Study Hacks Blog

The Deep Benefits of Learning Hard Things

March 29th, 2020 · 21 comments

A reader pointed me toward a useful piece of advice from a recent episode of Joe Rogan’s podcast. Talking with comedian Bryan Callen, Rogan noted the following:

“When you put yourself in a situation where you really suck at something, it’s really good for you, it’s good to suck at things and try to get better at them…when you learn how to do something you suck at it first, you have to concentrate at getting better, that thing of getting better translates to other aspects of your life…if you can get good at learning how to play the piano you can get good at archery…there’s a thing in there of learning how to learn.”

This is an idea I’ve come across repeatedly during the research I’ve conducted for my various books. There’s something incredibly valuable in the deeply frustrating yet rewarding pursuit of mastering something hard. As Rogan correctly notes, when you practice the art of practicing, the skill can be applied widely . It’s why spending time to learn the piano, or archery, or chess, or hobby electronics can be more than a high quality alternative to the numbing blandness of passive information consumption, it can also make it easier later when you decide at work you need to master a complex new mathematical model or supply chain system.

There is, of course, also a psychological benefit to learning and then practicing a skilled craft, especially during otherwise chaotic times. As Rogan notes earlier in the interview: “you focus, then you execute, and if you do it properly, there’s a meditative aspect to it.”

(Photo by Kansas Tourism)

21 thoughts on “The Deep Benefits of Learning Hard Things

  1. gaurav mehta says:

    Thanks Cal wonderful insight. When one is on frontlines one wonders about ones own mortality. Media does not help as it keeps on spreading doom and gloom. We cannot work with that, all we can do is learn and move on. This is the time to hone our craft and enjoy learning and work more deeply because that is the only way ones writing/blogging/therapeutics etc can flourish. Keep posting these blogs it means a lot to people, keep them coming. Hope you get your book out soon. All this is helping us focus and really define and work on the important.

  2. Islam El-Rougy says:

    There’s currently a growing body of research that indicates that skill transfer from one domain to another is quite limited. However, I have always experienced what you describe here in my real life. How do you think these insights can be combined? Is it the ability to focus and delay gratification that is transferred?

    1. Study Hacks says:

      This is a really good point. You’re right that the research seems pretty clear that learning one skill doesn’t typically mean that you’re automatically better at adjacent skills (the “skill transfer” hypothesis). But what I think Rogan is talking about, and what you’re experiencing, is the comfort you build with the general feeling/hardship/schedule of mastery. You become used to what’s involved, you’re confident improvement will come, you’re comfortable with discomfort, etc. It’s a mindset…

    2. Carl says:

      Yes, skills transfer may be limited unless skills are very similar in nature. But what about the transfer of mental fortitude or grit? That “can do” attitude that grows and builds is certainly transferable.

      An uncanny example from my own life: I grew up very shy, quiet and a bit withdrawn. However in my early teens I took up extreme exercise in earnest, mainly through bicycling. Some of my rides were 8 to 12 hours in duration. I can tell you that what I learned through this rigor definitely helped bring me out of self reference and withdraw and more into the world. I think this is also one of the lesser researched benefits of exercise: The transfer of grit into everyday life.

    3. EA says:

      The way I see it, I don’t think that they are talking about transferring a skill as in “be good at chess = be better at math.” It seems that they are talking about the learning process itself and its benefits, which is indeed transferable. For example, if you learn to study chess you certainly build the fortitude to spend time in solitude over problems, you learn the skill of correcting your errors, you learn time management, taking notes, and subject management, and so on. Another example is going to the gym and lift, it won’t make you better at math, but it will teach you gradual improvement and tolerance of discomfort. Those are the tricky parts, not the subjects themselves.
      As for me… I started learning Classical Greek last Saturday. I can now read and write the alphabet!

    4. Andres says:

      In “Range”, David Epstein argues that the lack of grit in one domain doesn’t mean you don’t have grit in general. Maybe it is just a sympton that you’re doing something you are not interested about. In my experience, i know i can be super gritty when it comes to some things, and to show a total lack of grit on other domains. I think the difference is made by my “voluntary acceptance of unnecessary obstacles”, as Suits defined “games” on “The Grasshopper”.

  3. Geoff says:

    I’ve often questioned how well these learning processes map from one skill to another.

    But then I realise I am probably not appreciating my progress over the last ten years in my ability to break down tasks and learning objectives into smaller packets. Even fine tuning my process of keeping track of objectives, and willing myself to complete tasks without being overwhelmed.

    1. Study Hacks says:

      See my above comment. What transfers between something like archery and piano is not necessarily the specific learning process, but a familiarity with what it takes and what it’s like to learn hard things…

  4. Kathryn D Temple says:

    There’s also a point here about controlling what can be controlled…we can control our own learning processes whereas we can’t control Covid-19 or the government response to it. As to transferability, I teach a lot of writing courses and while I can’t say that learning to write an academic essay transfers to say, writing fiction, I can say with confidence that learning how the writing process works and how to approach a type of writing task transfers across genres and also to other endeavors.

  5. Scott Otocki says:

    I took this course and it has changed my life, Learning how to learn with Dr. Barbara Oakly – This article reminded me of that.

    1. candyjo says:

      This is course is starting again on April 10th for those interested.

  6. If you look at Norman Doidge’s book “The Brain that Changes Itself,” you can find stories of people who have retrained parts of their brains when they have suffered brain damage. What Doidge explains is that children have flexibility in learning and that is why they can learn new things quickly and easily. As we get older, we get good at what we usually do and we lose that flexibility. Learning something that is different from your normal keeps that flexibility of learning capacity. So it is especially helpful to work at learning something you are not good at and which is outside of your comfort zone. This is practicing “learning flexibility,” which keeps your brain young!

  7. Barron Shawn Hampton says:

    I read an essay about “How to Live Forever” which basically put forward the idea that when you put yourself, or are put by circumstances, in a situation where you are a neophyte, beginner, newb, know-nothing, you are forced to re-invent yourself and it forces you to stay young. By keeping the Zen idea of “beginners mind” you are always open and ready to learn.

  8. Bjarke says:

    I am all in on getting better but what do you think is the best “way” to improve your skills?

  9. Kurt S. says:

    Joshua Waitzkin – The Art of Learning covers this well. He went from Chess Champion (Searching for Bobby Fisher) to Martial Arts Champion (Taiji Push Hands). He focuses on the the skills of learning very nicely. I do not read it enough.

  10. Katharina says:

    Yeah… People told me that when they got to know I studied Finnish. “Whoever learns Finnish can learn everything in life”. Thanks for the reminder!

  11. James says:

    I agree with this approach. From my personal experience, I can tell that the more hard things you learn, the more hard things you become capable of learning in the future. It’s all about sharpening your learning skills and training your brain to perceive the things you consider complicated. Then it’s no matter what kind of things you are trying to learn – the sky’s the limit!

  12. meryanlucas says:

    Hi Cal, amazing insight. Thank for sharing your experience with us. Looking for to your upcoming blogs.

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