What I wish I’d known about learning years ago
Up to the age of 18, I had 3 main problems:
- I had no idea what I was going to do with my life;
- I was not engaged with the topics I was forced to learn in school;
- I thought I have a memory problem.
The result? I was anxious as hell.
Anxious that I don’t have a passion to follow. Like all the kids who seemed to have figured out life, focused on being doctors, architects, lawyers or teachers.
Anxious that I will never achieve mastery. Like all the kids able to tell so much about chemistry and math in school. Or programming and economy later in life.
Anxious that everything I was learning slipped through my fingers no matter how many hours I spent taking in information.
When I got to college, things didn’t change much. But one thing did.
I stopped taking for granted what school taught me about learning. Instead, I started to question it.
It was revealing. If I could give 14–15 years old Lavinia some advice, this would be it.
First, get to know thyself
“Ultimately, the two most important questions to ask yourself in the search for your passion are: what do you love, and what do you love about it?” Sir Ken Robinson
What do you like to do? What you don’t like?
What are you good at?
Is there anything that fills your heart with joy?
What are you feeling? Why do you feel this way?
What are your values?
People around me were often asking these questions. At first, I had a few answers because I was limiting myself to the things I thought I should say out loud.
Then, I started to ask myself the same questions. Over and over again. Which led me to experiment. Which led me to fail. Which again, led me to learn more things about myself.
I more recently understood how important knowing yourself is in the learning process.
- It helps you outline the things you want to learn and the things you don’t;
- It keeps you on track when something shiny pops out. Even if it’s shiny, maybe it’s not aligned to your values, to who you are and want to be;
- It makes you put in the work when you find something you love. Because you understand why it’s important to you;
- It even helps with the memory problem. Your brain is prone to take in the things you’re really interested in.
Not knowing who you are, more often than rarely, keeps you off track. Getting to know yourself is a process, but fast experiments are one way to achieve greater levels of self-awareness.
Second, always be curious
“Much of what I stumbled into by following my curiosity and intuition turned out to be priceless later on.” Steve Jobs
As a teenager, I was often staying up all night tackling Adobe Photoshop, Illustrator, Wordpress, even working with HTML.
Back then I was feeling bad. I did all those useless things, instead of practicing math, learning history and writing essays.
Maybe my curiosity was a bit unfocused, missing the “why”, but it still turned out to be priceless later on. I even got a job because I knew how to work with Wordpress.
Now, I think being curious is a mandatory learning skill.
- It makes you always challenge the status quo, and wanting to do things better;
- Always asking “why”, digging deeper. Leading you to that mastery I was talking about at the beginning of this article.
- It helps you not limit yourself to your work field. And maybe not right away, but sooner or later you connect the dots and get something out of the random things you learn.
So what I’d tell my 14–15 years old would be to stop blaming herself for the time spent browsing the internet. It led me to grow my curiosity muscle to this day.
Third, be disciplined
“In a high-IQ job pool, soft skills like discipline, drive, and empathy mark those who emerge as outstanding.” Daniel Goleman
Up until a few years ago, the word “discipline” gave me the chills. I always tied it to negative memories, like teachers saying we should be more disciplined while yelling. Or me thinking as a kid that those who were pursuing passions, and were disciplined were also a bit weird.
I didn’t want to be seen as the weird one, nor I wanted to remember people yelling at me.
But what I learned through experience over and over again, is that you don’t get to discipline other people. The most you’ll do is scar them for life.
But what you can do is help them discover their passions. And they will get to discipline the heck out of themselves.
For me, being disciplined means:
- setting learning goals and pursuing them;
- maybe get up a bit earlier to read that book I really have to read to understand more about my passion;
- going to the gym instead of watching a tv show, because I know this gets my brain going;
And yes, maybe in the last few years I’ve become a bit weird. But I’ve never been as home as I’m now.
So my advice would be this. Don’t be afraid of being different and sometimes poke your brain to do things when it’s lazy. The results will make your heart grow.
Forth, have patience
“The hallmark of purposeful or deliberate practice is that you try to do something you cannot do — that takes you out of your comfort zone — and that you practice it over and over again, focusing on exactly how you are doing it, where you are falling short, and how you can get better.” Anders Ericsson
When I was 14, my parents bought me an amazing gift — a guitar. I always loved music and I’ve never been so happy. Going to guitar lessons in the city would’ve been to big of a hassle since I was leaving in the countryside. So I decided I’m gonna teach myself how to play guitar.
Ever since I’ve tried and gave up learning guitar more than I can count.
Although it felt easy at the beginning, when I stumbled upon the next, harder lesson, I would drop it. Always reaching the conclusion that I’m not talented enough, I’m not good at it.
So many things I didn’t know.
- I didn’t know learning has a curve. And exactly when I was climbing it, I entered the fixed mindset. Instead of telling myself I’m not good at it now, but if I keep practicing I’ll get better, I was sure I’ll never be able to do it.
- Another thing I didn’t know is that learning is not easy. If you feel it’s easy, you’re doing something wrong. Just when you feel it gets harder, it means your myelin is growing and you have to push it a bit more. Our brain is like a muscle. I don’t think going to the gym will ever be easy. But that’s ok because it means my muscles get stronger. Why not think about learning the same way as we think about practice?
- Speaking of learning things in the wrong way. I don’t think I ever practiced in another way in my teenage years other than by cramming. No spaced repetition. No interleaving. None of the things Peter C. Brown talks about in Make it stick as good learning strategies.
- Last, but not least, I had no idea how to measure my progress. Even if I got better at playing guitar, who the hell knew? It still sounded like crap, so I was wasting my time. Oh, the songs I would’ve played if I knew to set goals, follow feedback and integrate it. Only if I knew about deliberate practice.
Patience was never my strength and it’s still haunting me to this day. But knowing all those things about my brain and how I can tame it, definitely improved my learning strategies.
“Follow effective action with quiet reflection. From the quiet reflection will come even more effective action.” Peter Drucker
Talking about patience, I’ve always been caught up by the next thing I have to do or learn. Even if something went good and I felt like I learned, I never asked myself what the hell did I do right.
Reflecting is a habit I picked up not long ago. But taking only a few hours to wonder what worked and what didn’t, had amazing results.
One thing I discovered is that writing helps me recall everything I’ve been through and strengthen my knowledge. Even this article is a summary of all the things I’ve learned about learning in the last year.
Another thing I discovered is learning after going back from work is a waste of time. My brain is basically refusing to take in any more information no matter how hard I try.
I never reflected when I was young, so I kept doing the same mistakes over and over again.
So, dear Lavinia
When searching for a passion, stop looking outside and start looking inside.
Never settle with what you know or other people say you should know. Be curious.
Don’t be afraid of hard work or being a bit weird, it will help you reach the mastery you crave.
Have patience — practice with a purpose, not in vain. You’ll see results faster, just as you like. ’Cause you don’t have a memory problem, you just need to engineer a bit your learning process.
Finally, stop for a moment and look back. It will make you a better learner, a better you.