Why Learning Is The Only Skill That Matters
Greetings, superfriends, and welcome to this week's episode.
Normally, on the show, I interview real-life superhumans to tease out the skills and strategies they use to achieve the seemingly impossible.
This week is a little different.
This week, we have a “mini” episode; an essay I've written on learning, and why I feel that it's the only skill that really matters.
I hope you enjoy listening to it as much as I enjoyed producing it. Please take a moment to let me know what you think in the comments either way!
If you’ve had even a passing interaction with me or any of my work, you’ve probably heard me talk about learning.
You might have even heard me make the bold claim that the ability to learn is quite literally the only skill that matters.
The “meta skill” that unlocks all other skills.
In this blog post, I want to talk to you about why.
I want to explain to you why learning is so important – not just to me – but for each and every one of you.
But first, we have to go back in time.
Learning Wasn’t Always Easy For Me…
Growing up, I was an energetic, bright, and pretty well-natured kid.
At least, for the first half of my childhood.
At the age of 8, things started to take a turn for me.
My inability to sit still, pay attention, or keep up with the class – once a “cute phase” I would surely grow out of, was no longer a laughing matter.
Sitting in the classroom after the other students had gone home, I found myself answering a series of confusing and strange questions – matching pictures to names, categorizing objects, and so on.
I didn’t know it then, but I was being tested for learning disabilities.
My difficulties continued throughout grade school, and I was consistently behind the class in just about every subject.
My teachers would note my positive attitude and enthusiasm, but routinely cited that I needed to put in more effort to keep up with even the most basic tasks.
I remember countless times when I had to go in after class or during recess to have something explained to me. I remember those triumphant moments when I finally got it, and my response: I wasn’t sure whether to laugh or cry, and had a habit of generally letting out some sort of relieved whimper, my eyes welling up with tears.
These problems proceeded throughout middle school, where they were met with and compounded by another set of challenges.
Whereas other kids were learning valuable social skills and building friendships that would last them for the rest of their lives, I struggled – to say the least.
At a time when my self confidence was lower than ever due to my lousy grades, I became the laughing stock of my school.
The small group of friends I did have eventually turned their backs on me, and I found myself utterly alone, dejected, and contemplating suicide.
I remember etching “reminders” on my arms to shut up, to stop making embarrassing comments, and to act like the more mature kids in class. But try as I could, I simply couldn’t emulate their humor, their self confidence, or their body language.
I was a black sheep. And in no time at all, I loathed myself more than I loathed those who taunted me.
In high school, things finally turned around. A friend of mine introduced me to Ritalin, and for the first time in my life, I could sit still, pay attention, and even do well in school. My doctor reluctantly agreed to prescribe me, and from then on, things got a heck of a lot better.
While I still struggled to learn and remember new information as quickly or as easily as my peers, at least I could sit still long enough to do it.
I spent the next few years locked away in my bedroom, heavily medicated during nearly every waking hour, catching up on the things I’d failed to understand during class and working on starting a string of small businesses.
The confidence boost that this resulted in allowed me to develop a small number of close friends, and while I was far from popular, I largely credit those dear friends with the fact that I survived high school at all.
At the end of high school, I had plenty to show for it: I’d graduated on the honor roll, gotten accepted to Berkeley, and even had a million-dollar business to call my own.
I’d love to say that that was the end of my struggle, but in fact, it wasn’t.
College was tough for me – very tough. Though my self esteem was improved, it was based largely on my accomplishments and what I had. And I still had many shortcomings – especially in my people skills.
And then, there were the academics. Though I entered Berkeley intending to study Economics, I quickly found even that too challenging. I changed my major three separate times, and ended up leaving with a Sociology degree instead.
(And, to be honest, I’ve long since forgotten everything I learned at Berkeley, anyways).
So, why tell you all of this?
Well, because quite simply…
My Entire Life Changed When I Learned How To Learn
A few years after graduating from Berkeley, I had sold my company. To my chagrin, it had stagnated and devolved into a hostile environment during my final 2 years as CEO – largely due to my inability to grow as a leader or to learn the skills necessary to scale a business to the next level. Frustrated with the many challenges facing me in marketing, financing, scaling, and leading the company, I took the easier route and sold out.
It was for this reason that I decided to go back to school. I knew that I needed to learn these critical skills if I wanted my next venture to be a bigger and more successful one, and to my great pleasure, I was accepted to one of the top business schools in the world, INSEAD.
In the back of my mind, I had a lot of anxieties:
What if I struggled to learn like I had at Berkeley?
What if I still don’t have the social skills necessary to “fit in?”
How would I keep up with the immense coursework of a condensed, 1-year MBA?
But fortunately for me, salvation was on the way.
During a short, pre-MBA internship, I met Dr. Lev Goldentouch, who introduced me to his wife, Anna Goldentouch.
Lev and Anna had spent the last 10 years learning, developing, and refining techniques for accelerated learning.
I enrolled in their private course, and the rest is history…
After an intense period of re-learning how to learn, I came away with a pretty nifty skill set:
I could read at a peak rate of 800 words per minute – and remember just about everything I’d read.
It’s hard to overstate the impact this has had on my life.
Of course, it made keeping up with the coursework at INSEAD a lot easier. But that’s just one aspect.
Shortly after completing Anna’s course, I had an epiphany:
The Only Thing Standing Between Us & Achieving Our Dreams Is Learning
I looked back on my biggest struggles and failures, as a student, an entrepreneur, and a friend.
What one component was missing?
The willingness – and ability – to learn what I didn’t know.
With this epiphany in mind, I took a long, hard look at my life.
And then, I made a list. A list of problems that I needed to solve.
And then, I dove right in.
I read books on body language. Books on entrepreneurship. Books on physical therapy. I even read books on social skills.
Of course, the changes didn’t happen overnight – and I still struggled a great deal with overcoming insecurities and “fitting in” with my older, more mature, and highly-competitive peer group at INSEAD.
But slowly, I saw improvement.
I saw that this time, when I faced a shortcoming – whether it was my communication skills during group projects or my interpersonal skills in social situations, I didn’t simply shut down. Instead, I was able to quickly identify what had been missing, and then take the necessary steps to correct it.
Generally speaking, those steps included speed-reading at least one book – but often many more – on whatever area of life I needed to master.
And since then, whenever I’ve had a problem, I’ve remembered this one, simple maxim:
If You Know How To Learn Effectively, You Can Become Anything (or Anyone) You Want
This is so obvious when it comes to academic accomplishment, that it’s almost not worth mentioning.
But how about when you go in to the office, and look up to your boss – what do you think differentiates you from her?
Those are just fancy ways of saying that she knows more than you do. And don’t for a second forget that if that were to change, you would very quickly find yourself managing her, instead.
This is true for any and every aspect of business – whether you need to learn about marketing, online publishing, leadership, and copywriting as I have, or learn a new programming language, or simply learn everything there is to know about your company’s products.
Heck, when I decided to build my very first online course, I notoriously sat down over the course of 2 days, and speed-read about 150 articles, blog posts, and resources on video course production, marketplace algorithms, and content marketing – and within a matter of weeks, I was the proud instructor of one of the top courses on Udemy – a platform I had only heard about weeks prior.
I’ve applied this template to starting my own podcast, publishing my own book, and building my own online academy. As we speak, I’m applying it to a whole new area of study: paid advertising, webinars, and marketing automation – and the results are already promising.
Put simply, I know that my ability to out-learn my competitors gives me an unfair advantage, and is the single biggest contributor to my success in this industry.
But how about the problems I faced earlier on in my life: an inability to make meaningful and positive connections with others, and a failure to understand how “charisma” works?
Well, it turns out that all along, all I needed to do was read a few books on the topic… (though some of them, I had to read twice).
As I came to understand, just like technical skills, languages, or fine motor skills, charisma, popularity, and likability can be broken down into a finite set of skills, behaviors, and understandings. And that set of skills, like every other, can be hacked.
Today, I can confidently lecture in front of thousands of people, and, more importantly, interact with people one-on-one in an authentic and genuine way that (it seems) makes me likable and personable.
I am also blessed to have built a network of very dear and loving friends – people who I’m fairly confident wouldn’t have been able to tolerate the 18 year old Jonathan.
(Truthfully speaking, I’m not sure I would have been able to, either).
And all I needed to do was learn what others already knew.
The people skills. The behaviors. The body language. The psychological adjustments that enable you to be confident without being cocky. That’s all “charisma” and “likability” boil down to – and you can learn it in a handful of $4.99 books on Amazon.
So, how about that hobby that you wish you could get into, but it just seems too much to learn?
Well, I can tell you that I’ve applied my “learning toolkit” to nearly every hobby that has piqued my interest: surfing, acro yoga, piano, guitar, gymnastics, photography, olympic weightlifting, language learning, rock climbing… even aerial photography.
And while I’ve only really carried through with a select few of them, I can confidently tell you this: It can all be “hacked.” And at the end of the day, it’s all just “learning.”
So, let me sum it up for you:
Knowing How To Learn Is The Only Skill That Matters – And Most Of Us Are Never Taught It.
With an effective learning tool kit, you can open just about any door imaginable… (though, admittedly, I haven’t been able to learn to squat 150 kilos. To every rule, there is of course an exception, and genetic limitations seem to be the exception in this case).
Unfortunately, however, nobody ever teaches us how to use our brains.
As Tony Buzan recently said in an interview with my dear friend Dr. Anthony Metivier, everything we buy, from the simplest radio to our refrigerator, comes with a user’s manual – and yet for the most advanced and sophisticated supercomputer the world has ever known (your brain), there is none.
So when you hear me talk about “learning,” why it’s so important, and what great potential each and every one of us has if we just learn to use the incredible piece of equipment we were gifted by evolution… Now you know why.
I wasn’t born the person I wanted to be.
But I learned how to be him.
And so can you.