10 strategies quick learners use to pick up anything

Drake Baer
Reporter, Business Insider
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Learning is a skill in itself.

We need to get good at it, since the tools we use to do our jobs are changing every year.

In a recent Quora thread, users answered the question: What learning strategies do people who are “quick learners” follow? We’ve outlined some of the best ideas for for optimizing the learning process, along with the latest in productivity research, below.

To understand a problem, ask “why” five times. 

In “The Lean Startup,” author Eric Ries offers the “Five Whys” technique for getting to the root of an issue. The idea is to get to the underlying cause of a superficial problem — one that, more often than not is more human than technical error.

To see the quintuple-why strategy in action, lets look at his hypothetical startup example:

1. A new release disabled a feature for customers. Why? Because a particular server failed.

2. Why did the server fail? Because an obscure subsystem was used in the wrong way.

3. Why was it used in the wrong way? The engineer who used it didn’t know how to use it properly.

4. Why didn’t he know? Because he was never trained.

5. Why wasn’t he trained? Because his manager doesn’t believe in training new engineers because he and his team are “too busy.”

By pushing the inquiry five times, Ries says we can see how a “purely technical fault is revealed quickly to be a very human managerial issue.”

Keep a positive attitude. 

Worrying that you’re not going to be able to learn something is a poor investment of your mental energy, says Harvard Business School professor Alison Wood Brooks.

“Anxiety precludes you from exploring real solutions and real thought patterns that will come up with solutions,” she says. But when you’re feeling good about what might happen, you get into an opportunity-oriented mindset. “So you think of all of the good things that can happen. You’re more likely to make decisions and take actions that will make that world likely to occur.”

Don’t just learn about it; practice it. 

“You can’t learn golf from a book. You need to swing a club at a ball,” says Quora user Mark Harrison, the head of technology at British financial company FundingKnight. “You can’t learn Ruby on Rails from a book — you need to put together a site.”

Find an expert, and then ask them about their expertise.

If you’re trying to learn a subject, talk to an expert who can explain it. Buy them lunch, and ask them all about their craft. Tim Ferriss, author of “The 4-Hour Workweek,” is a master of this. Whenever he’s trying to learn a sport, he’ll seek out the nearest silver medalist, arrange for an interview, and then grill them on technique.

Get an accountability buddy. 

Find somebody else who’s trying to build the same skill as you — be it rock climbing, cello, or French cooking — and experience the learning process with them. Set up regular times to check in on your progress, whether in person or via Skype, Harrison recommends.

When you don’t understand, say so.

Another tip from Harrison: When you don’t understand something in a meeting, go ahead and put up your hand and ask, “Sorry, can you just explain why?” Dumb people will think it’s dumb, he says, but smart folks will admire the curiosity.

As Mortimer Adler advises in “How To Read A Book,” learning is very much a matter of being aware of when you’re perplexed, and then following up on that perplexity.

Repeat, repeat, repeat.

It’s not so much that practice makes perfect; it just makes actions go faster. This is because when you do something again and again — recall how you recited the alphabet as a kid — you strengthen bonds between brain cells.

“Repetition leads to synaptic conditioning,” shares user Hwang Min Hae, a medical student in Australia. “The brain is plastic, and it allows the neural pathway to fire at a faster pace than before. That’s why repetition over a long period of time creates an instantaneous recall — that’s why you can recite your ABCs and 123s. Try reciting your ABCs in the opposite way, and you’ll have a bigger difficulty than doing it forward.”

Don’t just write it out; draw it out.

Dan Roam has written two books about visual thinking, “The Back of the Napkin” and “Blah Blah Blah.” He also consults for companies like GoogleeBay, General Electric, and Wal-Mart. They bring him in to help explore the “aspects of knowledge that can’t be expressed through words.”

Words and pictures complement each other.

“Often the best approach to solving problems and generating ideas involves a combination of words and pictures,” he says. “When you add pictures, you add layers and dimensions of thought that are almost impossible to achieve with words alone … It’s a way to get your idea down while still keeping it in a fluid state.”

You can do that with a “mind map,” or diagram, that visually outlines interrelated ideas.

Learn the difficult stuff at the start of the day.

Willpower is finite, research shows. We have lots at the start of the day, but it gets depleted as we make decisions and resist temptations. (That’s why shopping is so exhausting.) So if you’re learning a language, an instrument, or anything else that’s super complex, schedule it for the start of the day, since you’ll have the most mental energy then.

Use the 80/20 rule. 

The 80/20 rule states that you get 80% of your value out of 20% of work. In business, 20% of activities produce 80% of results that you want. Fast learners apply the same logic to their research areas.

Quora user Stefan Jerome, a student at the University of Leicester in England, provides an example:

When I look at a book, for example, I look though the contents page and make a list from 1-5 with 1 being the chapter with the most relevant material. When looking through a instructional video, I often skip to the middle where the action or technique is being demonstrated, then I work backwards to gain the context and principles.

This works, he says, since the beginning of most videos will be fluffed with exposition, and most books are layered in with filler to make length requirements. So with a little cunning, you can extract most of the knowledge from those materials while investing a fraction of the time.

This article is published in collaboration with Business Insider UK. Publication does not imply endorsement of views by the World Economic Forum.

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Author: Drake Baer is a reporter at Business Insider. 

Image: An employee works with one of his assistants in his office.REUTERS/Tony Gentile. 


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