learning · practice

The secret to learning

Whenever we attempt to learn something—an instrument, a language, a piece of software, skateboarding, whatever—it’s easy to get overwhelmed. You see what the greats of the discipline do and think, “How can I ever get to be that good?” You pick up a book on the topic and it’s 400 pages long, written in some arcane nomenclature. It can all seem like too much to handle.

But there’s a secret to learning that I will reveal here with a thought experiment.

Let’s say’s you kidnap a man at gunpoint and stuff him in a room. Then you play him those Pimsleur French language learning CDs over and over for 8 hours a day. (Also make sure to feed him!) Whether this guy wants to or not, he will learn at least some French. The information will be coming in and his brain will take note of it. He won’t be able to “not learn.”

And that’s the thing with learning. It’s automatic. We think it requires great effort but if you expose yourself to the right information it will sink in. Obviously there are smarter, better and more organized ways to learn, but it’s really about exposing yourself to the material. Your brain takes care of the rest.

Anyway, I find that reassuring for some reason.

3 thoughts on “The secret to learning

  1. Exposure does not always lead to penetration. I appreciate your effort to cleverly analogize kidnapping with music, but, in terms of formal logic, you missed a step or three.

    “The secret to learning,” for which you so zealously advocate simply doesn’t exist, i.e., there is not a secret to learning. The idea that exposure can increase familiarity is an ancient. Increasing one’s familiarity in a topic is learning about that topic. Exposure alone is insufficient food for growth.

    Maybe reverse your catch phrase and “learn the secret” — I’d start by learning who may know the answer to such a daunting mystery.

    If you are interested in tips on learning to play guitar, I’m happy to assist. In fact, I noticed you wrote an article on my teacher, Bob Brozman, who died a rather ignominious death. I be happy to pass his techniques along.

    1. True, I occasionally descend into P.T. Barnum-esque over promotion to make a point. But my gist here is captured in that Woody Allen quote that 80% of success is showing up. The brain likes to absorb information. Granted, some info has to be drilled in via determined practice.

      I love Brozman’s playing, and yeah, the term “ignominious” is the best available to describe the circumstances of his death. I’d be interested in tips on his playing. I’ll send you an email.


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