Learn Like an Athlete

Learn Like an Athlete

LeBron James didn’t always have thick calves, a raging six-pack, and arms like the Incredible Hulk.

Ask LeBron about his off-season training regimen, and he’ll share a detailed run-down of his workout plan and on-the-court practice routine. When he entered the NBA, LeBron wasn’t a strong shooter. I’d bet the house that early in his career, LeBron built his off-season training regimen around his weak jump shot and disappointing 42% field goal percentage during his rookie season. As his Instagram posts reveal, LeBron worked for his strength, agility, impeccable history of injury avoidance, and an outstanding 54% field goal percentage during his 14th NBA season. 

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Athletes train. Musicians train. Performers train. But knowledge workers don’t. 

Knowledge workers should train like LeBron, and implement strict “learning plans.” To be sure, intellectual life is different from basketball. Success is harder to measure and the metrics for improvement aren’t quite as clear. Even then, there’s a lot to learn from the way top athletes train. They are clear in their objectives and deliberate in their pursuit of improvement.

Knowledge workers should imitate them.


What Does a Learning Plan Look Like?

Similar to how LeBron structures his training to win NBA championships, knowledge workers should train to build skills, complete projects, and increase their productive power. Armed with an effective system, we’ll learn faster and have more fun doing it.

My friend Nick Maggiulli is a case study in building a learning plan. 

In 2015, he decided to learn a programming language called R. Two years later, he was a data science expert. That new skill propelled Nick into his next long-term endeavor, a personal blog. Nick started writing a blog post every Tuesday, starting on January 1st, 2017. Fast forward to today, and he’s now published a post every week for the past 131 weeks. Despite his success, his pursuit of knowledge is relentless. Last time I visited his apartment, I saw an 850-page book about tax law on his living room table. He plans to devote the next year to study the American tax code, so he can know as much about tax law as anybody at his company. 

Nick should serve as a role model for all of us. 

Even among the most ambitious individuals, learning plans are rare. Most people are reactive. They don’t plan. Like surfers in a violent ocean, they surrender to their environment. They direct their attention towards the never-ending shouts of email newsletters, friend recommendations, and social media feeds.

We can do better.


What Should You Do? 

Learn in three-month sprints and commit to a new learning project every quarter.

Even the longest projects are simply a collection of short term tasks. Knowing that, you should break down the project into daily increments, and create a series of daily and weekly goals to learn the skills required to complete the project on time. 

The end goal should be clear. Start by writing down a positive vision for your future. Focus on the end goal, not the skill itself. For example, rather than saying “I want to learn how to draw,” I focused on the end goal: “moving forward, all the charts, graphs, and images on my website will be hand-drawn.” 

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I like Daniel Gross’ framework for learning. When I interviewed him, he told me to build a video game for myself. Like a video game, productive projects have multiple levels. They follow the Goldilocks Principle: not too easy, not too hard. The learning project needs to be challenging enough to demand focus, but easy enough to make consistent progress. That way, you can enter the optimal state of learning. 

If you get stuck, the “video game” is too hard. When this happens, you should stop. Work on a smaller step or retreat to a manageable challenge. Otherwise, you will lose your motivation to continue learning. Conversely, if you’re bored, the video game isn’t difficult enough, so you should attempt a tougher challenge that you haven’t seen before.

Everybody loves novelty. Even if your learning plan is bounded by a strict goal, the details should be flexible. The activities should be cohesive enough to keep on track, but diverse enough to stay interesting. For example, if you want to learn about the Space Race between America and the Soviet Union, you can read books, watch documentaries, listen to podcasts with astronauts, and explore newspaper articles from the time-period. Choose what excites you, as long as it serves the end goal.

I encourage you to share your learnings. Publish an essay, a book review, an art project, or open source your code. Sharing your ideas will help you digest them, and if your posts are interesting, you may attract experts in your field of curiosity.

If you can publish your findings along the way, even better. Sharing your work is the best way to speed up your feedback loops, which will help you learn faster and improve your plan based on the feedback you receive. For example, I’m learning to draw, and that’s why I’ve included drawings in this article.

If you want to learn to code, post your software on Github; if you want to learn guitar, share your music on Instagram; and if you want to improve your writing, start a blog. Sharing your work is like inviting friends to your home. It forces you to be clean and double check everything, which accelerates the learning process.


Learn Like an Athlete

The more you learn, the easier it is to learn. Pick the right projects, and you’ll develop a personal network effect, where each new skill increases the value of skills you already have. 

You’ll improve your process every time you complete a learning challenge. By pushing through the cycle of start to finish, you’ll discover quirks about yourself, accelerate your learning process, and ultimately, learn like an athlete.