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8 Skills Master Learners Have

Master learners are fast and deep thinkers.

Key points

  • Developing certain skills can help people to learn new things more quickly.
  • To become a master learner, a person needs to be open to learning from a variety of sources and to thinking in new and different ways.
  • Being able to assess their strengths and weaknesses can help someone to get better at learning throughout their life.
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In the last 10-15 years, how to learn skills fast has become a popular productivity topic. In 2008, Malcolm Gladwell published Outliers, which brought the so-called "10,000 hours rule" into public consciousness. That rule refers to the idea that, on average, it takes 10,000 hours to become an expert. Of course, productivity gurus sprung up to help people "cheat" that number.

But from a psychological perspective, what makes someone a master learner? This goes beyond learning fast. Being a master learner involves being both a fast and deep thinker. Let's break down what that involves.

1. You're willing to learn through experience.

Learning through experience invariably brings up strong emotions, like feeling confused, overwhelmed, frustrated, demoralized, surprised, relieved, proud, and exhilarated. Almost by definition, people who are willing to learn from experience possess self-knowledge about how to manage those emotions within themselves. At the most basic level, we know that people who are better at "emotional granularity," that is, detecting and differentiating between different specific emotions, tend to be better at managing their emotional states, and they're more resilient.

2. You're willing to learn from people you don't like.

To maximize your learning, you'll need to be willing to learn from people who you don't personally like. We tend to get annoyed with people who don't share our view of the world, our personality, our background, our thinking style, our communication style, who aren't part of our tribal "in-groups," etc. People who are different from us, either due to background or experience or personality, will tend to approach problems differently. That's exactly why they offer opportunities for us to learn from them.

Note that you don't need to buy into someone's values or assumptions about the world to learn from them. Sadly, many people are completely disinterested in learning from people they don't personally like or who differ from them in terms of factors like values, age, or politics. The more you're willing to learn from people who drive you crazy, the more successful a learner you will be. Make sure you include learning from people you feel competitive with and who frustrate you, and even those who you don't believe deserve their success. Whoever you currently feel least willing to learn from, try that!

3. You're willing to try out different thinking styles.

We all tend to have a dominant thinking style. For example, some people are more promotion-focused (focused on what they can gain), and some are more prevention-focused (focused on preventing losses, mistakes, or things going wrong). Being a master learner requires being able to flexibly adapt your thinking style, depending on the problem at hand, rather than always sticking to your dominant natural style.

4. You're willing to layer learning.

When I write my books, I often include a section giving readers the advice to read the book again after 6 months. Why? When you first read something (or watch a video), all the information is new to you, and particular problems are top of mind for you.

When you review the same material again, you'll come back to it with a different mindset. New problems will be on top of your mind (presumably, you'll already have solved some of the old ones), and when you're already somewhat familiar with the concepts and material, you'll process them at a much deeper level. You'll pick up small nuggets and nuanced aspects you missed on the first go-around. For instance, you'll be able to not just pay attention to the content and "how-to" info but also to the creator's thinking style.

5. You're willing to learn through different modes and channels.

Not-so-great learners will tend to stick to one comfortable mode of learning. For example, they always tend to learn by taking a formal class (the kind where you get a certificate.) Or, if the person is most comfortable in the social and practical spheres, then they might always learn anything new by asking a mate.

Master learners are willing to learn from lots of diverse sources, including all of the following: technical or dry books or manuals, YouTube or Instagram, calling or visiting people they don't know (e.g., driving around local businesses to find someone who can provide a service or knowledge you need), searching the far-flung reaches of the internet, and learning through friendships and social relationships.

Why does this matter? For example, general internet knowledge may completely miss fantastic resources that you have available to you locally but aren't available everywhere.

6. Deep reflection and the unfocused, wandering mind.

Master learners don't just become good technicians. They become thought leaders. Learning sparks their creativity. How? They think about what they learn in deep ways that aren't tightly focused on the narrow topic.

In productivity writing, there has been a lot of emphasis on being focused and undistracted. However, the smartest, most creative people don't rely solely on focus for getting things done (I cover this topic in a lot more detail in my book, Stress-Free Productivity). They allow their minds to drift in creative ways and connect seemingly diverse concepts and tools that other people don't connect.

At the most basic level, a deep learner might learn a method for one purpose but then see how that method could be adapted for other creative purposes.

7. You approach learning with your learning objectives in mind.

I love learning about other people's learning processes. I once watched a video made by a resident doctor talking about how, at med school, she stopped going to lectures. She recognized that the lectures weren't an efficient or effective use of her time compared to what she achieved through reading and note-taking from books.

Master learners don't follow someone else's learning plan. For example, they don't use one language learning app for hundreds of consecutive lessons without branching out. They develop their own learning plan based on their specific learning objectives, which could be to pass an exam or, say, gain the skills to complete a particular project.

8. You know what your strengths are.

Master learners know their own strengths. We all enjoy hard tasks more when we see them as reflecting our strengths and values. To fully enjoy these benefits, you need very detailed self-knowledge of your own strengths, but many people don't have that.

For example, Professor Todd Kashdan recently pointed out that anxious people are often astoundingly creative and persistent when it comes to navigating obstacles. An anxious person who can see this strength within themselves can harness it and allow their knowledge of this inner strength to boost their confidence in the face of the strong emotions that challenging, new-to-you projects tend to stir (see point #1).


  • Rank-order the points in this article from top to bottom in terms of what you're personally strongest at to what you're personally weakest at.
  • Then, pick one point from the bottom half and identify one practical way you could improve.

The benefits of becoming a master learner

When you're both a fast and deep learner, that's a combination that can help you achieve phenomenal success. Being a master learner isn't just about learning fast. That will tend to only make you a good technician. When you're a deep learner, that will open up worlds of creativity, innovation, and profound personal growth and satisfaction.

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