The Art of Learning

Whether it’s in business, science, athletics, the arts, or any other human endeavor, those who reach the top all share one quality. Yes, they have talents in their particular domains, but they are in fact never the most talented. And yes, they all have ferocious focus, and singular self-discipline, undaunted persistence, and a bottomless passion for and love of their domains. But these traits alone are not enough to reach the very top. In fact, because these world-class achievers were not innately the smartest or most talented in their particular domains, they were forced to become what Charlie Munger calls “learning machines.” The very best in any field—and this is true for companies as well as individuals—improve faster than everyone else. In short, they outlearn everyone else! Relentlessly.

Give a man a fish, the old saying goes, you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish, and you feed him for a lifetime. Teach him how to teach himself anything—and you upgrade every area of his life. Permanently. The key to pursuing excellence is to embrace an organic, long-term learning process, and not to live in a shell of static, safe mediocrity.

Learning springs out of a deep, creative plunge into an initially small pool of information. For example, it is crucial that a chess player lay a solid foundation by studying positions of reduced complexity (endgame before opening). Then we must apply the internalized principles to increasingly complex scenarios. We take a single technique or idea and practice it until we feel its essence. Then we gradually condense the movements while maintaining their power, until we are left with an extremely potent and nearly invisible arsenal.

The beautiful thing about this approach to learning is that once we have felt the profound refinement of a skill, no matter how small it may be, we can then use that feeling as a beacon of quality as we expand our focus onto more and more material. Once you know what good feels like, you can zero in on it, search it out regardless of the pursuit. In the end, mastery involves discovering the most resonant information and integrating it so deeply and fully it disappears and allows us to fly free.

However, this is easier said than done. Usually, growth comes at the expense of previous comfort or safety. The hermit crab is a colorful example of a creature that lives by this aspect of the growth process. As the crab gets bigger, it needs to find a more spacious shell. So, the slow, lumbering creature goes on a quest for a new home. If an appropriate new shell is not found quickly, a terribly delicate moment of truth arises. A soft creature that is used to the protection of built-in armor must now go out into the world, exposed to predators in all its mushy vulnerability. That learning phase in between shells is where our growth can spring from. Someone stuck with an entity theory of intelligence is like an anorexic hermit crab, starving itself so it doesn’t grow to have to find a new shell.

Successful people shoot for the stars, put their hearts on the line in every battle, and ultimately discover that the lessons learned from the pursuit of excellence mean much more than the immediate trophies and glory. In the long run, painful losses may prove much more valuable than wins—those who are armed with a healthy attitude and are able to draw wisdom from every experience, “good” or “bad,” are the ones who make it down the road. They are also the ones who are happier along the way. Of course, the real challenge is to stay in range of this long-term perspective when you are under fire and hurting in the middle of the war. This, maybe our biggest hurdle, is at the core of the art of learning.

Most people try to avoid challenges. Their confidence is fragile. Losing is always a crisis instead of an opportunity for growth—if they were a winner because they won, this new losing must make them a loser. This issue is fundamental to the pursuit of excellence in all fields. If a young basketball player is taught that winning is the only thing that winners do, then he will crumble when he misses his first big shot. If a gymnast or ballet dancer is taught that her self-worth is entirely wrapped up in a perfectly skinny body that is always ready for performance, then how can she handle injuries or life after an inevitably short career? If a businessperson cultivates a perfectionist self-image, then how can she learn from her mistakes?

The losses and lessons learned from defeat will be painful, but they will also be defining gut-checks packed with potential. Setbacks teach you how to succeed, and a love of learning will keep you on your path. We need to put ourselves out there, give it our all, and reap the lesson, win or lose. The fact of the matter is that there will be nothing learned from any challenge in which we don’t try our hardest. Growth comes at the point of resistance. We learn by pushing ourselves and finding what really lies at the outer reaches of our abilities. Glory has little to do with happiness or long-term success.

A life of ambition is like existing on a balance beam. As a child, there is no fear, no sense for the danger of falling. The beam feels wide and stable, and natural playfulness allows for creative leaps and fast learning. You can run around doing summersaults and flips, always testing yourself with a love for discovery and new challenges. If you happen to fall off—no problem, you just get back on. But then, as you get older, you become more aware of the risk of injury. You might crack your head or twist your knee. The beam is narrow and you have to stay up there. Plunging off would be humiliating.

It is not so difficult to have a beginner’s mind and to be willing to invest in loss when you are truly a beginner, but it is much harder to maintain that humility and openness to learning when people are watching and expecting you to perform. It is essential to have a liberating incremental approach that allows for times when you are not in a peak performance state. We must take responsibility for ourselves, and not expect the rest of the world to understand what it takes to become the best that we can become. Great ones are willing to get burned time and again as they sharpen their swords in the fire.

Consider Michael Jordan. It is common knowledge that Jordan made more last-minute shots to win the game for his team than any other player in the history of the NBA. What is not so well known, is that Jordan also missed more last-minute shots to lose the game for hist team than any other player in the history of the game. What made him the greatest was not perfection, but a willingness to put himself on the line as a way of life. Did he suffer all those nights when he sent twenty thousand Bulls fans home heartbroken? Of course. But he was willing to look bad on the road to basketball immortality.

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