Learning to Learn
Just in my lifetime, we’ve gone from clunky, twisty cord phones to answering machines to pagers to brick-like cell phones to smartphones to watches that can tell me what flavor of garbage I had for lunch last weekend.
Progress is accelerating—technological progress, cultural progress, informational progress. The change between 2015 and 2020 is far greater than the change between 1995 and 2000. On the one hand, this progress is incredible. Our lives are improving and changing at an astounding pace. But on the other hand, it’s easy to feel overwhelmed, burnt out, and left behind.
It’s because of this acceleration of progress that I believe developing the ability to learn quickly and efficiently is more important today than ever before. When information becomes virtually infinite, then the advantages of learning and processing information in impactful ways grow exponentially. Not only are you using the same information better, but you’re able to discover, comprehend, and synthesize far more information than others and do it at a far faster rate.
This ability to learn quickly and self-sufficiently has a compounding effect as well, driving an even greater division in results. The more you learn now, the better you will be able to learn and process new experiences in the future. Therefore, if you develop the ability to learn well—that is, if you learn how to learn—you have more opportunities than ever before to accrue huge, compounding results.
One way to think of the stratification in society at the moment is that there is a growing gap between those who learn well and quickly and those who do not. That gap comes in many guises, not just income gaps, but also gaps in health, well-being, divorce rates, addictions, and so on.
Perhaps the most important subject of all is simply helping people learn how to learn, to increase our capacity to synthesize new information. As we continue to fly up the ever-steepening curve of progress, the mental and emotional skills of mastering yourself will only compound and continue to pay dividends throughout the 21st century.
Some tips to becoming a lifelong learner:
- Become an information omnivore
- Regularly challenge your assumptions
- Get good at screening out bad/useless information
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1. Become an information omnivore
Like everything, we tend to fall into informational habits and comfort zones that keep us digesting the same type of thing over and over. Try this: wherever you get your news, try getting your news from completely different sources (preferably sources with different views) for the next month. Just see what happens.
One thing that will help your ability to digest information from anywhere is to constantly ask yourself how ideas and concepts relate to one another. I primarily write and think about psychology. But I often read economics, anthropology, sociology, and political science because they tie into psychological concepts all the time. Seeing those tie-ins makes those other subjects more interesting for me.
Ultimately, the goal should be to cultivate a habit of ingesting information from a wide variety of sources and mediums—long- and short-form, print, video, and audio—and use them to compare and contrast the ideas to each other.
2. Regularly challenge your assumptions
A good habit is to actively seek out thinkers or books or ideas that actively contradict your current beliefs. Doing this is emotionally taxing, but if you’re able to do it, one of two things will happen: you’ll either a) discover an area in which you’re wrong, or b) you will improve the arguments for your own ideas. There’s literally no downside to challenging your own ideas and beliefs.
This is especially important because as humans, our default state is to simply regurgitate and rehash what we already believe. We like our little ideological bubbles. We would stay in them forever if we could (and some people do). Actively work to break your own bubble.
Another exercise I do sometimes is journaling, but instead of talking about my day or my ideas, I simply list out some things that are particularly important to me and then I challenge myself to write counter-arguments to each one. Maybe I believe I’m very successful at building online content, so I’ll write that down and start challenging that idea. Sometimes the challenges just seem like a silly exercise, but sometimes you start poking holes in your own bullshit. There have been many times where I’ve changed my own mind on something in this way.
3. Get good at screening for bad information
It’s sad to say, but with the internet, the world has become flooded in bad and/or useless information. As consumers, we must be ruthless in our consumption habits. If something is not good or useful within the first 10% of it, skip it. Life is too short. And there’s way too much good info out there.
Keep in mind, “good” is not necessarily the same thing as “enjoyable.” There are many unenjoyable things out there that are incredibly useful. You must always ask yourself, “Is this useful? Is finishing this book/movie/article/podcast going to be useful for my goals?”
If not, then cut it.