School is predicated on a simple model of acquiring competence:

  • attend a class;
  • receive instruction (pay attention);
  • complete exercises (try hard);
  • repeat until mastered.

 

 This enormously successful model has been replicated by every nation on earth. It has scaled knowledge transfer and skill acquisition through trillions of organized classes. 

It helps, however, to appreciate the limitations of organized classes so that they do not become your sole vehicle for mastery.

Attending a class is easy

 

It is easier to attend a yoga class than to practice on your own. Even though I am perfectly capable of designing and executing my own sequence of yoga poses on the fly, it is still easier to follow the instructions of an external teacher. During a solitary practice, the challenge of maintaining present awareness in a yoga pose while planning the next element and pacing it to finish  right on time before your next commitment is immense. It feels “wrong” as the level of focus is lower, and the natural human tendency is to avoid doing something that we are not doing well, so we go back to class and say that “I can never focus on my own.”

Sidenote: if you are learning dance, martial arts, figure skating, or acrobatics, you should absolutely be taking daily organized classes because the subject matter is so hard even with the structure of a class; yoga poses, however, are relatively easy, and most people can achieve good form in just 3-5 years of regular practice 3x/week, even with average and intermittent instruction. So the focus becomes on awareness rather than the poses.

The same is even more true for learning standardized facts and recipes. It is easy to take a course on Udemy. Is it easy to learn a few tips and tricks on Youtube. Note that I am an avid consumer of all kinds of learning content, books and online courses included, so I very much encourage you to keep learning in every way. So far I am merely stating my point, that taking a course is easy. After all, there is a way people sign up for fitness classes or dance classes or comedy classes, and consider it a big accomplishment and a dramatic change in their lives: once you sign up, the structure of a regular class reduces the need for willpower, and you stay on track with less effort. As I said, it is easier; wholesome and useful things can still be relatively easy. In fact, classes and curricula have been designed with this express purpose, to make transferring and receiving knowledge and expertise more convenient, more expedient, more practical.

So where is the catch? The first thing to remember is that in a class your brain is in the “class mode”. The exact reason why it is easier to perform well in a class is also the reason, why it is harder to perform well outside of a class. You call yourself a yoga practitioner of seven years, yet when someone asks you to show a pose, what is your response? “Come with me to a class and watch; I am not ready to just do it now. I can only do head stands in that very specific studio that I go to, and only on Tuesdays and Saturdays.” Tuesdays and Saturdays only — not exactly your dream idea of mastery, is it?

Then, of course, in a class you are following what someone else has created. If you only ever take a class, you can’t create anything that is your own. Granted, in some disciplines you may need to start from 5 years or 10 years of organized training, but this training has to somehow culminate in the “real thing”, at least every once in a while. Otherwise what you learn is something highly compartmentalized, and I would definitely not call it “mastery”, no matter how good you are in a class. What good is a firefighter who can only extinguish practice fires, or a mathematician who can only solve problems in a book, but is unable to come up with new ones?

“Real life” is unstructured

 

This one is not entirely accurate: if you are a competitive chess player, all of your real career will be done in the structure of formal games.  Even then, it is hard to imagine an accomplished player who would only practice chess in formal sessions. The three Polgar sisters, Judit, Susan, and Sophia, raised to become some of the best female chess players ever. As you may imagine, they were not just practicing “in class”, if any of their informal home training even fit that name. ‘Laszlo [the father] once found Sophia in the bathroom in the middle of the night, a chessboard balanced across her knees. “Sophia, leave the pieces alone!” he said, shaking his head. “Daddy, they won’t leave me alone!” she replied.’

If you are neither a chess player nor a pilot nor a figure skater — where the need for equipment acts as a structuring force — consider if you are limiting yourself by just taking classes and doing what you are supposed to be doing. Are self-defense classes meant for defending yourself in a class, or in real life? The attackers are not going to wait for you to check in. Are acting classes preparing you for a mock audience or for a real one? If the cookies you are baking are taking longer than that youtube video had anticipated, are you going to stop and call it a day? Are math puzzles only meant for you to find the correct answer? This is meaningless, as the correct answer is already known to the author of the book.

The class is just that, a repackaged version of knowledge, systematized, simplified, and organized by someone vastly more knowledgeable. It will bring you and the rest of your peer group to that level, but it won’t bring you to the level of creating your own classes. Every class involves you following something that somebody else has already created; where did they get that knowledge? Where do I get the knowledge to share in this article.

So long as the class imitates a particular “real activity”, your challenge is to transfer the new skills, practices, and habits you are learning from that class into the real activity or your life overall. If you are practicing calming yourself down in meditation, you’ll have to begin using it in actual stressful situations. If you are learning about cooking, apply it to cook yourself and your friends delicious meals; do not just leave your newly acquired skills for the classroom. Compartmentalization is the enemy of all learning; you should be making every effort to break through. If you are learning negotiation skills, go to a cafe and ask for a free coffee or call your Internet provider and try to negotiate a lower bill. If you are learning programming, start creating little projects that are actually useful and enhance your life. Your subconscious mind knows when you are treating the skill as something real vs when it’s an isolated activity only meant for the classroom. 

The pyramid of teachers: not everyone can be the best

This is uncomfortable thought, for it invokes the image of the conspiracy by those at the top, intended to keep everybody else at the bottom. Consider this: you are taking classes, but will it make you the best? Even easier, you go to work every day, follow all directions of your manager and diligently study all supplied e-courses. Will it some day make you the CEO, and if not, what will?

We can be optimistic here and presume that becoming the CEO is solely a matter of skill. This is far from the truth, but even if it were, the picture would be the same. In order to become the CEO, at a minimum you need certain skills, such as the ability to manage people and understanding finances. Is anybody trying to teach you those things? Not really. It is not exactly the company’s goal to make you into the CEO; this is not why the company has hired you. It definitely has not hired you just to give you an opportunity; so while the public school system may be amazing — somewhere — even in Finland or in Singapore, wherever this system is amazing, it is still naive to expect it to propel you to the top. The system is not designed as a 100% social lift simply because there isn’t enough room at the top.

Consider this, if there is a system that can effectively and efficiently teach 10,000 people to achieve confident command of a certain skill, should there not be a smaller group of experts to research, develop, and then administer this learning system?Perhaps there are 100 experts at a much higher skill level; who is going to teach a class on becoming one of those 100? Conceivably, there can be 1 ultra-expert who could design a training for aspiring advanced students with very high potential and still make this learning scalable and structured; yet, what if you want to teach experts; how do you become the next ultra-expert?

Out of mathematical necessity, there cannot be an established, scalable system for producing experts at the top of their field, because then they would not be at the top. Then there would be a yet smaller subset of ultra-experts, which begs the question once again. There simply cannot be a class for getting to the top, because the top is a level access to which has not yet been properly researched and commoditized; so if you want to be the best, or at least among the small group of experts, you will have to eventually depart from the mapped routes and embark on an exploration of uncharted territories. If the standard for the learning course you are in is 3 hours of study per day, you may have to devote 4 or 5 if you want to get ahead of others. After all, somebody will get ahead, because every course is calibrated so that some people will ace it while some others will fall behind.  If you want to be that someone, if you want to be the one designing your own courses, you will probably have to do more than suggested to you in an existing course. 

After you leave the safety of well-studied territories, there is no guarantee. It is easy to talk about 10,000 hours of effort s and how it all but guaranteed to make you into an expert, but there is no guarantee. Any long-term learning process will present to you one challenge after another, and unless you can overcome each subsequent challenge or find your way around it, you will plateau and never get past that level. You will spend the rest of your life or career maintaining that level, not progressing any further, all the while receiving instruction from someone who did.  You will have taken your place on the pyramid; in order to keep climbing, you have to keep changing strategies at every level. It will keep getting stranger and stranger. 

If you want the whole cake and then some, stop waiting to be spoonfed! All they have for you is a single slice.