How To Learn

Emil Wallner
Jan 12, 2016 · 6 min read

first appeared on my personal newsletter.

Illustration by Rozalina Burkova

Learning is when you use something from your memory. It’s not when you read a non-fiction book, attend a lecture, or watch a documentary. It’s when you use knowledge.

Your working memory encodes and consolidates new knowledge. Then it stores the new knowledge for a brief moment. It’s not until you use that information from working memory that you transfer it into your long-term memory. That’s when you are learning. [1]

Re-reading a book is not just a waste of time. You deceive yourself because you don’t improve your memory. Instead, you familiarize yourself with the text and fool yourself that you are learning. [2]

To improve your knowledge you need to recall information from memory. Use spaced intervals. Take short breaks before you recall the information, then increase the intervals. This is the most important discovery in learning psychology. [3]

“One bit of advice: it is important to view knowledge as sort of a semantic tree — make sure you understand the fundamental principles, i.e. the trunk and big branches, before you get into the leaves/details or there is nothing for them to hang on to.” — Elon Musk

Sugata Mitra is a brilliant education leader, but he got one thing wrong. He claims that we don’t need to memorize facts since we can Google what we need. That is incorrect, it’s critical to memorize facts. Your memorized facts are what enable you to solve problems. [4]

Aim to remember information throughout your life. Memorize things for which you may have a direct and long-term use. Don’t learn something you can’t understand the value of and which is not directly useful. Otherwise, you will be learning new things while forgetting your past knowledge; fooling yourself that you are increasing your knowledge base.

[5] Studies prove that the more knowledge you have, the faster you acquire it. If you build on your existing knowledge, you also retain more. But the kicker is the compounding effect: if you gain more knowledge and increase your ability to combine it, the value of the knowledge grows exponentially. That’s what creates the difference between amateurs, experts, and Elon Musks.

Many have a misconception of the value of knowledge.

Knowledge does not have an inherent value. You can’t increase your general intelligence with knowledge. If you engage in mathematical or logical challenges you don’t become smarter. You only become better at the specific things you are practicing. [6]

The value knowledge has is the value you create by using it. If you learn things and forget them, the value is close to nothing. Use your knowledge to solve novel problems. This could either be personal development challenges, consumer problems, or societal problems. Avoid learning for the sake of learning.

This takes us to problem solving.

[7] Problem solving is a function of your knowledge and what you choose to process. On average, people process ~35 billion billion bits of information during their lives. What they achieve is a result of what they choose to process, the problems they are emotionally invested in.

There are two thresholds for adding significant value with your knowledge. Getting over yourself and having enough cash to pay your bills. These hurdles will free up your processing capacity. It will enable you to choose which problems to process.

If 95% of your mental chatter relates to your self identity and paying your bills, you have five percent of your capacity left to process novel problems. People who have come to terms with this can achieve in one day what would take you 20.

The final piece is motivation. An obsession. A reality distortion field. The best of psychology points to three activities: Improving your skills, doing what you want to do, and having a sense of purpose. It’s that simple — the trick is to do it every day. [8]

The reality of those three things is messy. Don’t like school or your job? Grow the guts to quit. Not excited about your 127th skill that you are trying? Try again with a new one. Stopped feeling like you are doing something larger than yourself? Figure it out. Iterate, iterate, iterate. Most people can’t take this endless, tiresome process.

[9] People that quit those three activities become dependent on extrinsic motivation. They become reactive instead of proactive. They end up carrying a mindless, biological processing machine on their shoulders, processing whatever problem comes their way. There is no hack for becoming motivated. Just do those three activities. Every day.

Let’s sum it up.

These principles form the 80–20 rule for learning. You can boost it with Tim Ferriss’ DiSSS, Reddit’s GOAT ME, The Feynman Technique, the LessWrong guide, and the Science of Learning guide. But the above principles form the core for being an effective learner.

Pattern by Gustav Karlsson


Emil Wallner

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I study CS at 42 Paris, write, and experiment with deep learning.