How to learn something entirely new in 4 steps

It starts by diving in boots and all…


I was writing a ‘spark’ on Somewhere about how I learn new concepts, new processes or even new skills, when I realised that I actually needed to add water to this very succinct format that only allows for 250 characters. Now, happily, that spark can be my outline:

To learn something entirely new, for me, 4 things help: 1) I become single-minded about the subject. 2) I take notes as I read (mind-maps). 3) I explain the concepts to anyone who cares to listen. 4) I start to implement what I’ve learnt.

Single-mindedness

There is saying that I came across a while back when I tried my hand at Shotokan Karate. I was told: first you imitate, then you innovate. It basically means that if you don’t know something, then you learn from those who do. And you learn from them by imitating what they do, until you get it. Once you have it, then you can become quite creative in how you deploy it.

In karate—but also in ballet, gymming and other such activities—they make you do the same set routines over and over until you get it or you collapse or whichever comes first. This is not only applied to physical skills but also in learning a new language, in academics, in maths(the bloody times-table), in music, etc.

But when I say single-mindedness, I’m referring to a process where you become (ok, you induce yourself to become) passionate, besotted, obsessed, perhaps even fanatical about the subject. In other words, you drown yourself in the subject. This allows for a few things to happen:

  1. Fanaticism sweeps away all critical thought, making it possible for you to absorb as much of the subject as possible. Ask any cult member. This is good because it allows for easier imitation or for the information to lodge in your mind.
  2. It helps you to acquire as many bits of information, readings, insights, views on the subject matter as possible. You then become a true student of that area of knowledge. This is the actual aim of assignments, exams and dissertations.
  3. When it comes to the innovation stage, you will have much to draw on. In fact, when you flood your attention with a single subject over a given period, the questions and applications of that information will already begin to emerge.

But to get the most out of this process, you need to have a good reading technique.

Mind-maps

I taught journalism and media studies to college students from first to fourth year. During revision week I noticed that everyone was using the highlighting method. You know the drill: read text, see something interesting, deploy highlighter in a million shades of pastel neon.

Some even had a technique: green for interesting, pink for very important and orange for things the lecturer mentioned. The idea is to go hunting through the text for the various bits, highlight it and then read the selected coloured bits in a cram session just before the exam.

Now besides ruining the text book, making it a tad difficult to sell later when the course is over, this is not going to really help in retaining information. You have only really engaged your eyesight leaving much of you other senses out of the equation. And the one sense you should not be leaving out, is that of touch.

So when I read, I take notes. On a seperate sheet of paper. Or if I am reading an eBook, I open ‘Stickies’ and type out insights, interesting points that I come across. When I write, I put down salient points and connect them to secondary ideas. And those ideas I then connect to other related points and so on.

If you were taking notes of this piece, for example, you might typically have my four major points and each one, in turn, would have sub-points of what the major ones are about. A third layer might be of what you make of all this nonsense. Get it?

Your mind-map can also be colourful and then you can bring out those highlighters you love so much, like this:

Why write ? When you write things down, you are making a personal association with the information you are reading. You are actually slowing down your reading, allowing your mind to engage with the information. Chances are also bigger that when you recall the information, the act of you writing will have a stronger image in your mind than just text that you read in some book.

Just an aside: I have found that when I feel sleepy during a boring meeting, doodling actually keeps me from dozing off. And I can actually remain sober throughout even if my doodles have actually nothing in common with the subject matter. Go figure! (Actually, there is a study on this!)

So now we have passion, then reading technique. But how do you own this new information?

Verbal diarrhoea!

I love movies. Whether animation, thrillers, science fiction, historical drama… It does not matter as long as it is a great story and I can see layers of meaning. Anyone who knows me will know that I can be a great spoiler of the plot. Whatever. The storyteller in me just wants to retell that plot. I want to to be the one that gets you to see the genius in the story!

So when I went to university, I would emerge from an amazing (amazing for me, ok?) psychology or African history lecture, sit down any buddy who would give me half a nod, and rave about the insights I just gleaned. I would repackage that entire one hour session and tell it as if I had come up with those ideas myself.

When it came to exams, I would generally be able to recall entire lectures of certain subjects. And yeah, it would generally be the ones that I raved about. What happened here? It’s fairly simple…

Once you are able to explain a concept in your own words, then several amazing things happen:

  1. If you can explain a concept you have heard or read, you are beginning to make sense of it in your mind.
  2. By retelling, you too are hearing it for a second time. Everytime you do, you are reinforcing the information.
  3. Once you make sense and retell, you are owning the information making recall much easier.

And was it Einstein who said:

Now do!

So once you have submerged yourself in the subject matter, reading as much as you could mindfully, and verbalised it—and by so doing, owning the information—you should implement, innovate, write about it, use it…

Over the last while I have taught myself to blog, understand social media and pushing that blog content to social networks, use my Twitter account more effectively, swimming in the waters of crowd funding and deepen my understanding of narrative and storytelling.

If you are reading this, then that last adventure on improving my online posts was not for naught and the advice I received from copyblogger actually paid off!


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