The Importance of Learning the Fundamentals: The Key to Mastery

4 months ago   •   5 min read

By Zero Machina

Learning the fundamentals is the key to mastery. Yet, most people want to take shortcuts and skip to the "good stuff."

Skills or goals can be broken down into basic components.  Managing your time, for example, involves learning how to prioritize, focus, and say "no" to distractions and shiny objects. Focusing on the advanced stuff, without having developed the basics, is a waste of your time. And frankly, it's a recipe for frustration and stagnation.

In this article, we'll explore why it's important to learn the fundamentals and how it'll help you better invest your time.

Why Learning Fundamentals Should Be Prioritized

We get it. It's boring to practice the basics.

Why should you bother learning the fundamentals when there are so many advanced techniques to explore? The answer is simple: the fundamentals provide a strong foundation that'll support your future learning. By definition, fundamentals are the basic principles of a subject. They're the “building blocks” upon which more advanced knowledge is built.

In a famous Reddit AMA, Elon Musk was asked what makes him such an effective learner:

"One bit of advice: it is important to view knowledge as sort of a semantic tree—make sure you understand the fundamental principles, i.e. the trunk and big branches, before you get into the leaves/details or there is nothing for them to hang on to."

You need to learn the basics before moving on to more advanced topics. Otherwise, you’ll just be memorizing isolated facts without understanding how they fit together. Once you have a foundation rooted in correct principles, you can branch out and begin developing more advanced skills with confidence.

The same idea applies to achieving your goals.

When moving towards your desired outcome, there are only a handful of things that matter most: the 80/20. And if you want to be successful, you’ll need to focus on these key components while ignoring the rest. For instance, when growing your business, you’ll want to learn sales, marketing, product development, customer relationship management, and maybe a few other key areas. Most other tasks are distractions.

The basics matter.

How to Learn the Fundamentals

Now that we've explored why you should focus on the fundamental building blocks of skills and goals, let's talk about how to actually implement them.

Here are a few tips.

1. Use Overwhelm as a Compass

When you feel overwhelmed, it's often because you're trying to focus on too many things at once.

Perhaps you're distracted by "shiny objects." Or you're “getting lost in the weeds.” In either case, you've wandered away from the basics. And your overwhelm is a reminder to refocus on the fundamentals—whether you're trying to master skills or achieve goals.

For example, if your goal is to get in shape, you may feel overwhelmed by all the different workout programs and diets. There's a lot out there. But instead of trying to sort through everything or trying an "advanced technique," you can simplify your approach by focusing on the basic principles of health:

  • Eating healthy foods
  • Regular exercise
  • Adequate sleep

Once you dial in the basics, you can start exploring more advanced fitness protocols.

Focusing on the fundamentals will help you simplify and streamline your efforts. By identifying the core principles that matter most, you can cut through the clutter and focus on what's really important.

The takeaway is this: when you're feeling lost or overwhelmed, go back to basics.

2. Find Experts Who Are Strong Teachers

The best way to learn the basics is to find a mentor or get guidance from an expert.

But we're not talking about just any experts—you want to find ones who are also strong teachers.  Many successful people have implicit expertise. This is knowledge and wisdom that's largely unconscious. Their elite performance is intuitive and surfaces under pressure. And as a result, they're unable to explain or verbalize their expertise in an actionable way.

This is why well-intentioned experts give subpar advice:

  • "It boils down to hard work."
  • "Find something you love and you'll never work a day in your life."
  • "Focus on the one thing that makes the biggest impact in your life."

These platitudes may be true, but they lack nuance and customizable guidance on how you should move forward. This is why you want experts with explicit expertise teaching you, as they're good at sharing knowledge and giving proper guidance.

If you don't have a great teacher, you'll be left to discover the basics on your own.

3. Change the Environment

Changing the environment can help you see your mistakes more clearly.

Different environments bring you back to basics.  More specifically, putting yourself in more challenging environments reveal errors that point back to flaws in your fundamentals.

For example, let's say you've been playing golf with beginners and you're performing the best–you're the big fish in a small pond. But when you play with intermediate golfers, your mistakes become more noticeable. The environment reveals flaws in your fundamentals and forces you to go back to the basics.

Or maybe you've been writing as a hobby. If you start working with an editor, the new environment will place further stress on your fundamentals, highlighting any weaknesses in your writing.

Don't be afraid to put yourself in new environments. It helps you grow.

4. Change Your Goals

Altering goals puts your fundamentals under a microscope. 

Let's say you want to get in shape. You can set different goals that test your fitness levels and give you actionable feedback–join a local sports team and try to win matches, or sign up for a marathon. Now the stakes are higher. And you'll be forced to pay closer attention to the fundamentals - diet, exercise, flexibility, and recovery. 

Setting new goals teaches you the fundamentals.

5. Give Yourself Feedback

Giving yourself feedback is a fundamental skill and will help you better learn the basics.

If you don't currently have a mentor, coach, or expert guiding you, then this is the next best step. There are a few ways to give yourself feedback:

  • Reflection: Take time each day, or week, to think about your progress. What did I learn? What's working well? What needs improvement?
  • Share your learning or progress with others: As you're learning, take the time to document any insights or discoveries you have. Then share them with friends, mentees, or through online content. This creates distance between you and your behavior, giving you a bird's eye view of what needs to be improved.

Giving yourself feedback is a great way to stay on track and improve your fundamentals.

Next Steps

Improving your fundamentals is essential to success. It's the difference between stagnating and thriving. So if you're feeling lost or stuck, go back to basics. It's never too late.

Want to learn more about how to invest your time better? Check out our article: The Importance of Opportunity Cost and Making Wiser Decisions.

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