Fail productively… how to turn yourself into a super-learner

David Robson:

If your aim for 2020 was to learn a new skill, you may be at the point of giving up. Whether you are mastering a new language or a musical instrument, or taking a career-changing course, initial enthusiasm can only take you so far, and any further progress can be disappointingly slow.

From these struggles, you might assume that you simply lack a natural gift – compared to those lucky people who can learn any new skill with apparent ease.

However, it needn’t be this way. Many polymaths – including Charles Darwin and the Nobel prize-winning physicist Richard Feynman – claimed not to have exceptional natural intelligence. Most of us have more than enough brainpower to master a new discipline, if we apply it correctly – and the latest neuroscience offers many strategies to do just that.

Much research in the field hinges on the idea of “desirable difficulties”, pioneered by Profs Robert and Elizabeth Bjork at the University of California, Los Angeles. The aim is to deliberately create a slight feeling of frustration as you learn, which leads the brain to process the material more deeply, creating longer-lasting memories. It’s like physical exercise: you need to feel a bit of resistance to make significant long-term gains.