It can be overwhelming to learn a new skill, especially as you reach adulthood. If you want to start a new career, learn a new hobby, play an instrument, or try a new activity, it requires your brain to learn an entirely new way of thinking. In this post, I will explore some ways you can “hack” your brain, helping your old brain learn some new tricks.
The Brain: Adolescence to Adulthood
In the first 20-25 years of your life, the human brain works to become specialized and efficient. Your experiences during childhood and adolescence will dictate how your brain specializes. For example, if you are raised in a bilingual household, your brain will be more specialized for language learning. This is true for any activities that engage your brain, including sports, music, education, or games.
As a child, your brain is like a sponge. However, once you reach 20-25 years old, your brain becomes more rigid, and new skills become much more difficult to learn. It becomes much more challenging for your brain to create new specializations.
For the first 15 years of my career, I worked as a graphic designer. However, four years ago, I decided to study programming so that I could change careers and become a developer. I dedicated about three years of my life to studying programming in my free time, but wasn’t seeing the results I wanted. I was getting very stressed and depressed, and was doubting my ability to understand how programming worked. After looking at my progress, I realized I needed to change something about my learning method.
Neurobiology and the Ability of the Brain to Change
I gave myself one more year to learn to program, and then I started looking into how I could change my study methods. I began by learning about the brain and delved into the field of neuroscience.
More specifically, I discovered the concept of neuroplasticity. Neuroplasticity is “the ability of the brain to form and reorganize synaptic connection, especially in response to learning or experience.” That gave me a lot of hope. Even though my brain was fully developed, neuroplasticity argued that I could still learn something new.
If you want to learn coding, play a new instrument, or try a new language as an adult, it can be done. However, you need to know that it will take time, it will take a lot of effort, and you will need to change.
Developing the Right Mindset
When “learning how to learn” as an adult, the first thing you need to focus on is your mindset. As humans, we typically fall into one of two mindsets:
- The Fixed Mindset: The fixed mindset is most common. It’s when you think you can’t do something, so you don’t do anything about it. The fixed mindset doesn’t allow you to learn or grow; it allows you to remain content in the things you already know.
- The Growth Mindset: The growth mindset, or agile mindset, is when you realize that failure is just a lesson, and that challenges help you grow.
We are lucky in the software development industry because our jobs naturally instill in us agile brain methodologies. Even if you don’t want to, every day on the job we are enforcing the habit of collaboration, adaptation to change, and creation of new systems to solve problems.
Once you are in your growth mindset and ready to learn, you then have to believe you can do it. As Henry Ford once said, “Whether you think you can or you think you can’t you’re right.”
If you want to become a pro in a new skill, you need the right sort of practice carried out over a sufficient period of time. For example, playing tennis for fun with your friends won’t make you much better, as you’re not pushing yourself. The more “automated” your performance becomes, the less you’re learning.
Peak by Anders Ericsson and Robert Pool acknowledges the difference between natural talent and becoming pro. For example, a child raised to play piano by two pianist parents will have a more natural advantage than someone who has never touched a piano. That doesn’t mean that the latter person can’t become a pro; it just means that they may have to work harder to learn.
There are tools that can help you become a pro, including memory exercises, habits, creating goals, and giving the activity your full attention. If you’re facing the daunting task of starting a new skill, this book has all of the skills you need to improve your memory and improve your habits so that you can become a pro.
Attention and Focus
When you learn a new skill, it is also imperative to have both focus and attention, as they can both help you learn the skill more quickly and successfully. Research shows that what you think, do, and pay attention to changes your brain’s structure and function.
Search Inside Yourself by Chade-Meng Tan presents two key arguments that support this research. First, emotional intelligence can drastically improve your work performance. If you are learning something new, it is easy to let yourself be overwhelmed by anxiety and depression, instead of focusing on what you need to do. However, with strong emotional intelligence, you can overcome these negative feelings and focus on your work.
Second, it is important to pay attention to mindfulness. Tan began his study on mindfulness when he implemented mindfulness in Google. He did a lot of research into the science of mindfulness to present the employees with the findings of the research.
Chade-Meng Tan found that meditation improves concentration, relaxation, alertness, attention, and focus, all of which are essential to successfully learning a new skill.
Tiny Gains… Compound Effect
The book Atomic Habits by James Clear focuses on the importance of small goals. Clear argues that it’s important to focus on small gains, rather than large gains, when practicing a new skill, because they can eventually have a compound effect. Take a moment to look at the graph below.
If you improve by 1% every day, you can get 37% better after just one year. That means that if you continue to improve at 1% a day, you will have 100% success in your skill by the end of three years.
Another way to help yourself learn a new skill is to keep a daily personal journal that tracks your progress. The daily journal gives you an in-depth analysis and evaluation of your experiences, and increases your self-awareness. It is also a daily reminder of your goals and what you are trying to accomplish.
For example, if you are working towards completing a certain number of push-ups, you may have been able to do ten pushups yesterday, but only two push-ups today. Instead of being discouraged, the daily journal can show you what may have caused the discrepancy. Was your success altered by what you ate, how well you slept, or some other factor? The daily journal works for any new skill you are attempting to learn, including programming, art, climbing, language learning, or working out.
When you create your journal, you want it to include the factors that will help you succeed. As a rule of thumb, the journal should consist of things like measuring your progress, daily reminders, visible and tactile reinforcement, and a log of habits and attention.
In Wendy Suzuki’s Ted Talk, “The Brain-Changing Benefits of Exercise,” Suzuki explains that exercise is not only good for your physical appearance, but also for your brain activity, energy levels, motivation, and focus. Working out can also boost your mood and memory while protecting your brain against neurodegenerative diseases.
Especially if the new skill you are learning is a stationary event, it is important to make sure you take time to stay active each day.
How to Start?
If you are planning to learn a new skill or start a new career, I recommend following these steps:
- Believe: The first step I recommend is believing you can do it. Whatever stage of life you are in, it is always possible to learn new things. I was hired by Grio at 39 years old, after spending the first half of my career in a completely different field. I believed in myself and was able to make my dream come true.
- Read: When you learn a new skill, the goal is to rewire or form new connections in your brain. I love sports, and I used to watch two hours of sports shows every day. When I began to learn to program, I was trying to study while watching. However, after learning how the brain works, I changed my habits and instead watched two hours of programming tutorials each day. The more I was able to read and absorb, the easier the programming became.
- Exercise: Improve your focus, motivation, and brain activity by getting physical activity each day.
- Measure Your Progress: Measuring the small gains can keep you motivated and on track.
- Maintain a Healthy Diet: Cutting sugars and eating brain-healthy foods can help your brain learn more successfully.
- Get Enough Sleep: Sleep is crucial for your attention and focus, and goes hand in hand with meditation.
- Don’t Wait for Motivation: If you want to learn a new skill, you have to push yourself and push the limits of your brain.
- Keep a Daily Journal: Keep track of your daily progress to help yourself find motivation and understand what works and what doesn’t.
- Focus on Your Emotional Intelligence: Increase your emotional intelligence to ensure that anxiety, stress, and depression don’t overwhelm your motivation.
- Meditate: Focus on mindfulness to help your attention and focus.
- Learn How the Brain Works: Understand how your brain works so that you can give it the things it needs to succeed.
- Improve Your Environment: Surround yourself with an environment conducive to learning and people who will motivate you to succeed. If you are around lazy people, they can pull you away from your goals.
If you still think you can’t do something or that you can’t teach a dog new tricks, then, “You must unlearn what you have learned.”