3 Lessons of the YouTube SuperLearners

Meet Amira Willighagen. She’s 9 years old, from Holland, and she sings really, really well.

The best part? Amira has never had a single lesson. Raised in a musical family (dad’s an organist; mom plays flute, brother violin), she learned by watching YouTube videos of great opera singers.

Here’s the interesting thing: when you start to look around, it turns out that there are more than a few Amiras out there. Like these kids. And this one. And this one. And this one. And this one. And this one. And this one. And this one. And this one. And this one.

In fact, they’re everywhere. Kids on skateboards are doing tricks that no one has ever done. Skinny teenage violinists and pianists are playing concertos that were previously considered playable only by world-class masters. There’s no way to precisely measure it, but indications are clear: we seem to be experiencing an epidemic of prodigies.

The question is, why? Is it better teachers? More nurturing parents? More global competition? More motivated learners?

My answer: all of the above. But one factor might be bigger than all of them: YouTube.

Because YouTube is perfectly aligned with the way the human brain was designed to acquire skill. Namely:

  • 1) You stare at someone doing something amazing
  • 2) You love it so much that you can’t stop thinking about it
  • 3) You try it, reaching for a target
  • 4) You compare your result to the target
  • 5) You reach again. And again. And again. (Repeat.)

We instinctively think of being self taught as a drawback — but as Amira and the other prodigies show, it’s actually an advantage. With YouTube, she has opportunity to stare at what she loves. To study top-quality talent, to model her technique on proven methods. To listen deeply. To reach for a target, over and over — her brain getting faster and more accurate with each reach. And above all, to have ownership over the process.

Quick thought experiment: imagine if, instead of spending enraptured hours singing along to YouTube videos, Amira was informed by her parents that she would be driven to weekly lessons, where she would practice scales and do vocal exercises with some teacher she’d never met. Can you feel the buzzkill?

Not all of us can be prodigies. But there are a few takeaways from their learning process that can apply to everyone.

  • 1) Staring at great performers is underrated. You could argue that it’s the most important thing a learner can do. Why not give learners regular opportunity to stare/mimic the best in the world? Why not mix age groups, so that younger kids get the chance to watch better performers?
  • 2) Coaches are overrated in the early days. Those days are the time when someone’s identity gets connected to the skill — where they learn to derive real personal pleasure from executing the skill. That’s the time for parents to take a step back, be supportive, and refrain from getting overinvolved.
  • 3) Ownership is everything. Because at bottom, developing a talent isn’t about parents or coaching or school — it’s about creating and sustaining the love that fuels the hard, fulfilling work of getting better.