Learn Quickly: How to Soak up things like a Sponge

Matt McCormick


All my life I’ve been able to pick up things very quickly. This has led me to being bored with classes at times since they need to go at the pace of the average learner. I still remember taking Math class in high school. One year my teacher would assign the homework due for tomorrow at the beginning of class. I would usually just ignore what he was talking about and read the textbook and do the homework in class. Often I would be finished by the end of the hour.

When I’m learning something new now, I’ll often look around at other beginners and see them struggling with things while I’ll be ready to move on. I often wonder what is the difference? I have no doubt that some of it might be due to nature and genetics. But I have also noticed general things I do that allow me to learn faster than others. Here is what you can do to learn faster:

Adopt a Learning Mindset

This is probably one of the biggest aspects. People are 99.9% the same. We are much more similar than different. A lot of the time we don’t realise this because it’s much easier to notice the differences. Being similar means that anything someone else has learned, you can learn too…if you put in the effort.

Know you are going to Fail

When you start something new, you will fail the first time. Maybe the second or third time too. I think everyone innately understands this. Unfortunately, many people try to avoid this. When starting something, they will spend a long time trying to decide the best way to do it in an attempt to avoid failing. This leads to people giving up before they have even started or overthinking.

For example, when I decided to learn salsa dancing last year, I signed up for a course which was quite expensive and wasn’t teaching me what I wanted to learn. I spent a lot of time and money on it and didn’t receive as much value from it as I should have. Later I found different classes that were much cheaper and more valuable to me so I switched. Signing up for those first classes was a failure in that I wasn’t getting good value for my money but it was much better to do that than take time hemming and hawing about which direction to go.

Another reason people learn slowly is ego. As we grow older, many people don’t want to be seen as beginners. It’s a good thing we didn’t know this when we were babies. There may be a lot of people who never learned to walk or talk if we did. Can you imagine a baby not enjoying the process of learning to crawl or walk?

Knowing you are going to fail at something the first few times means you should jump right in. There is no avoiding it. Get those failures out of the way quickly so you can move on to the learning stage.

Rest and take Breaks

Rest is completely undervalued in our culture. I like not being busy and having lots of leisure time. Many people don’t seem to be like this. They “brag” about how much they work or how little sleep they get. There is a limit to how much a person can do or learn in a set period of time. Once you reach that limit, you will not be able to do any more until you rest and re-charge your batteries.

I have forced myself to go to dance classes when I was really tired and they have been a waste of time. I wasn’t able to retain anything I learned. Contrast that to classes where I had a nap beforehand and the difference is incredible. I was able to retain a lot more of what I learned and I had a lot more FUN! You should be taking breaks after 45 minutes of learning to let your mind absorb and process the new information.

Understand the learning curve

The best book I have read on learning is “Mastery” by George Leonard. One of the many great insights in the book, that is obvious when you think about it, is that we don’t learn linearly.

Not how we learn

Instead, we learn in a series of rises and falls.

Two steps forward, one step back

We take two steps forward, one step back and then be stuck at a plateau. This plateau could be anywhere from a few minutes to several years. Many people quit when they are in one of these plateaus. It’s easy for us to get frustrated and think we have stopped learning. Instead, enjoy the plateau! It is your mind’s way of saying “Ok, you have learned enough for now. I need to process all this new information and master it before we can move on.” The plateau is a necessary part of the learning process. It allows you to retain what you have learned.

A great thing to know about the learning curve is how fast you can advance. After just 6 months of practice, you will be better at that skill than 90% of the population. It doesn’t matter if you are a complete beginner. No matter what you take on today, you will be better than almost everyone in only six months if you practice regularly.

After that, the curve really steepens. It takes another 10 years to get into the top 1%. Understanding this scale lets you be aware of how much effort you want to put in. Maybe the top 10% is good enough for you. I am in Toastmasters but have no aspirations to become a professional public speaker. Because of this, I don’t feel bad if I am not putting in as much effort into that as in other areas. Some other things, like dancing or programming, I do want to be in the top 1% and so I need to practice regularly for a longer period of time to achieve that.

Everyone has the ability to learn. If you haven’t used the learning portion of your brain for a while it may take longer to re-activate it. You can learn quickly and you can learn whatever interests you.

Enjoy the learning process. Be like a child. Jump into things. Have fun!