How to do more in 2024: start by streaming How To With John Wilson

By Gen Terblanche29 December 2023

How to do more in 2024: start by streaming How To With John Wilson

What better way is there to welcome a new year, than throwing yourself heart and soul into learning something new? 2024 is going to be our year of knowing more. And if you’re out of practice learning new skills, we have the perfect way to start you off. HBO series How To With John Wilson is New York-based documentary filmmaker John Wilson’s way of unpacking everything that comes up when you decide to focus on learning something seemingly simple.

Each episode starts with a seed of an idea – captured in the episode title, like How To Improve Your Memory, How To Throw Out Your Batteries or, in Season 3, a huge topic for city dwellers, How To Find a Public Restroom. From there, it branches off wildly through the process of learning anything, from researching the topic, to picking a teacher, to actually stepping through the process of learning the skill itself.

For fans of the show, Season 3 offers some long-awaited insights, as subtopics within the episodes include explorations of how John makes the show, how spontaneity on screen is planned behind the scenes, how to be honest with yourself, and how to be okay with what you see in the mirror (or on screen, as you edit your documentary show).

Watch the trailer for How To With John Wilson Season 3

Learn how to watch a show

Part of the charm of How To With John Wilson comes from how John weaves casual footage shot on the streets of New York into telling his story. So, for example, in Season 1 episode 6, he embarks on learning how to make an excellent risotto for his kind landlady, “Mama”. As he ponders the idea, he includes shots of Italian-ish “culture” in New York that have a comic twist, from someone sitting at a cafe while playing with a radio controlled Mario (from the game Super Mario) in a little car, to a restaurant sign that proclaims “Burgerrito”, to a passerby wearing an umbrella hat printed to look like a pepperoni pizza – or he’ll mention that the Italian word for horse is cavalla, while showing footage of a forlorn-looking rocking horse that’s been put out with the trash.

It’s a show to take your luxurious time with, as every moment on screen is filled with these visual jokes and observations. For a lot of us who tend to split focus while enjoying our shows, it’s a reminder about how to take time to enjoy just one thing.

How To With John Wilson is on Showmax

Learn how to find a teacher

It’s also a series about connecting with people through learning. Throughout the series John goes into seemingly random people’s homes and lives to learn the skills he’s seeking. And each “teacher” gets to show off a little of the grab bag of things they’ve learned over the years, along with some of the things that they believe.

Each character we meet through John Wilson is a lucky packet of information and stories, lies and misinformation, kindness, selfishness. In Season 3, episode 2, How To Clean Your Ears, John takes us to meet two of New York’s most notorious party animals – a source of numerous noise complaints from their neighbours – and, in a moment of delicious irony, captures them shushing their child.

So some of what people tell him is cheap junk, some of it is treasure. But you never get the treasure unless you let someone talk, listen, and ask questions that prompt someone to unpack and question their own statements. Everybody has something to offer, and if you’re polite and patient, sometimes they’ll show you their artwork, too.

In each season, John uses this exploration and his search for teachers to take a compassionate look at how a colourful variety of people live and think, and why they act the way they do.

Learn by doing

After John has focussed his attention, taken some notes and asked some questions, he will try his hand at whatever skill he’s trying to learn. The series captures those first, faltering steps we take when we think we know what we’re doing, but we manage to go wrong in oh, so many ways.

It captures one of the great difficulties of learning from experts who’re not used to teaching, in that they don’t anticipate the mistakes you could make when it’s your first time doing something. In Season 1, episode 3, for example, John takes us into the apartment of a woman who competes in memory competitions to find out how she keeps all the information organised in her head. She explains (in a rather haphazard way) how the Memory Palace technique works … while also clearly getting confused about which medal she won at which country’s memory competition event.

The series reveals that even a single task like making risotto is made up of sub-tasks your teacher might not explore during your learning sessions, like not burning the garlic, understanding how to grill fish, making stock from scratch, and recognising when the texture is right. And John shares the frustration of comparing yourself to experts in online tutorials, and the self questioning that begins when you fail over and over again. But throughout the episode he shows why you have to be okay with failing if you want to get anywhere. And by the end of the 20-30 minutes, he won’t have a perfect skill set, but he’ll be on his way. It’s incredibly encouraging.

How To With John Wilson is on Showmax

Learn to enjoy the journey

While going through this process of learning, John also wanders gleefully off topic as he chases down all the paths that curiosity guides him to. So the episode about risotto includes John replacing his vaping habit with playing a slide whistle, which leads to him blowing a sad note at a dead rat in the street. The episode on memory includes him making wild associations between street scenes and his shopping list (you don’t want to know how he visualises chocolate spread). And in Season 3 episode 1, a starting point of how to find a restroom will take us into how people go to the bathroom under all kinds of conditions, including those who “improvise” on the subway, to a neighbourhood that has plumbing problems because it’s below sea level.

Throughout the show, each episode exposes something fundamental to how enriching it is to learn a new skill, as the topic at hand becomes a lens through which John focuses his attention on the world around him.

Whatever you want to learn this year, if you want to learn to fall in love with ordinary life, start with a great teacher like John Wilson.

Read more about the best documentaries on Showmax.