I was an absolute nerd growing up, but fortunately for me, I suppose, I never really knew it. My mother taught me to read before I started school, and encouraged me to develop a serious love of the public library. This gave me a great head start in school, and by second grade, I had to sit in a class room by myself to work years ahead in english. The very same year, we had a fund raiser for Multiple Sclerosis, and I won the prize for getting the most contributions. My neighbors must have had heart failure when they got the bill, because they agreed to donate a set amount for each book I read, and I read something like fifty books. I don’t tell you this to brag, but rather, to preface this article with my back-story of how I developed an insane love for learning…
This habit of reading continued for me, all of my life. Even during my “experimental years,” during high school, where I pounded out the angst I felt over 5 deaths in my family and my parents separation, by growing my hair nearly to my waist and exploring the wonders of hallucinogenics, I continued to read. Yes, I was that guy…the paradox that ran with the bad boys, but did well in school. My guidance counselor suggested a “blue-collar” learning path, only seeing the glassy eyes and long hair, and smelling the cigarettes on my clothes, absolutely clueless that I was reading Kafka and Neitzsche in my leisure hours. And while I annoyed the neighbors with my loud hard rock music, chambering a bong, I was also trying to figure out the big questions, like “why are we here?” and “what’s the meaning of life?”
But let’s dive more deeply into the core of this article, because while I love to reminisce, I want to let you in on a system I figured out to get really good at most anything quickly.
As wild as I was growing up, I was a pretty practical guy, and so, I almost completely stopped reading fiction by high school. I wanted to real “meat and potatoes” when it came to learning, so if I got interested in anything, I’d grab every book I could on the subject and dive in. But then an odd thing happened. As I’d learn a new subject, I’d develop an even deeper reading list. Sometimes this would come from the bibliography in the back of the books I read, but often, it was from my changing “context” about the subject matter. You see, every time you explore something new, you start to learn the “language” of that topic. You’ll encounter terms you’ve never heard of before. And each of these terms is like a limb on a tree, expanding outward into increasingly smaller branches. It doesn’t take long before you find your reading list going from 4 books to 40. And it goes exponential from there.
For example, if you decided to pick up guitar, you may start with an acoustic, and then say you buy a guitar method book. You learn a few chords, perhaps learn the basics of reading music…and then you find out there are things called scales. So then you go looking for more scales. Maybe you buy a book about scales…and as you start studying this, you hear about something called “modes,” and then you go look for a book on modes. And you just dive deeper and deeper.
Now this can create an incredible depth of knowledge, but, knowledge on its own isn’t the same as understanding. So, you benefit more from digesting each piece of material, and then playing with it. In my example, you could learn every chord, but you still have to develop the muscle memory to be able to hold them down properly. If you don’t, you have the knowledge, but when you play, the strings buzz, and your friends probably won’t consider what you’re playing very musical. You need to also work the right hand technique, and get your strumming patterns down, otherwise you sound like a bad folk artist and everything you play sort of sounds the same. And scales, well, they’re great for practicing, but people don’t generally like to listen to them, and certainly not the number of times you’ll need to play them before you have them memorized. So you’ll want to take a scale, and then develop melodies from the notes in it.
So now, you might be thinking, all of this sounds like a lot of work that’s going to take a lot of time. But here’s where it gets interesting. Remember I said practical? Well, I’ve found if you break out of the rigid structure, the graduated learning, that most things adhere to, and rather take each “chunk” of knowledge and play with it as you go, you develop the “understanding” of each chunk of knowledge as you go. And then, if you keep in mind, that you probably don’t need to know absolutely everything about the subject to apply it in the way you want to, you can then very strategically put your attention and time into just the most practical, direct path to accomplish what you want to be able to do.
If you want to play AC/DC songs, you don’t need more than a few chords. There is no benefit to learning say a “diminished” chord if you want to crank it up like Angus Young. But, you’ll also want to trade that acoustic for an electric, get yourself a distortion pedal, and learn the blues scale. Now instead of reading a Mel Bay guitar method book, you can go right to the guitar magazine that has “Back in Black” tablature in it, and in short order, you’ll be moving closer to your end goal. You won’t need a slide, so no need to learn how to use one. You won’t need to learn finger style.
And so you get functional knowledge much more quickly. And then, as you master that, perhaps you have other guitarists you admire as well. So you just repeat the process for those musicians.
This works whether we’re talking guitar, art, football or investing. It literally works for everything you’d ever want to know. And as you gain competency in one very focused area, then you can expand out further, and dig deeper into the mine of knowledge.