I’m lucky enough to be riding out the Corona Virus in Mexico, huddled up in a casa de cuarentena with two fellow travellers who also don’t want to go back to Europe.
It’s sunny and there’s a swimming pool…but otherwise everything is still f*cked.
We’re still stuck indoors for at least the next month.
But instead of lamenting, here’s how we’re taking advantage of the next 30 days to learn 13+ new skills — all from home.
Some of these skills will change your life. Some will turn into rewarding lifelong hobbies. And the rest will at least amuse.
It all started with a list of goals.
The three of us wrote down a list of personal goals we wanted to achieve and then a second list of communal goals for the house. In total:
- Learn a new language (French / Spanish)
- Learn to instantly memorise 40-digit numbers
- Write a book / publish a new article every day
- Learn 3 mind-blowing magic tricks
- Learn Chess to a 1200+ Elo score
- Learn to cook really f*cking well
- Paint a realistic portrait + design own tattoo
- Do 100 consecutive pushups / 200 consecutive squats / a 10-minute plank
- Learn to instantly memorise faces & names
- Swim a 50m breaststroke lap in <60 seconds
- Learn to play the piano
- Produce a full song in Fruit Loops
- Build an MVP to test two new business ideas
Later in this article I’ll go through the exact steps, techniques & tools we’re taking to learn each specific skill.
But before the specifics, I’m going to take you through the 4 Stages of Learning which underly my approach to all of the skills above. Once you understand these stages, you’ll see how the same four-step strategy can be applied to any new skill you want to learn.
The 4 Stages of Learning
Learning for learning’s sake is wonderful. But it’s also wonderfully easy to get lost.
Goals keep you on track.
You can still enjoy the journey — the process of learning — but an end goal gives you something to strive towards & a useful feedback mechanism.
If your goal is to execute 100 consecutive pushups and you’ve been dawdling between 70–75 the last 2 weeks, this is the feedback you need to change something in your approach.
All goals are good. Specific goals are better but some goals are best left open.
For instance, progress in Chess is extremely quantifiable. Chess players are ranked using an Elo score, based on their relative performance against other players. A higher score means you’re getting better.
My Chess goal is to reach a 1200+ Elo score (intermediate level). I can see my Elo score in real-time and its fluctuations after every game I play. This is highly valuable feedback I can make use of to know if my game is improving — or not.
But then there are other goals that lend themselves to nebulosity.
Learning Caleñan salsa, for instance, my goal was just to get to a point where I could comfortably dance — with a woman — at La Topa Tolondra (a famous salsa club) without experiencing horrific social anxiety.
Salsa is not easily quantified like Chess so a more open-ended goal here was more appropriate.
When deciding on my end goals, I always start with: Wouldn’t it be cool if…
And then I complete the sentence. Wouldn’t it be cool if I could draw realistic portraits with just pencil and paper. Wouldn’t it be cool if I knew like 3 mind-blowing magic tricks. Wouldn’t it be cool if I could speak French.
Do some research to work out what’s reasonable. Then prioritise — start with perhaps just the one or two most enticing learning goals.
You can learn everything eventually, but not everything at once.
Next in Stage 2 we’ll turn these lofty goals into a concrete action plan.
2) Intensive Fundamental Learning
Here’s where I invest up to 10 hours up-front to learn the fundamentals of my new subject.
For example, this week with Chess, I’m investing ~1 hour a day to get the fundamentals down: how the pieces move, opening, middlegame & endgame. Along the way, I’m creating a cheat sheet for easy future reference so I don’t have to return to this intensive learning phase.
When I taught myself Spanish, this intensive learning phase involved learning the most frequent 500 words (which covers 80%+ of spoken Spanish) and the fundamentals of verb conjugation.
Once you’ve wrapped up your intensive fundamental learning, you have a base. You understand how your subject works, how to improve and you can get onto the fun part — Stage 3!
But most people never get past the fundamentals — they get trapped in the beginner stage.
Instead of committing to an up-front intensive period of learning, most of us f*ck around learning bits and bobs for 10 minutes every other day and never get anywhere. Never reaching that click point, that Eureka! moment where you see the bigger picture of what you’re learning, where you finally understand how everything fits together.
Stuck in noob hell…forever.
Here you’ll find language learners who still can’t hold a f*cking conversation after 3 years on Duolingo, and Gary V hard-ons who can’t help but tell you about their side hustle that hasn’t made any sales.
To get something meaningful up and running — a big learning project, a new business or a fitness programme — you need to make a serious upfront investment of time to get out of the beginner/noob stage.
If it’s not upfront and intense, you’ll just end up lost in this beginner stage. Forever.
Without ever getting to the next stage — the really fun part! When you turn your learning project into a hobby — a pleasurable pastime instead of horrific chore.
(NB: often during Stage 2 you’ll find that your original goal could be improved upon, to be made more realistic, more specific or more in line with your true desires. For instance, after finding out that Caleñan salsa isn’t danced anywhere outside Colombia, I downgraded my goal from pro hip-swinger to able to dance at salsa club without wanting to cry.)
Finally, my favourite part.
You’ve got the fundamentals down…you don’t need to do any more learning (for a while at least). You just need practice — you need to practise those fundamentals till you f*cking master them.
But practice doesn’t require large blocks of time or intensive commitments.
Most skills can be adequately practised in very small pockets of time — sometimes as little as just 5 minutes. Like a game of chess portioned out over several days, Spanish vocab cramming while you’re on the toilet, or adding a few new details to your portrait.
That said, a one-off 5-minute practice session on its own is going to do f*ck all for your chess, Spanish or portrait art.
These practice sessions need to be consistent. And that’s where Stage 3 Habituation comes in.
You need to turn your practice into a habit — a consistent habit.
For instance, when I was learning Spanish, I made a habit of watching all (okay, like 40%) of my Netflix in Spanish. I picked up new words from the Spanish subtitles, added them to a vocabulary practice app, and then spent 5 minutes on the toilet each morning reviewing my new words.
Flash forward 6 months, I had reached C1 Advanced Level Spanish, could freely chat/flirt with native speakers and even got a job teaching Maths in Spanish at a school in Mexico.
The power of habituation.
And the best part? I enjoyed it. I wasn’t stuck in a classroom, smacking my head against declension tables…I was watching Netflix.
I have similar plans for chess. Once I’ve finished learning the fundamentals (intensively) this week, I’m going to install the Chess.com app on my iPhone and iPad and open it up whenever I get bored. I’ll also be sending out invites to chess-fiend friends to set up virtual games.
I don’t expect to spend more than a couple hours a week playing chess, but over the next few months, this will aggregate until I’ve mastered the game’s fundamentals.
And again, I am going to enjoy this process.
That’s what Stage 3 Habituation is all about: turning your learning into an enjoyable, consistent habit of practice that will naturally advance your chosen skill.
But practice doesn’t make perfect.
If you keep practising Twinkle Twinkle Little Star on the piano for the next 10 years you’re never going to advance to the ranks of Clair De Lune or Chopin.
This is why Stage 4 Iteration is critical.
Every few practice sessions, you need to take stock and iterate.
You need to check how you’re progressing against your goal. Work out whether you’re advancing or stagnating. And if the answer is stagnating, it’s time for iteration.
For instance, when first learning Spanish, I very quickly reached a point where I could express 99% of my thoughts with (fumbling) clarity and understand 90% of one-to-one conversations. However, my end goal was native-like fluency — I wanted my Spanish to be (almost) as good as my English.
And I still wasn’t there. Complicated movies were still a blur to me without Spanish subtitles. And my vocabulary was still restricted to workarounds: like asking for el tubo que se usa para dar agua a las plantas [the tube that’s used to give water to the plants]…instead of la manguera [the hosepipe]!
So I iterated. My strategy of watching Netflix, noting useful vocab and taking one-to-one online lessons had worked up to now, but I was stagnating and needed to change things up to get to the next level.
I turned off the Spanish subtitles — this time round, if I didn’t understand something I had to replay the audio until I did, checking the transcript only as a last resort.
I stopped noting just useful vocabulary…and started noting all vocabulary. And if I didn’t know the specific word for something, I f*cking looked it up — no more workarounds.
These two ostensibly small iterations broke through my Spanish learning plateau and got me to the native-like advanced level I was looking for.
Iteration is critical to smash through stagnant plateaus and continue advancing.
The easiest way to iterate successfully is to set up short review periods every week or month where you reflect on your progress, identify the weak spots holding you back and then iterate your practice to specifically improve those weakest points.
I often keep a “learning journal” to help with these reviews. I try to update it after every few practice sessions with a list of errors I’m making and things I could do better.
(NB: Sometimes this iteration stage can take you back to Stage 2 — Intensive Fundamental Learning. For instance, my writing skills have stagnated for 2+ years in a dreary, inescapable plateau. To smash through it, I’m going to invest ~6 hours in MasterClass courses and advanced how-to-write books to level up my writing.)
So those are, in broad terms, my 4 Stages of Learning.
Obviously, there are exceptions and nuances and subtleties. And that’s why we’re now going to see these 4 Stages in action with 6 of the specific skills we’re learning over quarantine.
A foreign language (French)
Reach conversational fluency in French (i.e. enough to go on a date in pure French).
Intensive fundamental learning
Learn the most frequent 1000 words of French which covers ~90% of spoken French and stick them into Anki (spaced repetition vocabulary app) for consolidation.
Learn the most frequent conjugation patterns. Learn the most common irregular conjugation patterns. Learn French pronunciation and train by recording myself (on iPhone) and comparing against native pronunciation using Forvo.
Watch Friends in French on Netflix with French subtitles (NO English!) and Language Learning Netflix installed (this lets you hover over the subtitles to see the English translation when you don’t know a specific word).
Add new words to Anki with vocal recording from Forvo. Review words in Anki whenever on toilet with phone to hand. Play VR Chat on French servers and practise speaking to native French-speakers.
Progress to more advanced Netflix series in French. Take private lessons to identify specific weaknesses in your grammar and pronunciation. Learn and practise the outstanding verb conjugation patterns.
Write engaging content that I would want to read myself + find my own voice as a writer (to break out of the stale personal development cliché).
Intensive fundamental learning
My writing ability is already advanced but Stephen King’s On Writing Well + a bunch of MasterClass courses should provide the redirection I’m looking for to break my current writing plateau.
Spend 1–2 hours per day writing about things I’m interested in. Cross-reference what I’ve written against notes made from the Intensive Fundamental Learning stage to make sure I’m not falling back into old habits.
Read back what I’ve written and identify mediocre paragraphs — you know, paragraphs lacking in punch or personality. Work out why these paragraphs suck and how to improve them; then carry that information onto my future articles. Might also be worth getting professional feedback from an editor.
Learn to swim
Learn how to swim and complete a 50m length in <60 seconds.
Intensive fundamental learning
Read Total Immersion. Watch swimming videos and make a checklist with screenshots of correct body positions. Then swim, swim, swim until I can perform each stroke for at least one lap (without drowning).
Swim 20 laps every day after my standard workout. (It’s quarantine, I got time)
Identify less fluid movements by isolation — e.g. isolating my breaststroke kick, I realised it was super weak, scarcely propelling me forward. Buy floats to keep upper body afloat so I can improve in isolation my kick.
Learn to cook a handful of fast, utterly irresistible recipes — the kind you could eat every day for the rest of your life.
Intensive fundamental learning
Start MasterClass classes from Gordon Ramsay and Gabriela Cámara. Upfront, make a list of all ingredients + cooking tools required and order online from Amazon for the first 7 recipes. Watch YouTube videos on how to chop things fast.
Cook a new recipe every day for dinner — weekends off.
Once we’ve got these first few recipes down, move onto other MasterClass classes and other learning materials & cookbooks — like Tim Ferriss’ 4-Hour-Work-Week.
Be able to instantly remember WiFi passwords and phone numbers.
Intensive fundamental learning
Watch YouTube videos on the Major System (used by memory champions to memorise 1000+ digit numbers) and Memory Palaces. Create several memory palaces. Create mnemonics for all 2-digit numbers and practise memorising 100+ random 40-digit numbers to finetune the mnemonics.
Change default Google Chrome page to random number generator website. Everytime you open Google Chrome, commit all digits to memory using the memory techniques and then return to the page later in the day — see if you successfully remembered the digits or not. Note down, which numbers you are misremembering.
Change the mnemonics you find harder to remember numbers until they stick quicker. Build new memory palaces to avoid overlap — often a problem when using the same memory palace for multiple strands of numbers.
Be able to instantly remember someone’s name (forever?) from a brief first encounter.
Intensive fundamental learning
Open up Luis’ book whenever you’re waiting for something to microwave and go through one page of name retention exercises. There’s a bunch of faces, you have to use mnemonic techniques to remember the names of the faces, and then you check yourself later.
Expand list of mnemonics to less common names! And start practice on more challenging foreign names.
If you’re interested in more details on how I’m learning any of the skills above, or need help reaching one of your own goals — language, business or fitness — feel free to get in touch!