How to Learn Anything Challenging

Photo by Sebastian Herrmann on Unsplash

Do me a favor: think back to a day you tried to read or learn something you believed was freaking challenging. What do you see?

You probably sat there, staring at the same page for hours, trying to understand what the hell you were reading. You read it over and over again until you lose count.

Frustration sets in and later, anger slowly finds its way into your mind. You angrily get up, disappointed at yourself. You look at yourself in the mirror and think you must be the dumbest individual to have ever lived.

All of this just because your cute little brain could not help you out at that moment.

As a postgraduate student in computer science whose area of research focuses on Artificial Intelligence algorithms, I have been there a couple of times and it sucks.

I have encountered the easy, difficult, and almost impossible to understand concepts, equations, and algorithms in my life as a student.

Whenever you face a challenge, your natural response is to quit. The concepts feel unbearably overwhelming, you try and try but you don’t get it. You feel like quitting, you feel like screaming at yourself. You even curse yourself for being so dumb and not able to figure stuff out.

In this article, I will share with you critical ideas on how to learn anything challenging. It will include techniques from my personal experience of studying some crazy stuff for years.

If there is anything you love to learn that the thought of it terrifies you, then I believe after reading this article, it will be time to pick that little devil up and defeat it.

So what is it that has been giving you a hard time. Let’s solve it together.

1. Break it Down

Take a look at the image below. Breathtaking isn't it?

Photo by Bruce Warrington on Unsplash

But wait, this isn't about the painting. It is about the process of transformation of the painting from an idea to the very first stroke of the painter’s brush on the canvas to finally becoming such a masterpiece.

Why I am talking about paintings here?

The fundamental reason why we struggle in grasping certain things we study is that, when we encounter them for the first time, we instinctively try to make sense out of them at a superficial level.

For example, when you first saw the painting, your first nonverbal reaction was likely: I can’t paint this even in a million years.

You came to this conclusion because you were looking at the image with a completely different lens. The same lens you have likely been using whenever you encountered complex stuff.

Now, you didn't think for a split second how exactly the painting was made from the very beginning. Take a close look at the image below. The combinations of thousands of those square little boxes made this mindblowing image.

From jackkyriaccour’s webblog

Everything that has ever been built by humans, from ships to submarines, from planes to skyrockets, from supercomputers to quantum computers is just made up tiny little boxes joined together in a particular order.

The secret to understanding anything irrespective of its complexity is based on your very own ability to break it down to its very basic form. If you still can’t understand it, then keep breaking it down. Keep going till you are able to nod your head and acknowledge within you that you finally get it.

You will be surprised by how many years it took for me to understand the principle of breaking things down. I used to think as I go up the educational ladder and encounter challenging concepts, I am supposed to ‘get it’ just as it is.

In order to show you exactly how to apply this method of breaking things down. Imagine you have never been in a physics class before and you just came across this equation.

Just to be clear, it is the famous Newton’s second law of motion.

Stay with me here a little longer, this article is not about physics.

The breaking down process begins by you asking very simple questions like:

What do F , M and A stand for?

You will find the simplified answer to be Force, Mass of an object, and Acceleration. Okay cool!

But wait, what the hell is Acceleration? Good question. So you break it down again.

Acceleration = Velocity / time.

Alright, I don't need to study physics to know what time means. Great!

But hold on. What is Velocity? Interesting question.

Perfect! I guess everyone knows what distance is.

So now you can appreciate, how we started from an equation you had no modicum of a clue and ended up with something even my grandmother can understand.

As a computer science postgraduate student I found myself struggling to find solutions to questions whose answers could easily be found if I had broken the problem down to a simpler form.

How I wish someone had told me simplicity is the fundamental basis of understanding even the most complex of things.

2. Don’t Beat Yourself

Photo by Christian Erfurt on Unsplash

Have you ever felt so frustrated and disappointed in yourself just because you came across a new concept and you could not wrap your mind around it? The feeling gets deeper and stronger when your mates seem to effortlessly get it.

Well, I don't know about you but I have been there and done that multiple times. I used to get utterly frustrated when I could not grasp a concept which I thought I am supposed to get it.

This went on for a while and as I grew older and wiser, I started to understand how the human brain works, and this has been a life-changing experience.

You see, our brains are one of the mysteries of humanity. Since the beginning of time neuroscientists have been pushing the boundaries just to figure out how exactly it works. Today, I think all they got is a shallow understanding of what exactly happens in this soft matter behind our skulls.

Just to give you an idea, here is how scientists believe the brain works. It is made up of millions of cells called neurons interconnected with one another in a complex manner beyond human comprehension.

Now, in order to learn something new, it requires the creation of new connections between neurons that didn't exist before.

Well, what no one will tell you is this. Creating these new connections takes Time! That is why you forget the name of the stranger you just met a minute ago but will never forget the name of your childhood friend.

When I was first exposed to Artificial Intelligence concepts two years ago, I felt like I was in a universe where everyone is breathing normally while I was suffocating. Nothing made sense. Nothing!! I am sure you can guess how I felt.

Now 2 years later, looking at those very concepts that eluded me and gave me freaking difficult times, it all makes sense now.

I gave myself time for my brain to create the necessary connections needed for me to be able to understand those concepts.

There are things I never thought I could ever be able to figure out, but now I do. There are still hundreds of them I struggle every day to get, however, I know now it’s just a matter of time.

Every time you get frustrated at not understanding anything. Don’t beat yourself. Take a deep breathe and tell yourself this,

3. Go Old School

Photo by Aaron Burden on Unsplash

I remember in the old good days when my teachers use to work tirelessly to ensure that I hold the pencil correctly and carve out letters that at least resembled the English alphabets. They did a great job and to this day, it is one of the most valuable and useful skills I have.

The world around us is changing at a lightning speed and we are just following along. It doesn't matter where that leads us, there is nothing anyone can do about it.

We are slowly being carried away by the wave of technology with the availability of smartphones, notebooks, laptops that have tremendously aided us in making our study lives so easy and enjoyable.

But here is the problem, there are complex concepts and ideas that you might never understand if you simply study them using these devices. You will spend hours staring at your PC and wondering why you just can’t get it.

What you might not understand is that computers and other smart devices were not meant to replace the old fashion way of studying with just a pen and a piece of paper.

It is rather sad that many students have developed the habit of just reading notes on these devices and that's it.

As a programmer and computer scientist, it might seem rather ironic the idea of using a pen and paper is coming from me.

On my study table, there are 3 things you will find if you happen to pay me a visit; my laptop, a pen, and a bunch of papers. Whenever I am studying anything and it starts to get complicated, my pen and paper are right there by my side to save me.

Writing things down on a solid piece of paper is just like imprinting it in your very own mind. The action of moving your finger along the paper, visualizing what you are doing, and thinking about it freely is more powerful and effective than any computer can ever provide.

From today, whenever you come across a challenging concept, drop your phone or laptop; go old school and write it down on paper. Trust me, you will not only understand easily but also save yourself a lot of time, headache and heartache.

The Takeaway

In life, we are faced with challenges, every day, every hour down to the very last minute. There is no running away from this. Learning how to face these challenges is the only way out that will permit you to grow and evolve into a better version of yourself.

In this article, I have shared with you some important strategies that you can begin to incorporate in your very own life from today moving forward.

Firstly, when you study something and your brain can’t figure it out, the first thing to do is to break it down to the simplest level for which you can understand.

Secondly, always remember your brain needs time to make the necessary connections between neurons. So, if you can’t understand a concept, don’t beat yourself, just give it time.

The last point I mentioned, was to ensure that, you always have a pen and paper by your side. When you face a challenging concept, leave the pc for a while and pick up your pen and paper. Go old school.

Thank you for Reading!

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This article was originally posted on my blog

CS Grad scholar | ML & DL Addict | Writer | Book reading fanatic| Loves dancing |

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