Learning How To Learn | A Musician’s Approach

In a recent episode of Sam Harris’ Waking Up podcast, author and futurist Kevin Kelly claimed that the most important skill contemporary education can offer is learning how to learn.

As technology changes at an ever-increasing pace, Kelly argues, we’ll all be perennial “newbies,” forever required to master new competencies which themselves will soon become obsolete as the next round of innovation kicks in.

But it’s more than technology. This endless churning also disrupts social, economic and political cultures, which also need to be understood if we wish to thrive within them.

As much as I wish, at times, that life moved at a slower tempo, I  agree with Kelly’s analysis. All of us, whether we like it or not, need to be forever learning, and that means learning how to learn.

My career (which I imagine is not dissimilar to that of countless others) is a case in point. I work as a marketing consultant and creative running my own business. To remain competitive, I need to  be both fluent and up-to-date across a large number of software applications including the Adobe Creative Suite, social media apps like HootSuite, and business applications like Quick Books and Excel. My website work demands I know at least at modicum of CSS, HTML and Javascript. Along with that, business mores and norms are in flux.

That’s a lot to stay on top of, especially when software updates, some of which change one’s workflow significantly, are occurring more frequently than ever.

Music Has Taught Me How To Learn

Fortunately, I’ve had a lifetime of training in the science and art of learning. Since I was a child I’ve studied music, specifically the study of spontaneous musical composition on the tenor saxophone. I still practice for at least an hour and a half each day, and through that discipline I’ve acquired a great deal of knowledge about what learning means for me and how to go about it efficiently and enjoyably.

Although everyone learns differently, I’d like to share a little bit of what I know.

1) Learning How To Learn Means Learning Patience

Perhaps the most important ingredient to effective learning is being able to be patient. This, by the way, is an acquired skill. As Buddhists say, we are all born with a “monkey mind,” scurrying from one thought to the next, unable to focus on what’s before us.  And our hyperactive media environment only makes this natural impulse worse.

What I’ve learned through musical study is the art of delayed gratification. A technical or conceptual challenge may take weeks, months, even years to master. So rather than freak out when it appears that no progress is being made, I’ve learned to just keep at it. Keep calm and carry on.

2) Learning How To Learn Means Going Slowly

“Keeping at it” doesn’t mean barreling through a musical passage or set of chord changes making the same mistakes each and every time. It means stopping, taking the time to analyze what’s wrong and why things aren’t working as they should. It may be a question of how I’m positioning my hands, or a weakness in my ring finger, or not hearing inside my head what the next note is, or not fully understanding the harmonic or rhythmic concept I’m trying to master.

3) Learning How To Learn Means Mastering The Basics

The further down the road I go, the more I understand that “knowing” something is about an ever-deepening grasp of a few basic concepts and skills. The most complex structures and concepts are in almost all cases the combination of a finite and manageable group of fundamental techniques and ideas.

4) Learning How To Learn Means Approaching A Problem From Many Angles

There are many ways to approach a new concept, many ways one can explain it. For each of us, one approach might be more effective than another. What I’ve found, however, is that approaching a problem form a variety of angles is the best way to go. Each form of explanation complements the other, leading to richer and deeper understanding overall.

4) Learning How to Learn Means Learning How To Practice

Almost all learning involves repetition. You need to be repeatedly exposed to a concept and employ it regularly.  Sad to say, in an age in love with efficiency and quick fixes, there are no shortcuts. But practice works. I can’t tell you how many times I felt I couldn’t master a musical technique or idea —that it was simply impossible— only to discover after hours and hours of practice that what seemed insurmountable suddenly felt obvious.

5) Learning How To Learn Means Enjoying The Journey

It can be frustrating as you try to learn something new. There will be many occasions when you feel blocked, even inadequate. It’s important, therefore, to recognize that you’re early along a road, that mastery will come in time. The process itself can be both interesting and pleasurable. Relax and enjoy the ride. You’ll eventually get to where you want to go. Better yet,  you’ll discover wonderful things along the way, about the subject at-hand as well as about yourself.

Learning How To Learn Means Instilling A Culture Of Learning

Since a great deal of our learning will be related to our work and take place in our work environments, it’s key that corporations foster a genuine culture of learning. This may not be easy. As I said earlier on, the world we live in places great value on speed and efficiency. Any talk of patience or going slow could appear to run counter to the prevailing ethos.

Paradoxically, the tenets I’ve listed here, are actually more efficient than one might imagine. The time invested in the front end, so to speak, will bear fruit at the back end. Rather than have an approximate or superficial grasp of technique or concept, one acquires a deeper and more flexible understanding that speeds up learning and retention down the road.

Kevin Kelly is right. We will all be perennial “newbies” as technology advances. But some of the tried-and-true learning methods employed by musicians and others for centuries may be the best way for us to advance along with it, and to feel both comfortable, productive and hopeful in our brave new world.

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