Let’s face it—we need a lot of skills to get through life. Even the basic day to day requirements can be daunting, and most people have specialized skills in certain field. To make things even more complicated, the world changes, sometimes it seems at an ever-faster pace, and we may need very different skills tomorrow than we do today. I think it’s safe to say that the ability to learn—to be a lifetime learner—is the most important skill of all.
Learning as a skill
There’s been some controversy recently: many pop science books and companies have focused on neuroplasticity, or the ability of the brain to rewire and change itself structurally. While this is true (and, I’m convinced, is a key part of learning and skill development), it’s offset by some notable lawsuits and sanctions against companies that overreached with simplified and exaggerated claims of effectiveness. Another difficult question is whether or not learning domain-specific skills have benefits that extend beyond the domain. A lot of research shows that studying chess, contrary to what we thought a few decades ago, doesn’t make you smarter, more strategic, or better able to succeed in other fields; studying chess properly makes you a good chess player.
One thing is pretty clear: learning, itself, is a skill. It’s probably the most important skill there is, because the world changes, and much of what we know becomes obsolete over the course of a lifetime. Learning new things can keep us engaged and vital as grow older, and learning new skills helps us push back the horizon.
Developing the learning skill
We all learn differently, so there’s no one way you must learn. Part of learning is learning how you learn best, and then structuring your work to take advantage of your strengths. (If you are the aural type, I’ve done a podcast on this subject that you might enjoy.)
Let me structure the rest of this post around a current project I have: I’ve made a commitment to deepen my understanding of the wines of the world. How I’ve done this, and why I’ve done the things I’ve done may give you some tools you can adapt for whatever skills you want to develop yourself.
Steps to learning
You have to be passionate. Sure, you can learn something you hate, but it’s much easier if you love what you’re doing. Consider what a chore it can be to take a class on a subject you don’t care about with how easily you will learn something for a hobby or a game. (I had a friend who barely passed school and claimed he couldn’t learn anything, but he was a veritable encyclopedia of baseball statistics and trivia going back to the beginning of the game, and I bet you know someone like this too.) Your passion for a subject might be instant or it might well grow over time.
I’ve cooked professionally, have a culinary degree, and served an apprenticeship with a classical French chef. In my home cooking, I’m likely to make levain bread, handmade pasta, or sausage, and even a casual seared chicken breast might get a sauce Veronique or Suprême. I love food, and I love cooking–the almost alchemical transformation of raw ingredient into something “more”, and working creatively within the structure of a tradition. When I learned to cook, it was truly a labor of love: I spent hours cutting vegetables to develop knife skills, months learning a catalog of classical sauces and preparations, and years refining these skills.
My interest in wine grew over the years, but I can point to a few pivotal experiences: contact with some experts that showed me what true knowledge and skill are, a little travel so I began to understand history and geography in context, and a few magical experiences with exactly the right food with exactly the right wine in exactly the right place. At some point, my desire–no, my need–to know more about wine grew, and I decided to do something about it.
Gather resources and information—learn the basics. It’s is becoming easier and easier in today’s world to get information on any subject, but quality of information matters. In trading, there are probably ten bad websites and books for every good one, and it’s hard, especially for the new learner, to sort out the quality of information. A good part of your early work will be in figuring out what these good sources of information are.
This gets easier as you understand the field a bit more. When you start out, you don’t know anything, and don’t, as the saying goes, even know what you don’t know. You have no idea how large the field is, or what kind of skills experts have. As you start to learn just a little bit, the map fills in. There will still be some big fuzzy areas, but you’ll get a pretty good sense of what you need to learn. That’s the point of this early exploration: to map out your journey and to being to build a plan.
In my wine journey, I settled on a few authoritative books, but this was also guided by my own experience and tastes, and conversations with people who know more than I do. Let’s talk about that next…
Build or find a community. A big part of my learning plan centers around tasting about a dozen different wines each month, for about 8-10 months. Of course, I could do this myself with a Coravin (a device that allows you to pour very small amounts from a bottle of wine while perfectly preserving the rest of the bottle), but how much better to do this with other people who share my interest! You may have to get creative, as I’ll be doing these tastings with some friends in another state who will purchase the same wines and taste via videoconference, but it’s must easier to sustain momentum when you have a community around you.
You’ll also learn from the people learning around you. They will see things you don’t, and they’ll also make mistakes you don’t. Discussion, give and take, and constructive disagreement will let you learn faster and deeper than you probably could by yourself. While you might lose interest on your own (this learning business can be hard!), having a group of people to learn with you can sustain you through the challenges and help you prioritize your learning.
It’s also worth mentioning that having a teacher, mentor, or coach can save you some time. In my case, I was fortunate to connect with a guy who has a lot more experience and training as a sommelier than I do, and who also has an interest in education. (More on that at the end of this post.) Again, your mileage may vary, but I’ve found that having a good teacher has helped me immeasurably as I’ve developed skills in different domains.
Make a plan and follow the plan. Learn! Once you get some background knowledge, you can begin to map out the field and see what you need to learn. Once you know what you need to learn, you can start thinking about how you will learn it. As a general rule, a lot of learning comes from developing the skill of discrimination. Someone who has never tasted a glass of wine before might not like it at first, and they would have no idea what they were tasting.
Skill and understanding comes from knowing that “this thing is like this other thing and is different from that thing in these ways.” This is why I’ve carefully created a plan that will move through the major wine regions of the world, allowing me, for instance, to first compare and contrast the differences between regions and vintages in Bourgogne, and then to compare the same grapes used to make wines in different parts of the world. I’ll also spend some time comparing wines made in the same place in different years to begin to understand the effect that weather has on the product. Over time, I’ll develop a bigger “reference set”; as I have more experiences I will be able to categorize new experiences better and faster, and understand smaller distinctions between different things.
For trading and financial markets, a lot of traders waste time thinking they are building toward the mythical “10,000 hours” of screentime. (The 10,000 hours is one of the most damaging misconceptions that pop science has given us in recent years.) All of this is for naught if you are not understanding different market dynamics and the right kinds of patterns that actually have statistical significance. It’s not enough that you’re working hard—you have to be working on the right things, as well.
Whatever you want to learn, this plan will serve you well: find something you love; gather enough resources to learn the basics (so you learn what you need to learn); find or make a community, possibly enlisting the help of someone who has the skills you want to develop; and then make a plan to learn and follow that plan.
By the way, if you’re interested in joining me on this journey of wine exploration, you can email Tim Dillon (tim at vintryfinewines.com) and tell him you want to join Adam’s tasting program. We have a few of the cases planned, and expect that this project will extend through much of 2017. If you do decide to do this, drop me an email and let me know your thoughts and experiences as you learn!