It was a windy day on the shore of Hawaii’s Big Island. I was 500 feet up in the air in a tiny two-person helicopter that felt like it was strapped to my back like a backpack.
The instructor next to me abruptly shuts off the engine mid-flight. I panic for about two seconds, then reach to my left and slam down on the collective control, a handle-like bar that flattens the rotor blades to add more lift to slow decent in an emergency. If you don’t do this quick enough, the helicopter will never be able to recover enough lift and you will crash.
I made the right reaction. It should have been about a second and a half faster, which the instructor let me know. Fortunately, it was good enough to pass my test ride. I officially became a licensed helicopter pilot that day.
Five weeks before, I had only flown in a helicopter as a tourist passenger twice.
Why Learn Faster
Most people take six months or longer to get their private pilot’s license. I was able to do it in five weeks, about 80% faster, because of two strategies. I’ve since applied these strategies to learning value investing, snowboarding, Brazilian jiu-jitsu, and retaining more of what I read.
The more we know that’s true, the more accurate our representation of the world. The more accurate our knowledge, the better decisions we can make. Better decisions usually lead to a better future.
Plus, learning new skills is one of the most fun things in the world.
The First Way to Learn Faster: Total Immersion
It’s hard to learn multiple complex skills at the same time. We can speed up our learning by totally immersing ourselves in the experience like I did in Hawaii.
I stepped away from my business, rented an Airbnb in Hawaii for a month with my wife, and did nothing else other than learn to fly helicopters for 12 hours a day. It worked.
If you really want to learn something new and can afford to shut out everything else non-essential in your life for a period of time to do it, that’s ideal.
This isn’t alway possible though. However, we can still use this principle in our daily lives.
Say you want to learn to play tennis. One approach is to squeeze in a lesson here or there each month over a year. You likely won’t improve much.
Another approach is to book a straight week of private lessons and some matches to test your skills with others. Then, take a week off from work to do nothing but focus on tennis that week. At night, review your lessons and maybe even read some books about tennis.
After that week, you will have made more tennis progress than you will make in an entire year using the other approach. Once the week is over, keep practicing tennis with a lightening level of intensity (taper it off). You’ll retain your skills and will have a lot more fun playing.
If possible, remove everything in your life that you don’t (1) have to maintain and (2) doesn’t support your new learning. For example, if you also swim, hike, and lift weights for exercise. Cut all those out while you learn tennis. You don’t need four different forms of exercise for health, one is good enough.
The Second Way to Learn Faster: Forced Recall
My dad was as tough as they come when he was younger. He played every sport in high school, was captain in multiple sports, and even went to West Point for a while. He volunteered for the Army during the Vietnam War to test himself, became a Special Forces Officer, graduated from Ranger School, and did three tours in Vietnam and Cambodia.
Ask him to change the oil on a car though, he’ll tell you to take it to Goodyear. To say I didn’t know much about engines when I went to pilot school was an understatement. But I had to learn to pass the pilot’s test.
Half of learning to fly is the actual flying, the other half is classroom work in which you learn about weather patterns and why the helicopter works the way it does. I was going to be verbally quizzed on that material for my test.
The one strategy that saved me, allowing me to learn a lot of that material fast, was forced recall. I’d read about this strategy in multiple books on faster learning. It’s an uncomfortable way to learn and it works.
When most of us read books, we read, maybe underline a bit, then move on. We think we’ve learned the material well enough because we read it. But, if you quiz us on a specific bit of the knowledge in the book, our true learning will show and it won’t be good.
Now when I read, I take a break every 20 minutes or so and force myself to recall what I just read. Sometimes I take a few notes for myself just to see what I remember. This process allows us to remember a lot more of what we read and results in way faster learning.
This principle is why they say you can’t learn to play basketball reading books. You need to actually try out what you think you know to see what you really know. It also applies to snowboarding.
I’ve started learning to snowboard. I’ve skied since I was a little kid and am decent for a guy who only lived in Texas until now. A friend of mine told me he can ski double black diamond trails on both skis and snowboards. I thought, “that’s a cool goal.” So here I am, on the greens again, but on a snowboard this time.
During the first lesson I took, I fell about 20 times. That’s OK. I knew it was coming. Rather than avoiding falling, I prepared by wearing wrist guards and a butt pad.
Part of forced recall is being willing to fall, or look stupid. That’s part of testing ourselves as we go, rather than waiting until we think we have perfect knowledge or skill. The reason kids learn so fast is they keep trying and trying without much regard for what others think. As adults, we can learn from them.
When you test yourself, it will be awkward and uncomfortable. That’s part of the process. That’s you getting better and smarter, even though it doesn’t feel like it.
The Power of Learning Today
Two of my business idols spend most of their time reading. As Chairmen of Berkshire Hathaway, a multi-hundred billion dollar business, you’d think they’d have to spend all their time in meetings. But, Charlie Munger and Warren Buffett, have built their lives so they can read and think. That’s made them incredibly successful and happy. Munger said:
“It’s been my experience in life, if you just keep thinking and reading, you don’t have to work.”
The more we know, the more people will pay us for our knowledge and decision-making abilities. Opening Google and searching for information doesn’t help us make big, critical decisions about life and business. The only way to be able to do that is through the wisdom we gain from our own experience and learning from others’ experiences.
So let’s get learning, faster.