Master the Basics

If I could say that I have a superpower, it would be that I learn very quickly. More than any other skill, this one has been the most valuable to me over the longest period of time. Even when I’m not particularly good at something initially, I’m usually able to learn it and pick it up fast. This comes from specific habits I’ve developed that support rapid learning, and the most important of these habits is this:

Begin with the attitude of expecting mastery.

Whenever you attempt to learn something new, go into it with the expectation that you’re eventually going to master it, however long that will take. Expect to become an expert. Think of yourself as a top pro in training.

If you’re learning to play golf, think of yourself as a future professional golfer. If you’re learning leadership skills, see yourself as a future world leader. If you’re learning martial arts, imagine you’re the next Bruce Lee. It doesn’t matter if you ever actually achieve mastery. That’s not the point. The point is that focusing on the goal of ultimate mastery will sharpen your present focus. If you imagine that someday you’re going to be leading your country, you’re going to pay a lot more attention to learning how to lead and manage people on small projects.

When I started to learn public speaking, I began with the expectation that I’d eventually be one of the top speakers in the world, even if it would take me decades to get there. This gave me a context for working really hard on the basics over the past year because a top pro must be able to handle the basics nearly flawlessly.

Another way to apply this idea is to imagine that you’ll eventually have to teach whatever you learn to someone else. If that works better for you, great — use it.

Think about how this attitude will sharpen your present moment actions. Suppose you’re about to learn something totally new to you. Let’s say it’s learning to play chess. In the first scenario, imagine you don’t care how good you get and that you just want to try it to see how it goes for you. In the second scenario, picture yourself as a next world chess champion, putting even Gary Kasparov’s amazingly successful career to shame. Can you see how the second attitude will sharpen your focus for learning chess today — right now — even if you never do become a grandmaster? What would you do differently with the second attitude that you wouldn’t do with the first?

The attitude of mastery causes you to take a long-term strategic approach to learning. You understand that any early weaknesses will be magnified as you progress, so you take the time to lay a solid foundation with no gaps. If you’re learning to play golf, you’ll take the time to perfect your grip and your stance early on, knowing that if you try to progress to advanced techniques too soon, you’ll only reinforce bad habits.

One of the reasons people fail to learn quickly is that they don’t build a solid enough foundation. They cripple their progress by forcing themselves to move past concepts they haven’t yet mastered.

If you can’t get an “A” grade in arithmetic, you shouldn’t progress to algebra — if you do then you’ll be crippled trying to learn calculus.

Master the basics first, no matter how long it takes. Earn your “A” in every single basic skill before you move on to advanced skills. This is the fastest way to learn in the long run. Earn the right to graduate through each step from novice to intermediate to expert.

Now if you ever find yourself stuck trying to learn something new, and progress seems really slow, and you just don’t seem to be getting it, then ask yourself this: Is there a prerequisite skill I haven’t yet mastered? Almost always the answer will be yes. If you’re having trouble learning creative writing for instance, have you mastered basic grammar, writing sentences, writing paragraphs, etc.

Go back and brush up on basic skills as often as needed. Top pros in virtually any field will invest a lot of time doing this. Professional golfers will hit hundreds of golf balls at the driving range. Chess players will practice opening book moves and end-game scenarios over and over. Professional football players (American or European version, take your pick) will do grueling physical workouts to keep their bodies properly conditioned. One of my fellow Toastmasters often tells me that the best way to improve one of my speeches is “Practice x 3” … i.e. practice, practice, practice.

If you experienced a shoddy education early in life, take responsibility as an adult to correct it. Go back and re-learn what you should have learned as a child until you achieve mastery of all the basics. If your reading, writing, and math skills aren’t at least at a 12th grade level after graduating high school, then you make them so.

Success in many endeavors often comes not by applying some complicated fancy new technique but rather from consistent mastery of the basics. You don’t need to buy a fancy new piece of exercise equipment to lose weight if you master any basic exercise. You can lose all the weight you want just from running or biking.

This goes for personal management habits too. You can inject all kinds of fancy technology into your life to try to become better organized, but it won’t mean squat if you haven’t mastered the basic skill of self-discipline. Throwing extra technology on top of an undisciplined person will just make a bigger mess.

If you ever catch yourself thinking that the solution to your problems is something fancy and complicated, I challenge you to question that assumption. Can you reduce the problem to a deficiency in basic skills? New technology will only make you more of who you already are. If you’re inherently disorganized, technology will merely turn your physical clutter into techno-clutter. If you can’t cook, more cookware isn’t the answer.

There are no shortcuts here. When you want to learn something new, adopt the attitude of mastery going in, and then put in the time to master the basics. This is what it takes to achieve enduring success.