How To Learn Difficult Subjects

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In this post, we’ll have a  conversation on the art of learning and mastering difficult subjects.

We’ve been a long way since the moment in which the first of our kind found itself overwhelmed by the urge to understand how the world as we know it works. We’re definitely a long way from uncovering the whole puzzle of what the universe is about for sure, but now we know we know something. Some of the things we as a collective know we know is only accessible to the few of us who just like the first of us, also feel the need to understand. For these people, the degree of “apparent” difficulty of the subject is not relevant. In fact, if anything, the desire to be among the few, or to even be the one who completely understands a subject is a part of what drives them to spend a lifetime reading all there is to read about their field of interest.

The problem arises when the love for the discipline is not there yet. For the simpler and easier to understand, it’s all a matter of pushing through the boredom of reading technical material. For the most difficult ones, on the other hand, it’s much deeper than that. It’s also about the sometimes crushing self-doubt on our own ability to understand what we’re trying to understand. We start to wonder if we weren’t born with a powerful enough brain, and if we go down that rabbit hole we might even wonder if we have some sort of intellectual disability.

How to learn difficult subjects

Expect to make some time investment

The first thing to think about before jumping into a difficult subject is that as a rule difficult subjects take time to master and understand. A fairly large degree of confusion is to be expected and with that confusion also getting past it.

The problem arises when you see other people who for one reason or another have managed to grasp the material relatively quickly. Often the reason for this is that they have some background knowledge or they don’t really understand the material as deeply as they seem. For you, the outsider, the impression is only that they are better and here the word “better” is vague. Sometimes the people around us are going through the same struggles as we, but just like us they too find themselves s locked in their own heads.

Take some time to mentally wrestle with the material, and don’t be surprised if one day you wake up and somehow manage to understand what once was beyond your reach.

Focused and diffused mode

This idea of giving the brain some time to catch up is backed up by science. According to research, during the learning process, the brain goes through several cycles of what they call focused and diffused mode. To put things simply, the focused mode is the mode in which you actively focus on and pay attention to the material. You actively read, memorize and rehearse the material. This is the stage most of us associate with the learning process. The second and by no means any less important is the diffused mode. Here you’re not actively trying to learn the material. If anything you’re probably aware of whatever you were trying to learn an hour ago. You might be relaxing hanging out with friends, or playing a round of golf, what you think is that your brain state is a mere mirror of your mood i.e relaxed and or passive. The truth is that if you’ve spent enough time trying to actively master the material or solve the problem, chances are that even now your brain is still actively wrestling with the material. These are the moments in which we often stumble into creative ideas or novel ways of looking into the subject we were working on. When trying to learn a difficult subject try taking a break because there is a good chance that that’s all you need to run into the enhanced level of understanding you desperately seek.

Try sleeping

Another very underestimated and yet so powerful tool for learning is sleep. We live in  a time in which sleeping is equated with laziness. The man or woman of today is encouraged to keep pushing and trying even when the solution for their problems is as simple as resting. Take a break. Take a nap and see how much you can get done after. See how much more of the material you understand when you wake up.

This too is backed up by science. It’s now known that the brain goes through a process of knowledge integration while we sleep. The things we learned go through a process that makes these lessons more stable and more, if we can say…relatable with whatever knowledge already exists. So you wake up not only remembering what you learned better, but also able to relate this new knowledge with the old.

Try nootropics

First, it’s important to make it clear that this is no medical advice. Having that said, one simple and yet not so simple way to learn complex/difficult subjects is to put your brain in the best chemical state possible for learning. If you pay attention to your own mental performance, often there is some fluctuation on your brain’s ability to learn new information. The world we live in makes us think that learning is a black or white process. Meaning either you’re a good learner or you’re not, and whatever state you’re in when you first attempt to measure your learning ability becomes then the deciding factor on your learning ability.

If you’re objective with yourself chances are that there are times in which you can learn more quickly regardless of how complex/difficult the material and the reverse applies to the opposite case.

One way to become a better learner is to find ways to take control of your own brain’s chemistry and with the right tools put it on the optimal state to acquire and retain new information.

There is plenty of resources out there on the subject, and all you have to do is to begin your journey with Google. It’s also important to talk to your doctor with regards to possible sensitivities your body might have with regards to taking certain kinds of supplements.

Look for different sources

Sometimes difficult subjects are made more difficult because of the people who are put in charge of teaching them. As I often say “teaching is not for everybody”. We are still in a time in which knowing the subject is the minimum requirement to teach it. I’m sure you’ve had both kinds of teachers: The one that makes you understand and the ones that don’t. Chances are that the first have this uncanny ability to minimize the time it takes you to get the material. Chances are that you not only learn it quickly but you do so more deeply.

So, if you’ve tried everything from this post and nothing worked, maybe it’s time to replace the teacher. It means to look for YouTube lectures and tutorials. To do the same on Google, and if all fails to go to our old friend: the library.

Sometimes the wording used by one teacher although not much different from what you’ve heard before makes the difference between confusion and clarity. Sometimes the explanation is the same but for whatever reason, your brain needed to hear it from a deeper or softer voice. Maybe it’s a product of the focused/diffused mode. Whatever it might be, I can testify for the countless times in which   I finally achieved clarity and understanding after a few videos on the same subject.


At the end of the day, understating difficult subjects require first and foremost a belief that you can, given the right conditions, understand whatever you’re struggling with, and from there take the necessary steps to set the conditions to put yourself there.

The doubts will likely be your biggest obstacle towards the land of clarity. You have to fight them in the same way the gardener fights the weeds that take away the vital resources the flowers need to grow and flourish. Like the gardener, you’ll be in a constant battle with your doubts, but each fight and victory will like the weight and the muscle condition you to bigger and more challenging battles with yourself.

It is all about knowledge and experience 😉

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