The same way culture and economies morph, and you workout to get your body in shape … learning is your brain's workout. Keeping a regular learning routine expands your knowledge playground. This mental playground can even shrink if you don't devote it enough attention for a long, long time…
The analogy that Joshua Davidson makes in this article, it's very spot on.
Books are like downloading new software to your own internal operating system.
This doesn't only apply to books! Whenever you're devoted to learning something — through books, classes or other practice — you're expanding your learning playground and upgrading your internal operating system.
Earlier this year, I wrote a post about my urge to devour books as way to cope with Knowledge FOMO and how it stems from a constant need to learn.
Throughout our school years we definitely learn a lot but, I'd argue that we don't make use of a specific learning method. In fact, during that time, we're learning how we actually learn best and, by trial and error, experiment with lots of different techniques: from queue cards, to summaries, short notes or diagrams, reciting the materials out loud, … you name it!
Finding the method that best suits us is crucial if you want to develop a healthy learning routine. With a well-oiled learning framework, the only difficulties are breaking the inertia cycle, and diving into topics that are completely new to you.
Pick your Topic of Interest and Refine It
You've got to start off by choosing what you want to learn.
Starting something new is always scary! Maybe at the beginning you're super excited and riding the novelty wave but, gradually, the enthusiasm winds down and you slowly fail to keep the learning habit or simply lose the interest.
Most people identify with the curve at the bottom. On the first week of your origami workshop you're super excited and eager to see that crane coming to life but then, after a few weeks, you have a dinner reservation with friends at the same time as class, or you feel stuck and are shy about asking the teacher … so you start arriving late, skipping a few classes, or abandon it altogether.
It's utopic to think that you're going to be 100% interested and dedicated. However, if on a regular basis, you can keep it slightly above the 50%, I'm pretty sure you're going to be alright!
TIP: Start with a broad topic and refine it. Tackling a big topic all at once can be very difficult, and frustrating!
Try a divide-and-conquer approach and breakout the big topic into bite-size sub-topics. Continue carving and refining your topic of interest until you found the sub-topic that is contained enough so you can start from there. When you're done with that one topic, pick up the next one and continue the cycle.
Ask for Recommendations and Expand your Horizon
Learning is a never-ending, ever evolving process.
In my opinion, the magic lies in continually discovering something new. Like in a well designed subway system, a handful of lines will intersect, so you can travel across the city , knowledge is built upon in the same way. You start with a specific topic and as you go, you decide what you might be interested in exploring next.
These intersections can arise in many forms: a friend that recommends a book, article, course …, or something you read on a blog post that catches your eye. For instance, more and more books now have explicit references to other studies, articles and books that cover related topics, I tend to make use of these a lot!
Practice, practice, practice! Practice really makes perfect however, you should pay attention to how you do it.
Psychology professor and author of Peak: Secrets from the New Science of Expertise Anders Ericsson, who has lead extensive research on expert performance, introduced the concept of deliberate practice.
Deliberate practice is all about getting out of our comfort zone, instead of settling on the mastery level. The important detail of deliberate practice is that you should always be pushing yourself. Practicing the same activity over and over again can get you to a comfortable mastery but, if you don't push yourself further, you'll reach a higher level of expertise — your global maximum of mastery. Once you're practicing at a new (higher) level, everything before that are mere local maximum. You levelled up!
Learning is rewarding however, it’s not necessarily fun.
Deliberate practice takes place outside one’s comfort zone and requires a student to constantly try things that are just beyond his or her current abilities. Thus it demands near — maximal effort, which is generally not enjoyable — Peak, by Anders Ericsson & Robert Pool
At first, this may seem counter intuitive. Think about the first few days of learning to play an instrument, solve an equation, play a sport, solving a puzzle … It's very important that you enjoy the overall activity but, if you think about it, when you're learning you're in the zone, focused, most likely a bit tense and, your eyes are on what you want to achieve, not necessarily on having fun.
When you get to master that activity you own that territory, so you start relaxing and having fun. And possibly thinking about the next level …
Consolidate your Knowledge
The best way to check if you really learned something is by putting it to the test!
This could be done by comparing results, like when you solve a puzzle and check the solution or you're finally able to make that origami crane, or by knowledge transfer.
With physical activities or activities with tangible results, it's usually easier to understand if you've reached a mastery level — you sang that song in tune, beat your personal record in the 100m race, made a soufflé that didn't fall apart.
With more abstract concepts, try explaining it to someone with minimal to no idea whatsoever about what you're talking about. You'll quickly see if there are gaps in your mental model. The most common red flags are when you're not able to tell a cohesive story — with beginning, middle and end — can't draw analogies and find metaphors that make that concept more accessible to non-experts, …
Putting our knowledge to the test may be frightening, because no one likes to realise that they're not quite there yet. At the same time it can be a humbling exercise: you practice, do a reality check and use the feedback to be better, letting go of any frustration.
It's definitely easier said than done but, once you start embracing that feedback, you're always getting better.
Explore Different Perspectives
Something that I particularly like to do with the topics I'm most passionate about it to look for what different people have to say about it.
When gathering different points of view, there can be a slight difference in the language, the approach … that makes everything click!
You can listen to two people describe the same object, telling the same story or explaining how your microwave works, and they won't use the same words verbatim, the same analogies … yet, you'll most likely retain different pieces from both discourses.
I find this extremely helpful to expand and review my mental models: seeing different examples, learning better metaphors, filling in the potential gaps.
This is the framework I’ve been refining over the years. However, there’s no one size fits all when it comes to how you should learn. It’s something that you have to explore, experiment with and adjust as you go.
Enjoy your learning adventures.
Thanks for reading!