I recently discovered I know nothing about anything. How can I improve myself? originally appeared on Quora--the knowledge-sharing network where compelling questions are answered by people with unique insights.
Twenty, forty, fifty years from now, what will my day look like? What do I want it to look like? What will drive and motivate me every day?
Considering those questions, the only solid, consistent answer I get is that I still want to be learning.
Fifty years from now, I should be learning just as much as I do today. And the only way I can make that a reality is by understanding the process of learning.
The path from novice to master. Amateur to professional. Inexperienced to expert. This is what is meant by the learning process.
Some of the words usually associated with this journey: reinvention, recreation, destruction, creation, experimentation, seeking, understanding, ingenuity, observation, analysis, mastery, intuition, knowledge.
The books below are texts that, over the past few months, have taught me two significant lessons about the learning process, namely, what its key components are.
The first is the level and the intensity of emotional connection. The second is time. More specifically, the time that the emotional commitment is sustained for. These, above all, are the fundamental qualities. If these two are present, you can be sure that you will progress in some way down the path to excellence.
These books also helped me understand how to learn more effectively, and to realize why learning is such an integral and fundamental part of our nature. I learned how to enjoy and embrace the plateaus and peaks and falls along the way.
These lessons will sustain and guide me into my later years. They are principles that will help me continue to learn and evolve 20, 40, 50 years from now. I hope they can do the same for you.
1. Mastery, by Robert Greene
The depth that Greene penetrates in the learning process is such that when you come to view your own work or craft, you see it in a new light.
He breaks down the learning process into the following stages: finding your life's task, completing an apprenticeship, experimenting in the creative-active phase, and assimilating your skills to achieve mastery.
Of more importance than this breakdown, though, is the formula that Greene observes:
Mastery = Time + intense focus + self-belief.
It seems simple, but once you start to examine it, you begin to see how often we expect mastery from ourselves and others, while neglecting one or more of the components.
We expect it overnight. We think it can be gained in an hour every day. We mistake our lack of confidence for the presence of humility. Greene neutralizes those false conceptions to reveal the time, dedication, and commitment necessary to attain the highest heights. Mastery is a powerful text. The mastery formula is even more powerful. Apply it.
2. Mastery, by George Leonard
In the same way that Greene's Mastery is impressive for its depth, Leonard's is useful because of its simplicity.
Leonard gives us five keys to mastery: instruction--the role of mentors and being surrounded by greatness; practice--how masters of the game are generally masters of practice; surrender--of arrogance, of entitlement, of pride; intentionality--the coming together of focus, enthusiasm, and grit. And when we combine these four, we approach the Edge. That is, the point at which our skills and ability start to test and exceed the current boundaries of our craft.
3. Musashi, by Eiji Yoshikawa
Takezo starts out as an unruly and somewhat typical young male, salivating at the spoils and glory associated with war. He knows defeat and exclusion, and is reborn after a period of intense seclusion and study as Miyamoto Musashi.
Actively seeking the Way, he meets cunning enemies, subversive associates, and constant opposition. A man at odds with the conventional way of doing things, by necessity, is unconventional in both his ongoing education and his tactics.
By seeking out the major schools of the samurai art and challenging them, he observes their weaknesses, absorbs their strengths, and synthesizes his new experiences with his own skills and knowledge.
Musashi is the perfect example of the wanderer who, by examining all of the extremes and peculiarities of his discipline, proceeds to surpass them. Musashi emphasizes the humility, the constant re-mastery, that is necessary to become the best. It's a tale of the twisting path to utter perfection.
4. Sword in the Stone, by T.H. White
I picked up this recommendation from Dan John, who called it the best book on learning he'd read.
Wart, instructed by Merlyn the wizard, is transformed into a fish, a badger, and a bird and is thrown into many other unfamiliar situations by Merlyn. Why? Merlyn was teaching Wart the value of varied experiences, to understand and combine different perspectives. He was teaching Wart the necessity, the meaning, the philosophy behind learning.
Wart's journey with Merlyn will remain important and appropriate as long as we are in danger of forgetting the true reason for learning--that it is one of the most fundamentally human activities.
5. Ender's Game, by Orson Scott Card
This is a raw and insightful tale of how it feels to be thrown into an alien environment, with no friends, little direction, and no respect. And for that reason, if you're starting out in a new job or a new environment, I highly recommend it.
Ender, after being bullied and targeted, realizes that he must attain two things to survive. He must gain the respect of his peers, and that respect must be based on his capabilities, his excellence.
The way he does this will be familiar to anyone who understands the process of learning. He studies his environment--who matters, what makes people act and react, who has the influence. He studies his peers--his enemies, his instructors, his teammates. And he studies himself--his weaknesses, his advantages, his own knowledge.
By acknowledging no authority except excellence, and endeavoring to become so good people couldn't ignore him, Ender not only survives, he thrives.
6. The Art of Learning, by Josh Waitzkin
A chess grandmaster. A tai chi push-hands world champion. A Brazilian jujitsu black belt under Marcelo Garcia. If you wish to learn how to excel, how to truly master something, how to execute at the highest level, this book is essential.
Waitzkin takes us through the ideas and tools that helped him to, first, fall in love with the learning process, and second, speed and heighten its effectiveness.
Of particularly great value are the sections that deal with noise and distraction (rather than minimizing distraction, we should practice being comfortable performing among it), and what Waitzkin calls "making smaller circles" (taking performance preparation from a long, extensive routine to a fast, swift exercise).
Of the books in this list, this is the one that could most appropriately be called the high-performance bible.
7. The 4-Hour Chef by Tim Ferriss
I couldn't put this list together without mentioning Tim Ferriss and his book. At a superficial level, it is a cookbook. But looking deeper, you see that the exploration of cooking is just a way for Ferriss to show how his approach to meta-learning can be adapted to almost any skill or craft.
The early chapter on meta-learning has two invaluable tools, the DiSSS and CaFE frameworks.
DiSSS (deconstruct, select, sequence, stakes) is used to make swift and effective penetrations into a new skill or art.
CaFE (compress, frequency, encoding) is used to help recall and retain the knowledge gained.
These concepts, plus the Feynman technique, give you a three-pronged attack that can give you the confidence, and discipline, to tackle any skill or any problem that comes your way. Together, they make less of the world off-limits to you.
8. Master of the Senate: The Years of Lyndon Johnson, Volume III, by Robert Caro
Learning and education are not just about ideas, conceptual models, and abstract frameworks. They are about an understanding of human nature, an understanding of men.
I've read no better demonstration of just how to go about attaining this understanding than Caro's book. LBJ arrives in the Senate and watches. He observes. He pays close attention to the relationships between senators, to who has stature and power. He reads men, determines what make each individual tick, what makes each person vulnerable, and how he can use that to his advantage.
Yes, LBJ was ruthless and amoral. Yes, he used the men around him as instruments of his ambition and desires. But just because you don't condone his methods, it doesn't mean you can't learn from them.
LBJ was one of the keenest observers of men and social pressures and power. Whether we like it or not, those forces are still prominent in our own environment. We do ourselves a great disservice if we refuse to learn about how they can be used against us.
9. The Fighter's Mind, by Sam Sheridan | 10. Wooden, by John Wooden | 11. The Score Takes Care of Itself, by Bill Walsh
I've grouped these three because they have a common emphasis.
In The Fighter's Mind, Sheridan talks to some of the greatest contemporary martial artists, uncovering their "secrets" and their principles.
In Wooden and The Score Takes Care of Itself, Wooden and Walsh, respectively, examine their philosophies of leadership and learning.
All three books reach the conclusion that there are no shortcuts.
There is no substitute for time under pressure, for taking beatings and being humiliated. There is no alternative to, not just being consistent and showing up, but being completely locked into the practice of your art while you do it. These three books arrive at the simple fact that true excellence is only reached when it is part of the process, not the sole destination.
. . .
In all of the above books, the emotional connection to what you're learning, to what you're doing, to what you're working on, is the key.
If joy, excitement, or fascination can't create this connection, then you have to manufacture it with death ground strategies, contracts, public commitments, and incentives.
Sustain this connection every day, for decades, and you will accelerate the learning process and move toward mastery.
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