How to Learn ANYTHING in a Year

A few months ago, I blogged about how to crack the talent code. My premise was that anyone could become really good, beyond good, at pretty much anything. My process was this:
1. Start with something you’re passionate about learning. This could be game design, guitar, algebra, taekwondo, whatever, but start with something you really care about. Once you master the talent code process and see the results, you can then apply the method to learning anything.
2. Dedicate time to your passion every day. Practice it. Study the parts you are working on for a “deep practice.” Take time each day to work on a weak skill or practice something new. Some days you will just have “maintenance” practice to keep the streak going. Maintenance practice might only last 5 or 10 minutes, but it’s a strong message to the brain that this is important.
3. Track your progress on a goal-tracking app. This helps keep you accountable.
4. Your passions PLUS the unbroken streak of practice days will keep you going. The streak itself will function as a second motivator.
5. Find a mentor. That can be a real person or a YouTube mentor. There are thousands of them.
I had a few case studies of my own for the talent code, but I’ve found the ideal practitioner of this formula. Actually, she found us. Karen Cheng’s video on how she learned to dance in a year has gone viral. Check it out:

It’s pretty amazing to see Cheng’s transformation over the course of a year. Even better is her method. She cracked the dance talent-code using virtually the exact process that I just outlined.
This has practical applications for us as educators. If we can use a process to achieve the things we are passionate about, we can use that same process to find success in things that we not yet passionate about, but that we understand are important for us and our future.
Let’s deconstruct Cheng’s video and tap into her philosophy. Here are excerpts from her YouTube channel and website.
Cheng is passionate about dancing:

Here’s my secret: I practiced everywhere. At bus stops. In line at the grocery store. At work–using the mouse with my right hand and practicing drills with my left hand. You don’t have to train hardcore for years to become a dancer. But you must be willing to practice and you better be hungry.

Cheng tracks her goals and practices every day. Her practices range from regular practice, to deep practice, to maintenance:

When Jerry Seinfeld was trying to make it as a comedian, he used a simple trick. Every day he wrote jokes, he marked an “X” in his calendar. Pretty soon he had a streak he didn’t want to break.
Practice every day, even if it’s only for 5 minutes. No exceptions. If I’m not feeling well, I’ll practice exercises that use only my fingers or arms. If I’m really sick, I’ll close my eyes, listen to music, and visualize myself dancing. I use Lift to help keep myself accountable.

Cheng sets goals that are measurable and achievable:

Don’t define your self-worth against things you cannot control. Set goals you can control and measure yourself against those instead. I started with a promise to dance at least 5 minutes every day. When I got more into it, I upped my goal to 14 hours a week, about 2 hours a day.

Rethink what goals are. For instance, should winning an Academy Award be a goal for a screenwriter? If a screenwriter doesn’t win one, does that mean his or her career was a failure? Of course not. Like Cheng insists, make your goals something you can control. The winners of the Oscars are in the hands of the Academy voters. A writer should have goals that are measurable, like “I will write every day” (which is every great writers’ advice) or “I will complete two screenplays this year.” Those things are measurable, and they will lead to other things that the writer may dream about, but doesn’t set as a goal (see: Oscar). Invariably, the Oscar winner for best screenplay each year will start his or her acceptance speech with, “This was never my goal.”
The Apple Chief Operating Officer recently stated that Apple’s “goal isn’t to make money.” They want to make good products. Apple was near bankruptcy in the 1990s when Steve Jobs returned to run the company. He found that their products were simply not good enough. Cost savings and revenues gimmicks were not working. Jobs focused on making Apple products cool, slick, top-of-the line products . . . something that they could control. Then the money flowed in.
Cheng realized that video mentors and coaching yourself can virtually replace traditional study:

Some of the best dancers I know have never taken a dance class. They learned by imitating what they saw on YouTube. The best part? It’s free.
Record videos of yourself dancing. I know, it’s awkward, especially when you’re just starting out. I can’t stress this enough, though.

There is important brain activity in this process. Studying your performance leads to deep practice. Highly successful people spend 15-20 minutes a day monitoring, studying, and planning their goals, behaviors, progress, and outcomes.  That isn’t doing the thing; that is “thinking” about doing the thing.
Thinking about your goals and actions still build the neural pathways. Part of Cheng’s method was to visualize herself dancing. Thinking is not just another thing to do. It’s often THE thing to do!
James Thurber said that writers write all the time. Writing, he said, is not sitting down at a typewriter and pecking away at the keys. Writing is in the head. It’s brain activity. And you can do that anywhere. Thurber would think about his stories throughout the day, planning in his head what would come out on the typewriter later. This allowed him (and any writer) the ability to write all the time.
He related that once he was in his kitchen staring off into space until his wife finally yelled, “James, can you stop writing!”

Applying the Process to Anything

Cheng says this method can be applied to virtually any discipline. She worked for Microsoft after college, but decided design was where she wanted to be. She applied the same principles as learning to dance:

This isn’t a story about dancing, though. It’s about having a dream and not knowing how to get there — but starting anyway. Maybe you’re a musician dreaming of writing an original song. You’re an entrepreneur dying to start your first venture. You’re an athlete but you just haven’t left the chair yet.
. . . . I taught myself (design) every day . . . .I hacked together my piecemeal design education in 6 months–there was no way I was ready to become a designer . . . . So I started the job search and got rejected a few times. Then I got the job at Exec.

This learning model, along with any learning model, works best when students have a passion or desire to learn. This is usually inextricably tied to relevance. To launch this plan, teachers need to help students find that spark.  If you tell students that they have to learn U.S. History because the state says they need it to graduate, then you’ve really failed the relevance test.
Let students or your kids start with something they want to learn. Give them time to master the process and see results that they want.
My own test subjects (who I call Renfro 1 and Renfro 2) have had successes that parallel Cheng’s. The time-lapse progress bar looks something like this in each case.
Day 1: Awkward practice, a long way from the desired goal.
Day 30: True signs of progress. Awkward period is fading away.
Day 85: Solid habits have formed, looking good. Better than most friends.
Day 100: Mental breakthrough. Triple-digits days in a row of practice. By this point, the person IS the thing that he or she is practicing. Cheng was a dancer by Day 100. Renfro 1 was a guitar player. Renfro 2 was a martial artist.
Day 150: Looking very, very solid.  The typical person may spend 1 to 3 years before they actually practice 150 times.  This is why improvement appears to be so rapid using this formula. If you practice guitar seven times a week vs. once a week, you will learn more than seven times faster. When you practice once a week, you spend a fair amount of time relearning what you forgot from the week before.
Day 180: Practitioners are so good at their process now that they are ready to teach others.
Cheng is more than just a dancer. She’s also an educator, evangelizing others on this incredibly simple process to learn anything. Her new website looks promising.
Using this process, we can turn that worn-out derogatory teacher put-down on its head.
Those who can, do.
Those who can’t, teach.
Those who do AND teach, Jedi.

Adam Renfro

Adam was a classroom English teacher for ten years and began teaching online in 1998. He now works for the North Carolina Virtual Public School, the 2nd largest virtual school in the nation. Adam has blogged for Getting Smart since September of 2011.

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