Philosophy  •  September 18, 2004

How to Learn Something New

A while ago, one of my friends suggested to write an essay about how I approach learning something new. It came up while we were talking about music. At the time, I had never thought about writing such a thing, but since then I realized that there is a consistent method by which I learn something new. I believe a large part of it came from my father. My approach is actually not so unique in Japan. I believe it has a basis in Zen Buddhism. If you study any form of traditional art in Japan, you’ll see it.

As I was growing up, my father always told me to imitate others who are better than I am. He discouraged me from expressing my own individuality, and encouraged me to carefully observe what others do. This method is consistent with that of Zen. It discourages expression of individualism until you have mastered the foundation. This is because the expressions of individualism at early stages tend to be nothing more than expressions of your egos. I didn’t object to it at the time, but it is only recently that I realized the value of it.

Also, in Zen, you establish a relationship of master and disciple. In the West, this type of rigid hierarchy is shunned especially in creative matters, because the West sees the point of creativity to be expression of individualism. The East sees creativity as a method or a tool for spiritual transformation. You thus never attach yourself to creativity per se or creative objects per se. The final product is you, not the object. In many instances, they encourage you to destroy what you have created (e.g. Mandala sand painting.)

This relationship of master and disciple in the East is often misunderstood in the West. Westerners see it as a power structure, which is quite wrong. It is by a mutual agreement that they form such a structure. A hierarchy in the West tends to offer more freedom in a practical sense, but not spiritually. In the East, on the other hand, a hierarchy offers freedom spiritually, but not practically. To be bound spiritually is not pleasant for anyone, so the West sees hierarchy to be fundamentally undesirable, and projects the same view on the hierarchies of the East.

In the East, once this relationship is established, you do not question or challenge your master. Your job is to listen and learn everything you can from the master. If you are individualistic, you would be tempted to challenge your master, but, at this stage, this is your ego speaking, not your true self; so they discourage it. In this sense, even if the master is actually incompetent, it does not matter; the disciple should always listen and trust his master in order to learn something about his own ego. This is the reason why Japanese students tend to be more obedient; it is not because they feel their teachers are superior human beings, but because it is their protocol of learning.

When I need to learn something new, I employ the same methods. The first thing I do is to master the basics. For this, I am never shy about buying books that look academic and naive. Basics of anything are academic and naive; there is no way around it. Many people avoid this step because they do not want to look naive.

I see this most commonly in music. Many musicians I’ve met had this problem where they could not bring themselves down to study harmony 101. They all want to believe that they are beyond that sort of academic naiveté. But, what happens is that, after 10 years of writing music in their own ways, they end up reinventing the wheel. Even worse, they end up doing things that are extremely conventional without realizing it. In their minds, they think they are breaking all the rules, but what they are doing is a bad imitation of something invented hundreds of years ago.

If they keep going in this fashion, they get stuck at some stage of their development, unable to evolve their art nor further their artistic careers. It’s like never learning how to type properly, and getting stuck with typing 20 words per minute. Many of them actually realize this at this stage, and go back to school to learn it properly or actually read Harmony 101 cover to cover. Unfortunately, this process is quite disruptive. It is like learning how to type properly after 10 years of doing chop-sticks; your own ad hoc method gets in the way of learning it properly.

Many young people lack the patience to learn things properly because they are so anxious to prove themselves fast. So, they become quite good at hacking everything to get immediate results. This is unfortunate too, especially because they become proud of this ability. “I can figure out anything on my own,” they would boast, and they don’t realize that they are on their paths to eternal mediocrity when they hit the 20-words-per-minute ceiling. You can tell hackers from proper learners if you observe how they trouble-shoot computers. Hackers never bother to read anything. They keep tinkering until they hit upon the right solution.

Here is an example of the difference proper learning can make. The Japanese Electronic Rock group, YMO (Yellow Magic Orchestra), was one of my favorite bands in the early 80’s. They had three members, one of which went on to become an internationally acclaimed film composer, Ryuichi Sakamoto (The Last Emperor, The Sheltering Sky, etc..). The other two remained relatively successful but only within Japan, and their music never evolved much. The evolution of Sakamoto’s work was quite extraordinary. This is partly because he studied music (composition) in college. As my parents always told me, if you start building a mountain wide, it will take longer to build but you can build higher.

My first step in learning something new, therefore, is to be academic, as naive as it may sound and look. Read books, take classes, and/or find a teacher/master/expert. If I can find someone who claims to be an expert, I don’t question much about his credibility. I simply try to learn whatever I can from him. Often self-proclaimed experts are not as good as they claim, but I don’t care, as long as there is something to be learned from them. I even stroke their egos to get everything I can out of them. Once I feel I exhausted their potentials as teachers, I move on. This blind trust in “experts” appear quite naive to others too, which is a reason why some people are highly skeptical of anyone’s status as “expert”. They are more concerned about their image of being naive than actually learning.

I have another philosophy in learning which is a fusion of East and West. I always try to balance between theory and instinct. Most people are too one-sided. They either do everything from their own gut instinct or they approach everything theoretically. For them, instinct or theory becomes their religion. The theoretical types would sit by a pool to learn how to swim theoretically, and refuse to go in the water until they figure it out. The instinctive types would jump right into the water without knowing anything about swimming or the characteristics of water. There are plenty of things you can learn from theories before you take action, but you don’t want to get bogged down with them either. Both are foolish.

When you do everything from your instinct or from theories, you also tend to get stuck at some point. Again, music is the best example for this. If you don’t know the theory of harmony, and you write everything from your “soul”, you come across situations where it just doesn’t sound right but you don’t know why. You know what the right answer is, but you don’t know how to get there. This is where theories come in handy. If you take a moment to analyze your composition, it becomes clear what the answer should be. Conversely, if you write everything from theory, often the result sounds mechanical, soulless, and crippled.

Most young musicians tend to be one type or the other. This is because our society tends to encourage distinction for its own sake. If they feel that they are more theoretically inclined, they figure that they should use it as a symbol of their own individuality to distinguish themselves from others.

In summary, my process of learning is this: Don’t take shortcuts. Take your time and learn properly from the beginning. Don’t be shy about appearing naive and academic. And, use all of your facilities; mind, body, and emotion. If you put it this way, it all sounds like common sense.