Upon completing his two-page theory of relativity that would change the world, Albert Einstein wrote to his son to inspire him with some plain-spoken fatherly advice. The contents of this letter are also revolutionary, for they contain the keys to learning just about anything – quickly, with pleasure and with ease:
He wrote, in part:
“These days I have completed one of the most beautiful works of my life, when you are bigger, I will tell you about it.
I am very pleased that you find joy with the piano. This and carpentry are in my opinion for your age the best pursuits, better even than school. Because those are things which fit a young person such as you very well. Mainly play the things on the piano which please you, even if the teacher does not assign those. That is the way to learn the most, that when you are doing something with such enjoyment that you don’t notice that the time passes. I am sometimes so wrapped up in my work that I forget about the noon meal…”
Although this letter to an eleven-year-old boy is a hundred years old, it’s still an inspiration today. Here are five steps to learning almost anything faster, based on one father’s genius advice to his son.
1. Be passionate about what you’re learning
As a student, in order to obtain a well-rounded education, you’re obliged to learn certain subjects that don’t necessarily fascinate you. Not everyone loves trigonometry or dissecting frogs in biology class, but you power through, knowing that someday you can choose a career free of higher mathematics or dead amphibians. But the things you do love? Those are the ones you should dedicate your heart to, not just when you’re young, but your whole life long. You can’t be good at everything, so concentrate on the pursuits you care about most, whether they’re professional or leisure activities, and never stop learning about them. The more passionate about them you are, the faster you’ll learn to be good at them.
2. Lose yourself in what you’re learning
You know that feeling of being “in the zone”? When you’re so deeply involved in what you’re doing that you lose all sense of time and even place? Einstein speaks of forgetting to even eat lunch in his letter to his son… That’s what psychologists call “flow”: that feeling of complete immersion in an activity, where we’re so engaged that our worries, sense of time, and self-consciousness seem to disappear. Flow has been linked to feelings of happiness and euphoria, and to peak performance among workers, scientists, athletes, musicians, and many others. When you lose yourself, you’re learning – at the speed of light.
3. Laugh while you’re learning
A substantial body of research explains why we remember things that make us laugh, such as our favorite, hilarious high school moment or the details of that funny movie we saw last weekend. Scientific studies have shown that humor systematically activates the brain’s dopamine reward system, and dopamine is important for both goal-oriented motivation and long-term memory. If you think back, you can probably remember a favorite teacher or professor who used humor in the classroom – and it’s a good bet you remember what you learned in that class as well. It’s obvious that laughter is key to faster (and more enjoyable) learning. Make sure you don’t take learning so seriously that you forget to enjoy yourself.
4. Take breaks from what you’re learning
Despite what Einstein wrote, we think it’s important not to skip meals. A healthy diet offers two things: a break from the intensity of your concentration, and nourishment for your body and mind. Foods like fish, fruits, and vegetables help your brain perform optimally. Dark chocolate gives your brain a good boost as well: it produces dopamine which helps you learn faster and remember better. After a meal break, take a walk, stretch, nap… and come back to your project renewed and refreshed
5. Share what you’re learning with others
To maintain optimal cognitive abilities, you need meaningful relationships in your life. Talking with others and engaging with your loved ones helps you think more clearly, and it can also lift your mood. Talking to other people is also a way to understand and process your own thoughts. And ask for feedback from colleagues, friends and family: they are your support network, there to motivate and inspire you when you feel like you’re losing focus. And to celebrate with you each time you reach a new goal.