“It’s never too late to be who you might have been.” – George Eliot

Most of my academic accomplishments have occurred outside of school. Learning to speak French, for example. I did that in a six-week, nothing-but-French, total immersion program in Africa. The knowledge I have of the history of the English language, of enjoying wines and collecting, came from self-guided study. I mastered the skill of copywriting outside of an academic setting, as I did virtually every other skill I use to make a living.

That’s not to say that school was wasted on me. In the 18 or 19 years I invested in formal education, I did manage to acquire a working use of reading, writing, and arithmetic. Those skills have formed the basis of everything else I’ve learned. But I often wonder if I could have learned them better and faster had I approached them the way I approached learning French or Jiu Jitsu.

When I think about the fruits and labors of my education, it seems pretty clear that some things worked better than others.

What worked well?

  • Coming to the subject with the feeling that learning it would somehow improve me.
  • Laying in the foundation of the subject with a relatively short period of intense, enthusiastic study.
  • A follow-up period when I reinforced what I had learned by correlating it with almost any new bit of information I came across.

For example, when I first began learning Brazilian Jiu Jitsu, I was very excited about what it could do for me. I’d seen the dramatic results of what this recently renovated ancient martial art did for Royce Gracie in the Ultimate Fighting Competition. I wondered if it could improve the fast-declining self-defense skills of a 45-year-old businessman.

My first few Jiu Jitsu lessons were very rewarding, and that led to a three-month period during which I practiced it at least two hours a day. That period of intense practice boosted me to a whole new level. I felt like I had a solid base of knowledge about the sport that I would never lose. Although my subsequent practice wasn’t so intense, I found myself thinking about Jiu Jitsu all the time and relating principles of Jiu Jitsu to almost everything else I did, from shooting pool to writing for ETR. (If you look in the ETR archives, you’ll find analogies to Jiu Jitsu peppered through the articles I wrote then.)

The same basic pattern applied to the way I learned French. The benefits of learning the language were obvious, for I had been shipped to French-speaking Chad to teach literature and philosophy at the university. I had six weeks to become somewhat fluent or I’d be sent home. So for six weeks I did nothing but study and speak French. I didn’t speak a word of English. By the time the training was done, I’d acquired a 2.5 (basic fluency) on the government competency scale. Afterward, I continued to speak and study French, but at a more relaxed pace. Eventually, I became fully conversational.

For many years, I wondered if this pattern could be used as a blueprint for mastering any subject or skill:

  • Begin by understanding (perhaps even visualizing) the benefits of acquiring the knowledge or skill.
  • After studying it enough to confirm your initial interest, find the time to study it intensely and establish a firm foundation.
  • To advance your knowledge further, continue to study it, but at a leisurely pace – enjoying the knowledge you have and relating what you’ve learned to other things you know or encounter in your daily experiences.

I think the key to all this is the initial period of intense, almost megalomaniacal (see Word to the Wise, below), focus. There is something about that process – thinking about and studying one thing almost every waking hour – that works well for me. It’s like cutting a rock-solid foundation with power tools. If you don’t have that good, deep footing, everything you put on top of it just sinks into the sand.

The way most of us learn in elementary and high school is very different from this. We learn a bunch of subjects all at the same time in little segments: an hour of math, followed by an hour of English, followed by an hour of art history, and so on. The progression of knowledge is broken up into yearly courses that are further divided by semesters or quarters. You spend your time studying discrete units of information for the purpose of passing a test. After one test is completed, you go on to the next. But because you never established a solid foundation of knowledge about a subject, what you learned last semester is mostly forgotten as you focus on studying this semester’s material. By the end of the year, you’ve lost 60% to 70% of what you knew after the first semester. A few years later, your retention rate is down to 10%, if you are lucky.

This problem continues in college, though college students sometimes have more flexibility in selecting courses. Sometimes, they are able (or required) to intensely focus on one subject for a short period of time. In such cases, a foundation can be established.

There are a couple of colleges in the U.S. – Colorado College is one of them – where students take only one subject at a time. You’d take American History, for example, for six hours a day for six solid weeks. At the end of that period you’d get your grade and go on to another subject. I don’t know if there have been any studies of how graduates of this sort of program fare, knowledge-wise, but it wouldn’t surprise me if they had better retention of the basics than graduates of traditional programs.

You might want to keep this in mind when planning out your continuing education. Whatever it is that you want to learn – a foreign language or a financially valued skill – it might make sense to set aside some time to study it intensely in order to establish a base.

How much time? My guess is that it might equate to my theory that it takes about 600 to 1,000 hours to learn a complex skill. Let’s see. I spent about 16 hours a day, seven days a week, for six weeks, doing nothing but learning French. That’s 672 hours. Bingo!

Okay, so that’s going to be my new working hypothesis – that the best way to learn anything is to:

  • Visualize yourself enjoying the benefits of using that knowledge or skill. This will create a wellspring of motivation that you can tap throughout the learning process.
  • Set aside a block of time during which you can establish a foundation of knowledge by studying the subject exclusively – eight to 16 hours a day. If you have six weeks to do it in, great. If you can’t set aside that much time, do as much as you can. Even two weeks at eight hours a day, is a good start (112 hours). Remember, the secret is to get to that 600-hour mark as soon as you can. The more intense your immersion in the subject, the better your foundation.
  • Afterward, continue to build on your base. Never be satisfied with competency. Anything worth learning is worth learning well.

I’m sure I’ll have more to say about this idea in the future, as I continue to think about it and practice it. Right now, I’m enjoying the realization that I know I can master another subject if I can simply set aside a few uninterrupted weeks to establish a foundation of knowledge. I’m wondering what that subject should be. The Salsa? Website optimization? Portuguese?

What would you like to learn?

[Ed. Note.  Mark Morgan Ford was the creator of Early To Rise. In 2011, Mark retired from ETR and now writes the Palm Beach Letter. His advice, in our opinion, continues to get better and better with every essay, particularly in the controversial ones we have shared today. We encourage you to read everything you can that has been written by Mark.]

Mark Morgan Ford

Mark Morgan Ford was the creator of Early To Rise. In 2011, Mark retired from ETR and now writes the Wealth Builders Club. His advice, in our opinion, continues to get better and better with every essay, particularly in the controversial ones we have shared today. We encourage you to read everything you can that has been written by Mark.