“Learning without thought is labour lost” – Confucius
Learning a new skill is one of the most exciting and liberating things we can do. It opens and connects us to the world- introduces us to new people, experiences and new perspectives. It’s the essence of hands-on living.
But in a society where we’re constantly bombarded with promises of the “quick-fixes”- the five minute abs, the “no-risk, zero-money down, work-at-home, commitment-optional” anything strategies – we have grown accustomed to seeking the quick gains, the instant gratifications and the magic bullets – all leading us to an entirely wrong path of truly succeeding at learning anything.
In order to tackle a bigger learning goal, we will typically have the mentality of:
“If I hack at this long enough, hard enough, relentlessly enough – then I would HAVE to succeed. I HAVE to. If the other guy puts in an hour a day, I will put in two. This is the way it works! Effort = payoff, right?”
Not to put down sheer hard work and an iron-clad sense of determination , but there are pitfalls to exerting effort without finesse. Many of us approach a new challenge- whether they be learning , reaching a physical or financial goal with this fiery enthusiasm, but paying little attention to how we execute, practice and learn. We are demoralized when our progress seem to plateau, or become exasperated when the results aren’t as rapid or impressive as we had imagined. Whenever we hit this wall, the common response would be to either
i) give up, because it’s “just not for me”; or
ii) change nothing, because you think “it will work itself out eventually”; or
iii) double, triple your current effort in hopes of bulldozing through.
As somebody who has at one point or another been through all three scenarios, I am convinced that upping efforts does not always lead to a better outcome. In fact, trying harder to get over a learning runt might actually be a recipe for frustration.
Example #1: Learning how to Swim the Front Crawl
Case in point, say you wanted to teach yourself to swim the front crawl. You are determined. You spent time shopping for the perfect training swimwear. Maybe you read books on the front crawl. Perhaps you watched a few Youtube videos of two-time Olympic Gold Medalist Grant Hackett front crawling for the world record:
You are elated when you get to the pool with your new gear. The smell of chlorine hits your nose. You’re excited for the newness of the experience- you can’t wait until you can start doing laps.
You jump in. In your head you’re trying to mimic the video clips you’ve been watching. You’re thinking about your arms and how your torso should rotate, meanwhile you’re concentrating on your kicks and hey- don’t forget to breathe.
When you don’t seem to be going anywhere quickly, you paddle harder, hoping it will give you more propulsion… you start to thrash as hard as you can. But the harder you thrash, the more you seem to fatigue and the your body starts to sink.
The lifeguard is paying attention now- you’re backing up the swim lane. You start to feel ridiculous. You pull yourself out of the pool, tired, frustrated and resign to the “fact” that the front crawl is just too difficult. What happened?
As a former swimming instructor who taught beginner to advanced swimmers, children and adults alike- I understand that two important elements of effective learning are progression and reinforcement. For students to become proficient at the front crawl, they must first start learning the individual techniques that make up the stroke. Then, these techniques are drilled to proficiency before all the elements of the front crawl are brought together.
A swim stroke can be broken down into five phases:
1) Body Roll
2) Power Phase
Short distance drills* are designed around these five phases, with an emphasis on technique over endurance (endurance will naturally follow drilling proper technique). This helps accomplish two things. First, it trains their muscle memory and enables them to correct technique mistakes at the get-go. The second, and a sometimes over looked benefit, is to build up the student’s confidence when they achieve these smaller progressions. This is crucial. The biggest hurdles in learning how to swim is seldom physical but mental. In fact, I would argue that this applies to learning to do anything.
For a list of practical drills I used in teaching the front crawl, click here.
This brings us to my first Rule of Engagement:
1) Set and Achieve Mini-goals
Like learning to do most things, swimming a proper front crawl requires building a foundational proficiency. In our swimming example, practice individual movements and proper form before attempting to put them together. Similarly, we are inclined to bite off more than they can we when setting goals. I am a firm believer that a strategy of small, incremental improvements fares far better than a one-shot, all-or-nothing mentality in sustainable learning.
Mini-goal setting is about having specific, actionable “chunks” that directly contribute to the bigger, “impossible” goal while building positive momentum. Think of it as a learning plan. When we do something well, regardless of how small or trivial the task, we inevitably build positive energy and confidence. After all, confidence is simply competence through repetition.
Rules of thumb when designing mini-goals:
i) Progressive. Set your progressively with an increase in intensity, duration, becoming more involved or more encompassing than the last. Effective goal-setting requires constantly challenging the status quo. If a Mini-goal (MG) feels too comfortable, you’re probably ready for a change. Push your comfort zone. Shave 20 seconds off your last mile run. Make eye contact with that beautiful stranger on the bus… then introduce yourself. Strive to keep your MGs a little bit over the edge all the time.
ii) Consistent. Your MGs should ideally be something that can be done on a regular basis to promote habit formation. Write your MGs down on paper and put it in your wallet to remind yourself. Excuses are inevitable. Therefore, beyond careful design of MGs, commit yourself to your mini-goals by creating accountability for yourself. The best way to do this is to tell people you respect and admire about your goals. Join or form your own interest group (www.meetup.com – great website for meeting and forming interest groups). This is also a great way to connect with mentors and like-minded people of your subject of interest.
iii) Executable. Think of mini-goals as drills. Ideally, they should be something that can be done on a regular basis to promote habit formation.
Here is my actual example of setting MGs to become conversational in Mandarin. My progression from the first MG to the 5th was in about 3 months (I have a background in Cantonese, so it helped). Notice that all my MGs are actionable, repeatable items.
Example #2 Becoming Conversational in Mandarin
MG 1: Practice 5 hours minimum with the Pimsleur Mandarin Chinese Program (highly recommended language program) weekly.
MG 2: Watch a Mandarin film every week.
MG 3: Speak Mandarin to make orders at every Chinese restaurant I visit.
MG 4: Have a 1-3 minute conversation with a native speaker every week.
MG 5: Fly to Beijing for a week and speak nothing but Mandarin.
If you’re feeling stuck on a particular MG, sometimes it is a good idea to break a goal down into smaller chunks. Be a little creative when fulfilling your MGs. For example, I had some difficulty finding locals to hold conversations with in Beijing (most got tired of my broken Chinese 2-3 minutes in), so I use the opportunity to speak Mandarin whenever I hired a taxi. This, in my opinion, is one of the best ways to practice a language in a foreign country. Taxi drivers abroad are usually curious about travelers and are accustomed to their broken speech. Conversations with taxi drivers come more effortlessly as they would typically revolve around things travelers are familiar with: local tourist sites, food and their country. More importantly, they’re not going anywhere during the drive to your destination. : )
And finally, remember that any type of achievement without reflection is meaningless. Congratulate yourself when you hit your mini-goals. Be proud for the fact that you are sticking to it and know that you’re in good shape to harnessing that new skill.
Share with us some of your own rules of learning and real life stories/lessons of teaching yourself/learning a skill in the comment box below!
*Short distance drills are less fatiguing for students to concentrate on perfecting their form.
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