The secret to learning how to do anything

MFA Mummies Exhibit

One of the things I hear people say most often is, “I want to learn how to do X”, whether X is learning how to code, how to cook, how to be a better marketer, and this statement is almost immediately followed by the sentence, “but I don’t know how to get started”.

You can, of course, start by taking any number of academic courses, reading books, talking to experts who have the knowledge that you need, and for many people this approach to learning works very well. However, many people feel a certain difficulty in remaining motivated once the course has ended. They reach a plateau, and that lack of momentum stops them from making further progress.

So how do you start learning in such a way that you do not lose momentum? One solution that has worked for me and many other people that I know comes from the martial arts: have a problem to solve. In the absence of a real problem to solve, it is hard to find reasons to keep going, to expand your awareness, to challenge your limitations. There are only so many ways you can code “hello world” before it is simply demotivating.

In ancient Japan, martial arts were taught by taking new students and teaching them techniques that would be immediately usable, especially in an era when those techniques might have to be used that same day to save your life. The first techniques learned after the basics of the basics were not always the easiest techniques, not always the simplest techniques, not always the most intuitive things for a new student to learn. Instead, the first techniques learned after the basics with the ones that addressed the most challenging, most common problems of the day. Your opponent has a sword and you do not, what do you do?

From this history lesson, we learn that the way to learn and keep learning effectively in any discipline is to have a problem or a set of problems that you need solutions to. If you want to learn how to code, have a problem that code can solve. If you want to learn how to be better at digital marketing, have a marketing problem that digital marketing can solve. For example, one of my favorite websites is It won’t teach you how to code. What it does do is have an enormous archive of questions and answers about very specific code problems and sample pieces of code to address those problems. If you are working on any kind of a code problem, is a good chance that someone has encountered a similar problem on stack overflow. Searching through the website will help you find sample code that you can then adapt, and in the process of adapting it, you’ll learn it.

You will not necessarily learn in a sequential manner in this fashion, but you will learn the solutions to the problems you have in a very real, very practical way. As you learn to solve more and more complex problems, your skill grows and the gaps in your knowledge eventually fill themselves in. The great advantage of learning this way is that you have a problem-centric mindset. You are not learning how to write code that is a solution with no problem; you are learning to take a problem apart and solve it, piece by piece. This approach will serve you well in real world applications, real-world experiences, and helps to keep you motivated. There is a certain gratification and intrinsic reward when you solve a difficult problem on your own.

Ultimately, if you are learning a new skill for personal growth or professional development, having a problem-centric mindset makes you a very valuable employee or person. You’ll develop the kind of mind that goes out and seeks solutions to real problems, which means you will be the kind of person who can deliver real results, often without the hindrances of unnecessary baggage, and in some cases, faster than other professionals.

That is truly the secret to learning how to do anything: find a problem and solve it. Repeat until you become an expert.

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Metal is interesting stuff. Take a paper clip, made from steel. You can bend it a little fairly often. You can bend it a lot a few times.

After just a few big bends or many small bends, the metal fatigues. It begins to crumble, and eventually the paper clip snaps.

There’s no way to repair it once the metal has fatigued, save to melt it down and recast it again as a new paper clip.

Summer 2008 Photos

When you think about it, we’re much the same way.

We can handle a little bit of stress for a long time, or a lot of stress a few times, but eventually we snap; we physically, mentally, emotionally, and spiritually crumble.

If we’re lucky, we experience catharsis, a meltdown, as a way to recast ourselves to be just as strong, maybe even a little bit stronger.

The lesson here is that when you hit fatigue, when you’ve broken, you may not be able to piece things back together.

Sometimes it may not even be worth trying.

Instead, like melting down and recasting, you have to start over. That’s perfectly okay. Let yourself be okay with that.

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How to assess a big marketing idea


See if this sounds familiar: marketing thought leader X publishes a new paper with a grand Big Idea, complete with fancy infographic and a chart or framework that is both dazzlingly complex and slightly intimidating. Whether you like said thought leader or not, you wonder whether their Big Idea is actually worth pursuing, or whether it’s just a bunch of hot air, and pursuing it would be a waste of time and resources.

I’ve been in that situation plenty of times over the years. I’ve seen lots of Big Ideas, lots of fancy frameworks, lots of infographics whose design budget probably eclipsed some peoples’ annual income. To figure out what’s the real deal and what’s BS, I borrowed an idea from the martial arts.

In the martial arts tradition I practice, we have lots of Big Ideas called kata. Loosely translated from Japanese, the word means form or routine, in the sense of something you practice. Each one is a Big Idea, how to win in a certain way under a specific set of adverse circumstances.

My teacher, Mark Davis of the Boston Martial Arts Center, taught us that to learn and master a kata, you have to break it apart and study each of the pieces. How does a wrist lock in the middle of Batsu Gi kata work outside of those particular circumstances? Can you make it work versus a punch? A knife? You operationalize each piece of the kata until you know how it works; when you put it back together, you truly understand it.

This methodology, which has served me well for over two decades, is one you can use for evaluating any thought leader’s Big Idea. If you read about some new framework or concept, see if you can break it apart into operational pieces. See if you can transform the Big Idea into little things that you can implement. If you can, then you know the Big Idea has wheels – it’s something that can be tested, evaluated in components, and used to make change in your business at both tactical and strategic levels.

If you try to take apart a Big Idea and find that there’s little or nothing you can operationally implement, then you know the Big Idea is either a complete mismatch for your organization, or it might be full of hot air entirely. Try it with any of the Big Ideas of the day and see if you can turn them into Little Things To Do!

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