How to Learn Complex Subject Matter in Short Order

The last time I had twelve weeks to learn a skill was when I was in graduate school.  In three months’ time I had to develop proficiency in political economy theory before moving on in the course material.  Once out of school and on the job, I had less than an hour of training on the WordPress site that was built for the firm before I was deemed proficient to be the webmaster.  In the professional environment, we must learn and become proficient in all sorts of topics and skills in hours and days rather than weeks and months.  This is why you have to approach learning as a skill.

Tim Ferriss: love him, hate him, or feel as indifferent about him as you do about the average rain fall in Kathmandu, has outlined how accelerated learning works.  His approach and frame work is worth dissecting, given he has learned to drum for a Foreigner concert in a week, competed in a rally car race just a matter of days after first taking to the track, and learned enough Tagalong in less than a week to be interviewed by a Philippine language news show. 

Tim is not superhuman.  I know this because many of you out there have learned how to ski in a weekend, learned how to play poker over a long night of pizza and beers in a basement, and learned how to Swing dance after that Gap ad in the 1990’s in a 90-minute lesson at a bar one Saturday night.  Tim’s secret that makes him seem special is that he has just mastered the art of rapid learning by treating it like a skill.

Private Equity Primer Goal Setting

It is helpful to think of accelerated learning like you would any other goal.  Traditional goal setting has four parts and so does the model we layout for rapid knowledge and skill acquisition. The primary difference is the focus on repetitive behavior and getting to base level of proficiency rather than a focus on a highly perfected end state, which many goals are.  Accelerated learning can be broken into four steps:

1.    Deconstruction

2.    Selection

3.    Sequencing

4.    Stakes

Deconstruction:  Imagine the end state you are trying to achieve.  Then establish all the elements you have to be aware of and use in order to get there.  If you are learning how to build a leverage buy out (LBO) model in Excel, then you need to know the elements of an LBO, where to obtain the relevant information on the target company, and how to use Excel.  If you cannot read the three basic accounting statements or understand the impact of compounding interest, then you are likely to have issues figuring out how to build an LBO from scratch. So identify the variables that make up the topic.  Strip them all away and examine what your end state looks like.  Do not try to swallow the topic whole.  Chunk it into bite sizes.

Selection:  When learning in a compressed time period, you cannot learn everything.  Fundamentally, you cannot master complex subjects in just a matter of days.  Rather you have to focus on the 20% of the material that will get you to 80% competency.  A B- is passing and rather respectable when moving from a failing or near failing knowledge base.  It is best to think of selection as the minimal effective dose.  What are the minimal things I have to focus on in order to reach the stated end goal?

Sequencing:  In what order do you need to learn what.  Process map the 20%.  Maybe you need to understand some basic accounting terms before you can go about understanding what working capital is.  Once you know what working capital is, then you can understand how to model it in Excel. Sequencing is about repetition of the bite sized chunks to lay the foundation towards proficiency.  

Stakes:  What is at risk if you fail?  Bet your roommate that you will have to clean the apartment for three months if you don’t accomplish your stated objective in the time frame you laid out.  Or maybe your job has already set the stakes in the term of a promotion or probation if you are not successful.  In either case, stakes make things real and help keep you focused during learning.

Here at Private Equity Primer, we take a similar approach and have taken the guess work out of understanding transactions from a real world practical and tactical standpoint.

Our seminars on Modeling for the Private Equity Interview deconstructs the elements of valuation and the structure of an LBO.  We drill down on the components that will allow you to build an LBO model in a matter of hours, and then immerse you in a real case.  The stakes are a job in private equity.

Similarly, our course the Purchase Agreement: Purpose, Structure, & Negotiations examines the critical elements of a purchase agreement in the context of document creation and what is most important to your clients.  We put your attorneys to the test by having them negotiate the finer points of a purchase agreement after gaining proficiency of the base material.  The stakes for the law firm are increased productive and higher billable hours.

We believe in treating learning as a skill so much we have built a company around it.  That way it doesn’t take 12 weeks to become proficient in a skill that your employer requires.

To train the best deal attorneys, bankers, consultants, and aspiring students, Private Equity Primer created industry-leading training that leverages repetition to mastery, case study delivery, and real world simulations.  Please check out our full service offerings and subscribe to our email list for the latest on training, transaction knowledge, and the ever-changing landscape of legal services, investment banking, and accounting.