a less-annoying way to learn things

From Bernard Roth, design guru at Stanford:

"If you have a problem that you're really losing sleep over ... it's because you're working on the wrong problem. (This concept) is what we call in design thinking "Reframing the Problem." The way I suggest you do this is to ask yourself: "What would it do for you if you solved the problem?"

From Tim Gallwey, author of The Inner Game of Tennis:
"The player of the inner game comes to value the art of relaxed concentration above all other skills; he discovers a true basis for self-confidence; and he learns that the secret to winning any game lies in not trying too hard."
In high school, I prided myself on being a "try hard" - maybe this evokes the phrase "high work-rate." The idea was that if I worked really hard at the obvious things, my performance at a given task would improve vastly. These obvious things included: highlighting textbooks, making flashcards, going all-out all the time in soccer practice, trying to out-hustle opponents on the tennis court; generally, anything giving the visual impression that I was putting in more work.

The Song and Dance of Everything

I had an incredible tennis coach and life mentor named Mr. Kong (or just 'Coach'). He tried to teach me not to try so hard, to focus on the right things

But I was stubborn - my existing mode of work had gotten me this far without a hitch, why change things? He'd have me focus on the rhythm of my feet as I moved around the court; the pitch and sound and timbre of the ball hitting the string bed; the depth and speed of the ball as it came over the net; the different ways I could impart spin on the ball, and what effect it would have on the its trajectory and bounce. I didn't listen.

In retrospect, I realize Coach was trying to get me to focus on reframing the problem. The problem as I had viewed it was "How can I get better?" But if I were to inspect the problem as Bernard Roth suggests, I'd ask "What would solving this problem do for me?" I'd get "better" at tennis so that I could play #1 singles, or gain the admiration of people around me. And what would accomplishing these things do for me? It would affirm my place and my value in the world. And what would that do for me? It would help me have a healthier relationship with the world so that I could enjoy it.

Coach wanted me to reframe the problem to that very last one. How can tennis skip over those intermediary "problems" and cut to the chase? How can it be a vessel to building a healthier relationship with the world around me? Treat tennis as a choreographed song-and-dance (learn the moves), rather than the purpose-driven mechanics of a competitive, "If you win, I lose" game. Learn to love things before you try to master them. Mastery will probably come easier that way.

This is a video of a beginner learning to play tennis in 10 minutes. It's amazing. Great quote (from Tim Gallwey himself):

"... So they’re not thinking, Oh this is what he’s doing with his elbow, this is what he’s doing with his hands. They’re not trying to remember all that. They start humming, and they see themselves doing similar things, muscular movements, as I did. They’re not thinking about it, so it comes out naturally and fluidly."

The assumption here is that natural and fluid is good. It requires less conscious thought than it does to constantly remind yourself to bend your knees, turn your shoulders, brush up on contact, hit the ball ahead of you, oh, and all the while, don't think so much.

At tennis clubs around the country, pros are fleecing amateurs for $150/hour lessons just to give this brand of detailed feedback. The amateurs think they're getting their money's worth, even though their game hasn't improved in 2 years. The pros try to justify the high costs by drowning the amateurs with minutiae. The $150 rate ends up compensating the pro for showing off his deep technical knowledge, rather than actually helping someone become a better player.

The Annoying Science of Spaced Repetition

Learning in general often sees this same dichotomy between the conscious and unconscious. For instance, one concept that's made rounds in mainstream media is the idea of "spaced repetition." To paraphrase the idea: the way to learn something and get something to stick is to review the concept at regular intervals. To make it seem more scientific, let's introduce a graph:
This is fantastic. The solution to learning more effectively is to, at regular intervals, review things you just recently learned. So you'll see a lot of tactics/methods out there in which you keep a really detailed spreadsheet telling you to very mechanically track the things you apparently learned, and then to, every Tuesday morning before your mason jar full of breakfast Soylent (yum), review said concepts.

This spreadsheet-driven approach works for a particular type of person -- namely, those whose process-oriented nature outweighs their self-doubt and fear of failure. These types of people have already developed the habits required to learn at a very high level.

But how about the rest of us, though? We're just getting our feet wet, and the experts want us to use world-class tactics on day one. This is an easy failure pattern. 

But like tennis, the problem of "learning things faster and better" is a matter of reframing the problem to first "learn to love the things you want to master."

For instance.

Fear of reading books:

I've noticed a lot of people don't get into the habit of reading books because they're afraid to not finish them. This is an example of having a strange mental model of what "good reading" looks like - namely, that to read a new book, you need to read another book cover to cover. Or that, to read books, you need to grab something profound and dense and incomprehensible. 

But if you're just getting into the reading game, I suggest keeping a rotating shelf of books (perhaps on your Kindle). You read what you're in the mood for. Skip around, abandon books, find new ones. If what you're reading is too dense, find a less dense treatment of the same topic. "Dense material" is just code for needing to read the prerequisites (idea borrowed from Scott Young). If the prerequisites aren't fun or engaging, find something that will keep your attention. Soon enough, you'll pay more attention to the fact that you finished 50 books this year rather than the fact that you abandoned 200. That's probably 50 more than your total from the past 5 years combined.

The amazing thing about this tactic is that it ends up approximating "spaced repetition" without even trying. You'll start noticing that the concepts in your rotating bookshelf are actually pretty closely related. You'll find yourself reading a chapter of The Hunger Games and a passage will remind you of what you read last week in a book on neuroplasticity. And so now that concept is forever etched in your memory.

Once reading becomes integral to life, then you start a conscious spaced-repetition practice. But to attempt mastery before enjoyment is what they say "putting the cart before the horse."