This article is part of an ongoing series to help subscribers of The CP Journal’s Practice Section pursue mastery in behavioral observation, situational awareness and decision-making.

Being able to learn and adapt more quickly than our adversaries is a key skill as we prepare for war. But do you know how to learn?

It’s a funny question to ask, and I’m willing to bet you’d say yes without much hesitation. You may have graduated from high school or college or obtained an advanced degree that gave you a piece of paper to prove that you know how to learn. If you’re in the military, law enforcement or the security industry, you’ve likely spent countless hours in training to learn what is needed to succeed in your field. You probably have a great number of experiences that allow you to confidently state that you know how to learn and have proven it.

Because it’s usually answered without much thought, I’ve found that asking this question framed in this way isn’t the best way for someone to assess their actual ability to quickly break down and understand new concepts. For self-guided learners who need the ability to objectively determine how quickly they can acquire a new skill the better questions may be:

Can you take any subject in the world and outline the steps that you would need to go through to progress from the point of not knowing anything about it to becoming a true master in the field?

Do you have a defined process and framework that allows you to outline the steps of learning without talking about the subject or topic itself?

Answering these two questions might not come as quickly as they did to the more general, “Do you know how to learn?” Learning isn’t just about reading, going to trainings or finding a mentor. Those are all elements of the development process, but they aren’t the process that you can apply to any subject you may want to learn in the future. Learning how to learn means that you are able to know what information and experiences you are looking for at each step of the learning process in order to become self-reliant in your development. It means that you have a process to learn; a process that you are able to refine, develop and improve upon throughout your life. Not having a process that is broadly applicable and generalized enough to apply to any subject, yet specific enough to identify critical components and steps to improve upon, means that we have a limitation and gap in our armor. It is a limitation that needs be corrected for as we prepare to face our adversaries in the future.

Dissecting the Learning Process

In creating, designing and developing a system of learning that works for you, professional protectors and warriors can either build their own system from scratch or jump start the process by applying a system that has already been created and modify it to meet their exact needs. One of our most recommended and most often gifted books at The CP Journal is Mastery by Robert Greene precisely because it does such a remarkable job at defining the learning process. It has had the largest impact on the way we view our own training programs and has had an immense impact on our own personal growth and development. The book provides a very clear definition of what success looks like at each step of the learning process so that self-guided learners can assess their proficiency and chart their course forward in any skill they are pursuing.

In Mastery, Greene describes three phases that people pass through to go from having zero knowledge about a subject to becoming a top performer. The first is an “Apprenticeship Phase,” when a person learns the rules that govern success in the particular field and learns the skills of the subject while operating under supervision. Once their apprenticeship is complete, they move into the “Journeyman Phase,” when a person becomes a practitioner in their field and is able to operate independently and without supervision. And finally, should a person develop the requisite skills required for success and be able to combine them with a deep analytical understanding of what skill they are learning and why, the opportunity to enter into a “Mastery Phase” becomes available to them.

In the technology-driven knowledge and information economy that we live in today, where the answer to just about any question is available in a quick Google search, the steps that go into this craftsman-like approach to skill development might seem like a relic of historical times. Even though anyone can start a blog and call themselves an expert, believing that the pursuit of actual mastery through a craftsman-like development is obsolete would be incorrect. The skills we are learning today to progress as professional protectors and warriors or in business might be different than the skills that gave rise to the apprentice system, but the process to learn and become capable of producing master-level work has not. Whether we are looking to learn how to learn in order to defeat our adversaries or to shorten the time required to gain new skills, the craftsman approach can provide a roadmap for us to follow and make the most of our time spent developing ourselves.

This roadmap, starting out as an apprentice and progressing through a creative period as a journeyman before mastery becomes available to us, allows us to do two things very well. First, it allows us to begin with the end in mind and define success in our personal and professional development before we set out in our learning. Second, it allows us to realize that success stems from the foundation of our learning. Our ability to thrive in our chosen fields is determined by how successfully we execute that first part of the pursuit of learning, the Apprentice Phase. It is only by going through the apprenticeship and becoming comfortable with the steps that go into being an apprentice that we become capable of learning how to learn.

Navigating the Apprenticeship Phase

This phase of learning is one of the most important to focus on when learning how to learn because every time we enter a new field or set out to learn a new skill, we start back at the beginning and return to the role of the apprentice. To make for a repeatable process that can be developed and improved upon throughout a career, the work that goes into being a successful apprentice needs to be broken down into more tangible components. In Mastery, Greene identifies three main steps that a person progresses through as an apprentice before they are ready to enter the world as a journeyman.

The first step of the apprenticeship is referred to as “Deep Observation.” In this step, you keep your mouth shut and your ears and eyes open as you seek to understand the new world or skill you are learning. The goal is to understand this reality as deeply as you can.

  • What you are learning:
    • You are seeking to identify and understand the rules that lead to success in the field and the rules that cause people to fail. You are learning what is important.
    • You are observing to identify who wields true power in the field and what the power dynamics are. You are beginning to learn how to navigate the field or subject by learning from those on the rise and also from those who are in decline.
  • How you know you’re ready to move forward to the next step:
    • When you begin shifting your focus from observing the rules into a deeper analysis of why those rules are important and how they relate to larger trends in the field
  • Tips to accelerate through this phase of your learning:
    • Continually hone your observation skills throughout your life. As you move into an apprentice phase of learning, you may come in with ideas and perceptions of what you might encounter, but they aren’t necessarily based in reality. The longer you can observe people and situations, the more comfortable you become basing your understanding of a situation on the observed facts (as opposed to unfounded opinion), and the more quickly you will be able to move out of this step.

The second step of the apprentice phase is referred to as the “Practice Step.” Here, you are putting in the work (under supervision) to begin acquiring skill in the subject. The goal for this phase is to enter into a period of accelerated returns for the time spent in study.

  • What you are doing:
    • Breaking the subject down into individual skills that get repeated through hands-on practice until the movements, actions or thoughts become second nature (tacit knowledge).
    • This step involves repetition, repetition and repetition as you seek to make the skills easier to execute.
  • How you will know you’re ready to move forward with the next step:
    • You will know you are ready to move to the next step when you enter into a period of accelerated returns.
    • Learning new subjects involves a certain amount of tedium when you are just beginning. It is tiring and you can only spend a limited amount of time on the subject before you need a break. Eventually, however, the practice begins to pay off with improved skills, which allows you to spend longer amounts of time in practice and the practice itself becomes more interesting, in turn allowing you to work for even longer periods of time. This is the cycle of accelerated returns and is required to further your skill development.
    • Getting into this loop is necessary to move forward, as the observable indicators are what reveal the changes occurring in your brain to as you learn new skills and subjects.
  • Tips to accelerate through this phase of learning:
    • Realize that tedium, frustration and boredom will present themselves. You should consider this to be inevitable but, instead of letting it get the best of you, deliberately fight through it. Demonstrate your perseverance by pushing past this time so that you can begin to experience those accelerated returns for your efforts.
    • Build experiences where you have overcome these challenges before so that when you hit the point of boredom or frustration, you are able to recall another time when you experienced it and were able to realize the payoff from pushing past it.

The third step in the apprentice phase of learning is the “Experimentation Step.” Here, you begin exposing your work to the public so that you can gain a sense of your progress and see how your thoughts and abilities stand up to the public scrutiny that will come in later phases of your development.

  • What you are doing:
    • Testing your character and moving past your fears by initiating a project or presenting your work to peers and the public.
    • Listening to feedback, to include criticism, so that you can realize where your skills are weak and where you need to develop yourself further.
    • Gaining a sense of perspective by becoming capable of viewing yourself doing the work from the eyes of other people, a crucial skill to development.
  • How you will know you are ready to move forward:
    • When you get the sense that there is nothing more to learn in this environment.
    • This is when you will know you have completed your apprenticeship and are ready to move on to new challenges and declare your independence.
  • Tips to accelerate through this step in the process:
    • While this is likely the shortest step of the apprenticeship, developing skills as a presenter or project leader independent of your skill development can improve your ability to make your work public by taking away the obstacles that might be in place.
    • Despite your developing skill set, remain humble and open to feedback, learning how to prioritize the criticisms that are important and reflect true needs and those that are shallow and of low priority.

The Payoff

So I’ll ask the question again. Do you know how to learn? It is in the three steps of the apprentice phase that you will be able to answer this question with a confident “yes.” Learning how to learn is learning how to execute these three steps quickly and thoroughly. These steps are a huge component to being able to map out the process you need to execute in order to make the most out of your training time and be ready to face our adversaries as they adapt and change the rules of the game.

Learning how to learn, however, isn’t just knowing what these steps are, but learning how to do them in the most efficient way. This is going to require practice and intentional development to prove to yourself that you can navigate these steps naturally when our adversaries change their approach to war. From thinking about how you read books, how you take notes in class and how you seek to practice the skills you’ve been taught, self-identifying your strengths and weaknesses is what’s required to chart your own course and ensure your development progresses as quickly and as effectively as possible.

This isn’t just important in preparing for war, but can also have an impact on your life beyond your current professional roles. As Greene notes as he wraps up his chapter on the apprenticeship phase in Mastery, people often believe the technology innovation we have experienced in our lives will render the need for repetition obsolete. But that would be an incorrect assessment. Technology has not made our lives easier, but has instead opened up a world of increased complexity. The people who will succeed as these changes continue to occur are those who have deep knowledge in a variety of skills and who can combine those skills together to make sense of our environments more quickly, empowering them to take advantage of the opportunities that present themselves before they become obvious. Every time you enter a new job, a new position or a new field, you return to an apprenticeship state. Investing time and energy to learn how to navigate this phase of your development leads to a period of accelerated returns in your growth beyond just the subject being taught.

Will taking the time to learn how to learn cause you to slow down at first? Absolutely. But slowing down is how you will be best prepared to speed up and be as ready as possible for the challenges that lie ahead.