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Learn How To Learn Anything With This Tip From Elon Musk

Not sure how to best approach new topics to properly understand them? Take this advice on how to learn from one of the most innovative minds in tech.
by Rosamund Mather | Sep 14 2017

Elon Musk’s method of learning is key to his success as one of the world’s leading tech innovators today. His tree technique proves that with the right mindset, perseverance, dedication, and strategy, anyone can succeed.

Start from the bottom

In order to win, you have to accept that you’re going to lose at first. Losing actually has its benefits — use it to seek out opponents that are better than you, so you know what you’re up against. Focusing on accomplishing these short-term goals in order to nurture the long-term ones means you’ll steadily climb up to the level you’re aiming for.

Responding to a remark that he seemed to be capable of packing more knowledge into his head than anyone else, Musk admitted that he often feels his brain is running over capacity. He recommends that learners view knowledge as a “sort of semantic tree” and that you have to understand the “trunk and big branches before you get into the leaves”.

By this, he means that you need to master the fundamentals before getting to the advanced details, otherwise you’re on a fast track to frustration, confusion, and disappointment! The more complicated stuff is what entices most people to study a topic, but take time to get the core principles down pat, as this will facilitate more solid learning in the long run.

Go step by step

Once you’ve recognized that humility is necessary to the learning process, you’ll be patient enough to take on an incremental approach. When we view talent as an entity, every success and failure seems to hang onto how much of it you may or may not possess, making us more likely to quit when the going gets tough. It’s all about perseverance, and it’s the reason why only a few of the world’s talented people make it big. One mistake can be enough to scare someone off. Studies show that with an incremental approach — that is, learning broken into chunks rather than absorbed all at once — problems are solved more quickly and easily.

Disruption and routine

There’s nothing worse than when you’re in the flow of something good and someone taps you on the shoulder, or the phone rings. When we are interrupted while in the “hard zone”, we often react with anger, since, on some level, we believe the world should co-operate with us. By entering the “soft zone”, however, we become more resilient, nurturing the ability to function under less than ideal circumstances.

A notable example of this is a chess player who loses matches because they were distracted by a song stuck in their head, then deciding to put on music when practising, which ends up boosting concentration through rhythmic thought patterns. Finding your beat may be challenging at first, but it will make your brain stronger – and it also follows the maxim that the best way to memorize information is to create a mental hook.

Practice makes perfect

Any kind of technical information, such as patterns and strategies, can feel like simple intelligence if practiced enough. The trick is to turn it into intuitive response. Going back to chess: all beginners learn that the pieces have numerical equivalents, which they may count in their heads as they go along, but as they improve they will stop this as it becomes intuitive.

Similarly, new learners of a language may literally translate phrases from their native language before writing them or saying them out loud, but after a while they will no longer need to do this as it hinders efficiency, or even forms bad grammatical habits in the target language. Practising enough that you manage to eliminate those “translation” stages frees up your conscious mind, allowing you to zoom in on details to gain advantages.

Embrace vulnerability, recover effectively

As you know by now, talent only takes you so far — the most important thing is your attitude. The learning phase is bound to make you feel weak, exhausted, and hopeless. Try not to get caught in the downward spiral of feeling like a failure. Instead, take a step back every time you make a mistake to keep positive energy flowing.

And remember: be kind to yourself! Insufficient rest leads to repetitive, inefficient, and imprecise thinking. The mind can only stay focused for a certain amount of time, and the more you are able to clear it during a break, the better your performance will be upon your return. Try out regular exercise for better endurance – experts have found a connection between regular cardiovascular interval training and relief of stress and mental exhaustion.

By being patient with yourself and the world around you, you can bypass a lot of the frustration that comes with learning new material. Foundational concepts never strike us as terribly exciting. But by slowly working your way up the trunk — and pushing through the disappointments of occasionally sliding back down — you will in time find that climbing feels as natural as breathing on your way to reaching the top.

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