How To Master Tough Subjects In 3 Steps

True understanding comes not from being able to recite large passages of text or memorize large collections of equations, but from the deeper understanding that allows you to adapt to novel situations and create new solutions to complex problems.

Higher levels of knowledge require an intuitive grasp of everything from the tiniest details to the broad interconnected whole. I don’t believe becoming a master requires 10,000 hours, but you certainly need to put in the time and effort to grasp the while picture.

We have a world’s worth of information at our fingertips, of which we consume an incredible amount every day — around 34 gigabytes a day.

Meanwhile, education is everywhere, and continued learning is basically a necessity to stay ahead today.

Consuming is good, but there are some steps after that which can help us go beyond simple facts to higher order knowledge, to expand on our current mental schemas with a greater variety of know-how, and to give ourselves control and insight over the detailed and complex workings of other fields.


If we want to remember what we read or learn, we need to actively retrieve it from the depths of our minds.

It’s not enough to reread something, or to highlight lines, we need to recall the information from memory. Those painful moments of having to reach back to find something are part of Robert Bjork’s ‘desirable difficulties,’ they’re activities that don’t feel good but that help forge longer lasting memories.

Test yourself using flashcards, and use the Leitner system to employ the spacing technique. Try writing down what you learned from memory, and see where you excel and what needs to be restudied.

“Memorizing facts is like stocking a construction site with the supplies to put up a house.”Make It Stick

Goal: To remember what you’ve learned.


The next step is to start manipulating that knowledge. It’s here we should start to make connections between what we’ve learned and what we already know, to assimilate the knowledge within our broader global web.

Redefining requires us to start thinking of the knowledge in ways that differ from how we learned it.

Try creating mind maps to help elaborate and connect the knowledge with otherwise disparate ideas and to see the limits of what you know. Think about how you would teach this subject to someone else, would you be able to take their questions and formulate answers?

Problem solving at this stage requires convergent thinking, the ability to follow a predefined path to find an answer. You can use the physics equations you’ve learned to find the speed of sound in different mediums, or run through your accounting knowledge to create your statements.

“Mastery requires both the possession of ready knowledge and the conceptual understanding of how to use it.” — Make It Stick

Goal: To be able to express the knowledge in your own words and be able to follow structured steps to solve problems.


The highest form of knowledge comes not only from being able to solve problems, but in being able to identify problems that had previously not been seen. To be an innovator and creative within a field requires a unique grasp of the subject and a mindset that allows for insight.

Redesign involves divergent thinking, the manipulation of your knowledge in ways that were previously not thought of. It goes beyond redefining in that it attempts to solve problems where predefined steps do not exist.

An interesting way to explore this is to improvise — try free writing around what you know and see where you get tripped up; try creating metaphors, characters and stories; try taking several unrelated ideas and come up with creative ways to combine them.

Seek out patterns and relationships between obscure ideas. Ray Kurzweil, author of ‘How To Create A Mind,’ believes that pattern recognition is the key to higher-order thinking.

“The neocortex is a metaphor machine, that’s why humans are creative.” says Kurzweil, “[Our forehead] was an enabling factor that permitted the evolution of language and technology and art and science.”

Goal: To be able to use divergent thinking and foresight to both find and solve novel problems.

. . .

We consume a lot of information, but — even if we can remember it all — that doesn’t mean we truly understand it, or can use it in any productive way.

It’s important to take time out from consuming so that we can work to redefine and redesign that knowledge, so we might eventually become innovators that create our own knowledge for others to consume.

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