Ignorant to Intelligent in 4 Steps
I learned how to learn when I was 20 years old. It wasn’t in school, despite what my student debt implies. It occurred when I was tasked with starting a sales team that would sell beer software to bars, restaurants, and breweries.
Before this opportunity popped up, I was a server at a seafood restaurant. The only thing I knew about sales was how to get a tourist to buy she-crab soup (it’s delicious, you should try it). Not only was I completely inexperienced, but I also had a sour taste in my mouth about the topic. Say the word “sales” and I’d immediately think of a used car salesman with a pinky ring. Gross.
Fast forward five years. I’m managing 40 salespeople, five managers, and other non-sales functions within the company. Not only that, but the business is doing insanely well! Winning national award after national award for revenue growth and company culture. How did I do that in my early 20’s? I learned how to learn.
By covering the mechanics of learning fast and deep, you can gain a mental framework to help you close the knowledge gaps that exist in your life.
Step 1: Recognize the catalyst
We’ve been evolutionarily designed to reduce the amount of thinking we do about things that don’t immediately affect us. We’re creatures of survival, so information outside our scope of normal daily life is extra baggage our brains filter out. So we’re typically unaware of the things we don’t know or understand on a daily basis. Do you know why the subway has a conductor if the whole thing is automated? Neither do I.
It’s not until we’re presented with a new challenge or opportunity that it becomes obvious how little we know about a subject. These opportunities become catalysts for learning. If you’re looking for a job and see “subway conductor” in the classifieds, you’ll likely investigate why the hell the subway still has conductors. Poof, you just took the first step to learning something.
Recognize the learning opportunity when it appears. This is done by staying curious, talking to strangers, reading, and seeking out new things to do. If you miss the catalyst to learn, you’ll never know that you didn’t know, ya know?
Step 2: Decide to engage
Say your friend invites you on a month-long backpacking trip along the Appalachian Trail. You’ve never even camped before. Because this activity is so far outside your comfort zone, this offer will trigger a fight, flight, or freeze response from you:
- Fight – Say yes, and get to work figuring out how the hell not to die on this excursion.
- Flight – Say no, because the risk is too high and you don’t know how to do it.
- Freeze – Say you’ll let your friend know, and quietly ghost them in hopes they never ask you again.
This decision is both conscious and subconscious. Consciously, you’re weighing whether the trip sounds fun, how much money you need to save, and what your parents might think. Subconsciously, you’re wondering what it’s like being in isolation with your friend, if you’ll get eaten by a bear, and how unprepared you are for the journey.
Deciding to press forward despite uncertainty, choosing to “fight”, is the only option that will unfold into a huge learning opportunity.
I always encourage people to choose “Fight” in order to experience growth. It’s way more fun than kicking it at home.
Step 3: Recognize where you are on the learning curve
There are four stages to mastering a new skill:
- Blissful ignorance
- Painful awareness
- Amateur expertise
Blissful ignorance is the stage of learning where you don’t know what you don’t know. People in this stage are often overconfident in their abilities because they don’t recognize how much there is to learn on the subject. If your response to the Appalachian Trail offer is, “Hell yeah, that’ll be cake,” and you’ve never camped before, you’re blissfully ignorant, my friend. To accelerate out of this stage, you need to do a ton of research. Read books, watch webinars, talk to people who’ve backpacked long distances. The goal is to rapidly recognize how little you actually know about the subject. This is when you enter the second stage.
Painful awareness is the stage of learning in which you’re starting to second-guess yourself. You recognize how deep the well goes on the subject you’re looking to master. You now know you need to figure out gear, first aid, fire-starting, stamina, food preparation, navigation, etc. At this stage, you simply know the topics you need to research, but you still know very little. To get out of this stage, you react. You test gear, take first-aid classes, build fires in your backyard, run in the woods. It’s all about movement. Start reacting to the information you’ve digested to convert it to application.
Amateur expertise is the stage of learning where you know how to do everything required to accomplish your goal. You just aren’t very good at it. You’re a novice. You can hold a conversation about backpacking the App Trail, you know different brands of gear and maybe even have a preference. You can put a splint on a broken ankle, but you sure as shit don’t want to do it. You can start a fire, but you have fire starter in your bag just in case. In this stage, you repeat. Keep building muscle memory for the activities you’re learning. Get as many reps in as possible.
Autodidact is the stage of learning in which you’ve “been there, done that.” This stage is reserved for people with true, tactical domain experience. Meaning “someone who is self-taught,” the autodidact can tell you with explicit detail why a pair of boots won’t work in certain seasons. You’ve experienced the App Trail trip and you’ve made tons of errors along the way. You earned the scar tissue that gives you credibility to tell other people how to prepare for their own backpacking trip. At this stage, the tasks and knowledge at-hand have become reflex.
Step 4: Going fast and deep
No matter where you are in the four stages of learning, the final step is to start executing. The velocity (fast) and depth (deep) at which you learn the new skill is directly correlated to how much time and effort you put into your execution of the four stages. Additionally, there are a few things you can do to close the knowledge gap more quickly:
- Find relevant mentors – having someone who can answer 1:1 questions for you and help you avoid common pitfalls is absolutely critical to learn quickly. Books, videos, and forums are awesome first steps, but nothing beats having the direct attention of an autodidact in your learning domain.
- Test everything – when you don’t know how something is going to work out, test it. Buy two pairs of boots and return the pair that doesn’t suit you. Try camping for five days before committing to a month. Get lost around town using a compass. The more reps you get in, the quicker you’ll learn what works and what doesn’t.
- Be honest with yourself – it doesn’t help to pretend you’re better at something than you actually are. Kill your ego and keep a learner’s mentality. The more you can focus on learning instead of looking smart, the quicker you’ll get smart.
Learning a new skill is simple, but it isn’t easy. We’ve taken the ethereal learning curve and turned it into a formula. Let’s summarize:
- Recognize the catalyst. See the learning opportunity when it presents itself.
- Decide to engage. Choose to fight!
- Recognize where you are on the learning curve. Be honest with yourself and go through all the steps. No shortcuts.
- Go fast and deep. Accelerate your education to pick up many skills in a short period of time.
If you want to become exceptional at something, you need to start small and convert your early findings into hard-earned knowledge. Become an autodidact so other people can learn from you, and the cycle of learning can repeat.
What is Beanie & Blazer?
Beanie & Blazer is a lifestyle engineering company built to align people’s personal values and goals with their habits and behaviors. Our methodology offers our community clarity of purpose, a tribe of mentors and supporters, and reclamation of time in their busy lives. We systematically train people to become high performers.
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