Why I’m Rewiring My Learning Style

Angel's Landing high above the floor of Zion.

Angel’s Landing, high above the floor of Zion National Park.

Are you a life hacker? You know, a disciple of the 80/20 Pareto stuff Tim Ferriss digs into on how to achieve maximum results with minimal effort, a.k.a. minimum effective dose. I am a big believer in it and initially this post was going to discuss how I used those tools to sculpt my life into its current flexible form. Then I read Rich Roll’s recent viral post. To sum up, it says “stop lifehacking and enjoy the journey.” The direction of this article shifted beneath my typing fingers as I asked myself, “What makes my heart beat the hardest?”

That is certainly not an easy question to answer. At least I’m not jumping into the meaning of life, right? (That’s another post.) I’ve explored it in a peripheral way before, but my thoughts have crystallized recently via reading a few great books. In short: I’ve decided it is time to embrace a new learning style as a tool to better decipher a solution and create meaningful work.

Josh Waitzkin, subject of “Searching for Bobby Fisher,” has a great book called “The Art of Learning.” An early chess prodigy, Josh breaks down the process of diving deeply into a subject and pushing beyond above average into great, or even world-class, as he did with chess and Tai Chi. He discusses two types of learners, “entity” and “incremental,” with the difference fairly subtle but a tremendous insight into how my life has evolved. (He also has a great interview on the Tim Ferriss podcast, one of my favorite things to listen to on bike rides.)

Morning light in the Valley of Fire.

Morning light in the Valley of Fire.

An entity learner is one who believes they are inherently smart and their success is derived solely from brain power and natural talent, rather than smarts mixed with a solid dose of hard work and determination. This is reinforced if the person is the “best” fairly easily, such as in a tiny tank where it’s easy to be a big fish. They still work hard, but an entity learner’s biggest downfall is that the journey and process of learning are not the reward. Victory, whether an aced test or win on the playing field, is always the goal rather than the hours of learning or practice. Learning and challenges are fraught with frustration that can undermine the engine of success before it even pulls out of the station. This describes me perfectly in many situations – I’m easily angered by obstacles and sometimes quick to give up when the going gets tough. Anyone else like that?

Then there are incremental learners, who love deep-diving into a topic, no matter how confounding. To quote Dr. Samuel Johnson, “True genius is a mind of large general powers accidentally determined in some particular direction.” They will spend hours studying and practicing nuances of their fields, and are willing to build an unshakable foundation from the ground up, rather than tossing a few bricks randomly about and setting up an unstable ladder, rushing into an activity. What kind of learner are you? Perhaps it depends on the topic or activity, but I think most of us fall into one of the two camps.

Josh talks about learning to play chess in reverse starting with just a king and a pawn, rather than memorizing openings. Or learning the basic motions of martial arts with thousands of repetitions as compared to someone who takes two weeks of classes and then starts doing fancy kicks, then gives up entirely when they aren’t good at them. Do you think Chuck Norris jumped right into roundhouse kicks? Not a chance! (Quick fun fact: Chuck’s roundhouse kicks are the 2nd leading cause of death worldwide after heart attacks…most of which were caused by fear of a roundhouse kick. Har! C’mon, is that meme already dead?)

Coming back from a bike ride and sitting high up in the Valley of Fire watching a full moon rise over an empty valley.

Coming back from a bike ride and sitting high up in the Valley of Fire watching a full moon rise over an empty valley.

To be clear, incremental learners also hate to lose, yet don’t consider it a failure of their entire self, just a crack in their focus or technique. A rift to be studied and patched up with the mortar of hard practice. Compare that to an entity learner’s reaction to defeat, which is often “I lost, therefore I’m stupid or terrible at this,” which is a quick road to abandoning an activity at the first few hurdles and never coming close to mastery. It’s probably no surprise that many people at the top of their fields for a sustained period of time – Olympians, artists, chess Grandmasters, iconic business people – are incremental learners who push themselves to their edge over and over, learning from their failures and coming back stronger.

The shade of our comfort zone is an easy place to hang out. Areas outside the umbrella are bright and exposed, and sunglasses don’t help that raw feeling of pitting oneself against impatience, boredom and building true competency out in the glare of possible (probable, if you push to your edge) public rejection. Gotta work out in the sun and get burned to get a tan sometimes! For me, I declare it is time to put down the Mojito of Easy Living and get out of the lounge chair to start rebuilding my learning style in a way that will push me to achieve mastery, not just competency.

When I moved to Oregon after traveling overseas for a year, I was totally broke. Unfortunately, my aspirations as a travel writer were quickly slapped aside by the Steely Gauntlet of Necessity. I published a piece in a free online journal and even interviewed with a travel film company in Portland before the yoke of student loans and apartment rent snarled at my door and I took a job as an engineer. Writing was put on hold, and “life” took over. Well no more!

Two projects with which to practice this new focus: 1) Writing daily, as well as submitting my work to publications, even though it makes me nervous just thinking about it. (Getting denied sucks.) 2) A big, hairy audacious mental and physical goal, which we’ll announce soon!

Heading out of Zion toward Bryce Canyon.

Heading out of Zion toward Bryce Canyon.

I know shifting to being an incremental learner will not be easy. I’m impatient (to my core, some might say) and inherently bad at failing. Yet I think this path, a tougher one hewn through the granite of challenging goals, will help me contribute more to the world and be more fulfilled. After all, the best things in life make us sweaty. And the closer I get to where I need to be, the harder my heart will thump in my chest.

See you out there, chest pounding.


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Just west of Bryce Canyon is Dixie and the Red Canyon, an amazing playground stuffed full of hoodoos and great trails.

Just west of Bryce Canyon is Dixie National Forest and the Red Canyon, an amazing playground stuffed full of red rock hoodoos and great trails. Plus free camping!