Learning: More Brawn and less Brain

What your college professors never told you

Learning isn’t about testing. College isn’t about partying. Life isn’t about just existing. Money isn’t simply about status. Paradoxes are not actually paradoxical. Language doesn’t actually communicate.

Whoa, whoa. Before I lose you as some cyber-nut gone wrong, answer this: Is life a lesson or a journey? Is there a test at the end, or is it just, well, the end? Aside from the existential, transcendental implications of that, consider this: the great misconception of learning is that it has a goal, an objective. As a senior college student majoring in linguistics and two dead languages, Greek and Hebrew, I am here to simply help you see some things that I had to learn the hard way. I could rant for days about study techniques, prioritizing, lists, marginalia, etc, or I could give you these 3 basic principles that have gotten me through it all.

  1. Hunker Down — mentally.

One of my great friends failed almost his entire freshman year (but it wasn’t for lack of studying). The poor guy had bought into this whole “cram and regurgitate” way of passing tests. It didn’t work for him. Another one of my friends had the same studying techniques, but he got A’s. The difference? Their brains opperated differently. But, I’m not here to talk about that. I’m here to talk about the goal. What was gained in cramming? Life is about learning. School, classes, assignments, tests, they all are merely tools in your belt as you learn.

Don’t buy into the cramming scheme. The baggage is too great. Your life will be defined not by the grades you got on tests but by the brain you have in your head and ability to wield it as a Viking wields his sword. Hunker down. Don’t let assignments fly by interrupted by “real life” at the movies, with friends, or at parties. Use it all as tools in your belt to learn. The man who crams is the man who spits out cliches at an interview. The man who hunkers down is the man who wields wisdom that secures the job. I have learned that the more I hunker down in my own brain, sifting all of life through a learning point, a topic, the exponentialy greater my return for the time I’ve invested. I’m no economist but ROI still applies here.Hunker down.

2. Redefine Success.

For Americans, success is about conquering.We plow through books to check them off our list. We grind through internet articles to get to the next one. We refresh our feeds to refresh them again. Stop. Take a breath and ask yourself, “Where is all this effort actually taking me!?” The greatest advantage a learner can have is to be able to locate and clearly define every aspect of his goal. If you can’t give a two to three step process for your current project’s impact on your success, it’s time for redefinition. It’s time to look and learn.

Consider this:

“Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime.”

In this proverb the man doesn’t just need fish. At first blush you may challenge that and say, “Why of course he does! He’ll starve!” Ok, but what he needs more than fish today is knowledge to serve tomorrow. Take the proverb a step further. What if the man thought outside the box and wanted more fish? He could go with what he knows and travel the globe searching for a pond with a super high population of fish. Searching for somewhere to catch a lot at one time to eat, sell, and trade. Or, he could save all that trouble by finding his problem (fish density) and then finding an answer to that problem (bottle neck in the river.) He needs advice. He needs help to refocus. But once he finds the answer to his core problem, his “success” has become more than food for the day, it is now a net in the bottle neck of a fast flowing stream. He now has food for the day, fish to sell and trade, and time to invest elsewhere as his net makes money for him.

The same goes for studying and learning. Identify your weak points on your life-track of learning and get help. Get sound advice. Then get more advice. Then weigh it all and find the core nugget of wisdom. Your life will never be the same as your ROI for your time increases and increases and increases. Say no to cramming and yes to learning. Don’t give in to the broad American definition of success, find your own. Learning is more about the process than the product, because if you’ve done it right, it will come out right. Diligence is rewarded. But don’t skip the diligence and look for the reward. Redefine success to be diligence instead of the shiny lure at the end of the project.

3. Work with tools.

A recurring theme you’re probably seeing is my emphasis on tools. In my first years of college I mainly used my iPhone to text, chat, and Facebook. I bought a new thin Macbook Air so I could carry it around and look good. I bought Bose QC15's because they sounded great. But the day my college life became my launching point for life-long joy in learning was the day all these became essential tools in my toolbelt of learning. The technology we have is incredible. Guys like Medium are making the most of it, which is why I’m stoked to be here. But they are in the minority. Go look at the most downloaded apps in the app store. They aren’t the best ones, they are the most popular.

Some great apps I have found to be useful to turn my iPhone into a tool are:

DayOne: a journaling app where I can log thoughts, links, and pics, while tagging them for later use. It links your posts to the calender so you can stay on track and up to date. It syncs with the Mac app via the cloud… I could go on. But, it has transformed the way I learn. I record thoughts, tag them for later review, then in the down moments review thoughts from last week or last year, all while helping me learn the wisdom behind the inital idea.

Evernote: everyone knows about it, but do you have a system for how to use its many features? Take advantage of it!

Pocket: Store a que of ready-to-read articles for later.

Wikibot: Don’t hate on wikipedia, use it as a resource.

Focus Time: A timer for study periods and breaks. Put yourself on the clock.

My iPhone is just one of the many devices in my life I have set out to redeem for a specific purpose within my holistic life-pursuit for success in learning. I’ll spare you the list of the rest; it can get a little dry. But, you get my point. I enjoyed writing about what I am passionate about, though I think no one will learn anything. Sometimes I am surprised to find that some aren’t as analytical as I am (shocker) so maybe this will spur thoughts for greatness. Don’t settle for the typical cram sesh for smarts, but strive for success in every detail of your life so that you don’t waste it. Your ROI should always by high. Notice when it isn’t and fix it.