Learning How to Learn
I recently had the pleasure of appearing on the Design and Play podcast with Steve Brophy and Dean Pearman, two teachers that are actively raising awareness for and doing their best to drive much needed change in K12 education in Australia.
The world is changing faster than ever and up to 60% of today’s jobs are likely to be automated in the next 10–15 years, yet most of what children learn in school is still geared towards traditional roles, and still forces them to become adept at reading, remembering and regurgitating as opposed to more transferable and relevant skills such as resilience, embracing and thriving in ambiguity, critical thinking and problem solving.
Given all of uncertainty, ambiguity and complexity and volatility we’re facing as an economy and society going forward, as technology begins to play an ever greater role in our lives, I was asked what I thought the number one skill children need to learn is.
For me, it’s not coding. While coding and having literacy in the language of the machines will be important, it may effectively become the blue collar job of the future. Commoditised by millions of people in economies such as India who can do the same job for a cheaper price. The value in learning coding aside from using it to build things, is the hacker mindset and the type of thinking that it supports.
But in a world where things are constantly changing, the number one skill children need to learn, I said, is learning how to learn.
I spoke with Kevin Kelly, the founder of Wired Magazine and world-renowned technology author and futurist, in episode #161 of the Future Squared podcast. In it he introduced me to the concept of ‘eternal newbies’, which essentially suggests that whether you’re 6, 16 or 60, the world will constantly change under your feet at an ever increasing pace so being proficient with say, Snapchat, today, doesn’t mean that you will be proficient at the next thing tomorrow. As such, the playing field will always be leveled and we’ll always have to learn the new thing.
So how do we get better at learning how to learn?
Firstly, mindset is key to learning anything new. Most readers would be familiar with Carol Dweck’s work on mindset theory and in particular the growth mindset which is characterised by taking on challenges and learning from them, therefore increasing abilities and achievement over time as opposed to not trying or giving up at the first sign of difficulty because you impose self-limiting beliefs such as “I’m just no good at this”.
Some of the key personality attributes one needs to develop in order to develop the mindset required to get better at learning anything new include:
- Self awareness
- Tolerance of ambiguity
- Willingness to embrace failure
- Disidentification with ego
As the late Zig Ziglar used to say, “anything worth doing is worth doing poorly until you can do it well” and it’s this kind of attitude that will see people through the bumps in the road that no doubt preceded any worthwhile pursuit — whether it’s learning a new language, learning how to code or starting a new business.
What to Learn
Time is finite so before you apply a process to learning something new, you should determine whether or not you should even bother learning said topic.
For example, if I’m looking to learn how to code so I can build an online store some questions I might want to consider first might be:
- Is there somebody I can pay to do this for me?
- Are there custom off the shelf solutions that I can use instead (such as Shopify)?
- Do I want to understand all of the technical ins and outs or do I just want the online store to be live and functioning?
- Can I use the time I’d save by not learning how to code in other ways (what’s the opportunity cost — perhaps it’s spending time on getting to know my customers and marketing to them)
How to Learn
Once somebody has the mindset required to support learning, they need to develop a process that works best for them.
On Design & Play, I talked through my methods for learning and also made reference to Tim Ferriss’ DiSSSCaFE method, which I’ve summarised the key elements for you below.
D for Deconstruction. What is the minimum useful unit of knowledge? For a foreign language, it would be a word.S for Selection. Which 20% of those minimum units will lead to 80% of your desired outcomes? For example, which words are worth truly learning?
S for Sequencing. What’s the most effective order for learning these units in? For example, if you’re visiting Japan you might start with formalities and greetings, words that will help you find your way around, order lunch or call a cab. Really, what is going to add the most value initially and by virtue of that, create a positive feedback loop and inspire you to keep learning.
C for Compression. Can I compress the most important 20% into an awesome cheat-sheet? I did this all of the time when preparing for exams back in High School and University and it worked a treat!
E for Encoding. How do I create mental anchors & tricks to make sure I remember stuff? Mnemonics work wonders here. A great example is SMART metrics which prompts us to remember the related words — specific, measurable, achievable, realistic and time-bound.
Sources of Learning
Firstly, I have a number of sources to learn from. In today’s age where an internet connection and a device gives you more access to information and content than the President of the United States had in the 90s, there’s absolutely no excuse not to be learning — especially in an era where we need to constantly learn more than ever before, just to remain relevant.
I try to read a book a week and read on various topics — anything from innovation and technology, to psychology, neuroscience, politics, economics, philosophy, health and fitness, the arts and more — this ultimately helps me to connect the cots between seemingly disparate subjects and identify patterns, themes and opportunities essential to creative thinking and entrepreneurship).
I listen to at least one episode a day, but more often than not find myself binging on three or more episodes at a time. The beauty of podcasts is that you can train your ear to listen to and comprehend at 2x speed which means you can consume twice the content in the same amount of time. Aside from that you can listen to them anywhere — in the gym, on your commute, in the waiting room. All of those in-between spaces suddenly become places of learning.
Like books, I listen to a wide variety of podcasts.
With many of the same benefits of books — although Audible gives you the ability to listen to books at 3X (I’m still working my way up to that!). I find that certain types of books lend themselves to being consumed by audio, whereas more technical books are best read so you have time to take notes and truly consume and understand the content.
People Much Smarter Than Me
I’ve been very fortunate to speak with a number of thought leaders, entrepreneurs and more as host of the Future Squared podcast. I have had my thinking stretched so much simply by engaging in one hour conversations with the likes of Kevin Kelly, Steve Blank, Tim Harford, Neil Patel, Brad Feld, Andreas Antonopoulos, Tyler Cowen, Alec Ross, Gretchen Rubin, Karen Dillon, Whitney Johnson, Carrie Green, Ash Maurya, Jamie Wheal, Jordan Harbinger, Sean Ellis, Massimo Pigliucci, Alex Tapscott, Brian Christian. The list goes on but I’ll spare you!
Courses, Workshops and Webinars
Whether online providers like Coursera, Udacity or NovoEd or traditional face to face workshops, I try to sign up to a number of ‘formal’ training each year.
Most recently I completed Brad Feld’s Venture Deals course and Sean Ellis’ Growth Hackers course online, both former Future Squared podcast guests.
Events and Conferences
Don’t host a podcast? Just get out there and talk to people!
Get onto Meetup.com, find relevant conferences and events on topics of interest happening near you, get out there and simply talk to people you normally wouldn’t. If you surround yourself with the same few people every day then your conversation and learning is likely to be limited.
How I Learn
No matter how engaging, it’s usually not enough to simply consume a book or a podcast episode and be done with it, no matter how engaging they were.
Depending on the type of content I consume, I’ll do the following in order to best retain any useful knowledge I came across:
- Highlight sections in a book
- Type out highlights into a Google Doc (Note: I recently purchased a ScanMarker which is said to automatically digitize your highlighting. I’ve not yet received it in the mail but will report back!)
- Take notes as I listen to a podcast or audiobook on my phone
- Teach others (either as part of our daily team stand-ups, by writing a blog post or incorporating learnings into a customer workshop or webinar).
- Create mnemonics to remember key concepts
- Run a workshop or webinar incorporating some of what I learned (I did this two years ago when I read a number of books and spoke to a number of people about blockchain — I then ran a free one hour session called Blockchain for Bankers and had a room of about 40 eager beaver bankers ready to learn what I had distilled into layman’s terms as best I could)
What works for one person may not work for every person, but these offer some pathways you might want to explore. Ultimately, like most things, try different things and see what works for you.
By embracing a beginner’s growth mindset, disassociating from ego, becoming better at determining what to learn, which sources to derive learning from and ultimately how to learn it, you’ll exponentially increase not only your knowledge base, but more importantly, what you do with it and the impact you can create on both your life and the lives of others.