at the same restaurant, and yes, some of the information is repetitive. However, with every repetition, I tend to get a much deeper understanding of the very same material.
I applied the same concept to Dan Brown when I listened to him on Masterclass.com.
I bought into the Masterclass series well over a year or two ago. For the most part—and for me at least—it was a bit like wading through a lot of purple pasta that I didn’t care for.
Then, a client on 5000bc mentioned Dan’s series, and I realised he wasn’t just a writer. He was an excellent teacher, as well. His sense of drama and instruction was impeccable. I pulled up my napkin, fork and knife at the ready and settled in for many “meals” of Dan’s wisdom.
Yet, even in a good restaurant, there are some meals that you like better than others.
I mainly took to the topic of “Villains and Heroes”. I liked it so much that I had several helpings of the same video, listening to it in bursts of repetition, week after week. I implemented the concept in the info-products workshop in Munich, conducted a webinar on the topic and used it when creating my own products.
It isn’t to suggest that I’m on a permanent loop with one book or video series.
If anything, I roam wildly watching, reading and listening to many different topics and in varied fields. A client asked me who I follow, and my list was almost like a list of my favourite restaurants.
Watercolours – Joseph Zbukvic
Photography- David Du Chemin, Sean Tucker
Geology – Iain Stewart
Psychology/Behaviour – Daniel Kahneman, Tim Harford, David Epstein, Tali Sharot, Michael Lewis
Writing- William Zinsser, Dan Brown, Neil Gaiman
Neurology- V.S. Ramachandran, Norman Doidge
Sports-Related psychology: Prof. Ross Tucker, Annie Duke
Meditation/Stillness: Pico Iyer
And like dining out, I will try out a new author or learning series.
If it turns out to be an excellent experience, I’ll add them to the list. However, once I have the list, I keep going back to see what I’ve missed. What also helps is the variety of subjects.
I may wander through something to do with sports psychology, and it’s useful in my writing. I may watch Iain Stewart on his endlessly fascinating geology series, and my understanding of stillness may improve. Even so, I have my list, and I keep looping back almost endlessly, learning something new every single time.
When I first started in the business, I’d read a lot, but books had to be bought, and it made sense to read them many times over. However, by the time we moved to Auckland, I was able to borrow thirty books at a time from the library; Kindle soon followed as did dozens of courses.
I was swept away with the concept of reading and learning as much as I could. And it was a good feeling until I realised that there was also great value in going back to the good stuff.
I still get my share of purple pasta.
When trying new authors or courses, it’s not uncommon to run into utter rubbish. However, that’s what you do in life. You try out the new stuff and hope it’s okay. If it isn’t, you still have enough of a list to revisit and review the very same information as if it were brand new.
It becomes a favourite meal of sorts.
Try it. Oh, and enjoy your meal. Buen Provecho!
1- Linear learning is a myth.
2- There’s a cluster moment for education.
3- I go back to the same concepts over and over again.