In Malcolm Gladwell’s acclaimed book Outliers he talks about a very popular concept: the 10,000 hour rule.
This rule declares that true mastery of any particular topic or skill will be achieved if it is practiced for 10,000 hours or more. This equates to roughly the equivalent of 5 years’ full time work.
This is shown through people like Bill Gates, who practiced computer programming every day for years, prior to starting Microsoft. And sports stars, who were born at the right time of the year to be the biggest in their year-groups at school, therefore getting selected for rep-teams and receiving coaching advantages.
However some people challenge the idea that 10,000 hours is required for mastery, that’s it’s the only key to success. People like Tim Ferriss, author of The 4 Hour Work Week, believe that you can achieve mastery much sooner by applying concentrated techniques to how you learn.
Some people seem to master new topics quickly. It has little to do with natural talent or any particular advantage. They’re not “better” than anyone else. Most of the time they simply apply learning strategies that are not taught in modern schools.
Today I’m going to be sharing my 11 top secrets for how to learn more efficiently. If you want to master something without having to spend 5 years full-time doing it, then try some of these strategies.
1) PRACTICE 7X MORE THAN YOU PASSIVELY LEARN
Information overload leads to a massive delay on learning. We’ve created a cultural pattern, where we absorb information passively without really learning it. As uber-successful serial-entrepreneur Eben Pagen says:
“Without action there is no learning”.
Practice makes perfect. If you want to learn something, you need to practice what you’ve learned, for much more time than you spend taking on new information. It’s through practice that mastery is achieved, as seen in the 10,000 hour rule.
Track the time you spend learning. For each hour spent passively taking on new information, dedicate at least 7-9 hours implementing what you’ve learned.
Say you want to become an Olympic swimmer, and you read about a new stroke technique that reduces drag. If it takes you 15 minutes to read about this new technique, then go out and practice just doing the technique for at least 2 hours. Do not allow yourself to learn any more technique ideas until the 2 hours is done.
This is the 10/20/70 rule I always go on about: for 10% of time spent passively learning (reading, watching), dedicate 20% to actively learning through a coach, and then 70% to practicing what you’ve learned.
For teaching, all that matters is that you are one step ahead of your student. You do not need to be a master to teach.
When you’ve practiced something new and feel like you’ve almost got it, try teaching it to someone else. I do this in my zouk dance class all the time. When I’ve learned a new move, I find someone else I can help with it. Even though I don’t have the move completely figured out yet, I find that teaching often helps me find the missing piece of the puzzle.
Teaching will cause you to stop and assess what you’ve learned. By trying to deliver this learning to someone else, you will be forced to revisit the concept from someone else’s perspective. This will bridge gaps in the information you have and really seal it in deep.
3) IMPROVE ON WHAT YOU’VE LEARNED
In the same vein as teaching, try to improve what you’ve learned even if you don’t really understand it yet. Assume that there is always a better way, and try to find that way.
Trying to improve an idea forces you to access multiple parts of the brain in the learning process, like teaching does. This will increase the likelihood of you retaining the information and linking it to other pieces of information in your head.
It’s all about creativity. Let’s say you learn a basic song on guitar – try adding in a solo, or another verse with different chord structures. Or you just learned how to throw a ball – try different arm techniques or hip movements.
Aim to outdo your teacher. Not in a competitive way, just in a way that will stretch your creativity during the learning process.
For example, even though I am only intermediate level with my zouk dancing, my partner Heidi and I are choreographing our own dance and making up tricks (flashy moves). We may not revolutionise zouk, but it is definitely increasing our skill far more than the classes were alone.
4) ACT FIRST, PLAN SECOND
Too often people try to get it right before they even start.
You will learn the most when you get it wrong. More importantly, making mistakes will embed the information into your brain, much deeper and stronger than imagining the right way ever could.
Try to reverse the planning process. Instead of planning for what you are going to do, take action first. Then plan how to improve on your mistakes, based on what you learned from taking action.
For example, if you want to become a painter, paint something first, with absolutely no idea what you’re doing. Then do some research into painting and try to figure out how your first work could have been done better. That way you start your next painting with some real-life experience and a plan based on improvement.
5) CONSISTENT FREQUENCY
Going to a class once per week is a painfully slow way to learn. By the time a week has passed, you’ve forgotten 90% of the previous week’s class and have to spend time revising it.
This is guidance on how to apply the 10/20/70 rule. For each class you do, aim to practice frequently. Frequency is more important than duration. You will learn more quickly from doing something 10 minutes per day than you will doing it 1 hour per week.
The best way to become “natural” at something is to make it a part of your everyday life. One of my clients is practicing approaching strangers – to learn how to build his social circle – and he makes sure to approach one person every day at lunchtime. He complements this with “bulk approaching” on the weekend (5-10 people in one sitting). It’s the daily consistency that makes it normal for him.
It allows him to relieve himself of the stress of trying to remember, instead he is able to remind himself each day through action.
FOR MORE ON HOW TO BECOME A MASTER, CHECK OUT MY BOOK THE LEGENDARY LIFE: A REWARDING CAREER, EXCITING RELATIONSHIPS, AND TOTAL LIFESTYLE FREEDOM
6) ONLY WAIT TO BE 80% READY BEFORE YOU LEVEL-UP
Some people revel in being the big fish in the small pond. Learning often gets stunted by too much time spent at a level you’ve already learned enough in.
The 80% rule is about moving upwards before you’re completely ready. Because you are never completely ready. Once you feel that you’ve almost figured something out, move up to the next level.
The best learning happens when you are the student, not the master. This can be frustrating, as you will always feel like the beginner in the class, even when it’s something you’re learning alone. If you want to master something, to be the best, you actually need to let go of your ego’s need to be the best.
If you are regularly moving “up” and yet always feel like you are brand new, then you are doing it right!
7) REVISIT THE FUNDAMENTALS REGULARLY
This is a complementary rule to #6 above. In order to make sure that you don’t develop sloppy technique while moving up quickly, you need to keep revisiting the basics. You’ll be amazed at how coming back to the beginning seems like a new experience each time, as you start to see what you’ve missed and where you’ve lost sight of the fundamentals.
Whenever I go back to a beginner dance class, or watch a beginner bass guitar technique video, I always learn something that takes my game to the next level. There’s always a moment where I go “Ohhhhh, so that’s what I’ve been doing wrong”.
Ask any highest grade black-belt martial arts master what they spend most of their time practicing, and it will always be “the fundamentals”.
You simply do not learn the basics the first time around, because you have no context. When you go back after learning the intermediate and advanced stages, you will start to uncover what the fundamentals really contribute. Moving up causes short-cuts and laziness, and it’s the guy who’s been practicing the basics who will beat you.
8) INVEST IN COACHING/MENTORING FROM SOMEONE WHO IS PROVEN
You can’t give yourself objective feedback.
It’s like Dr Russ Harris, author of The Happiness Trap, says about coaching:
“I’m climbing my mountain over here. From this perspective I can see you climbing your mountain over there, and I can see what paths you could take…”
A coach/mentor does not need to be better than you at what you’re doing. They just need to be motivated towards your success, and have the courage to give you helpful, objective feedback. Having a coach allows you to get past barriers and blockages, allowing you to learn 10x quicker than you will by yourself.
Whatever it is you want to master, there are people out there who can help you. Let them help you.
9) SEEK TO MAKE MISTAKES
As mentioned earlier, you’ll learn much more from your failures than you ever could from your successes. Another definition for Mastery is simply knowing all the variables; having made all the possible mistakes that could be made and learning from them.
“Start small and sucky” – Marie Forleo
Thomas Edison is often quoted for learning how to make the light bulb by first trying every possible version that didn’t work. School taught you to get it right the first time, with its one-off exams and punishment for mistakes. In the real world you can always try again, and it’s those who keep actively making mistakes that end up dominating.
Let go of the idea that it’s wrong to get things wrong. Go out there and get it wrong on purpose.
Another thing Eben Pagen says about business is that quite often the best way to do something is counter-intuitive. Even the masters don’t know everything – go try something weird to see if you can uncover the next big secret.
10) LEARN SIMILAR COMPLEMENTARY SKILLS
Sometimes people get stuck because they’re singularly focused. They have been learning just one topic and can’t seem to get to the next level. Often, the secret breakthrough will come from learning about something different.
The best dancers are often those who have learned many different styles. This increases their ability to improvise, create new techniques, and develop their bodies beyond the minimum required for their specialty genre.
The most successful business people have often started companies in a range of different areas. Great musicians often play multiple instruments, even if they don’t use them for performance.
Whatever it is that you’re mastering, take time to learn similar skills. It may get you through mental blocks too.
11) TAKE BREAKS
Whenever I take a few weeks off from playing bass, the first session back I’m always the best I have ever been. To this day I have no idea exactly why this happens.
When you take a break from something you’ve been learning intensely, your brain seems to take the time to organise and cement in the knowledge you’ve gained. So plan infrequent but regular sabbaticals from your craft. This also does wonders towards maintaining enthusiasm; you give yourself a chance to miss it.
It may just be once a year. For instance, if you take a yearly vacation from work, make it also a vacation from your mastery topic. Come back refreshed and inspired, after giving your brain a chance to register what it’s learned.
Conclusion: what doesn’t work
There are a couple of things noticeably missing from this article. This is because I have tested them and found them to be inaccurate.
Firstly, as already discussed, excessive information storage: trying to learn as much as you possibly can in a passive way. You’re better off not reading anything, and learning completely through trial and error. Without real-life reference experience, your brain can’t really understand what you’re trying to learn.
Secondly: school. Classes and education are of course important, but thinking that the strategy employed by the modern schooling system is the most effective way to learn is a mistake. Endless passive information exposure, followed by high-pressure testing of memory retention. How is this supposed to make us learn? Can you still remember the answers to your high-school exam questions?
If you want to learn through classes, great; just make sure you implement what you’ve learned before the next class.