Learning To Learn

Last September I started learning to dive (as in at a swimming pool off of a diving board). Since then I have been at the pool for an hour every week in a coached lesson, and for another hour without a coach most weeks. My previous experience was basically nil, although I am very comfortable in the water.

Since January I have been learning to play the piano. This has been without formal teaching, but my wife has been on hand to guide me through my learning. I had a small amount of prior experience, but I couldn’t read music when I started.

As an (almost) adult, learning two new skills from scratch has been hugely rewarding, but also very frustrating at times. It’s also made me think a lot about learning, and how we learn.

10,000 hours is a red herring

There’s a fairly well known belief that mastering something takes around 10,000 hours. This was popularised by Malcolm Gladwell in his book Outliers.

I am not going to refute this claim, but I don’t think that it’s a particularly useful metric. The first time I heard this claim, I immediately found a calculator and determined that racking up 10,000 hours would take about 30 years at an hour a day; or 7 years if you could average four hours a day. That is an incredibly daunting thought (particularly to a perfectionist like myself), but in reality we don’t need to master a task to benefit from learning it.

As an absolute upper bound, I have spent 56 hours in total learning to dive (it’s probably more like 40), and about 80 hours learning to read music and play the piano. And while I am a quick learner generally, I certainly haven’t been the fastest learner in my diving class!

Am I a master? No. Will I ever be? Probably not. But has it been incredibly rewarding? Yes. Has my life improved as a result of learning these skills? Absolutely.

I wonder if a much better metric is something like: less than a 100 hours to be a competent beginner, and having fun!


Undoubtedly feedback is a big part of learning a new skill, for how can we learn if we don’t know that we haven’t done it right? Some skills have better implicit feedback loops than others (I would argue programming for example has a fairly poor feedback loop for beginners).

Diving has a very interesting feedback loop. Some parts are obvious (and painful), for if you hit the water at the wrong angle you will know about it. However, other parts are much less obvious: it takes a lot of practice to understand what your body is doing in the air, as it is all over very quickly, and you can’t see your body as you are diving. This makes learning new dives, and improving existing ones quite difficult.

There are two things that help improve the feedback loop in diving: the first is a good coach, who can help explain where you went wrong, and how you should correct. The second is instant replay: on the higher diving boards at my pool there is a camera and tv which record your dive and play it back with a 30 second delay. This is incredibly useful for learning where you’ve gone wrong!

There is a pretty tight feedback loop when playing the piano. If you know what the song should sound like, it’s fairly obvious if you’ve hit the wrong key (although as a very beginner I found even that to be less obvious than I would have expected at times). Knowing how to diagnose what’s causing you to make mistakes, and correcting for them is much harder though. Sometimes it’s as simple as my wife saying “if you play that note with your ring finger instead of your middle finger, it will be much easier” and the problem is instantly fixed.

Knowing when to think

For me diving is a constant battle between thinking very hard, and not thinking at all. Even with the simplest of dives, there are a lot of things to think about and remember if you want to do a good dive.

But here’s the rub: as a beginner almost nothing about diving makes sense. The motions are all quite unnatural and intuitive, and I still don’t really understand how I can jump up, do a tuck, and enter the water head first within about a foot of the diving board and all in less than half a second. The moment I think about how impossible that sounds, is the moment my brain says “nope, can’t do this, this is ridiculous”. Add in a good dose of fear of heights and sometimes my brain won’t let me dive, no matter how much I want to.

As such a lot of my diving practice is a tension between thinking about new elements of a dive, or the parts I want to improve, and not thinking at all about the rest of the dive and trusting that my body will just do the right thing.

I have had similar experiences with the piano. Initially when learning to read music, and hit the right notes, it was incredibly difficult, and required a lot of thinking. But as I have improved I have noticed that some of my best playing is when I don’t think too much, and let my fingers just do what they need to do.


But for me, the biggest factor in my learning has been how much I am enjoying myself.

Some days I put way to much pressure on myself, and my focus is on getting better, rather than having fun. It’s generally on those days that I’ll over-think, get frustrated, and make no improvements at all. But on the days where I go in, possibly with something new I want to try, but a big smile on my face, that is when I truly learn.

Go learn, smile, grow, and enjoy yourself. It’s worth it!