The No BS Guide to

Becoming a Fast Learner

By Chi Fang

“I’m a fast learner”.

Have you ever written that on a job application or said it during an interview?  It’s probably the most cliché way we use to describe ourselves, next to “I’m a hard worker”.

But how many of us are TRULY fast learners?

  • There’s your friend who taught herself a new language in 6 months and now sounds like she’s been speaking it her whole life
  • What about the guy from work who learned how to code and is now earning thousands of dollars on the side?
  • And your neighbour who just started jogging a few months ago and has already run an ultra-marathon?

It seems like some people can become astonishingly good at anything in just a short amount of time.

Do they have some kind of divine talent that the rest of us don’t have?

A person isn’t simply born a fast learner.  Whether they realize it or not, fast learners have simply figured out a series of strategies that give them an edge.  In other words, they are following a set of rules which anyone can adopt.

Maybe you want to learn how to speak Spanish?  Or pick up a new hobby like playing the guitar, or photography?  How about an incredibly complex activity like playing golf?  Or something truly intimidating, like starting your own online business? The same principles apply to virtually any skill you want to learn.

Becoming a quick learner can enrich your life in endless ways.   Here are the 7 key principles to learning something fast:


One thing at a time

In the bestselling book “The ONE Thing”, author Gary Keller writes that we should all figure out what’s most important to us, and make that one thing our sole focus.

“Success demands singleness of purpose. You need to be doing fewer things for more effect instead of doing more things with side effects.” – Gary Keller

This might seem like common sense, but it can be extremely difficult to apply in real life.  If you’re reading this, then you probably have a lot of different things that you want to learn.  But if you try to learn everything at once, you’ll waste too much time switching between activities and become frustrated with your lack of progress.

These days, many people proudly call themselves “multitaskers”. However, studies have shown that only 2% of people can actually multitask effectively and that switching between tasks costs us up to 40% of our productive time.

Fast learners know that in order to quickly pick up a new skill, it means giving it your undivided attention, and having to say “maybe someday” to a dozen other things that you’re also interested in.


Get started on the right foot

Once you’ve decided on a skill you want to learn, it’s time to do some preliminary research.  You need to know what you’re getting yourself into.

The idea is to quickly familiarize yourself with the skill until you have a mental map that identifies:

  • Keys to success
  • Major pitfalls to avoid
  • Subskills to focus on

Doing this work upfront will help you come up with a plan for learning, and avoiding mistakes that sabotage your progress.

For example, you can spend 10,000 hours practicing your golf game, but it won’t do you much good if you never learned to grip your clubs properly.  Get it right from the beginning.

The easiest way to start your research is to simply do a Google search with a few of the following terms:

“beginner’s guide to” + skill

“biggest mistakes” + skill

“before you start” + skill

“things I wish I knew” + skill

You’ll find tons of information geared towards people who are just starting out.  For example, check out our beginner’s guide for the Best Way to Learn Spanish.

At this stage, don’t overwhelm yourself by trying to memorize every tidbit of information right away. Just keep a list of the resources you find, and come back to review them from time to time.


80/20 your way to success

You’ve probably heard of the 80/20 rule, but how does it actually help you learn faster?  Also called Pareto’s principle, the rule states that 80% of your results come from just 20% of your efforts.

80% of a business’ profits come from 20% of its customers

80% of your time is spent with 20% of the people you know

80% of the fun you have come from 20% of the activities you do

A big part of becoming a fast learner is about breaking a skill down into smaller chunks.  Then you can examine each chunk, and focus on the 20% that will have the highest impact, while disregarding the trivial 80% that’s not going to make a real difference.

There are approximately 100,000 words in the Spanish language, but if you learn the 1,000 most common words, it will allow you to understand 88% of spoken dialogue.  If you’re trying to pick up the guitar, you can play over 150 songs by learning just FOUR chords.

You can break down virtually any skill and apply the 80/20 rule:


20% Highest Impact

80% Low Impact

Speak Spanish- Most common words / phrases
- 1-on-1 speaking practice
- Passive learning
- Fun but ineffective Apps
- TV / Movies / Podcasts
Play guitar- Chord progressions- Reading music
- Exotic scales
- Legato, sweep picking
Take better photos- Composition
- Lighting
- $4,000 camera
- Camera settings
- Post processing
Play golf- Short-game- Hitting a big drive
- Fixing that slice
- Pro V1 golf balls
Start an online business- Talk to potential customers
- Test your business idea
- Building a website
- Printing business cards
- Preparing for a big “launch”

Another useful exercise is to re-frame the 80/20 rule and ask yourself:

“What are the 20% of obstacles which are causing 80% of my problems?”

If you can target the biggest, hairiest, most glaring obstacle that is preventing you from learning quickly, and focus on erasing that from existence, then you’ll open the door to rapid progress.


Speed over perfection

We’re taught from an early age that it’s a good thing to have high standards for yourself, but at what point does it become a barrier to learning quickly?

“Practice does not make perfect, only perfect practice makes perfect” – Vince Lombardi

But the problem with trying to practice perfectly is that you may end up spending way too much time overanalyzing and overthinking about how to get it “right”, rather than just doing it.

Case in point is the language learner who spends countless hours studying grammar because they don’t feel “ready” to speak yet.

Too often, the idea of perfect practice gets mixed up with our fear of making mistakes and being judged by other people.  This leads to three things, none of which are good:

  1. Procrastination
  2. Unwillingness to take risks
  3. Frustration

In the early stages of learning a skill, you should be focused on practicing as fast and as often as possible.  To become a fast learner, you need to be willing to push yourself outside of your comfort zone, where it’s impossible to be perfect. Frankly, if your practice doesn’t contain some moments of awkwardness and embarrassment, then you’re probably not doing it right.

Rather than spending 1 hour trying to do something “perfectly”, aim to spend 10x the amount of time doing it “well-enough”, while making 20x the amount of mistakes.

You’re going to forget those Spanish words you studied and blurt out something silly.  You’re going to take 100+ bad photos for every good one that’s worth sharing on Facebook.  You’re going to mess up that tee shot when everyone is watching.  That’s what fast learners do.


Learn from the experts

People will tell you that you need to find a mentor, but these days you can find dozens of them without even leaving your house.

In the age of free information, more and more experts are offering their advice online and sharing their successes, failures, and secrets with anyone who will listen.

Most of these experts, who are now at the top of their game, also started from humble beginnings.  That guy who is now fluent in 8 languages, used to be an average-joe who struggled with his second language, just like the rest of us.

It can be a tremendous source of motivation to follow in the footsteps of someone who has already done it.  Not only will you benefit from their proven tips and tricks, it also helps you set realistic expectations for yourself so that you don’t become discouraged in the process.

Here are few examples of experts to follow:

Benny Lewis – Fluent in 3 Months
Olly Richards – I Will Teach You a Language

Justin Sandercoe – Justin Guitar

Mark Crossfield – AskGolfGuru

Josh Dunlop – Expert Photography
Cole Joseph – Cole’s Classroom

Start an online business:
Ramit Sethi – GrowthLab
Pat Flynn – Smart Passive Income


Get Rapid Feedback

So you’ve put a lot of sweat and tears into your new skill, but how do you know if you’re actually getting better?  Are you doing anything wrong that you’re not aware of?

You need a way to measure your progress, one that preferably gives you fast, if not instantaneous feedback.  There are two main ways you can do this:

Get feedback from other people

When it comes to speaking a new language for example, you can get immediate feedback by learning with a teacher.  At Verbalicity, our professional Spanish teachers can tell you exactly what you need to improve on and come up with a plan to help you get better.

Setup your own feedback systems

If you’re learning to play guitar, you can make recordings of yourself playing, and listen back.  It is hard to evaluate yourself while you’re playing because there are so many other things going through your mind.  But when you listen back, you’ll hear things that you never noticed before.

A word of warning: getting feedback is sometimes the hardest part of learning a new skill.  Most of us cringe at the idea of opening ourselves up to criticism.  We are afraid of what other people think of us, and sometimes we are our own biggest critic. It is completely natural to feel this way, and you have to do your best to push past this.


The 20-hour commitment

Many of us begin a new undertaking with the mentality of “I’ll just try it out to see if I like it”.

But what does “try it out” mean?

How much time and money are you willing to invest?

What if it doesn’t click for you right away? How long are you willing to keep going?

If you do not have an answer to these questions, then you may very well find yourself saying “I tried it and it wasn’t for me” and then chasing the next shiny object that comes along.

One solution to this is to pre-commit to at least 20 hours of practice.  As soon as you start learning a skill, you must finish the 20 hours, without giving up, no matter what.

In his book “The First 20 hours”, Josh Kaufman explains why this is so important:

“The early parts of the skill acquisition process usually feel harder than they really are. You’re often confused, and you’ll run into unexpected problems and barriers. Instead of giving up when you experience the slightest difficulty, pre-committing to twenty hours makes it easier to persist.” – Josh Kaufman

After the 20 hours, you’ll have experienced enough of the skill, and be far enough along the learning curve to decide if this is really for you.

One of the easiest things to do is to make a commitment that forces you to show up, whether that’s a language lesson, a jam session with your friends, or a coffee with a potential customer.

It’s important to note that the 20 hours needs to consist of dedicated practice with 100% concentration.  Simply thinking about it or reading about it doesn’t count.


These are the keys to quickly learning any skill.  If you apply these principles to your life, you’ll finally be able to call yourself a “fast learner”.

One thing at a time – Focus on just one skill, and say “maybe later” to everything else.

Start off on the right foot – Familiarize yourself with the basic keys to success and pitfalls to avoid.

80/20 your way to success – Concentrate on the 20% of effort that will get you 80% of the results.

Speed over perfection – Practice as fast and often as you can, don’t try to be perfect, make mistakes and learn from them.

Learn from experts – Find an online “mentor” that inspires you and that you can learn from.

Rapid Feedback – Get immediate feedback on how you’re doing by enlisting the help of others or by measuring it yourself.

The 20-hour commitment – Force yourself to pre-commit to at least 20 hours of dedicated practice.  Don’t give up before then.

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