This Old but Unknown Trick is the Key to Learning Anything
Just another thing you never learned in school.
On Thanksgiving weekend, I brought a girl home.
My family already knew her. We went to 2 proms together in highschool.
Like a cliche ‘coming of age’ movie, somehow the conversation found its way to my embarrassing childhood. My sister had no shame in bringing up what a difficult child I was. She’s not wrong. I was hard-headed and disagreeable.
My dad quickly agreed with her. Maybe a little too quickly…
The conversation morphed into my difficulties with school. Once we landed there I found some empathy from the group. We talked about how ridiculous it is to reprimand children for not sitting still for 8 hours a day.
I was one of these criticized children. I hated school. I never understood the point of sitting at those desks.
They tried to put me on Adderal, and drug me up to fall in line.
Fortunately, my dad has a deep mistrust of institutional authority figures. Including doctors.
Maybe he was influenced by his older sister’s revolutionary spirit in the 60s. If that’s the case, thanks, Aunt Janie. I don’t know who I would be without the ripple of your rebellious streak.
I’m not a special case. This is the story of a lot of the kids I grew up with. But most of their parents didn’t have the foresight to mistrust their doctor's advocation for addictive drugs.
I barely graduated high school. I didn’t learn much. They certainly didn’t teach me how to learn. I taught myself, like many in my generation are doing.
The process of learning how to learn was choppy, but fortunately, there are a lot of authors writing on the topic. So here then, is the process I learned to devour a subject and turn it into actionable knowledge.
A well-known secret.
I thought I was a decent reader. I read a lot more than my friends, who weren’t likely to read at all. And because of that, I had a noticeable edge.
The course web-page brilliantly opens up with “not all readers are leaders, but all leaders are readers.”
A quote from Harry Truman, America’s 33rd President.
The fact that this quote comes from Truman and not another president has significance. Truman was one of the few presidents that never graduated from college. He relied on reading to educating himself to the level of becoming the President of The United States. No small feat.
You can do this too.
You might think, in the golden years of the digital age, books are dinosaurs of the past. Another industry being taken over by advancements in tech.
The opposite is true. There has never been so much access to books. There have never been more authors publishing wisdom for you to find.
If you want to advance yourself, in any way, the best thing you can do is develop a lifelong practice of reading books.
Books about the things you want to learn. Whatever that may be.
Marketing. Business. Investing. Golfing. Chess. It’s all available to you.
I don’t just mean ‘chess for dummies’. I mean books about chess written by Bobby Fisher, the greatest chess player to ever live.
Your first task then is to figure out precisely what you want to learn.
Then, do a little research on what are the best books to start with.
It’s best to start with the books written by the clear outliers of the field. If you can't find those books then look for the books that the clear outliers recommend.
For example, If you want to learn about golf, chess, or marketing, you can find books by Ben Hogan, Bobbie Fisher, or Seth Godin, the top dogs of those fields who have written books on the subject.
If you want to learn about public stock investing, Warren Buffett is the clearest outlier of the industry, but he hasn’t written a book on the subject. However, he does praise a specific book and claims his success is thanks to the content of this book.
Try to find a few books to get you started on the subject.
Then, and this is the most important part, dig for wisdom as you read the book.
It’s easy to read a book with the same obligatory attitude you had throughout school. This is no help. You need to be engaged with what your learning.
Keep a pen in hand when you're reading. Underline all of the passages that have any significance. Write in the margins when necessary.
The key ingredients of this practice are consistency and time. Once you nail down consistency, the more time passes, the smarter you become. Eventually, you’ll be a wizard, Harry.
Another President’s secret.
Ronald Reagon kept a box full of 4"x6" notecards. On these notes were passages, thoughts, quotes, or anything that he piece of information that he found useful. His commonplace book, as it’s called, became a personal database of ideas.
Many of the passages from these notes became pieces of his epic speeches. Speeches that performed so well, he won 49 out of 50 states (minus Washington D.C.) in the 1984 election.
Reagan used this practice of creating a commonplace book to swoon an entire nation. It worked.
Keeping a commonplace book like this is a powerful practice. President or peasant.
Our brains are unreliable. According to a study called the forgetting curve, we forget half of what we learn an hour after we learn it. The more time passes, the worse it gets.
A commonplace book combats our biological forgetfulness. It’s a database of knowledge that we build ourselves for ourselves.
How can you adopt this practice and take hold of the power Reagon wielded?
Ryan Holiday, another commonplace practitioner, wrote an article describing his process.
However, I’ll spill the beans on my process too.
I always keep a pen on me when I read, and underline the passages that carry some significance. Whether significant because it made me feel a special way, or significant for what I’m studying.
When I’m done with a book, I let it sit for a couple of days. Then I pick it back up and grab a stack of notecards.
Ryan uses 4"x6" notecards for this, I use 3"x5". What you use is up to you.
I go through my underlined passages and transcribe them to a notecard. The top of the notecard is marked with the title of the book and the page the note is on, then under that, the quote.
When you’re done transcribing a book, put them in a box organized by theme or topic.
Embedding Information In Your Brain
William Zinsser carved out his legacy as a non-fiction writing guru. Today, many online writing tastemakers praise his book On Writing Well. The book is what I call a craft bible: the dominant recommendation by an industry’s tastemakers.
Fewer know of Zinsser’s next book: Writing to Learn.
Writing to Learn is a memoir of Zinsser’s experience working with professors across the nation to make writing a bigger part of subjects like science and math. Professors found it difficult to get high comprehension rates for the sciences. Zinsser proposed that the professors should focus on having their students write about the subjects.
Comprehension rates soared. A lot of the colleges went on to offer science classes with a “W” next to their title that meant this class contained many writing assignments.
This is an important finding for you and me. It means that if we write about the subjects we’re learning, we might actually remember them.
But you’re not turning in essays anymore. You may not be a blogger either. So how do you implement this practice for what you want to learn?
It’s not as hard as you think. After you’ve read a few books on the subject you’re learning, and have finished transcribing your notes, you can build a living-learning document.
It’s a living document because you may never stop developing it. Never turning it in, or publishing it, is the point.
It’s just for you.
First step, organize your notecards. How to organize them will feel natural, because you’ll remember how the books you read were organized.
They generally start with the top-level or broad information. Getting into more and more details as they dig deeper.
Another way to organize your notes is thinking about the steps of the process you’re learning to complete.
If, for example, you’re learning marketing, you may start with things like:
- Defining your target audience
- Discover your audience pain points
- Finding the benefits of your product
- Writing great copy
With Chess it may be:
- How every piece moves
- Picking a strategy
- Chess openings
- Middle game
- End game
That’s oversimplified, but you get the point. It’s a very personal process so you’ll have to find your own way.
Mine looks simple. It looks like a bunch of articles on one document. It includes some of the quotes from my commonplace book but only a few for each section.
The key to doing this correctly is to make this process your own. Teaching yourself something is a creative process of discovery. You’ll know the topics better than if you learned them in a classroom because the discoveries are your own.
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