Tools to Learn Anything Well (Hint: It Is Simpler Than You Think)

The more time I study learning the more I realize that the tools which improve performance apply across disciples. Everywhere we look there are struggles and every-day heroes overcoming those struggles: athletes achieving record-breaking feats, regular people losing that last 10 pounds and children with autism self-regulating, tantruuming, and improving.

I make a study of the commonalities (and differences) between seemingly unrelated disciplines. What does the Gymnastics Giant and curing autism have in common? It turns out there is method to the madness and more commonality than difference among disparate paths.

Experiment. Stick out your tongue once in a while. (I suggest not biting it, though.)

Loving Attitude

An attitude that support the learning process is perhaps the single most important aspect in learning or maintaining a skill. Without a supportive attitude it is much harder, if not impossible, to maintained momentum. The more the learner enjoys the process of practicing, the less resistance there will be and the more quickly he can learn. Consider the opposite: self-judgement at every misstep. Learning that skill quickly becomes tedious and usually abandoned.

Enthusiasm and Play

Bears, founder of the Option Institute, tells the story of his young grandson making believe that a pair of glasses is in fact an airplane racing through the sky. It takes flexibility, enthusiasm and the willingness to play to consider this, not to mention join in. Bears did join in with an ultra-fast, make-believe sports car and eventually lets his grandson win the imaginary race. When I think of enthusiasm I think of this little boy. He knows that he is holding glasses and not an airplane but in his enthusiasm, this so-called reality is irrelevant and discarded.

Curiosity and the Freedom to Explore

Last Spring my friend Shannon described her experience as an explorer in the Option Process Dialogue. Whether through this system or any non-judgemental question, leaving space for questions opens up new opportunities for growth and self-knowledge. Josh Waitzin, of Searching for Bobby Fischer fame, describes at first being outraged by chess players using illegal tricks to irritate and distract their opponents. It was only after he made a study of his own anger that Waitzin was able to recognize that his outrage was exactly the outcome his opponents desired and that his best revenge was placid calm. In any pursuit, such curiosity and self-study can return fruitful understandings.

Fail Better

Failure is a part of the learning process. My personal motto is: “Fail better.” It is easy to get discouraged and quit after a single misstep or become so immobilized by fear of failure as to never make progress at all. Instead, cultivate the habit of getting back up and trying again.


20 people are assigned to 2 groups and practice basketball free-throws. One group practices their shots only from the free-throw line while the other practices from 10 feet farther back and 10 feet closer. During practice those attempting shots from the line score vastly better. This would indicate that it is better to train free-throws from the free-throw line. Not so! A week later the same people are brought back and tested again. Those who practiced with variation are vastly better at performing, not just from 10 feet further away and 10 feet closer, but from the free-throw line – which is a distance they didn’t ever practice! Similarly, they score better at a wide variety of other shots around the court, which neither group practiced at all!

Think back to high school P.E. We were given feedback after every iteration and trained to practice in exactly the context required for performance or final execution. It takes an exceptionally considerate coach or trainer to apply variation when it is so easy to judge efficacy of training during the practice period.


Often times people forget to apply intellect and logic to a learning process. If I want to be building a new habit and find myself not doing so I get frustrated and ask myself angry questions: “Robin, why aren’t you writing regularly!?” If I can just step back for a moment and ask this question without the judgement (“Robin, why aren’t you writing regularly?”) I quickly become aware of the reasons I’m not and am able to make rapid progress towards resolving that particular limitation.

Wrapping Up

Everyone wants to learn something. How to learn to snow board, have a better relationship, learn to play the guitar, earn more money – it doesn’t matter the specific goal, the process can be broken down and learned step by step and the process can thereby be dramatically expedited. As an added bonus, learning fast makes the execution of the goal or activity even more fun. If this sounds like something you’d be interested in, here are a couple of books I recommend…

The Art of Learning – Written by world-champion in Chess, Tai Chi Push Hands, and Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, this is among my favorite books into the mind of a top performer. It helps that Josh Waitzkin’s writing reads like poetry.

The First 20 Hours – Written by Josh Kaufman who forwent an MBA  in favor of creating his own, in this book he breaks down how to learned Yoga, Software Development and many other skills through simple steps and a repeatable process.

The 4-Hour Chef – Tim Ferriss’ most recent best seller, he using cooking to teach how anything can be learned quickly and well. A great cookbook for non-cooks and a fantastic meta-learning primer.

Accelerated Learning Handbook – a handy reference guide on the learning process and how to speed up skill acquisition.

And Finally…

Leave a note in the comments and share 1 thing that you’d like to learn!

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