The Secret Behind Learning ANY New Skill Quickly

by Vlad Dolezal on August 20, 2008

Hi! This is the first of a series of posts on learning new skills quickly and effectively. You might also want to check out:

Enjoy!

It was a warm summer day. A dozen strangers have met in a small conference room. They all came because they wanted one thing: To learn public speaking.

The instructor came in. He introduced himself. Then he called in two past participants from his course, who spoke easily and confidently, without written notes. The new learners really wanted to learn to speak like that.

Then the instructor introduced his method.

Positive feedback. (Keep reading. There’s more to it than you think.)

Whatever the learners would do, he would point out what they did right, and sincerely compliment them. No negativity, but also no faking and bulls***. Just the positive truth.

For example, when one woman’s turn came up to speak, she was so afraid she just stood there and shook, and couldn’t say a word. After a few moments she sat back down. The instructor just looked at her, and said: “That was very brave of you to get up there.” And everyone realized it was true.

And the progress the participants made was amazing. Within a few weeks, they were able to speak clearly and confidently.

No, I’m not trying to sell you a public speaking course. 🙂

Instead of taking your money, I will give you something for free. The key to learning, in fact. So be ready. Because the skill of learning isn’t just any odd skill… it’s the skill that lets you acquire all other skills faster.

Feedback is the Key

“Feedback uber alles!”
– Me, speaking in a horribly fake German accent

“You don’t get feedback. In soviet Russia, feedback gets YOU!!”
– A random unrelated quote

Yeah, yeah I know. Water is wet, the sky is blue, feedback is the key to learning. What else is old?

Well, I’m going to help you see feedback like you never saw it before!

I’ll show you exactly which bits help you learn, which bits are useless, and which bits are actively stopping you from learning well. Surprisingly, a lot of people do exactly the right things to not learn.

The Anatomy of GOOD Feeback

Okay, so what’s the secret?

Here you go: Good feedback is…

  • positive
  • specific
  • plentiful

Yes, in that order. (I’m not done yet, don’t stop reading :))

(Sure, positive non-specific feedback (“good boy”) won’t do you much good. But it’s still a lot better than specific negative feedback!)

Positive feedback

“You screwed up. That was really bad. You’ll never learn this.”

Feeling motivated yet?

More shouting won’t help your motivation. And it won’t help your learning either.

When you learn a new skill, you’re building habits and ways of thinking. Whether it’s learning to swing a tennis rocket, or to signal direction when turning your car around a corner, emotions play a huge part in learning.

Ever put your hand on a hot stove? I have. Ouch! (Don’t try this at home… or anywhere, really.) It’s damn painful, and I’m not that likely to forget the experience anytime soon. The emotion of pain acts like a glue that sticks the message to your mind.

Ok, now let’s say you were learning something, like getting your driver’s license. And let’s say that you did something really bad, like forgetting to give way and almost driving full-speed into an intersection and causing an accident. The instructor would (quite rightly, in his opinion) harshly point out your mistake and tell you to never do it again.

Then, in the evening, you lie down in bed and think about the day behind you. And when you think of your driving lessons, the part with the strongest emotional charge comes first. In other words, you think of the time you almost drove full-speed into an intersection and caused an accident. And every time you think of it, that behavior gets reinforced in your mind.

An American basketball club (I forgot which one. If anyone knows this story, can you let me know?) was going through a dry spell. They kept making mistakes and losing against their biggest opponents.

Then a new coach came in, and he completely reorganized their practice routine. Instead of looking at recordings of what they did wrong and trying to improve it, he made them watch only their most successful games, and from those, only the most successful runs. He replaced most of their long-distance shooting practice with short-distance practice, where they hit the basket almost every time. He had them visualise shooting flawlessly for an hour each day.

Their results completely turned around, and they went on to become one of the most successful teams in history.

Simplicio: So we should just always go “good boy” when teaching someone, huh? Whatever the person does, just say they’re doing great and keep it positive? I prefer telling the truth rather than a bunch of positive mish-mash nonsense.
Salviati: Ah yes, I see what you mean. I’m not saying you should claim all is well. But it’s about bringing out the positive, and letting the negativity fade into the background. Then every time the person thinks of doing the thing they’re learning, they’ll remember the positive experiences.
Simplicio: Yes, but what if the learner makes a mistake? Should I just ignore it and let them keep doing it wrong?
Salviati: Nooo… the best solution to that is what Toastmasters public speaking classes do. It works roughly like this:

You give a speech. Then someone gets up to evaluate your speech in two minutes. The evaluation contains two main ingredients:

1. Positive feedback
(“You did a great job using those diagrams to emphasize your point.”)

2. Points for improvement
(“Next time try varying your voice tone a bit more.”)

And here’s the vitally important bit – The positive feedback takes up about two thirds of the evaluation.

Sure, the first time you’re learning something you’ll be doing hundreds of things wrong. Don’t obsess about them. Run through all the positive experiences in your mind, then pick two or three points you want to focus on next. Like “next time I’ll try hitting the ball with the center of my tennis rocket.”

You won’t believe the difference in your learning speed.

Want to learn even better?

So that’s about it. The great big secret. Now you know it.

Of course, after the great big secret, there are a bunch of only slightly smaller secrets, just waiting in line for you to learn them!

Like why 10-hours-a-day practice is only a myth, and how some top pianists got to be the best at only 1 hour of practice daily. And an exact step-by-step guide to duplicating their success, simply by timing your learning properly!

Or how to further accelerate your learning… by failing MORE.

Or the one simple technique that transformed Ben Seeley from your average “good” Othello player to a world champion, after he though he had hit his limit.

To learn all that, all you need to is take out your credit card… no, just kidding :p.

All you need to do is read my next article! To make sure you don’t miss it, you can grab my RSS feed (What is RSS?). Or you can bookmark this page and check back later. I’ll update this article when the next one comes out.

Happy learning!

Next: Learning Mastery 2 – Post Practice Improvement

{ 12 comments… read them below or add one }

fairyhedgehog August 20, 2008 at 14:29

I enjoy your articles and this is no exception. I think this one is most useful in thinking about how to give feedback to others, which is something that writers do a lot. So I”ve posted about this on my blog.

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Sheila Crosby August 21, 2008 at 10:50

I used to work for the British Civil Service. The director of our local establishment openly boasted that he gave us worse annual reports than we deserved, in the belief that it would motivate us.

Staff morale was about what you’d expect, really. Nil.

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Nathan August 21, 2008 at 20:09

One of the more important points I think people often miss is to make the feedback accurate. It’s always nice to get positive feedback, but if its positive feedback when I was just being lazy and did a sup-par job, then I learn to ignore you.

I think back to the best teachers I’ve had, and both gave very good and positive feedback, but they were also the toughest when I was doing work that was below what I was easily capable of.

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writtenwyrdd August 22, 2008 at 21:05

Good thoughts. Funny how I learned much of this while being trained as a military dog handler/trainer. And have utilized it throughout life.

This is good information, though. We are socially prepared to dominate, to grind down everyone else so we can (falsely) feel superior. It’s endemic and it is, as you show, counterproductive. Educators and parents perpetuate the patterns they have learned at their parents’ knees, too.

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mle August 22, 2008 at 23:29

Is the basketball team the Hoosiers from Indiana that the movie was made about? Not sure. Enjoyed the article.

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Dharitri August 24, 2008 at 05:49

I think the technique will help me with my new class. Thanks!

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steve October 3, 2008 at 02:01

I’m going to have to remember to use this technique on myself more often

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Anonymous March 5, 2009 at 12:40

These are the basics of applied behavioral analysis, suzuki music training, and clicker training.

More parents need to understand positive feedback and rewards, and schools need to stop punishing students.

Reply

Vlad Dolezal March 29, 2009 at 14:48

@Anonymous:
Yeah, it’s crazy how many schools use fear-based motivation. (Or, rather “de-motivation”.)

Reply

waluty April 7, 2010 at 00:10

nice article, The Anatomy of GOOD Feeback
* positive
* specific
* plentiful
is especially helpfull – short and easy to remeber and recall when the time to give sb feedback comes 🙂

Reply

Vlad Dolezal April 7, 2010 at 08:19

@Waluty:

Glad you like it! I’d love to see more people give good feedback like that 🙂

Reply

Josh March 15, 2013 at 19:46

That was a really great article on positive feedback and how it helps when learning new skills. I think Taking a few points every time that you need to work on and, also remembering the positive points is a really helpful philosophy.

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