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Deconstruction: How To Make Any Learning Subject Manageable

Trying to learn a new skill can be really terrifying. There is a ton of things you have to learn, the resources seem endless, and your self-esteem regarding this skill is really low. What you need is to take this huge, intimidating block and break it down into small, manageable pieces. This process is called deconstruction.

The DiSSS framework

Tim Ferriss, whom I’ve mentioned multiple times before, is well-known for his work on various subjects, through his books like “The 4-Hour Workweek”, “The 4-Hour Body”, and his metalearning book disguised as a cookbook, “The 4-Hour Chef”. But while he seems like an expert in various different fields, he personally claims that he is trying to be the best in just one thing: learning new skills quickly.

To achieve that, after years of experimentation, he developed a method called DiSSS (or DS3), which corresponds to Deconstruction, Selection, Sequencing, and Stakes. These 4 are an integral part of the learning process, especially in an accelerated one, and can be applied in any skill, regardless its type or category.

I’ve personally utilized this particular framework multiple times in the past few years to learn everything from languages to coding to video games. Therefore, I’m going to provide an extensive analysis on each one of its elements, starting with deconstruction this week, and then moving on with the others.

Enter deconstruction

As we said, deconstruction is the process of taking a big and intimidating skill and breaking it down into small, manageable pieces. It’s an exploration of the skill at hand, and, to quote Tim from The 4-Hour Chef, it is “where we throw a lot on the wall to see what sticks”. Nevertheless, deconstruction is still a skill that can be performed more effectively and efficiently through a correct process.

Have a specific goal

In order to deconstruct a skill as effectively as possible, you need to have a specific end-goal. Actually, this is the most important thing in the whole learning process. That end-goal is what you are going to refer back to for guidance, or when you lose motivation.

Even when trying to learn the same skill, different end-goals may call for a completely different process, deconstruction, or even timeline. For instance, an end-goal in learning a language can be conversational fluency, like in my Italian in 3 Months Challenge, or it may be passing a C2 (highest level) exam. In the first case, the focus will be communication, forgiving mistakes as long as you can convey what you want. In the second one, the focus will be on perfect grammar and extensive vocabulary knowledge.

Providing some end-goal examples, for sports, the goal could be to make it into your school’s team next year, but it could also be to become the best player in the world. For learning guitar, it could be to able to play your favorite songs in 60 days. For coding, it could be being able to code your own website, or it could also be getting hired by one of the top companies in the world.

Research

This is, obviously, the most important part of deconstruction. Thanks to the internet, you now have an almost unlimited amount of resources to use in your research. It’s now time to dive into Google and start figuring out what it is you need to learn about the skill at hand, while trying to identify the smaller and manageable pieces for your deconstruction process.

The focus of this part is not to find and learn everything there is about the subject. Rather, it’s about discovering its components, in order to structure your learning from then on. Be careful not to spend too much time researching the skill. It’s easy to get lost in scrolling through and reading information, but that is just another form of procrastination.

Let’s see now some of the tools you can use to make this process more efficient.

1) Reducing

Reducing is all about identifying patterns and repeating elements in a skill, which will greatly reduce the complexity and amount of work. Tim Ferriss, in The 4-Hour Chef, explains how he found out that the approximately 2000 Japanese characters are comprised of just 214 different parts called radicals, used in various combinations. That made learning 2000 characters into an easily manageable task that people can complete in a few months.

Japanese Kanji Radicals Example

A simple example of reducing in Japanese Kanji

Another example of reducing can be found in coding. There is a ton of programming languages and frameworks, but most of them can be put in a few categories. Learning the basic concepts, plus 1 language, from each category, can provide you with a great skill set on coding, upon which you can easily expand.

2) Interviewing

This probably is the most important tool in your research, and that is learning through experts. The best way to utilize this tool is to actually google for various experts on the field, and learn from what they’ve done and taught. Many might even offer free e-books or courses in exchange for your e-mail (like I do), so make sure to pick those up.

But, let’s take this a step further. What I (and Tim) recommend is to actually reach out to those experts! The worst thing that can happen is that they’ll not respond. By getting to ask them your questions, you will be able to gather much better insights on how to structure your learning.

So, go ahead and create a list of people to interview! As you are researching their work, write down their names and their contact info. Then make first contact with them. Don’t go straight asking for a favor, but try to add value back to them. You could offer to record the interview and share it with local media, or you could pay them for an hourly coaching/consultation session. Finally, go ahead and ask them your questions.

An extra tip I have for you is to not only research experts in the field, but also people who learned the skill you want really fast. These fast learners might be an even better resource for you, as they might have already done all the deconstruction and be willing to share. One way to find them is to google something, like “Learn [skill] in [time]”, for instance, “Learn guitar in 4 months”.

3) Reversal

Reversal is mostly about the existence of different perspective, which could lead to faster or greater results. Sometimes it is about going through something backward, even it that seems unconventional. While researching, make sure to keep an eye out for alternative approaches that produced extraordinary results.

A great example of that is John Waitzkin, the author of “The Art of Learning“, and a chess prodigy. Unlike most kids that start learning chess by learning openings, Josh’s teacher started by teaching him about simple end-game scenarios. That provided him with a great understanding of the game of chess, and became the foundation for the rest of his career.

Young Josh Waitzkin Playing Chess

Young Josh Waitzkin playing chess

Another example is language learning. Traditional language learning classes teach grammar first, in order for students to learn as correctly as possible. But the point of language earning is communication, and thus the opposite process, vocabulary first, has proven to be more effective for achieving quick fluency.

4) Translating

This tool revolves around identifying a few core questions, which, when answered, will provide you with a quick foundation and understanding of the new skill. If these questions can’t be easily answered online (they usually can), include them in the question list towards the experts we talked about before.

As an example, Tim Ferriss explains how, by figuring out the translation to 13 simple sentences, he can understand the basic structure of a language’s grammar within 30 minutes. To learn more about this, read my article on The Italian Challenge.

Another way to frame ‘translating’ in your mind is the usage of shortcuts to kickstart your learning experience. For example, when learning how to cook, find the 1-2 most used herbs and spices, as well as the 1-2 most used techniques and research those first. That will help you grasp cooking better without getting overwhelmed.

Figure out why you may quit

The first few days/weeks of learning are the most frustrating ones. People hate to feel incompetent, and it’s easy to lose motivation and quit. Therefore, it is really important that you identify any potential failure points in the beginning.

Try and identify all the times from your own past that you’ve quit something. Then, try to find out the reasons why you did so. Personally, I had quit learning languages multiple times in the past due to lack of applicability and accountability. Therefore, holding myself accountable to all of you was one of the first things I did when starting The Italian in 3 Months Challenge.

An important thing is also to try and identify all the reasons other people have failed. For instance, most people quit learning how to cook because they are overwhelmed with too many ingredients and/or too expensive equipment and/or too complex techniques. Identifying easy and simple steps to begin with, can almost ensure the compliance in learning how to cook.

The goal here is to avoid all tripping points for at least the first 5 sessions. That will erase all the early frustration, and will help with the establishment of a habit. If you incorporate early wins in the process, too, it might even get you excited and committed for a long time.

Finally, make sure to check my article on learning anything you want in 20 hours, which illustrated a process of getting good quickly and overcoming the early frustration. This process is based on Josh Kaufman’s work and his book “The First 20 Hours: How to Learn Anything … Fast“.

Deconstruct multiple times throughout your learning

Deconstruction is of highest importance when starting to learn a new skill. Nevertheless, it is really important to deconstruct the skill again sometime after you’ve started learning it, maybe even more than once.

This is important because your understanding and knowledge of the skill are much larger later on in the process. While in the beginning you just try to figure it out, later on, it’s about deconstructing the parts that comprise the skill themselves.

For example, when first deconstructing learning the guitar, you may try to identify larger blocks like chords and scales. But, when deconstructing again much later on, you may be trying to break a very specific, advanced guitar skill into manageable pieces. Note, your definition of manageable at this point is much different from what it was in the beginning.

Let me note here, that restructuring your learning is really important. You can’t keep up the same process forever after all. When you feel like you’ve hit a plateau, or when a lot of time has passed since you last mixed up your learning, go through DiSSS again and restructure it.

Conclusion

Like everything else, learning something is a skill you can train and apply processes to. The first step in every learning process is to deconstruct the skill itself using the process narrated above.

Don’t forget to pay extra attention to setting yourself up for success. Or, to phrase it correctly, to keep yourself from quitting. Make the process, especially the first steps, so easy and intuitive that the hard part would actually be not to follow it.

Call to Action

If you liked this article, please share it with your friends. Also, if you want to learn something new and want us to work together in deconstructing it, let me know. Post on the Facebook group, or contact me directly!

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Selection: Choosing The Best Material You’ll Actually Study

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