Learning How to Learn

Illustration: Matilde Horta

Why learning how to learn?

“The illiterate of the 21st century will not be those who cannot read and write, but those who cannot learn, unlearn and relearn.”
— Alvin Toffler

Everybody is talking about the skills you should learn, but the truth is that nobody can be sure about it.

We live in a complex society, full of wicked problems to tackle in a non-linear way. More than any specific skill, we’ll need to adapt, to reinvent ourselves, continuously.

In this environment, constant learning is the key. Yet, most people ignore that there are proven ways to improve exponentially their learning process.

The thing is, we don’t need a skill, but a metaskill. People, need to learn how to learn.

The good news is that there are plenty of resources out there to help you in this endless learning journey.

I carefully selected some entrance points for you, covering different media, lengths, formats, complexity, etc. It’s all about diversity and inclusion. So here we go.

Learning How to Learn: Powerful mental tools to help you master tough subjects

This Coursera’s Learning How to Learn course is probably the most well-known reference on the topic, and it’s not by chance that it’s the most popular Massive Open Online Course (MOOC) ever.

If you’re looking for a scientifically sustained approach, look no further. And don’t get scared by the old-fashioned look of the instructors; they excel at explaining things in a simple and accessible way.

For the ones that need a sample before committing to four weeks, listen to this Knowledge Project episode with Barbara Oakley, a polymath with an amazing life story, and also one of the course creators and instructors. Since we’re talking about Barbara, read what she says about the next resource below.

Ultralearning: Master Hard Skills, Outsmart the Competition, and Accelerate Your Career

“Ultralearning is the best book on learning I’ve ever read. It’s a beautifully written, brilliantly researched, and immediately useful masterpiece.”
— Barbara Oakley

Scott Young is known for some amazing achievements like learning MIT’s four-year computer science curriculum in twelve months and learning four languages in one year (yes, four).

In Ultralearning, Scott alternates the latest research on the most effective learning methods with the story of other ultralearners like himself.

The book is structured around what we call the ultralearning principles::

1. Metalearning: first draw a map.
2. Focus: sharpen the knife.
3. Directness: go straight ahead.
4. Drill: attack your weakest point.
5. Retrieval: test to learn.
6. Feedback: don’t dodge the punches.
7. Retention: don’t fill a leaky bucket.
8. Intuition: dig deep before building up.
9. Experimentation: explore outside your comfort zone.

I also recommend Scott’s podcast about learning. This episode on analogies is a good example of the value you can find there.

The First 20 Hours — How To Learn Anything… Fast!

“Skill acquisition requires practicing the skill in question. It requires significant periods of sustained, focused concentration. It requires creativity, flexibility, and the freedom to set your own standard of success.”
— Josh Kaufman

Josh Kaufman’s focus in The First 20 Hours is crystal clear: to lay down a systematic approach to rapid skill acquisition; how to learn a new skill as fast as possible. Pay attention, we’re not talking about learning a craft, but a skill — two things that have as many similarities as differences.

And Josh delivers on his promise. As important as Josh’s framework is the fact that he describes how he learned each of a diversified set of skills — programming, ukulele, yoga, windsurfing, etc.

Like Scott, Josh also proposes some principles, in his case for rapid skill acquisition:

  1. Choose a lovable project.

By now you may be asking what set of principles is best. Simple: the one that works for you. Don’t forget that everything is a remix and that there aren’t silver bullets; learn the rules of the game and then break them at will. If it works, go for it.

Watch Josh talking about his approach in this TEDx talk.

The Learning Brain

If you bump into The Great Courses from Audible, it’s going to be hard to choose among so many fascinating topics. But one grabbed my attention immediately: The Learning Brain.

In this course, Thad A. Polk takes us on a journey through the science of learning that is so engaging that it’s hard to stop listening to it. An authentic page-turner in an auditory way.

You’ll learn topics like language acquisition, how motivation affects learning, semantic memory, and how aging affects learning, among many others.

Two tips: (1) if you aren’t an Audible subscriber, you can use it free for one month and listen to this audiobook (or another) during the trial period; (2) you can download the course reference guide for free at Audible.

Mental Models

“I believe in the discipline of mastering the best of what other people have figured out.”
— Charlie Munger

In today’s complex world, we need to think systematically. Making decisions in these times based only one your lens, being that your craft, background or any other source, is just plain foolish. Mental models are a multidisciplinary approach for making better decisions.

Mental models describe the way the world works, they simplify complexity and provide us with the “tools” to connect concepts, solve problems and identify opportunities. Some examples: probabilistic thinking, the map is not the territory, leverage, relativity, first principles thinking, narrative instinct, asymmetric warfare.

When it comes to mental models, Charlie Munger is THE source of inspiration. Thankfully, the nice folks at Farnam Street have been working hard to make this approach accessible to all. Respect.

To dig deeper, you can check this Farnam Street Blog page or/and buy the first volume of The Great Mental Models. You won’t be disappointed.

MetaLearn podcast

In the MetaLearn podcast, Nasos Papadopoulos, not only shares his thoughts on learning but also interviews different people around the same topic. It’s an excellent way to access different approaches.

I strongly recommend these interviews with Share Parrish and Kevin Kelly.

Towards a diversified skill set we go

”Learning never exhausts the mind.”
— Leonardo da Vinci

Needless to say, these are starting points, but, like everything in life, the best way to learn is to practice, i.e. learn by doing.

One word of caution. If you decide to dive into lifelong learning there’s a high risk of getting addicted.

When you sharpen your learning skills and diversify your areas of focus, you’ll start an endless journey — the more you know, the more you’ll realize what little you know. And it’s impossible to fill the void, but most of us (the so-called lifelong learners) don’t resist the temptation to try anyway. You won’t be alone.


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