Step One for Learning New Things

I’m the kind of person who likes steps. I like to know where I’m going and exactly how I’ll get there. A well thought out plan is always my first task when I have a new goal to reach, and I’m slightly embarrassed to admit that I enjoy the process of creating the plan almost as much as I enjoy reaching my goal.

The trouble with creating a new goal, no matter what type of goal it is, is that there’s too much information out there. If you want to learn to swim, you can type it into Google and get a hundred thousand results, from places that offer to teach you to a breakdown of the necessary skills. Information overload with a side of sore eyes. It’s the same for almost any type of goal you want to achieve and it can put you off, leave you at sea in a tsunami of words, or confuse you to the point where you turn off the computer and watch television instead.

I love to learn new things, whether that’s new skills or just random facts that peak my interest. So over the years I’ve had to develop a way to cut down on all the background information and achieve my learning goals in the most efficient way possible.

Yes, I like efficiency as well.

A few years ago I decided to learn how to knit. I don’t really remember why, I think I read a story about a woman who knitted whenever she was stressed. I liked the idea of sitting on the couch with a fuzzy rug on my knees, working with soft and colourful materials. Google knitting sometime, you’ll get instructions on how to cast on as well as patterns for the most intricate blankets you’ll ever see.

This was about the time that I started to streamline my process for learning and I applied it with knitting to great effect. I can now knit scarves. I’m not very fast, I drop stitches, and I don’t actually like that that much so haven’t done it very often since the initial frenzy. But I do have several scarves in my drawers that I made, and a couple of relatives and friends who feel obligated to keep and wear my creations. I even made my brother a scarf in the colours of his football team and he’s never allowed to toss it even though it weighs about the same as my fat, cranky cat. It’s kind of ugly too.

The results weren’t great, but I didn’t have any need to get any better and I’m happy with what I learned. You see, the first step to learning anything new is not to pick up a book and start reading. Instead, you need to work out exactly what you want to learn and why. So often, when we start learning, we assume we’re going to become experts in the topic and try to learn everything at once, practice every skill. It’s like we think we’re going to become world class, when in reality all we want most of the time is some basic skills.

With my knitting, I realised that I didn’t want to know how to knit clothes or sweaters. I had no interest in reading patterns or creating incredible works of art. I wanted to train my fingers to knit reasonably quickly with very few mistakes, and I wanted to create something colourful while I was sitting bundled up on the couch in the winter time. So I researched, worked out that scarves were one of the easiest things to make and that they were difficult to mess up. I learned what success meant to me, not what it meant to other people, and I looked at the easiest and quickest way I could achieve that success.

This can be applied to almost any subject, almost any skill. Ask yourself why you want to learn the new thing, what you want to do with it. And then look at the topic and work out the smallest measure that will satisfy that need. You can move on from there of course, if your investigations undercover a new love or if your work demands it, but a lot of the time you will find yourself satisfied with the small success and move on to something else. And both reactions are okay.


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