If you’re currently overwhelmed by trying to learn a new task, a new job, or a new subject in school, then read on. I was in a similar situation when someone taught me the secret to picking up a new skill set that I have since applied to everything I do, whether it’s writing an article for a website, or fixing my toilet.
During the misguided period that followed withdrawing from my PhD, I wound up in Grande Prairie, Alberta working as a technician on oil rigs. My girlfriend’s brother offered me a position with his company and I accepted. It was simultaneously one of the worst jobs and one of the most memorable learning experiences I’ve ever had.
I was 3,000 kilometers (1,700ish miles) away from home, “enjoyed” 30-hour work days in -40 Celsius, 6 to 7-hours of driving on a daily basis, 14-days of continuous work and had zero skill for what was really a highly technical job. That last part was the worst.
I was exhausted on most days and frustrated in the knowledge that my lack of skill was making me work longer than most.
But there were also some really amazing parts to the position and I wanted to appreciate them more fully: the landscape was beautiful, it was my first time seeing the mountains, I had a lot of time to think and reflect every day on the drive to different sites, there was a great deal of self-direction in the position, and I could see the money becoming alright. But I couldn’t tell a hopper from an impeller to save my life.
Seriously, if I needed to know that to save my life, I was a deadman. I quit.
But in my last week out in the Great Canadian North I worked on a drilling site at the top of a crater with a technician named Justin who taught me a killer learning technique that helped me really start to understand the job and how the machines work. I have since applied it to everything from writing, to cooking, to repairing things around the house.
The secret is this:
Stop trying to understand the whole before understanding the parts.
I suddenly knew what I was doing wrong: I was overwhelming myself trying to understand something difficult, even though that complicated process was just a grouping of very simple ones. If I broke the system down to the simplest parts, then it made a lot more sense.
How You Can Apply it to Anything, Anywhere, in Any Field
Lets use writing as an example.
When I’m asked to write an article, I don’t write an article. I decide on tone and format. I write a headline, the body text, occasionally sub-headers and pictures, and then write the lead paragraph. On more formal articles I might include footnotes and a reference section.
Each part of the article has a specific function in your writing:
- The headline captures the reader’s attention and gives an indication of the direction of the article.
- The lead paragraph summarizes the argument you’re making, or piques the reader’s curiosity and convinces them to read on.
- Sub-headers help the reader situate themselves in more complex articles and allow them to skim over the piece.
- Paragraphs express ideas.
- Footnotes prove to the reader that you’ve done your research and direct them towards sources for further reading, should they want to verify your claims.
They all fit together in a piece of writing, but if you try to write without an understanding of these different bits and pieces you will likely become frustrated at not achieving your objectives.
Instead of writing an article, focus on mastering each section. Learn how to write a strong headline, (80% of online readers only read this part) and then move on. Don’t overwhelm yourself trying to write a Pulitzer prize winning novel – focus on fitting the different parts of the article together by understanding what each of them are intended to accomplish.
You can apply this tip to anything you’re learning, whether that’s picking up an instrument, or trying to figure out how a piece of software works. A lot of the tools we use are complex, but if you take a step back and think about them in terms of their individual pieces and how they fit into the bigger picture, you’ll find greater success, less frustration, and pleasure in knowing that you’re starting to master something that you previously thought was out of your reach.