How A Simple Context Change Can Lead to Lasting Learning in Less Time


A fellow artist recently told me they have a “low frustration tolerance.” 

This phrase leads to a solid insight: it well may be that in order to be an effective learner or creative, you have to have a high tolerance for frustration. 

You must be able to endure the inevitable challenges and setbacks and deep doubts and stagnating progress and exposure to repeated mistakes and everything in between. 

The sheer volume of things that will likely frustrate you as you learn or create is enough to make anyone want to quit. 

So you must train yourself to not only expect, but embrace, and endure these frustrations. Or you simply won’t be cut out for this.

The author Neil Postman talked about how learning is meant to be difficult. That’s what makes it learning. 

We have trained ourselves to expect learning to be fun and amusing, based on what television (and now many other media) has taught us as a medium. So we expect or hope for all learning to be that way. But it’s a backwards idea.

It very well may be that learning isn’t fun. 

This can’t universally be the case, because people are complicated and derive their version of fun––which is ultimately dependent upon the person––out of different things. 

In any case, the idea that in general, learning isn’t fun, can be helpful. 

What’s fun is watching things click over time as you learn. 

What’s fun is seeing your efforts to learn work in the real world

What’s fun is taking what you have learned and using it effectively. 

But the learning itself is usually hard. By it’s very nature, it’s hard. If it isn’t hard, it probably isn’t learning, at least not the sort of learning that you’re looking for. “No pain, no gain.”

If you are watching a YouTube video and you are looking to learn something, and you find yourself thoroughly entertained and having a ball with it… you probably aren’t learning the thing you are seeking to learn. 

What you are learning is how to sit and watch YouTube videos and have a good time doing it. 

This is a Marshall McLuhan distinction that has taken me years to even begin to actually understand (and I’m still figuring it out). 

And it’s one of the most consequential insights I’ve wrestled with over the last decade or so. 

If you take it in (or even just play around with it as an idea), you can start to see how and where real learning takes place (meaning, the sort of learning you are actually looking to do) versus the pseudo-learning that is, in fact, doing much more to teach you something else (i.e. how to behave).

As McLuhan famously put it, “the medium is the message.”

This also implies something obvious, but important: Learning is doing. And it well may be that no other kind of learning can possibly compare.

Every moment that you spend learning abut how to learn is a moment in which you are learning about how to learn by what you are doing to learn it, rather than getting a direct transmission of the content into your brain in a manner that is likely to be acted upon. 

Now, that’s a bloated sentence, so let me approach it another way:

“It’s what you are doing when you’re not doing what you should be doing that’s the problem.” 

That’s something Wyatt Woodsmall said, and it’s never left me.

Here’s a concrete example:

I had a student ask about how to “install the skill” of being able to notate music.

The short answer is: Notate music. 

And do it a lot. And keep doing it.

The longer answer is to focus on notating music that you like or love, since you’ll be engaged in a process that’s more meaningful to you and intrinsically rewarding and motivating.

The even longer answer is to focus on notating music that you like or love that is incredibly challenging, because then you get the benefits of doing something you’ll enjoy but you are also compressing your learning into a shorter timeframe because it’ll demand more of you. 

You’ll be chunking more complex information.

And the even longer answer is to do all of the above, but do it one note at a time and don’t fool yourself into thinking that you can or need to move any faster than that, because if you do, it will actually slow you down.

And the more focused you are on zooming in on one note at a time and the one motion at a time involved in the mechanics of notating (either on paper or software)…

…the faster you will move and the higher quality your learning will be (meaning, the learning is likely to stick and become something you can rely on at the same level but with less effort in the future).

(This is at the heart of the Nanosynthesis method).

The key characteristic of everything I just mentioned about the process of installing the skill of being able to notate music is that you are focusing heavily on notating music by doing, not learning about the eventual doing that––with any luck––you will one day actually get around to.

It’s odd, because we now live in a time where we have access to world-class information, for free, in high-fidelity, at a moments notice. 

In fact, we are drowning in data and information (commonly called info overload), and it’s preventing us from being able to focus, or to make sound decisions. 

But here’s the key: 

At any point, you can take any bit of information you are exposed to (like this article you are reading now) and apply the same process I just described to it. 

You can read the very first part of the practical application of the principles here, and do it and do only that. 

Once you have done that, you can move onto the next step and do it and do only that (or do it in combination with the previous step as needed).

This seems obvious. 

But the problem is… this seems to rarely be how we approach it. 

  • We skim the article or content, rather than taking in the whole thing and understanding its context and application. 
  • We play a video at 2x speed, often while juggling other tasks at the same time. 
  • We read, listen, or watch some of it, get overwhelmed, and close our browser or browse to a more instantly-gratifying piece of media. 
  • We add it to our Reading List or bookmark is so we can review it later (which almost certainly won’t happen) and give ourselves the illusion of having made important progress. 
  • We take in too much of it before applying any of it (if we apply any of it at all). 
  • We don’t trust the information we receive, so we doubt its effectiveness.
  • We make a number of invisible and intentional judgments about the person presenting it (or the date the content was published or the colors of the website or style of the text or any number of variables that influence our assessment of the material and its value or relevance). 
  • Because we doubt the content, we sometimes feel like we have to see more in order to prove to ourselves that the advice is worth heeding. 
  • Worst of all, most of the information we are exposed to isn’t valuable or worth heeding, and we have reason to distrust it. 

All of this makes for a grade-A cluster storm of paralyzing confusion. 

And it’s terrible conditions for learning.

Now notice the underlying theme behind everything I just described about how we relate to media: 

The way we behave is based on what the medium we are tuning into is teaching us about how to behave.

It’s not about the content of the medium. It’s about the context of the medium. 

The context determines our behavior, and it’s our behavior that is learned (and over time, automated as habit), not the information we expose ourselves to. 

And the behavior I just described are all the behaviors of someone who has learned how to approach learning via smartphones and social media (among other things, but these are now the most prevalent mediums). 

In other words, we have learned to be over-stimulated and restless skimmers, scrollers, snackers, swipers, and tappers. 

That’s what we have learned how to do from the medium we use, and so that’s what we do when we are exposed to material through that medium. It has almost nothing to do with the content itself.

If you change the medium (the context), then you change your behavior. You change your approach to how you learn. And thus, you change the probabilities of learning.

But there is a simple, quick-fix antidote to all of these challenges:

Spend far less time learning and learn by doing instead.

Make the direct application and practical implementation the context in which you learn. 

And that is a key distinction: 

It’s not about learning something somewhere and then applying it somewhere else. 

It’s about making the context in which you learn a context in which action is part of the learning process. It’s not something that you could ignore or avoid.

The more often you do this, the faster you will learn, and the more indelible the learning will be.

Which takes us full circle: 

Learning by doing is frustrating. 

Learning by watching or reading (or skimming or scrolling) demands almost nothing of us. So it’s much easier to do. 

It’s the path of least resistance and that’s what we will choose almost every time. A lifetime of habitually choosing the path of least resistance leads to chronic under-learning and squandered potential.

The path of least resistance doesn’t teach us what we are seeking to learn. It teaches us how to behave (and how not to behave). 

It teaches us to consume rather than participate. 

If, instead, we embrace that learning by doing––that is to say, real learning––is frustrating, then we won’t be so reflexively and predictably hellbent on avoiding it any time the going gets rough (which is when and where the learning actually occurs). 

Increase your tolerance for frustration and ambiguity (another conversation, but critical for the creative process in particular).

Now… a few caveats:

Of course, it makes sense to learn principles and tactics that may aid in our learning process. 

There are definitely more and less efficient and effective ways to learn. 

So some amount of our time invested in reading and watching material or learning from instructors (ideally in a hands-on manner) is well worth the investment. 

But only ever when it’s paired with action, and the action (output) should vastly outweigh the input if you expect to truly learn anything (let alone learn it at an accelerated rate).

The same can be said for creating (and a lot of other things). 

Everything we do to learn about creativity and how to be creative is interesting, but it’s more entertaining than it is enlightening. 

It’s not affecting behavioral change in a boots-on-the-ground manner. 

It’s more like brain candy (or crack, depending on what kind of material you are consuming. Because it is certainly the case that some media is of higher quality than others, some media feeds you and demands more of you than others, and there are benefits––and costs––to this that aren’t to be discounted).

What makes you more creative and better at creating is to create. And to do it a lot. And to deeply care about the process. 

Because if you care about the process and want to improve and want to make better and better creations, you will naturally see ways to optimize what you’re doing. And this will make you both more creative and more prolific. 

Quantity over quality, but with quality as a concern. 

This encourages you to make more, more often, in a manner that matters, but to not get bogged down by perfectionism, which can derail and paralyze even the most gifted among us. 

Consistency over duration is another useful frame. 

Being consistent about your creative efforts (making some meaningful effort into a creative project every day) will do much more for you than bingeing on a creative project on a weekend, but then otherwise ignoring it all throughout the week. 

There’s nothing wrong with the binge approach if that’s all you can manage, but it’s a slower way of improving on the whole. 

Better 10 minutes per day consistently than the alternative: nothing all week and then 10 hours on the weekend. 

And if you can do both; go for it and get the best of both worlds.

(Side note: some efforts actually are better approached through weekend binges. But that’s a can of worms on the topic of creativity that we’ll save for another day).

Here’s a practical rule of thumb (and that’s what it is, it’s not a black-and-white answer that will work for all people in all circumstances in all moments… each of those variables are constantly in flux):

When you find a high-quality source of information (like an online course that costs money that is instructed by someone who is highly qualified by virtue of their works rather than words)…

…trust the curriculum as sufficient (even if it’s not the best in the world). 

And then implement one piece of the curriculum at a time (and what constitutes “one piece” will be different for everybody, and that’s okay, because time is on your side). 

A few distinctions: I mentioned “works rather than words.” 

This is to say that the person clearly has direct experience in the topic that they are teaching. 

This doesn’t mean that they have to be heavily-credentialed or formally educated. 

It doesn’t mean that they have to be perfect in every area of life. 

It doesn’t mean that they have to be married with a happy family. 

It doesn’t mean that they have to believe in God. 

It doesn’t mean that they have to be a millionaire. 

It doesn’t mean that you have to find them attractive. 

It doesn’t mean that they have to be old (or young). 

If you can see that the instructor is able to do something that you want to learn, and their ability to do that is clearly demonstrated in some form or another; that’s often more than enough. 

(In fact, it’s often more than enough if they don’t do it themselves, but have the ability to coach or teach others well––Michael Jordan had a great coach (Phil Jackson), even though the coach couldn’t play like Michael, after all).

And it even may be that the instructor in question is only a few steps ahead of you in their own learning. 

But that’s often exactly what you need, since the next step can sometimes be the difference between staying stuck on a plateau and making a major breakthrough.

And sometimes those who are vastly ahead of where you are have the mental bias known as the “curse of knowledge” and can no longer remember what it was like to be a beginner and are thus less effective as teachers.

Other times, they just “wing it” on intuition, but don’t know how to communicate what they’re doing. You see this sometimes in the Masterclass courses. 

And sometimes, because they are so far ahead, they overwhelm you. There is too much to take in at once. 

Even if the instruction is valuable, because it’s intimidating, you don’t act on it, so it’s rendered functionally useless.

Those who are only a few steps ahead of you can often be the best to learn from, because you’re more likely to be able to understand and thus act on the knowledge.

You don’t have to get stuck at this stage in an attempt to separate the signal from the noise (which is part of the reason why I tend to lean toward paying for information (especially if it’s paired with support that helps make it more likely you’ll take proper action). 

It’s not always the case that the paid information will be of a higher quality, of course, but it’s a meaningful filter most of the time). 

But beyond that… Context matters even more. 

What you can get out of a book––that isn’t self-published––is, on average, going to be more than what you can get out of a blog post. 

But much of the reason why this is the case is because getting picked up by a publisher is relatively hard to do, and requires a higher demonstration of knowledge, ability, and competency in some form or another more often than not(though there are always exceptions, unfortunately). 

Writing a blog post, even if it’s the exact same content of a book (which is often the case nowadays) is faster and easier to do than writing a book and getting it published. 

People are putting more research and sweat and care into a book. So you are likely to be getting a higher quality signal. 

Context counts.

And even more importantly, if you actually read the physical book (as opposed to listen to an audiobook or read it on Kindle, both forms of consumption having a lower likelihood of leading to a direct transfer of enacted, embodied knowledge than a physical book, courtesy of our biology, the medium, and all manner of other variables)… 

…then you are changing the context so that you are less likely to behave in a way that the other mediums have trained you to do (in the case of audiobooks, you are more than likely trained to multi-task––driving while listening, commuting while listening, making coffee while listening, cleaning the house while listening, falling asleep while listening.

In the case of digital books, you are using the same device that has trained you to scroll, swipe, tap, snack, and skim with scattered and shallow attention, all while expecting a hit of a dopamine reward within seconds by swapping apps to Facebook or email (for example).

Furthermore, there are infinite emotional and mental associations that come loaded with the phone.

So when you are sitting down to read a Kindle, you are, in a way that’s subtle but sure, exposing yourself to the echos of countless moments in the past in which viewing into your phone exposed you to something that made you feel afraid, angry, annoyed, aroused, sad, disgusted, amused, agitated, pleased, disappointed, and everything in between.

So when you change the context, and it’s just you and the book that’s in your hands, and there’s nothing else to do but to learn (and ideally, put into practice as soon as possible, depending on what you are learning)… you are stacking the odds in your favor that real lasting learning will take place.

Some powerful questions you can ask to aid you in this process:

  • How does the medium teach you to behave?
  • How does the medium teach you to learn?
  • What is the ideal medium (context) for learning this particular thing?
  • Which medium is most likely to lead to the desired behavior (action, direct application of learning by doing) in the shortest period of time, and in an ongoing, frequent and consistent way?

Try this out.

Start obsessing over quickly acting on any valuable knowledge you encounter so that you can learn it.

If you habituate this quick conversion of information into action… over time, your efforts will compound into a beautiful crescendo that’s near enough to mastery so as to be utterly mesmerizing.

May you live long and learn lots, my friend.

Cheers,

Joshua

2 Replies to “How A Simple Context Change Can Lead to Lasting Learning in Less Time”

  1. ” . . . learning *isn’t* fun.”
    -Joshua Fricking Voiles
    “The roots of education are bitter, but the *fruits* are sweet.”
    -Aristotle

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