Six strategies to learn anything

Photo by Scott Rodgerson on Unsplash

OMG, what a clickbaity title. I know how it sounds, but I truly believe I can help someone with these tips.

Why? Let me start by telling you a little about myself.

I have always had great academic achievements. I would never settle for anything less than a B+. To enter university in Brazil, all students take a vestibular, a competitive entrance exam. I earned second place out of thousands of candidates. I graduated in Chemistry not knowing what it was like to fail an exam. I applied to grad school at one of the most well-regarded universities in South America and was classified first place on a written exam. Later, I fell in love with coding and decided to switch careers, so I went to college after being approved in another competitive vestibular. Now, I work as a developer and I feel like a kid in a candy shop with all the shiny things I get to explore. It’s overwhelming, but I love it!

You might think I am telling you all of this to show off like a smart-ass. No! I would argue that my achievements are the result of an approach to learning, not a high IQ. I was lucky to have understood, early in my life, how my brain works and how to take advantage of that knowledge. These are the strategies I used that made the biggest difference to me.

Strategy #1: Assume with 100% confidence that you can learn anything

I never question it. There is no subject that is too hard. No exceptions. Does this mean I can open a Neurobiology book and, after reading it once, understand everything? Absolutely not. If I can’t understand something, it means I’m missing basic concepts in that area. In these cases, I close the book and go learn those concepts. I repeat this recursively until I reach some concept I already know, build from there, and then return to the subject I had started studying.

You’re probably thinking that takes a lot of time. In my defense, I never said it would be fast.

Strategy #2: Treat learning like peeling back the layers of an onion

Learning a topic is not like a boolean expression: true (I know this) or false (I don’t). Have you ever had a time when, while working with something you’ve known well for months or years, you had a sudden flash of insight, an ‘aha’ moment where the subject became super clear?

Don’t get frustrated if you know you don’t deeply understand something. Accept that your first interaction with a subject is just the first layer of the onion. Let the topic brew in your brain. Sleep on it. Work on something else. Read related topics. Read another author on the same subject.

I see everything I learn as a model describing something real. Science is the pursuit of a model that best describes The Truth. But all models are flawed, so I adjust the bar of how deep I need my understanding to be at this moment. I accept that although a complete understanding of a topic is impossible to achieve, I can reach a level of understanding that satisfies my curiosity and allows me to apply that knowledge in my life. But I still don’t consider this topic ‘done’ when I’ve reached this point. After I torture a topic and I’m ready to move on, I give it one last look and say ‘I’m leaving for now, but we’re not done yet.’

Strategy #3: Explain what you learned to someone else

For me, this is the best way to identify blind spots in my understanding. When you explain a topic to someone else, you have to put it into some logical order. You need to write a script in your head. You’re forced to empathize with another person who doesn’t know what you know, thinking in advance of what questions they may have or how their background might mean they have different gaps than you in grasping the concept.

There are lots of opportunities to teach others. Write a blog post. Make a presentation at work or a meetup. Talk to a colleague. Explain it to your grandma.

Considering the needs of your audience will force you to peel back another layer of that onion.

Strategy # 4: The Feynman Technique

Physicist Richard Feynman is my hero. Listen to this video of him talking about magnets. Tell me you don’t feel like crying.

His approach to learning can be summarized as studying a topic until you can explain it in very simple language. You can check the main points of his technique in this video.

Strategy # 5: Learn how to learn

People learn in different ways. Though I do believe my strategies can help others, what works for me may not work for you.

Consider this an investment of your time: Think of a concept that is vivid in your mind. How did you learn it? What have you tried? What worked? What didn’t work?

A learning style is something you do rather than something you are. Keep informed about what the latest studies reveal about learning. Coursera offers a free course called ‘Learning how to learn.’ I cannot recommend this one enough!

Strategy #6: Take care of your mental health

Learning is not a spiritual thing that requires only grit. Any imbalance in your brain can affect your ability to retain information and internalize concepts.

After a traumatic event, I developed anxiety issues that negatively affect my cognitive flexibility. It sucks, but I’ve decided to focus on what I can control. I’m currently trying to understand in what ways I am affected by anxiety, what I can do to reverse it, and how I can cope to achieve my goals despite it.

Also remember that if you face mental health issues, you don’t have to deal with it alone. There are wonderful professionals out there who can help you.

TLDR

Convince yourself you can learn anything. Explore the layers a topic has to offer. Teach what you learned. Study until you can explain the topic using simple language. Explore different tools for learning. Take care of your brain.

Good luck in your journey! I would love to hear your opinion. Please share your own tricks in the comments.

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