How To Learn Anything

Most people go through school, college or university learning a lot, but often learning little to nothing about HOW to learn. We might figure out how to study for a test, do an assignment or carefully select our courses, but we often don’t pick up on the skills necessary for us to learn independently outside of an institution. This makes sense, as institutions do the job for us.

However, there IS an optimal way to learn. We know this because education is a science and art in itself. You can do a Masters or PhD degree in education. You can also learn A LOT about the process, psychology and practical aspects of learning if you try to do it when you’re older.

Personally, I learned most of what I know about education AFTER I left university. I became a professional teacher, and engaged in one-on-one learning at the same time with private instructors in Arabic and the Islamic sciences. Besides the content of what I learned, I also unexpectedly gained a lot of insight into the process of HOW to learn. If you follow my page or blog, you know that education, not just Islamic education, is what my life is all about. That love and respect for it came from a lifetime of experience.

Most of my website deals with processes of learning in either the Arabic language or Islamic Studies, so I’m going to use a completely different example to illustrate my points here: cooking. Watching a lot of cooking shows and chef videos during the lockdown has taught me a lot about the process of learning cooking, even though I’m just a dabbler, not even a student. Maybe Gordon Ramsay will read this one day and roast me. Who knows. So a big FYI, this post might sound weird in the context of the rest of this blog. But bear with me.

  1. Start with a guide – Start under the guidance of an expert. Depending on what you’re seeking to learn, whether it be theory, a skill or trade this might be a teacher, a supervisor or a mentor. All learning starts with an authority. Don’t underestimate the importance of this step. It’s basic educational planning, learning psychology and epistemology. Just make sure this person has expertise and knows how to pass it on to others. Not all experts are good teachers, not all teachers out there are experts. The best professional chefs start out as junior workers (doing menial tasks like organizing ingredients, taking out the trash etc) under the tutelage of seasoned chefs in famous restaurants. Cooking is a science and art too. It has its own experts, and those who seek to become experts realize that they must study under experts. Arrogance will get you nowhere.
  2. Follow a curriculum – Before you start learning, find a curriculum to follow. Don’t try to develop your own, especially until you hit an intermediate level. Remember that there are people who have already mastered what you want to learn, and some of them are in the business or practice of teaching it too. Education is no longer just something people do, it is a highly developed (and still developing) science and art in itself. Be respectful and follow the lead of your seniors until you reach the level where you can learn independently (see 10). Learning how to cook requires a progression from learning ABOUT food and ingredients before cooking itself. Why spend decades discovering the basics of cooking yourself (many of which you will get wrong anyway) instead of following your mother’s or grandma’s cooking curriculum? The family biryani recipe is awesome for a reason – more than a few generations went into perfecting it.
  3. Focus on mastering the basics before feeding your curiosity – When you are passionate about learning something, its VERY easy to get ahead of yourself and jump into the deep end. Those who make it this way are the exceptions. Rules are not built on exceptions, most people will drown. Learn the basics, and master them before moving on. Mastering the basics can often be frustrating as you realize that your passion requires much more careful thinking, work and planning that you originally thought. Sometimes it requires you to learn what you don’t care much about or that doesn’t seem to feed your passion, but be patient & respect the process. It can be tempting to skip over the tedious details of food chemistry, practising with simple ingredients, knife skills or stove etiquette and dive straight into cooking the ultimate stir-fry, but the process will be worth it years later when you make that ultimate stir-fry that doesn’t just fill your stomach but makes eating into an experience. An interesting book that covers the basic food chemistry of cooking is Salt Fat Acid Heat by Samin Nosrat. Check it out. I bought it, skimmed a few pages and then shoved it away in a corner.
  4. Apply, practise, problem-solve, inquire & research with supervision – A critical part of learning anything is to apply and practise it. Focusing only on theory doesn’t help, and all of those ideas in your head will slowly waft away into the ether. Inquiry exercises and research greatly enhance learning too, as not every curriculum can cover anything and some learners need more than what is being taught. For all of this, do it under supervision, especially in the beginning. You need someone to check your results. Not doing so will reinforce mistakes and incorrect conclusions. To learn cooking, you obviously need to get around to cooking. You also need to practice cooking with the different ingredients, condiments, spices, flavors, colors, textures etc that your head chef has been teaching you to use. You need to experiment and see for yourself why certain combinations result in average dishes while others result in awesomeness.
  5. Plan & track your progression – Plan how you are going to follow the curriculum you chose. Break it further into chunks (Curricula are general outlines and are usually much more vague than is required to make a SMART-goal style learning plan). Track your progression, tick off what you learn and master as you go along. It will give you a sense of learning and progression that will protect you from inevitable moments of procrastination, boredom and despair. In cooking, have a set progression of dishes, techniques and combinations to try out. As you progress, not only will you feel fulfillment, but greater confidence in your ability to cook, just based on your progression, even if you can’t see the end of the road yet. It will help you through tough times where you are exhausted, lacking in motivation, just tired of cooking all the time, or facing down the barrel of self-doubt.
  6. Consistency is critical, don’t think about intensity – Focus on consistency. A little bit everyday will do more for your learning than fast-tracking in a short time frame. Learning takes time to permeate into your mind and become second nature, regardless of whether we are talking about theoretical knowledge or real-world skills. The goal of learning is to be useful, so it should transform you. Transformation takes time, so have patience and respect the process. A weekend seminar is no replacement for a semester-long course. A chef needs to show up every day in the kitchen (not just because its a job) if they want to learn how to cook. The skills, flavors and science of cooking have to become second nature before it becomes an art.
  7. Find your groove – Every learner is unique. You will some things easier than other people, other things harder. You might be able to breeze through learning objectives that others struggle with. You might struggle with those that others think are a piece of cake. Its normal. Everyone is capable of learning to a high level, so never compare yourself to others, instead focus on the process. No two journeys in that process are the same. A good teacher will help you find your groove and work with it to improve your learning. You might be awesome at figuring out the best techniques, spices and flavors for cooking chicken, but beef and fish but be a serious challenge if you don’t cook it that often. When the head chef asks you to cook chicken, it might come naturally for you, but you should expect Gordon Ramsay to yell profanities at your when you put that fish in the pan.
  8. Don’t cut corners without consultation – As you progress and start to become a little more confident in your knowledge and skills, you might be tempted to cut the odd corner now and then. Don’t do it unless your teacher or mentor approves. It might seem like a good idea to skip over a concept or skill, but you might be making a mistake that will set you back months or even years in your learning. Confidence is good, but overconfidence can be fatal. You love onions and already know how to cook and use them in dishes? You might be tempted to learn the tricks of using them, but maybe that way of using onions was only one way of doing it, and you were missing out on diverse ways of using onions to greatly enhance the flavor of your food (or when to avoid them).
  9. Don’t put yourself in the spotlight until you’re ready – A passionate learner will often share their knowledge and experience with others, or they will be asked questions about their learning. Harmless casual sharing of knowledge and answering questions is obviously okay, but putting yourself on the proverbial podium or in the spotlight when you’re not ready can destroy your progress. If you are a halfway student, its incredibly easy to dupe yourself into thinking that you have learned enough to be some kind of authority (even if you think you are humble and not overstepping your bounds). Thinking you are ready before you do results in learning slowing to a crawl or even stopping, whether due to the blinding brightness of the spotlight, or because you become too busy with your ‘students’. See here for more on this. This is the story of every chef who opened up their own restaurant just because their friends and family thought their cooking was awesome. They only realized their limits after going through the pain of bankruptcy.
  10. Know when to flex your independence – Unless you have a legend of a teacher, you are eventually going to start catching up to them as your near the end of your learning process. A good teacher will often share this sentiment with you, and encourage you. Its at this point that you should start extending yourself. Explore outside the curriculum, wander off the beaten path, try a different teacher. This is when you should let your passion and curiosity slowly start to take the reins again. This is when all the time, patience & work start to pay off. This stage WILL come, you just have to respect the process to get to it. Chefs eventually develop their own flavors, techniques and style of cooking that differentiates them from everyone else and makes their cooking unique. If the chef eventually wants to open their own restaurant, they have to be willing to take the risks necessary for their cuisine to be special and worth the exorbitant money that high end restaurant menus charge.
  11. Don’t stop learning – Always keep learning, researching and filling in the infinite gaps in your knowledge. Explore other subjects, other types of knowledge, and if you have time, teach them too. As we know from the Qur’an, what differentiates us as human beings and makes us so special is our ability to learn. If you’re not learning, you’re not living and you’re not fulfilling your potential as a human being. After you’ve become a master chef and earned a Michelin star or two maybe you could move on and begin the journey of mastering Arabic & the Islamic sciences instead of making profanity-laden TV shows?

This is not an exhaustive list, but the best I can come up with at the moment.

And no, I don’t know anything about cooking. I’m not a food aficionado either. The most exquisite meal I have ever had was an awesome grilled chicken dish at Chili’s in Saudi Arabia. My ‘cooking’ revolves around making basic omelettes, pancakes and grilled cheese sandwiches in the morning, the odd mac & cheese, putting chicken nuggets and burgers in the air fryer, and making the rare stir fry for my family. Oh and I can also toast waffles and pour maple syrup on them. I can also make decent coffee. Yeah. I just wanted to do something different with this piece.

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