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How to Learn New Things as an Adult (theatlantic.com)
296 points by pmcpinto on March 19, 2017 | hide | past | favorite | 113 comments

I really don't think there's much difference between learning as an adult or a teenager. It's just that we have less time.

A few months ago I wanted to learn to appreciate and listen to classical music. I woke up an hour earlier every morning and read a book, listened to an audio course (Robert Greenberg's How to Listen to and Understand Great Music), and listened to actual music then and throughout the day. A few months later I can recognize the structure of most pieces and if the composer "broke the rules" (and why). I can't read music or tell which note is which (yet!) but I made a lot of progress.

Unless it's a particularly difficult subject, simple daily practice and learning goes a long way.

I'm mid 40's now. It is significantly different than when I was 20 or younger.

It was like I had more horsepower back then. I could sit down and do 200 vocabulary words 90% retention after a single pass. I'm nowhere close now.

On the other hand, I can organize my attack on learning something so much better than I could before.

I'm the exact opposite. Back in my 20s I was surrounded by countless distractions: bar-hopping, parties, girls, video games, you name it. Sitting down and applying myself to learning something took tremendous effort.

Now that I'm in my 30s though, I have way more focus. I can easily sit down and work on a project for hours at a time. On top of that, I have way more motivation, because I have a very good idea of what I want in life and I know how to get there.

Same, in fact I dropped out of college after the first two years (started immediately after high school). I took a few years off and then went back only to find that I was able to learn things much easier, and with less distraction that I had at a younger age.

As someone who's still in the "dropped out" phase, this is tremendously encouraging. I can tell that I am improving in my concentration, discipline, catching myself procrastinating etc, but sometimes I worry that it's too slow and that I'll never develop to the point where I'll be able to complete a degree.

I'm there to man. Just got into my 30's and things seem clearer now to me.

40s ditto.

I don't know about you but I also don't feel like I have that much time like when I was 20, so I at least try to squander less of it

Retention is something you can train. In your teens you used to train your retention, so it was significantly better. After becoming an adult you spend much less time learning, and the ability to remember things after the first pass has declined.

I gurantee that if you train your memory daily, you will get the same retention as you used to.

> I could sit down and do 200 vocabulary words 90% retention after a single pass. I'm nowhere close now.

Would be interesting to quantify such changes, but my guess would be that the changes are smaller than expected or felt.

> I really don't think there's much difference between learning as an adult or a teenager. It's just that we have less time.

I am a 40-year-old full time student with a kid, but no job. I disagree completely. I've got the time. When I was 20, I remembered everything I saw or heard even once. I could recall it with ease. Concepts came easily when they were explained in text or in lecture. Now? I'm still plenty smart and usually get the best grade in my class, but I have to work hard for it, where before I never worked at all at it. I have to spend time actually memorizing things. I have to take time to think about concepts in order to understand them. (Weird, right?)

As far as I can tell, the only real advantages I have over my younger self are that I am better disciplined and I appreciate my education more.

You also might be remembering your skills inaccurately. In jr high and high school I also got top grades easily and rarely studied. In college I finally had to. I wondered where my ease of learning had gone, but eventually realized the most likely explanation was that the material had simply been much easier/more intuitive and that I was tricking myself with selection bias.

I'm not the same person, but I never studied in college either. I would go to lecture and get 90%+ on the exam. I would get Bs and Cs because I would never do any homework. I could use concepts from math classes without having used them before, as long as they were explained in lecture.

  I am a 40-year-old full time student with a kid
One big difference may be: how much quality, uninterrupted sleep can you budget now vs. then?

I think another big one is stress. When I'm stressed out I cannot focus as well. This stops me learning. As a kid you just live in the moment and even what I thought of as stress back then really wasn't.

You mentioned you have a kid and no job. So, you might also worry about the future of your family -- unless you're super rich. I think that makes a big difference. When I was 20 I had the great privilege that I simply didn't care much about my future most of the time. I was able to concentrate fully on what I was doing. Now, I have to handle all sorts of minor problems that occupy some space in my consciousness. I have to allocate time for learning new stuff in advance instead of just doing it when I feel like it and when I'm best at it.

with a kid covers a lot of ages, are you sure you actually have as much time as you think you do?

This is one reason I want to make the use of some sort of spaced repetition software a habit for myself. I can't think of any better way to keep learning new things than structured practice..

I agree, but I'm finding it's hard to follow through with the extra hour in the morning, before the commute and everything. Maybe an audio book could still work.

>I really don't think there's much difference between learning as an adult or a teenager. It's just that we have less time.

Shouldn't cognitive science/medicine also have a say on this?

Who have you been listening to and what do you like so far?

I just re-learned skateboarding. I spent a lot of time skating in my late teens (37 now), and was decent at it. I noticed three things throughout the learning process this time around. First, there is so much more information available today than when I was a kid. YouTube videos alone could keep me busy for years. Then you add in the GoPro and my phone, and you have an entirely new world available. The one downside here is that I find myself edging towards "paralysis by analysis." Less doing, more thinking, which I never experienced as a kid. Second, I'm forced to take things a little slower because of my age and reluctance to get hurt. This means I've gradually progressed through the learning steps, which has resulted in a stronger foundation than I had as a kid. Third, and this is the big'un, I see angles I never considered before. I'll never be confused for a smart person, and I've always been one step away from "getting it" when learning most new things. Now that I'm older and more aware of what it takes to "get me there" I can better create that learning environment. Example: There is a very subtle part of the tail "pop" in an ollie that I just never fully understood until I started skating again recently, but this time I "got it."

(I realize this falls more in the "relearning" than "learning something new" category, but I've typed too much at this point to bail.)

As someone who tried snowboarding for the first time this weekend and fell over around 200 times, this gives me some heart.

Don't worry, snowboarding gets really easy really quick. If you'd snowboard for a week straight, you'd already be able to go really quick without falling and looking pretty cool along the way. The issue is most people only do it at most 3-4 days a year for just a couple hours, so it looks like it took them "years" to snowboard decently.

This. Its like learning how to do anything else using edges like surfing, ice skating, skiing. First you learn how to balance and then you learn how to turn. After that, you can basically ski 50% of most mountains (that is in bounds terrain). Just keep falling and watching how other people transition between edges and you'll figure it out pretty quick.

I believe I've read somewhere that it takes about 100 hours of deliberate practice to become proficient at something and 10,000 hours to master it. A week of snowboarding for eight hours a day would get you halfway to that 100 hour point and definitely put you above the beginner so this definitely makes sense.

I snowboard a tremendous amount and have tought many people. Your experience is typical.... Even with a great teacher newbies spend their first two days eating it!

Okay interesting, thanks. Not just me, glad to hear this.

Yeah keep at it, the first few days are the worst. After that though you should be flying down the mountain.

This article seems to be an advertisement so I don't have a positive disposition towards it.

There's this free online course: https://www.coursera.org/learn/learning-how-to-learn which I think might be preferable to the book in the article, since it has transcribed video that you can speed up, exercises, and quizzes.

I took that course. I didn't gain much from it. There is some interesting theory about how we learn.

The best (er.. only) trick I remember: rather than re-reading material, reflect on it for a few minutes after you've read it, trying to recall and organize it in your mind.

You are probably already a great learner then. I took the course and can definitely say it was an eye opener.

Few additional tricks I picked up: * Recall(as you mentioned) is critical to understanding. Effective recall also connects a topic just learned with other known topics. * A problem looks solvable but its important to actually apply yourself and arrive at the solution. The process of learning does not offer rewards until the mind has been exercised. * Deliberate practice of poorly understood concepts. Don't fall into the trap of fooling yourself to believe that you have understood a concept or practicing problems that you are already good at. * Read through material quickly to to create a "framework" or stick-figures in the mind. Gradually add new concepts to the basic framework. * Learning is best done with frequent breaks to absorb information. Learning is also a passive process where the neurons need time to grow. * Repetition spaced across several days forces us to recall. This helps strengthen memories and filing concepts into long-term memory bank. * Better sleep helps.

I could go on. Really wonderful course.

All these are basic Common Sense, aren't they though? In fact, structuring them like this appears to take all the fun out of the process of learning, reducing it to a mere mechanical algorithm.

My take is this - you learn best when you are curious or can get curious about something. That kind of learning sticks. Or maybe I'm just different.

When im reading purely driven by curiosity, I find myself skimming for new info, giving myself shot after shot of dopamine by going "Aha! familiar", "Aha! know that", but never really doing full justice to the text. I feel like all these years of curious reading has given me a mile of breadth but only and inch of depth in many topics.

The course teaches not just "how to learn" but really "how to learn and become a master of the subject". While being curious and interested definitely gets the learning cart rolling, I doubt one can become a master without deliberately focusing on weak areas of understanding, practice and reflection -- all painful tedious stuff. For me learning sticks when I associate it with things I already know, zoomed in and out a couple of times to both understand a concept itself and how it fits in the big picture. So I do believe having "a method" to learn and deploy new learnings.

Some like me grew up in a culture of rote learning where we repeatedly read and smear the same text over and over again hoping something would stick. A lot of the teaching of the courses were completely counter-intuitive to me. I have spent close to 25k hours studying CS in an academic setting and could have saved myself so much time studying effectively. I've been working in SV for several years now and into some serious studying again so this course was very timely for me.

Sometimes in school (and life in general) there are things you aren't super interested in but must learn anyway to satisfy.

It's not that we are getting dumber. We are just changing our skill set. Remembering where to find a set of information or how to find a set of information is more effective​ than remebering each item in the set. Search engines have changed us so we don't have to remember trivia and can focus on larger ideas that can't be searched.

Except that without knowing those useless trivia you won't even have the chance to draw connections and associations between them, which is essential for working with these "larger ideas" of yours. No, search engines won't make up for simple lack of knowledge. You have to know what to search for in the first place.

I see your point, and I feel you have unfairly made my comment mean something much more than it originally was intended to be. I want to make it clear. I am not advocating not knowing things. I am advocating that some things are "trivia" and some things are not. I feel from your post that you have put more things in the "trivia" category than I would.

This article opened up asking a single question; "what’s the capital of Australia?” -- in an attempt to make the reader feel dumb. The name of a capital of a country you don’t live in is just the sort of data I would classify as trivia. Knowing that there is something called an atlas, or even more precise that there is a book that organizes this sort of information, or even more recently a website that you can ask this question to and receive back reasonable answer is far more important to know than knowing Canberra is the capital of Australia. Without knowing where to find or how to find the answer you would just have to answer “I don’t know”, but knowing these other concepts would allow you to answer “I don’t know, but I am reasonably sure I can find out”.

It should also pointed out that countries have capitals -- is the "larger idea" -- and the fact that Canberra is the capital of Australia is triva. A good way to look at this; things that have unique names but can be categorized in groups are often trivia and the groups they make are the knowledge. The article actually picked a excellent topic to illustrate this notion. The big ideas are countries, states, provinces, territories. Learning the unique names of these things teaching you nothing new -- other than the name. No new ideas are conveyed by learning a new name. Learning that there are states and provinces, how they work, and what their differences is far more valuable than the names of each of the individual states and provinces. So yes, not knowing the triva can still allow you to work my “larger ideas”.

I wouldn't dismiss trivia so ... trivially. Trivia has value.

Getting to know the capital of a country is like creating a tiny hook onto which other information accretes. It creates a sense of familiarity about a place, which sensitises you to other news about the area (for example, the #StopAdani movement which, tragically, is going to fail).

Five years back, I started playing these trivia games at Sporcle (sparkle.com). I mean, what is the use of knowing all the periodic table elements? Then it turns out, a niece independently fell in love with chemistry and the periodic table, which has opened up a nice new channel of talking to each other. And I'm looking forward to visiting Ytterby[1] this summer

[1] http://www.slate.com/articles/health_and_science/elements/fe...

While I did take my example to an extreme to illustrate my point I think we can agree that trivia will be learned along the way, it just not what should be the meat of the teaching or testing.

Your example of #StopAdani made me smile (not because it will fail) But because it sort of proved my point. I did not know who Adani is or what they were doing. But I knew how to search and what sites to go to to get some context. I was ignorant that Gautam Adani and that the Adani group is trying to make a coal mine in Australia -- but not dumb, stupid or helpless. A week from now I will likely have flushed Adani from my mind, but I will remember some company is trying to setup a coal mine and there is some movement to stop it. I will likely remember that I can find more information about this on my hacker news comments history and from there be able to then provide the remaining details.

What I think you have touched on is something entirely different than learning a skill that will provide lasting enhancements to your life. Learning to tie your shoe, or riding a bicycle is a lasting life long skill. Learning that a multinational corporation from India is trying to open a coal mine in Australia is a current event. At most will give you a good talking topic with a buddy where you can exchange trivial information -- much of which you will forget years later.

After writing this I realize that yes, having a relationship with your niece is will provide lasting enhancements to your life, but I think we can all agree the type of knowledge we are talking about here is not relationship building or social skills. While knowing trivia is definitely a good skill for those things it’s not the type of knowledge and skill sets I have been talking about.

There was a journal entry [1] by Richard Feynman shared with me on HN recently -- strangely enough on a very similar topic -- thanks stcredzero. I think this journal entry shows the dangers of trivia teaching and testing and why as a society we need to accept not knowing a easily looked up question does not make someone dumb or stupid. We should be concerning our self with ensuring we know the concepts, how to apply them, and how and where to lookup the information needed to complete the loop.

<rant> On a side note, I link to think of my computer as an extension to my mind. I dabble in many areas of computers and robotics. I could not possibly remember everything needed to do the things i do. Maybe I have subpar memory. And remembering how to find things and answer my own questions with the resources of the computer and internet is a cheap hack. Nevertheless it has allowed me to do some pretty amazing things that I otherwise would have not been able to do. The particular skill I have is something that is becoming more popular and mainstream. I think they call it critical thinking. The particular subskill of critical thinking is problem solving. If I relied on trivia and came across something I did not understand and lacked the skills of knowing how and where to find things I would have not achieved a 1000th of what I have. Bringing this back to the original article and its attempt to make the readers feel dumb because they did not know the capital of a random country -- without critical thinking and problem solving skills and the ability to recognize I have a problem in the first place, I could never have solved the problem. I would have just thrown my hands up and said welp, I don’t know, shit out of luck. We are only lucky the the dialog in the article told us the capital, as we were told no googling although they did not say anything about looking up the answer in a atlas. </rant>

[1] http://v.cx/2010/04/feynman-brazil-education

That Feynman link was very good indeed. Your point is well-taken. There is not enough time and energy to be interested in everything. At the limit, one can say that being interested in everything is being interested in nothing.

At the same time, I must say that playing around with random Sporcle trivia quizzes keeps paying off in unexpected ways, both in my work and social life. As I think about it while composing this response, it seems like the payoff is in making connections with people, although I play without having an end in mind or make a particular effort to remember anything. It is not the individual trivia point; it is more the stochastic effect.

You're essentially arguing for an ontological approach to learning and knowledge in general and in that I 100% agree with you. It would make most people much more efficient (and feel safer intellectually) in this ever more complex world.

However insofar as there's a limit to every principle, I would caution against a too-generic approach 100% of the time: it's often after a second step in which you learn, often by heart (think hobby, think things you love), a bunch of very detailed information about a topic, that you truly feel confident about your knowledge. And this is what we generally define as expertise (albeit 2nd degree until you make things, apply this knowledge). In most cases, it comes with time and exposure (experience, repetition) but is much accelerated by a conscious will to learn (and good methods).

In short, a high-level ontological approach combined with a sizeable degree of freedom to explore this or that topic in ample detail (quite lacking in studies where you have to rush everything).

I want to reply to you but I am too tired to make a proper well thought out reply. So I will keep it short.

I agree with you, and there is a whole lot of stuff to talk about with regards to this (far too much for me to type right now).

As pointed out in my previous reply on this topic, I have indeed stacked the table to one side to help illustrate my point.

I really want to talk more about schooling with regards to this subject of learning and assessing one's knowledge retention. But it is far too late :(

Plus, "what's the capital of Australia?" is the kind of trivia that changes (not often, for capitals, but that's definitely something that happens). In the end, you're better off knowing where to find it when you need the answer rather than knowing a fact that might as well be obsolete.

Yes, but what we're learning now are increasingly 'bread crumbs' rather than full data sets. For instance, once upon a time I knew of most Win32 API functions. I couldn't tell you the arguments but I could tell you there's a function called X that does Y, and maybe give a couple of tips for using it that aren't in the API reference. That's all I needed to know because it was enough to bring up MSDN with the full details of the function.

It's no different to, 30 years ago, knowing that when a piece of equipment is having a problem with its anterior doohickey, the troubleshooting guide is on page 25 of the manual. It only plays up every 18 months and you always have the manual on you, so you don't need to remember more than 'doohickey problems, page 25'.

I feel like academia will be much more efficient once universities start getting on board with this idea.

Out of curiosity, what do you think that adoption will look like?

Personally I'd like to see a large reduction in the emphasis on exams and repetitive homework. Today, at least to some degree, classes are designed to rank students against their classmates by who can memorize the most trivia. The primary objective of every class should be that the students know how to find info related to the subject. The final project in an algorithms course could be something like, "Using google and a programming language of your choice provide an implementation of $ALGORITHM." Where $ALGORITHM could be an algorithm that was not explicitly covered in the course material. This would show that the students have a broad enough understanding of the material that they can seek out solutions to types of problems they haven't seen before.

It depends on what you want from an "Algorithms" course; you could even split it into levels as follows:

1. Graduates can implement algorithms given a nice and thorough description in a textbook or a website.

2. Graduates can implement algorithms given a few minute whiteboard explanation by a colleague or a short answer on a Stack Exchange site. (For a short answer example, look at some at cs.stackexchange or cstheory.stackexchange, where expertise is often assumed.)

3. Graduates can design and implement algorithms that are simple derivatives of those they have seen or implemented before, without any textual advice.

4. Graduates can design non-trivial derivatives of algorithms that they have seen before, given a problem that is not googleable (for example, it came up as a secondary question in your research).

The actual goal depends on the aims of your university or class.

The problem with any level besides 1 is that it seems to require an artificial test environment. You want to give the students easy exercises, say solvable within 60-90 minutes, and you want to give them as much freedom for their implementation environment -- but the reality is, any popular and "time-tested" exercise is fully solved online, most likely in full detail on Stack Overflow. (Speaking from experience, trying to "dress up" the problem in some alternate description doesn't work if the students can Google.)

And, predictably, if you forbid the access to the internet you get upset students, you provide an easy and effective way to cheat, and you give ammunition to the critics who call your testing methods "distant from any actual practice".

I don't know what the "right" answer is, but I am fully convinced that stopping at level 1, the only level where you can realistically allow access to the internet, is not the right way.

Term projects. Those are what prepared me for getting paid to apply my academic knowledge more than anything. All the better when it was left up to me to create the spec. Most of the time I had to abide by some requirements, like 'Must use SPI for communication between two or more microcontrollers', but it was pretty obvious in these classes if you were actually applying what you were learning or not.

See already recommended course https://www.coursera.org/learn/learning-how-to-learn Without small building blocks comfortably sitting in your brain there will be no larger ideas to focus on.

The trick to learning new things as an adult is to never stop learning. For many people university (or highschool, for the slightly less fortunate) is the last time they will actively learn, after that they are 'done learning'.

But you're never done learning! In a world that changes as fast as ours does you'll be learning until you die if you want to keep up and stay relevant in the near future. Even more so in the IT domain.

So don't stop learning, or you'll be playing catch-up with very little chance of success once you do stop.

I wish people would understand that such a world means that new children have less and less of a chance at success.

No, that's not true. They will simply have a new baseline when they exit their secondary education.

Secondary education levels have been a moving target ever since we started educating people to the state-of-the-art. It's been a long time (centuries, really) since an individual could hold the complete state of science in their head so it is all teamwork now and nobody knows everything.

So if you do your education today you simply learn more of something narrower.

There are two issues here, I suspect.

1) Will people be able to meaningfully "produce"? So far our ability to learn has not outstripped the ability of the universe to provide interesting insights.

2) Will we share the fruits of that production in a way that helps new children? This, I'm not so sure about. I'm expecting a child soon and this worries me.

Do you think that every idea people have can be carried out with their hands alone?

What is the alternative?

Life was much better for children back in the 19th century, before adult education really took off!

How to learn new things as an adult:

1) Accept that you're going to suck at the thing.

2) Do the thing.

3) Keep doing the thing.

Brain plasticity and learning "power" aside, I believe the biggest difference between learning something as a child and as an adult is simple how conscious we are that we're trying to learn something and how much we self-reflect and analyse our own abilities and progress.

As a child we typically do things just because we enjoy them, and often don't have an idea of a goal or target, other than simply doing the thing because we find it intrinsically fun. As an adult however we become highly analytic, self-reflective and critical of both ourselves and others, and we start to do things with a consciousness and awareness of others.

Additionally, by the time you reach adulthood there's a high chance that there's a thing that you've done enough to be in a fairly experienced position with, so anything new undertaken as an adult will now be judged in terms of the things you can already do, which means it will feel difficult and you'll believe that you suck at it. Which you do, because you're a beginner, and that's normal and is precisely what it means to be taking up something new!

While trying to play the piano as a child I had no thoughts of achieving a goal or getting to a specific level, and I certainly didn't compare myself to others. I just did it because it was fun. By the time I was more conscious of enjoying it and knew that I wanted to learn more seriously I'd already acquired a basic level of keyboard fluency.

So, having bought a guitar a few weeks ago and finding that all of a sudden trying to acquire a new physical skill is actually difficult (particularly important to remember as a developer where often what we're learning is a variation on an existing technique), I keep having to remind myself that it only feels difficult because it's new, and it would feel just as difficult if I were starting from a younger age, except I just wouldn't be so darn self-conscious about it.

How far along are you with the guitar? I bought mine in 1996 and have been trying to learn it on and off since then. I still don't know a single song, other than the little toy songs in the Hal Leonard books (and only if I have the books in front of me). It's incredibly frustrating.

I bought a second guitar a few years ago to keep at work and I use it during times when I need a break. Even though all I do are scales and nursery rhymes, it's still pretty relaxing.

I've had two different teachers, I've used games like Rocksmith, I've done online self-study courses (Justin Sandercoe seems like a wonderful person), bought the sheet music for my favorite records, etc...

My kids, on the other hand, made progress on their instruments (piano and violin) unbelievably quickly.

Oops, I said "couple of weeks" when what I meant was "couple of days"! So current progress with just Justin Sandercoe's online courses (and not having had any full days to devote yet) is that I've learnt a few chords (D, A and E) and have been working on speeding up the transitions between them.

Mentally I feel like I'm in the stage of curiosity right now, where I simply want to get a feel for the instrument and see whether or not it sticks. I know the genres and styles that inspire me though, and I try not to think about the vast gap between my current abilities and even basic fluency on the instrument (adult self-consciousness).

With piano I played and picked things up myself for quite a long time, such that I now wish I'd realised my interests were serious sooner than I did. With guitar I'm hoping that I work out if it's something I want to continue much sooner, so I don't waste as much time ;)

I certainly don't feel too frustrated at the moment, but I wouldn't mind if the keyboard fluency I've acquired over the years made a difference on the fretboard instead of the whole thing feeling completely unnatural ;)

Scales and nursery rhymes?

If you want to play songs learn chords. Learn A, D and E, play wild thing. Takes like 20 minutes play badly, a couple of days to play ok.

Scales are for soloing rather than rhythm guitar.

I know some chords: A, Am, C, C7, D, D7, E, Em, G, G7

I can switch between those fairly fluidly.

Even Wild Thing has a solo part in the middle. A, D, and E really aren't enough, are they?

Can you name a few other real songs that you think are early beginner level?

That's the kids secret, they don't learn it all in one big bang. Kids don't play the solo or play it perfectly to begin with. They play along with the song on the stereo, then you don't have to do the solo any way! There's also a rhythm guitar going on under a solo, if not you can fill that bit with the same chords as the solo is playing (usually the verse or chorus chords) based on those chords. Then they learn solos later.

Also, if you learn the barre chord, you learn most of modern rock's rhythm guitar.

Polly - Nirvana (E, G, D, C / D, C, G, A# barre), see https://tabs.ultimate-guitar.com/n/nirvana/polly_crd.htm

Pennyroyal Tea - Nirvana (E, G + some barre chords) simple chords and an incredibly simple solo too)

Karma Police - Radiohead (this has a B in it though and like on piano, Bs are a bit awkward)

House of the Rising Sun

Help - Beatles

Everybody hurts - R.E.M. (very basic plucking, D/G), see https://tabs.ultimate-guitar.com/r/r_e_m_/everybody_hurts_cr...

I learnt in the 90s as you might be able to tell. Most songs I know I've no clue what the solos are. Here's some other ideas:



It's also really easy to find basic arrangements. Just search "[song name] tab". What I used to do is search for a song I liked, if the tab looked difficult, search for another song, until I found one I could handle.

Right now, I'm doing the inverse of you, learning piano when I know guitar. I'm doing a course which teaches you very basic song arrangements while it develops you chords and fingering skills, and I personally find it easier to pick up the techniques by practising along to arrangements I vaguely know, even if it's just a verse or chorus.

Thanks for taking the time to write this out. It's very helpful.

How are you finding the piano? At one point I thought that might be a better fit for me because I can type quickly and accurately. But now I watch my daughter play and seeing her read read and play different left and right hand sequences makes me think that would have been more difficult.

After spending quite a bit of time playing Rocksmith, I can't help but think that it should be way better than it is. I think their strategy of ramping up the difficulty is excellent, but the imprecision of the DAC is frustrating. I want it to tell me when I'm accidentally muting or playing a string. I want it to be way more strict in timing of notes and sustains and bends. I suspect that would require custom electronics with a DAC on each string, but I'd be happy to buy that.

Piano's quite fun but not got to the bit yet where you need to play different rhythms with different hands. I'm weeks into it. It's surprisingly easier than I thought it was going to be at the moment. The new methods of teaching seem to be much better.

If you're find rocksmith a good progression, I'd maybe think about sticking with that. String muffling is something you get better at with practice and as your fingers get better muscle memory, but if you watch any live performance you'll see even the pros do it sometimes. Also bends and sustains, you get better at very quickly. It's more just learning the whole sequence and then refining the sequence later. A lot of people don't have the "ear" for hearing those mistakes anyway and won't even notice you make them so it might be that it's deliberately imprecise for beginners, I've no idea when I picked up the skill. Fore example, most non-musicians won't notice a bass guitar or the difference between a bass guitar and a guitar, although generally speaking people seem to be a bit more musically literate these days than in the 90s because of the internet.

One great trick which you probably know about is to play a progression incredibly slowly, so slowly you get every note perfect (just a tiny snippet of a few notes, at most like 10 seconds of a song). Then repeat it a bit faster, but still very slow, making every note perfect. If you fail a note, restart it again at that speed. Increase speed a little bit every time you get it right until you're playing it faster than it's normally played.

EDIT: Also, there's a certain amount of your finger tips getting a bit harder as you play more which makes it easier to play.

> A lot of people don't have the "ear" for hearing those mistakes

That's me. It's why I wish Rocksmith could be much more strict than it is.

> play a progression incredibly slowly

Rocksmith does that too. One thing that bugs me about it is that after you get 100% on some piece in slo-motion, I wish it would automatically ramp up the speed 10% and start over and continue doing this until I'm playing the section perfectly at normal speed (or maybe even faster than normal). Instead, I have to pick up the control, navigate through some menus that aren't terribly well laid out, then restart the exercise.

Knocking On Heaven's Door was the first 'real' song I could make sound halfway decent.

Bob Dylan's version?

Any other suggestions?

Yes, Dylan's version, you can do it with only about four chords.

Others I have enjoyed learning are REM's Country Feedback (not the slide bit, the chords) and Bowie's cover of Jacques Brel's Amsterdam - this has an F but you can get away with Fmaj7, which is much easier.

I'm very much a beginner too - coming towards the end of the Justin Guitar beginner's course. The song book that goes along with it has some good tunes.

That reminds me, Blowing in the wind's an incredibly easy to learn song too, four chords, easy progressions, only one quick change to an easy Em (I believe).


You can also do it without the Em, but it doesn't sound as good.


I've played guitar since I was 12 (I'm much older than 12 now), but I've learned other instruments in adulthood (drums and bass, mostly), and I've taught guitar lessons to adults. I think I've got useful opinions on the subject.

I believe there's a certain mindset that develops in musicians, that doesn't have much to do with the instrument or your age. The thing about being a musician is, you're always learning. I don't mean that in a hand-wavey kind of way. I mean you literally are always learning: New songs, new arrangements with different musicians and different lineups, new ways to address your own limitations (as you get older, physical limits can play a role in how you play/sing/perform something). There is no state where you're "finished" becoming a musician.

So...to be a good musician: accept that it is always learning and that you'll never be finished learning, and play whole songs with other people.

If you can't play with people, use a metronome or drum machine. Rocksmith is probably great, though, for muscle memory and rhythm; but, I noticed when learning to play drums with Rock Band that I immediately forgot the songs when the tracks weren't flashing by in front of me, so my "twitch game" skills were handling playing the game, while my "learning songs" abilities were seemingly switched off.

But, definitely play songs. From start to finish. If you flub a note, keep going, but play it slower next time, until you can play it without flubbing it. Chord books are a great way to get satisfying music without a lot of knowledge. If you teach yourself to sing and play at the same time, you can make real music all by yourself. People might even like it. And, work on one song until you're comfortable with it, reducing how much you rely on the chord chart each pass through (look at it every bar to start, then every other bar, then every fourth bar, etc.).

As others have mentioned, learning fast is not just an innate trait, it's directly related to how you feel about learning. If you view the learning process as a roadblock, it will be one. It's not a roadblock; it's what everyone does every time they play a new song.

And, to compare learning in childhood vs learning as an adult; I learned guitar as a child (well, I started when I was 12), and drums as an adult (I tinkered in my 20s, but never owned a drum set until my 30s and definitely wasn't able to do more than hold down a simple 4/4 rhythm before that). I learned drums a lot faster than guitar. Maybe I would have developed muscle memory better as a child, maybe I would have gotten more of a nuanced appreciation of rhythm or something, but I was able to focus my learning in very productive ways as an adult that I probably didn't have the mental framework to do as a child. It probably helped that I already had pretty deep musical knowledge on which to hang my new drumming skills...but, nonetheless, drums are a very different set of skills from guitar.

When I think back on my learning to play guitar, I very rarely learned anything until there were "stakes". If I was learning a song just for the fun of it, I wouldn't do it...I'd fiddle around, learn one riff, repeat it a few times, and then go play video games or something. If I was learning a song to play with my band, or to perform for an audience, it would stick a lot faster.

>I noticed when learning to play drums with Rock Band that I immediately forgot the songs when the tracks weren't flashing by in front of me, so my "twitch game" skills were handling playing the game, while my "learning songs" abilities were seemingly switched off.

Rocksmith addresses this problem: when you reach a certain level of song mastery it starts making track invisible and if you make mistakes it puts it back on.

My favorite teacher in grade school, and echoed by my favorite teachers later in life, told me that the most important thing they are trying to teach us is how to learn because we'd all be learning for the rest of our lives.

I still strongly agree with that sentiment, but the difference/problem with learning as an adult is two-fold: why I am learning, and how much time I have to learn/apply that knowledge.

There is a difference in learning material to 'ace' a midterm/final exam, versus learning something to figure out a novel way, or picking up a new technology, to accomplish some task (e.g., at work). Part of the difference is who decides what can be "pruned", and especially when. I think back on all the 'stuff' I knew I would never need again once the final was over. Admittedly, I wasn't always correct, but age and experience increased my hit rate, and what subjects I under or over estimated could be whole other threads.

I am retired now, but have gotten into learning, mostly just for fun, some of the most complex (nasty) subject matter that I never had time for before. If I want to go off on some tangent, or deep dive, I can. The amount of free (or inexpensive) courses out there is wonderful and exciting.

Motivation and perseverance are the keys. If can somehow keep those fires burning in the long run, you'll do well.

My problem is that I tend to get really interested in learning something, work really intensely at it for a while, then get bored and move on to something else, leaving dozens of unfinished projects in my wake.

> My problem is that I tend to get really interested in learning something, work really intensely at it for a while, then get bored and move on to something else, leaving dozens of unfinished projects in my wake.

This isn't necessarily bad, just that the thing you learned wasn't actually something you needed to learn. I don't mean that negatively though. For example, I use JavaScript and Python at work. I recently read a Haskell book and learned enough to do its exercises. I won't use Haskell at work any time soon and I don't have that much time for personal projects... so was it a waste of time? I don't think so, since I enjoyed the process of learning and a lot of concepts will stay with me.

If you want to do project X and can't focus on learning what you need for that, that's a problem. Otherwise, you're not much different from figures such as Theodore Roosevelt who'd read books on a thousand different subjects every year, for fun.

It's not a complete waste, at least not all of the time, though I do forget much more than I remember. It's just frustrating to know I could achieve something but miss out again and again and again due to lack of discipline and perseverance.

If you really need to memorise hard numbers, use a memory palace.

By mapping numbers to consonants and then putting vowels in between you can make any word. The system I use is the following:

1 - t

2 - n

3 - m

4 - r

5 - l

6 - j

7 - f

8 - k,g

9 - p,b

0 - s,z

For example, Pi starts with 3.14159265. Chunk this into pairs of digits: 14, 15, 92, 65, or in consonants we find, tr, tl, pn, jl. We can create a story with this: trtl, pan, jelly. To find the numbers just "invert" the story!

Shameless plug to my own blog [1], I get no advertising revenue or anything from this I would just love to share this with you guys as I feel like you guys might find it interesting. In the post I detail how I memorised the first 37 digits of Pi.

I honestly think it's amazing that I can still recall, with ease, the first 37 digits of Pi 5 (!) months after first memorising them.

[1] http://rainymood.github.io/jekyll/update/2017/03/13/how-to-m...

Does this really work? I've never had any success with mnemonics. The best way I've found to remember numbers is to type them on number keyboard from time to time and let the muscle memory do its work.

>Does this really work?

Well, obviously N = 1 but if I can't convince you with "I can recall a string of 37 digits 5 months after memorising them" I don't know what will!

It is SO weird but it just works. It's hard to explain and really paradoxical because I use it for everything now ... Allais paradox 1953 (lm => lam => drunk in dutch), Ellsberg paradox 1961 (jt => jeti => jeti chasing jedi with urns on a mountain). In my honest opinion its a skill worth learning. If this didn't convince you, Sherlock also uses it in the series ;)

I find it much easier to learn things as an adult than I did as a teenager. I have more discipline, confidence, and experience in learning.

There's some value to be gained here from orthodox Indian philosophical schools. All roughly agree to three stages of learning:

- shravana (literally 'listening', as India's philosophical traditions were mostly oral, but more broadly may be understood to also be 'reading.')

- manana ('reflection' upon that which was heard. May include exercises, debate and such)

- nididhyasana ('meditation,' may be taken to mean experience)

Further, knowing is then classified into two types - jñana and vijñana. These correspond to mere apprehension of information ('knowledge') and integration of that into action, life and experience ('wisdom').

Knowledge is transformed into wisdom by a process of reflection which is active. Passively obtaining new information is unlikely to result in wisdom (which is useful) without reflection.

Thought this might be interesting to those in this thread who are looking to learn and improve themselves.

Questions? my_hn_username at gmail.

Disclaimer: Have studied Vedanta in India under a master (A Parthasarathy). This information may be found in his magnum opus, Vedanta Treatise: The Eternities[0].

[0] https://www.amazon.com/gp/aw/d/9381094160/ref=mp_s_a_1_1?ie=...

EDIT: formatting and email address.

There are certain tennis strokes that adults can't learn. For instance, adults can't learn to hit a "kick" serve that has a lot of topspin. I think part of the problem is that the kick serve requires counterintuitively hitting the ball to the sky and letting gravity and spin pull it down to earth. Adults can't handle the idea of hitting up, it just seems wrong. I learned kick serves as a kid and it's like riding a bicycle, I never forgot though I stopped playing tennis for ten years. Also, some strokes decline with age. Federer's backhand is now much better than when he was in his physical peak at 26, though his forehand is probably not as good; the same is true of nearly all players, the backhand improves but the forehand declines. The more instinctive a shot is, the harder it is to maintain and learn as you get older.

   There are certain tennis strokes that adults can't learn. For instance, 
   adults can't learn to hit a "kick" serve that has a lot of topspin.
Do you have anything to back this claim? I don't believe this at all. The plasticity changes as we get older, but the human brains does not lose the ability to learn things, counter intuitive or not.

I agree - surely adults can learn these tennis strokes, even if they are harder to pick up.

There is an absolutely fascinating video about plasticity of learning between adults and children that I'd highly recommend watching [1].

A man built a "backwards bicycle", where the handlebars steer the bike in the opposite direction to what you would expect. It was almost impossible for him to ride the bike more than a few feet at a time before falling off. Finally, after 8 months of consistent practice, he could ride it relatively well.

When he put his 6-year-old son on the bike (who'd been riding a normal bicycle for 3 years), he had it mastered just 2 weeks later.

[1] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MFzDaBzBlL0

He does say in the video that wasn't trying to actively learn to ride it. Where as the guy in this video [1] claims it only took him 1 h 29 min. You could probably argue that his age might have helped, but it could also be equally true that he used better methods of practice to achieve that goal.

Destin also admits

"It took me 8 months to learn how to do this, but I was only picking up the bike and running to the end of the driveway and back every day. I wasn't "ACTIVELY" trying to learn. Meaning... I wasn't struggling and trying to make my brain learn. I simply got on the bike every day, tried to operate it to the end of the driveway, turned around and tried to operate it back. The goal was to understand how my brain figured things out on its own, without trying to force it to. Many people have built bikes like this and figured it out in much less than 1 day by staying on the bike until they were able to master it. I had no timelines, and was using this as an exploratory activity to learn how I learn."


With that in mind I wouldn't be surprised if he could learn it in a few hours if he really put effort into it.

Ah, I wasn't aware of that. Interesting point - thanks.

I'm with you. But also from that video is the correlation where the son has only been riding for 3 years whereas the guy has been riding for e.g. 30 years.

I'm interested in what would the difference be for them to alter a learned skill if they'd been practicing for the same amount of time (so that it's less set in stone)? I'm certain his son would have still been an order of magnitude or 2 faster, but probably quite a bit less than the original number.

I remember a few years ago I learned that I had been tying my shoes wrong my whole life (tying a granny knot instead), so my shoelaces would come loose at least once per day. It took me a few weeks of practice to manually think through the hand movements to make the new know before my brain got used to just doing it without thinking about it.

I'd imagine that as a child it should have been at least 10x easier to re-learn.

"The plasticity changes as we get older, but the human brains does not lose the ability to learn things, counter intuitive or not."

Perhaps not lose entirely, but certainly age can dramatically reduce the ability to learn certain things. This (rather long) article goes into detail:


The section marked "Language Exhibits a “Critical Period” for Learning" is maybe the most relevant.

However, the article was written in 2010, and may be out of date. Understanding the brain's mechanisms and plasticity has advanced significantly over the last few years.

Nootropic supplements should be mentioned here as a way to boost brain performance in general, which could assist in learning new things both for children and adults.

The scientific consensus on the effects of nootropics is kinda all over the place (there are a bunch of different types out there, and different studies for the different types), but there's enough information to make an informed decision.

I had a daily nootropic "stack" that included choline and piracetam, and noticed an improvement in recall and focus. Whether it was placebo or not, I certainly felt like I was more capable of learning than baseline.

During my foray into the nootropic world, I also came across discussions about Hericium erinaceus, or lion's mane mushrooms. Studies have shown it to increase the 'nerve growth factor' which is a key measurement when it comes to growing new neurons. And since growing new neurons and making new connections between them is correlated to learning new things, and if this factor of 'neuroplasticity' decreases with age, my guess is that lion's mane can come in handy if you are an adult and want to learn to do other stuff good too.

However, I'm no expert; maybe someone with more direct experience or knowledge can weigh in.

Recommended free MOOC: "Learning how to learn"


They put some interesting brain research into that course. I started last week and love it so far.

Because we’re all getting `dumber in the age of Google`

What's wrong with that ? I fail to understand ? If you start putting everything into your brain, you'll soon go mad. A regular cleanup of the information in your brain to retain only what's relevant for your survival is okay. It's best such things are left googleable. What is the use of keeping in memory the capital of australia, when that trivia contributes a total `0` to do what you do.

If you keep doing, implementing and executing stuff that you are passionate about, I think you'll keep learning. Only thing is that we become more focussed as adults about our interests, than we are as children (inquisitive about everything).

"I hear and I forget. I see and I remember. I do and I understand." -- Confucius

It's more about drive than anything else. If one is able to maintain one's sense of curiosity and inquisitiveness, then one can always continue learning as effectively (albeit a bit more slowly) throughout one's life.

Youtube is an amazing resource. In the past I would read, but I'm finding that videos (and audiobooks) help speed learning:

Basic machining from MIT (I now need a milling machine and lathe):


Learn about Synchrotrons from UC Berkeley (Undulators and Wigglers):


A much harder thing for adults is to re-learn something they already know in a different way. For example, I thought I knew how to swim until I took private lessons with an instructor. I spent most of the time 'unlearning' the wrong techniques. The muscle memory was just engraved. I know guys don't ask for directions, but if you want results, pro help can really pay off.

Why did you take private lessons if you already knew how to swim?

I also swim in a non-proper way and I recently found a "new way" of swimming after seeing some video about it, and it is fairly easy. But due to muscle memory I find myself going back to my own way.

My own way being: Imagine doing a front split[1], then pushing your body up into a standing position, while angling your upper body 90 degrees (plane with the water, that is).

[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Split_(gymnastics)

I wanted to learn how to swim butterfly. This is difficult to master on your own.

Oh I see, makes sense.

> Boser explains why some of the most common ways we try to memorize information are actually totally ineffective, and he reveals what to do instead.

I couldn't get past the first paragraph. I don't think memorisation and learning should be conflated as it appears to be in this article. Perhaps it's the fault of the title -- clickbait?

Clearly you didn't get past the first paragraph.

I forgot the name of my first crush. I have since remembered it, but names still elude me.

Of course, I knew the capital of Australia.

For learning just facts, solving crossword puzzles regularly helps a lot (not cryptic ones). More complicated matters are going to get forgotten rather quickly anyway unless you need them in your daily life.

"A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step".

In other words what the smart folks already do. Heh.

in my opinion,just absorb the knowledge or the information is not enough, we should practice them.

I don't really think there is a difference between adults and children in learning, this whole piece is simply about efficiency in learning and different ways of learning.

Still I think this piece misses some points. I believe there is a threshold (perhaps different for everyone) for the types of learning the piece is about. There is learning by forcing knowledge in by repetition. If you need to remember a small list not based on any logic, this is the only way. Knowing that Canberra is the capital of Australia is a poor example for the point the author tries to make. There is no logic behind capital city names, a human choose the name and it was not chosen according to any rules. There is no understanding involved at all.

However, for a Buick (or i.e. the Human Body) it is different, those "things" work according to the laws of physics, a Buick is build using a specific design and it has a limited set of necessary components. During its operation a repeating cycle of steps is executed. There is a very limited number of states in which a Buick can function but not be completely broken compared to the number of states it can be in. If you understand how a Buick was build, you can play its function in your head and simulate what could cause the noise a person on the phone is describing.

From childhood onward this is the way I have learned, I always felt like there was a point in time in which my knowledge became like self contained ball in my head, I would even visualize said ball. There is a moment of understanding, of seeing the beauty and logic of a system. In that moment you say: "Ah yes it felt very complicated before, but now that I get it, I would have designed it quite like that actually." In programming it works the same, that moment when you understand what a class is... it's beauty, you will program differently from that moment on. In biology one can have the same but often one must conclude: "Ok I would have designed it differently but in terms of evolution, it does make sense indeed."

I have a lot of trouble learning new languages, I also struggle playing elaborate games like Descent... Until that feeling of ahhhh I understand why a game designer put that weird element in, it balances the game, it adds some unpredictability to it. Only then does it become fun.

I'm told I am a very good and fast learner and have a good memory but I feel it is not true, I use this systems approach. As soon as you understand what a carburetor should do, it becomes very easy to remember how it does it. As a scientist that means constantly updating and changing ones view of reality itself based on new evidence. It's about building a mind model but always knowing that model is an oversimplification that is only useful as long as it explains your experimental results (more specifically, as long as it explains your experimental controls).

My wife is often amazed at how I can be so highly educated and smart in some ways and so stupid or un-understanding in others. I feel it is because I sometimes lack a "mind-model" for certain things of situation that I can interact with/in, I still need to build it, or it is insanely difficult to build it. Trying to build such models for the humans in my life may my biggest fallacy yet. It leads to countless hours of grinding thoughts, simulating conversations that will never occur.

I think he was trying to make the point that the embarrassmen of not knowing the capital was going to make that fact stay in the journalists head for much more time that the mere fact of hearing it mentioned. Even if there is no logic on naming cities.

Spoilers: the same way you did as a kid. Just with more attention.

Trick question. Australia has 8 capital cities.


That aside, the article is rather bunk and claims to have authority. Memorization isnt learning.

It's not a trick question at all. There is only one capital of Australia, the others are capitals of their respective states. This response is as though I asked where the US government is located and you said "trick question, there are 51 US governments!"

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