The First Time You Learn Something Will Always Be the Hardest

We’ve all experienced it: the frustrating inability to understand a new topic. The sheer confusion as words collide against each other into a mushy soup of meaningless stuff.

And pounding against that experience is the fear that this is how it will always be. You will always struggle with this language, skill, or subject. It isn’t for you. You can’t do it. It’s a waste of time anyway. Let’s never touch it again.

But that’s just a story your lizard brain wants you to believe.

It feels safest and happiest when you make no change in your life even if you’re desperate to feel more alive.

Here’s what you should know:

The first time you learn something new will be the only time you feel so awful.

I promise you. When you pick up painting, Chinese, or the fundamentals of viticulture again, it will not be that hard. You’ll learn more easily. The subject will feel more familiar and you’ll feel more comfortable.

But here are a few more things you should know.

Make one intensive effort to learn

If you’ve touched a subject and come back to find that it’s still impossible to learn, then you might want to ask yourself if you really gave it your all the first time you picked it up.

Your brain will learn new things if you put it to work. But the caveat is that you have to really work.

I mean that you need to spend an hour or three reading, memorizing, writing, and drilling into a subject. If you can’t understand what a word means, look it up. If there’s a foundational concept you don’t understand, then check Wikipedia or an old textbook.

Make your first attempt at studying a new thing intense and focused. Whether you’re learning a new mathematical formula or trying to figure out how to see values in a painting, give it your all. If you’re learning a list of words for a new language, then try your hardest to memorize it. Write it down a hundred times. Make a recording of the words and listen to them when you go to sleep. Just get into it.

It’s only after you’ve put in all that effort that you can expect your mind to work on the new information in the background.

Take a break

You’ll find that I’ll mention taking a break a lot in this blog. After you’ve worked hard at something, it’s a good idea to take a break and just stop working on it.

Read a novel, watch a movie, go for a run, or play some games. If you have the time for it, take a week off before resuming your studies.

Taking some time away from your material helps your brain process it and become more comfortable with it. Continuously studying even when you’re exhausted won’t give you any significant improvement. You may actually stretch yourself to the point where you feel burnt out and can’t go back to studying.

Come back to your learning

Now it’s pretty critical that you come back and pick up your studies again after a while. Taking a day’s break or a week’s break should be enough for you to come back to a state where you’re relaxed and energized.

Pick up what you learned before and start over.

What do you notice? Do the words and sentences make more sense now? Do you remember more than you thought you would? Is something more obvious to you?

Chances are that the second or third time you pick up the very uncomfortable subject you were learning, you’ll find that you’re okay with it. It’s easier to understand than the last time and a lot of it makes sense now.

Now, when you need to relearn the topic, you’ll find that it may still be uncomfortable or difficult, but it’s not as awful as the first time you learnt it. You’ll only improve the more you work at it.

Back to you

Learning something new feels uncomfortable for everyone. Even the smartest people you know. In fact, learning a new language or memorizing the human anatomy can feel like the worst experience of one’s life. It’s not unusual to feel discomfort, irritation, anger, or outright viciousness around a subject.

I know I’ve felt that way. And that’s not necessarily a signal that you have to stop studying or that learning is not for you. It’s just an experience that is over once it’s over. Trust your brain because it is capable of learning new things.

The important thing is to come back and try learning again. It is pretty much guaranteed that you’ll find it much easier or at least, just not as uncomfortable as the first time you learned it.