How to Become a Fast Learner

How could it be that you and your equally talented friend start learning the same thing at the same time, then a year later your friend is so much better than you? Turns out she knows something that you don’t.


Back when I used to teach the saxophone I thought about this question a lot. A small set of students was improving so dramatically faster than the rest.


Think about the impact that faster learning has. Take fast-learning Erez who learns a new skill every month and slow-learning Erez who does so every 3 months. As the benefits of learning are compounding, let’s arbitrarily assume that every skill accounts for a 2% improvement. In 1-year's time, fast-learning Erez will improve by 26% while slow-learning Erez will improve by 8%. In a decade the difference will be 1076% vs 220% improvement.


I prefer being fast-learning Erez.


Turns out that while talent, motivation, and means are all involved. The biggest differentiator between fast and slow learners are 4 simple habits. And yes, I’ve experimented on my students to prove this and will now share them with you.



Habit 1 - Be as specific as possible


Learning doesn’t happen accidentally, you need to know what it is that you’re trying to learn. If you’ve decided to learn how to play an instrument. That’s cool. What instrument? Who would you like to sound like? What song would you be excited about playing?


Knowing that you want to play an instrument is not actionable. But if you know that you want to play the Beatles on the Saxophone and sound like Kenny G (meh) you can go buy a saxophone, find a teacher, and track your progress.


Fast learners can always tell you the specific thing that they are learning right now.


Habit 2 - Practice every single day (Saturday’s too, sorry)


Daily practice was by far the biggest differentiator between my students who improved quickly and the ones who did not. Of course, all claimed to be practicing every day, but I didn’t need their parents to tell me the truth.


The brain learns better in smaller frequent doses than big less frequent ones. As importantly, doing something every day will quickly become a habit and a part of your routine. I’ve never seen a student who didn’t practice every day but did practice consistently.


Fast learners practice every day.


Habit 3 - Deliberate practice


Deliberate practice is the act of trying to improve a very specific aspect of skill in a hyper focused and intentional way. Continuing with the saxophone, just playing songs on the saxophone doesn’t imply improving. In fact, just playing for fun can unintentionally ingrain and create bad practices. However, playing long tones for a long time is how players improve their tone while simultaneously driving their families crazy.


The catch with deliberate practice is that it's not fun. But at some point, you start gaining pleasure from the habit and the intense focus. Similar to meditation or running.


Fast learners don’t just practice, they practice deliberately.


Habit 4 - Passion


Learning a skill that you’re passionate about is just so much easier. While on the surface passion doesn’t seem like a habit, fast learners use 3 mini-habits to be passionate about what they learn:


  • Focus on the impact the skill has on your life. It’s like eating healthy, once you notice how it makes you feel physically you understand that the effort is worth it

  • Understand that passion is an acquired taste. If you’re genuinely curious and open-minded, as you study a new skill you will always find aspects that are surprising or interesting to you

  • Learn to enjoy the act of learning itself. The process of not knowing something and step-by-step uncovering and mastering it is quite fulfilling regardless of what it is


Fast learners know how to be passionate about learning (almost) any topic.


Conclusion


If you’re specific about what you’re learning, practice every day and in a deliberate way, and find your way to be passionate about it, you won’t only learn but you’ll be learning much faster.


Want to dig deeper? Farnam Street is the best place to go.


What learning habits work for you?