What Does Done Look Like? (How to Learn Anything, Part 1)

(This guide originally appeared in the Don’t Move Member’s Newsletter for August 24, 2022. It is Part 1 in the How to Learn Anything series.)

Hi, it’s Aiden.

Every now and then, I receive an email from someone who is more interested in my learning method than in Chess.

I’ve received emails from Backgammon and Go players, Muay Thai athletes, language learners, and plenty more.

It’s been an unexpected joy!

This Members-Only series will be relevant to everyone interested in the skill of learning.

I’m going to share with you the process I used to get rapid improvement in Chess, programming languages, people languages, Halo 5, marketing, writing, speed-reading, singing, touch-typing, and a few simpler things like Rubik’s Cubes.

This is the process that led me to building Don’t Move.

No matter what it is you’re looking to learn, this process will hold you in good stead.

Before we get into it, credit where credit is due.

If you find anything awesome and powerful about this process and these insights, they probably came from Tim Ferriss, Josh Waitzkin, Josh Kaufmann, Ryan Holiday, or the many books I’ve read and mentors I’ve had over the years.

If something seems out-of-place and weird, assume that bit is mine.

I’m standing on the shoulders of giants.

For those of you only interested in Chess, this will still be powerful.

As we master parts of Chess, we will find more parts we need to master. 

Like any meaningful pursuit, there is no end.

There’s a Haitian proverb that states “behind mountains are more mountains.”

As we cross one mountain, we will see more beyond it.

Each time we face a new mountain, we can apply this process again and find the optimal way to cross it too.

(Guess what will be behind THAT mountain…)

Each week over the next few weeks, I will break down one key concept from my learning method.

Together, they will form a powerful framework that you can apply to any skill.

This week’s topic: identify what “done” looks like.

As with any journey, the hardest part can the first step.

And it’s STUNNING how many people skip this first step.

It’s so important to define what you want to achieve with a skill. 

What does “learned” look like?

To dictionary-definition “learn” Chess, you need to know everything there is to know about the game and be its Infinite Master and Overlord.

Using that logic, not even Magnus has “learned” Chess. (Though he does seem close…)

So saying “I want to learn Chess” gets us nowhere.

“Improve at Chess” has the same problem.

What does “learn” or “improve” mean to you? How will you know when you’ve done it?

Do you have a particular rating target you’re aiming for?

Maybe you have someone in your life you want to challenge? Or a tournament you’d like to perform well in?

Or is it something more subjective, like how confident you feel during games?

We need to define this first.

If we don’t know our destination, how can we ever reach it?

Something magical happens in our brain when we define goals.

I’ll prove it to you.

Take a second and look around your surroundings. Take in what you see.

Done? Great.

Now, I’m going to ask you to do it again. But this time, your goal is to spot the color RED.

Look around and spot all the red you can.

Done?

I’ll bet your experience was very different that second time.

The red things around you jumped out at you. You saw them easily. You may have even seen things that were almost red and told yourself that they’re close enough.

Our brains filter the information we take in. If they didn’t, our heads would explode from overload.

When we set a goal, our brain learns that things related to that goal are important to us. And those things start to get through the filter.

We begin to spot opportunities that push us closer to our goal. They jump out at us.

I have a love-hate relationship with goals in the traditional sense. The whole SMART goals system and I never got along.

The idea of setting a goal without understanding the road ahead seems daunting and sometimes even pointless.

Especially when we see goals as hard, unchanging things that we either achieve or fail.

But I’ll let you in on a secret about goals…

If your goal isn’t changing as you do, you’re doing it wrong.

We set goals thinking they’re going to be this beacon to guide us forward for a long time.

They’re not.

Most goals I’ve ever had were useful for maybe a month. Because things changed in that month. I changed in that month.

And my goal needed to change to reflect those changes in me.

A week into your learning, you might realize that your goal doesn’t make sense. Or it’ll be easier or harder than you thought. Or you’re more excited about something else now.

That’s ok. Make a new goal using the knowledge you have now. Adapt.

Goals are not made of stone. They’re made of water.

They adapt, but always flow forwards.

When defining your goal, you only need to know 3 things.

  1. What will be true when I call this goal “complete”?
  2. How will I know if I’m making progress?
  3. Why do I want this?

That last one is particularly important.

Nietschze once said that “he who has a why to live for can bear almost any how.” 

Sometimes achieving your goals will be difficult. A strong enough why will see you through.

If you haven’t yet decided what your goal is for your Chess, do it now.

It doesn’t matter if it’s perfect. It doesn’t matter if you throw it away tomorrow and make a new one. All that matters is that you have a goal at all.

There is no rapid improvement without one.

If you have any questions or thoughts, please reach out. I love talking about this stuff.

Here’s to the journey,

Aiden

P.S.

There’s a little additional bit I couldn’t find a way to work in above. But it’s important.

It can be tempting to pick goals like “win x tournament” or “win y games in a row”.

My recommendation, wherever possible, is to avoid goals where you don’t have at least 80% control over the outcome.

That way we dodge what I call the “Daniel Day Lewis Effect”.

(I really do relate things to movies a lot, don’t I?)

Let’s say that you’re a male actor and it’s your goal to win the Academy Award for Best Actor.

You might have the perfect Oscar-bait film and perfect role. You put in the performance of your life.

But there’s a variable you have no control over: Daniel Day Lewis.

If Daniel Day Lewis also did a film this year, you’re probably not getting the Oscar for Best Actor. He gets one with almost every film he does.

You would easily have won the Oscar any other year. 

But this year, Daniel Day Lewis also did a film. So you don’t win.

This happened to Leonardo DiCaprio at least twice before he finally got his Oscar.

If you leave completion of your goal up to factors outside your control, you’re setting yourself up for disappointment.

The majority of factors needed for completion of your goal need to be in your hands. Otherwise it’s not a goal – it’s a hope.

Hopes are useful but very very different beasts.

Create goals that are at least 80% up to you.

Aiden

Aiden

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