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A Few Rules for Learning Just About Anything

Learn a little often to reach your goals (and be sure to set your measurable realistic goals).
Learn a little often to reach your goals (and be sure to set your measurable realistic goals).

I almost titled this post “The Myth of Talent,” because “talent” is a word I hear almost every day, and almost always makes me cringe:

“Oh, I’d like to learn Irish, but I have no talent for languages!”

“Oh, you don’t want to hear me sing! My brother got all the musical talent in the family!” 

Here’s the thing, folks. It’s not about “talent.”

The myth of “talent”

We tend to talk about “talented” people as if they popped out of the womb with amazing natural abilities that we, alas, don’t share.

While it’s true that some people have particularly strong abilities in certain areas (a person may have a certain degree of natural timing, balance, and flexibility that would be useful for an athlete, for example), generally, “talent” isn’t what makes them successful in those areas; hard work is.

Likewise, while it’s true that there are sometimes physical, neurological, or psychological issues that limit one’s ability to do something, most of us really don’t have that excuse.  Tone deafness, or “amusia,” for example does exist…it’s also, however, extremely rare.

If you don’t have one of these limitations, there’s no reason you can’t learn pretty much anything you want to learn. Hence the title of this post: “A Few Rules for Learning Just About Anything.”



This isn’t to say that there are no limitations as to how far you can go with any given skill. If you start studying the violin at age 60, the chances of you making it to Carnegie Hall are rather slim.

That doesn’t mean, however, that you can’t learn to play it well enough to give yourself and those around you pleasure…even well enough to do some performing, if you wish.

Likewise, with a foreign language, If you start learning as an adult, the likelihood of you ever losing your native accent is slim, and you may find it takes you a little longer to achieve conversational fluency than it would a young child.

That said, you can still learn the language very, very well…well enough to communicate effectively and idiomatically, to understand what people say to you, and to enjoy resources (books, newspapers, television shows, etc.) in your chosen language.

So, enough with the excuses! Let’s get started!

The Rules



This may seem obvious, but a surprising number of people set out to learn things that they really don’t have a lot of interest in, but feel they ought to know, for some reason, or feel they need to know.

It’s probably no surprise that you will learn more easily, and have a more determined approach, toward something you’re passionate about!

If “passion” isn’t possible (and sometimes even if it is!) but the need is still there, it’s useful to write down the reasons why you feel this is something important for you to learn. Make a list, and keep it posted near where you study or practice to help you stay motivated.



You’re less likely to study or practice if you have to clear off a space to work every day. Pick a place, even if it’s just a tiny corner of your home, and make it your designated work space. 

One nice thing about having a dedicated space is that it helps put you in the right frame of mind: “When I’m in this place, I’m working.”



Once again, you’re less likely to study or practice if you have to “fit it in” to the rest of your day. Before you know it, the day will have gotten away from you, and you’ll be saying “maybe I’ll get to it tomorrow.

Much better to say “It’s 3:00, and 3:00 is when I work on my Irish/practice my violin/etc.” and stick to it.

That doesn’t mean you can’t also make use of “found time” to do some additional practice!



You will learn more, retain more, make faster progress, and enjoy yourself more if you have frequent (daily or twice daily), relatively short (no more than an hour), practice/study sessions.



You should set goals for yourself, both short-term and long-term.

A short-term goal might be something like “By the end of the week I want to have a handle on first-conjugation verbs,” or “by the end of next month, I want to be able to play the this tune accurately at speed.”

You can also set shorter-term goals, for example: “At the end of this session I want to have read and understood three paragraphs,” or “at the end of this session I want to have a handle on that funny ornament.”

Long-term goals might include such things as “I want to be comfortable asking directions and ordering in a restaurant in time for my trip this summer” or “I want to be able to play my fiddle in the local slow session by next winter.”

Periodically re-evaluate your goals. Are they still reasonable, or do you think you  may need to scale them back a bit? Or did you achieve them much faster than you’d thought you would, so that now you need to set new goals?



Sorry to tell you, but there’s an element of drudgery in all learning. Whether it’s practicing fingering exercises on the piano or drilling verb conjugations in a language, sometimes it’s just plain boring.

If you let yourself get too bored, however, you’ll get discouraged. Take a break, when things are a bit dull, and do something fun with what you’re learning. Watch a soap opera in your target language. Go to a concert, or pick up some new music.

Some drudgery may be inevitable, but it helps to remind yourself from time to time that learning can be fun too!



It’s easy to think you’re not making real progress. When that happens, go back to the very first days or weeks of your learning. What can you do easily now that you couldn’t do then?

Learning tends to go in fits and starts. One day you’ll seem to make a lot of progress, and another day it may even seem like you’re going backward! That’s normal. To get a true idea of your progress, you need to evaluate after weeks, months, or even years.

You can do it!

The bottom line is, don’t let some misconceived notion about “lack of talent” keep you from doing something you’d dearly love to learn to do.

Life’s too short. Don’t make excuses. You’ve got plenty of talent. Get out there and learn!

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