Learning is urgent

I’ve never questioned the importance of learning, but only in recent years have I realized how urgent it is.  In many ways, learning is like saving for retirement.  A young man won’t consider retirement much but is told of its importance early.  He may not realize just how important it is until his youth is gone and he is left broke and hopeless.  The same case can be made with learning.  As Dr. Seuss puts it: “The more that you read, the more things you will know. The more that you learn, the more places you’ll go.”

I’ve been lucky in that I was super curious as a child and I also had a lot of time on my hands.  I remember the first book my dad bought me when I turned 8 was a book on Chinese proverbs drawn out as short stories.  By age 9 I was reading the child version of the iconic book on Chinese history “Shang-Xia-Wu-Qian-Nian” (literally translates to up and down 5000 years).  At age 10 I moved to Canada with my parents, learned English and resumed my passion for reading.  I remember the local library being one of my favourite places, I’d go with my parents on the weekends and load up on books.  I read many books related to science and history.  Main point – I did a good amount of learning on my own as a child even without realizing that learning is urgent and I’m quite proud of that.

Now that I’m not a child, and perhaps not even a young man, it is a slightly sub-optimal although far from terrible that I’m only just starting to consciously prioritize learning.

Looking back the last 3 years, here are some of the catalysts for me to prioritize learning:

  • Switching companies from Microsoft to a much smaller startup: the environment change forced me to learn new things (Q3 2013)
  • Getting an iPhone and trying out podcasts.  Some of my fav podcasts now are also the ones I learn the most from.  Prior to the iPhone 6 I never really bothered with podcasts. (Q4 2014)
  • Reading The Effective Engineer book (a fantastic book btw) where the author identifies learning as a “high-leverage activity” and stresses its importance in the first chapter. (2015?)
  • Watching this FIGHTMEDIOCRITY youtube video on his top 9 books where he said “learning is urgent”.  (Q1 2016)

The list above is subject to recency bias, and I find it amusing that it literally took the last video to spell it out for me that learning is urgent!

So what am I doing to learn more?  Here’s the list, sorted by effort-delta (how much more effort I am spending in a category compared to before, say over the last 3 years):

  1. Reading useful books
  2. Writing about what I’m learning
  3. Practicing/teaching what I’m learning
  4. Listening to audible/podcasts
  5. Watching TED talks / videos
  6. Reading articles

The reason I’m prioritizing reading the most is simply that I think it’s the fastest way to consume information.  It may not be the most effective way naturally (as I think I learn better through watching videos of good speakers) but the hard cap in how fast a human can absorb information is way higher when reading than when watching video.  Effective reading is also a skill that is trainable to an extent and I’m trying to get better at that as well.  Books in particular are more valuable because they provide much of the context needed for you to truly understand something.  The best books will give you deeper understanding each time you read it, they are timeless.

I’m also finding that writing about what I learn really helps to consolidates the ideas from books (or other media) in a useful way.  It makes me consciously realize somethings.  I often read a book and watch a TED talk and I’ll remember it was really good, awesome, impactful stuff.  Then if someone asks me what was so great about it, I’ll struggle to find a specific example.  I bet that’s how most people are, and there’s nothing terribly wrong with that.  But this is what I now categorize as passive learning, where I probably learned something at the back of my mind that I probably will put into practice without recalling what specifically I learned or where it was from (the latter piece is way less important of course).  The whole thing with writing about it which I try to do now either through my note-taking apps or in this blog is that I consciously and actively learn it.

I’m planning to extend my active learning to the next level by trying to teach others as well.  Either in conversations with close friends or in an actual presentation to people I work with.

I’ll continue to listen to podcasts/Audiobooks, read articles and watch Youtube for interesting stuff.  Youtube is actually an area that probably has many gems that is most unexplored for me but currently the restraint is time (see my previous point about reading vs. watching).  I treat this last set of things as low hanging fruits, these are things I naturally will want to do without consciously wanting to learn.  This is homeostasis for me.

To summarize, here are some of my recent key-takeaways wrt learning:

Optimize for conscious & active learning  

Writing about what you learned and teaching what you learned are both simple concepts that I’ve heard of many times but for the most part ignored.  This is an example of me passively having knowledge which I’m only recently activating more.  As Albert Einstein puts it: “Any fool can know, the point is to understand”.  A fool does not realize what he does not understand.

There’s a huge spectrum to the understanding of any subject.

It’s not simply that you either get it or you don’t (although that’s a nice approximation that I like to make all the time too).  For example, any fool can quote a good quote but the wise will have deeper understanding and realization of how it applies to many aspects of life.  And even then, having a good understanding doesn’t mean you put it to practice.  The final level of understanding is that you embody it.

Trust the process, don’t over-focus on the outcome.

I’ve long admired people who can read really fast and I’ve frantically tried to pick up this skill in the past by reading books, articles, videos… etc.  But I did not really practice the techniques in the book regularly and this discouraged me from reading more because it wasn’t efficient.  Nowadays I focus on just dedicating some time to read with the purpose of learning regardless of how fast I can read and I am finding that I am able to read faster gradually over time.

Learning and mastering something is not about instant gratification as much as it is about practice.  I talked about this concept in some details in Practice makes perfect, and this is a core concept from the book Mastery, which I can now whole-heatedly recommend after finishing it.  OK, I only finished 2/3 of it, but skimmed the important bits…  but the point is – I am someone who is naturally very inclined to get instant gratification, and I am learning to make the right conscious trade-offs between grabbing the low hanging fruits and learning something deeply.

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2 thoughts on “Learning is urgent

  1. My experiences are learning is a life long must. First, it is fun. One can find the answers for problem solving. Secondly, it is absolutely needed in today’s environment. Thirdly, the learning process may keep ones brain health and young.

    But, I also believe how to learn is very important. I think there are two types of leaning activities. One is goal oriented learning, which may require learning in depth to achieve the goals. It begins with self evaluation. Once we understand our needs, we can set up suitable short and long term goals. Then, we reevaluate our performance and modify them periodically.

    Another is general learning for interest or fun. It can be broad and easy.

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