Meta Learning Month: What I Learned From 6 Books About Learning
I tried to learn as much as possible about the art of learning during the first month of 2017. Why are we not taught this in school? I wish I’d done this YEARS ago. This was my approach and my key takeaways.
My Approach: Consistent Reading
When I tried to find experiential ways to learn how to learn, my mind became obscured. How do I practise different ways to practise?
I chose the easy way out: reading, reading and reading some more. I wanted to explore different learning frameworks, so I can test them all and create my own mix that works for me. So off I went to the digital bookstore.
The Books I Read About Learning How To Learn
Given the limited time at hand, I had to choose wisely from the abundance of books out there. After careful consideration, I chose the following:
- How to Fail at Almost Everything and Still Win Big, by Scott Adams,
- The Mind Map Book, by Tony Buzan,
- The Art of Learning, by Josh Waitzkin,
- So Good They Can’t Ignore You, by Cal Newport,
- The 4-Hour Chef, by Tim Ferriss,
- Mastery, by Robert Greene.
I chose these books for two reasons. People have recommended them to me several times, and they keep popping up when searching for resources on improved skill acquisition and personal growth.
I won’t spell out every point of brilliance from the books (see my book reviews for more in-depth commentary on my favourite reads). Instead, I provide only the very best practices and applicable tips that I’ll use throughout the year to learn new skills more effectively. I hope they’ll benefit you too.
My Key Takeaways: What I Will Apply Going Forwards
Many of the books touch on this important topic. The art of learning anything effectively starts with destilling the topic down to its core essence. Ask “what is truly important here?”.
A good rule of thumb is to apply the 80/20-rule, also known as the Pareto Principle, to figure out what’s most important to learn first. Often, 80% of outputs (in this case, learned skill) come from only 20% of inputs (here, effort, information consumed, or time spent learning).
The percentages vary of course, but the principle remains: most things are not important at all, while a few things are critically important.
Your job when learning something from scratch is to identify the vital few inputs, focus on those, and forget about the rest for the time being.
There are many ways to simplify a subject to its essential core. Mind mapping is one method that I’ve found very effective over the last month. As Tony Buzan writes in his book on the subject, Mind Maps are fundamentally based on simplification.
In a mind map, your goal is to distill complex topics into simple drawings and a few words, on a canvas limited to one piece of paper. Mind Maps are so effective because these constraints force you to simplify a topic down to its bare essentials. It is an incredibly effective learning tool that I’m looking forwards to using extensively in the future.
2) Focus On Fundamentals
In his book The Art of Learning, Josh Waitzkin tells the story of how he became one of the best chess players in modern times. Most chess tutors start by teaching different ways to start a chess game, so called openings. Josh’s tutor refused to do that, and decided to start off by learning end-games with only three or four pieces left on the board.
That way, Josh learned the strengths of each individual piece, and understood how to win games in the critical end stages. Now he just had to survive long enough to get to the end games, where his opponents had much less training than him.
Josh’s story illustrates the importance of focusing on the fundamentals of a new skill. In chess, the fundamentals are how each piece can move on the board, and what each piece’s inherent strengths and weaknesses are. Focusing solely on those fundamentals in the beginning lays the foundation for adding layers of complexity later.
“I fear not the man who has practiced 10,000 kicks once, but I fear the man who has practiced one kick 10,000 times.”
The above quote illustrates the point perfectly – practise the fundamentals over and over again to obtain mastery. Metaphorically speaking, learn the letters first, then start reading novels, not the other way around.
3) Goals Are For Losers – Winners Use Systems
This is one of the core ideas in Scott Adams’ excellent book on life, learning, failure and success, fittingly titled How To Fail At Almost Everything And Still Win Big.
Adams argues that goals are for losers – literally. A person with a fixed goal will be always be losing out and lagging behind, until that moment when he reaches his goal. He gets to be a winner for a brief period until a new goal is put in place, and suddenly, he’s a loser again. He keeps losing out until he achieves goal number two, and so on.
Systems, on the other hand, are for winners. A system is something you do consistently, which continuously drives you forward in some area.
The difference between goals and systems are best illustrated with examples. Consider the following:
- “I want to lose 10kgs” (goal) vs. “I exercise daily” (system),
- “I’ll read 50 books this year” (goal) vs. “I read 20 minutes every day” (system),
- “I want to win the golf tournament this year (goal) vs. “I spend four hours per week with a golf instructor” (system).
I strongly believe in systems as well, which is why I intentionally structured my Year of Learning project as a system – I spend 15 minutes per day learning a new skill.
I’ll continue using “systems thinking” throughout the Year of Learning, both inside and outside the learning context. Systems thinking can be applied to just about anything involving personal growth – use it wisely.
4) Become The Best At The Intersection Of Skills
Becoming the best in the world at something is unbelievably difficult and notoriously unpredictable. No matter how hard you work, there’s always one undeniably important factor you cannot control: luck. At the very top of most skills, the margins are so tiny that luck often dictates who becomes the very best of the pack.
Luckily for me, I have no desire to be the world’s absolute best at any one specific skill. That being said, I do want to be great at many different skills, such as photography, writing, entrepreneurship, and so on. After cultivating these various skill sets extensively, an interesting thing happens: I can become one of the best in the world at the intersection of these skills.
This idea isn’t new. Many of the great thinkers I follow have written extensively about it, including James Altucher and Tim Ferriss. Let me blatantly steal their wise words instead of doing a sub-par job of rewriting their eloquence.
James Altucher writes the following on his blog:
Get good at three or four or five things. Then find the intersection.
When I say “get good” it doesn’t mean 10,000 hours of practice with intent.
Maybe it means 1000 hours. Or even less. 100 hours.
Then if you get good at 5 things you’re now the only one in the world who has put 1000s of hours into the intersection.
Now you’re the best in the world at that.
Now over to Tim Ferriss, who explains one of his reasons to be a jack of all trades:
In a world of dogmatic specialists, it’s the generalist who ends up running the show.
Is the CEO a better accountant than the CFO or CPA? Was Steve Jobs a better programmer than top coders at Apple? No, but he had a broad range of skills and saw the unseen interconnectedness.
As technology becomes a commodity with the democratization of information, it’s the big-picture generalists who will predict, innovate, and rise to power fastest. There is a reason military “generals” are called such.
In short, becoming the best at an intersection of different skills is way more accessible than aiming to be #1 at just one skill set. It also seems much more fun, at least to me.
Scott Adams also agrees with this idea of effective skill combination, and writes in his book that he has followed exactly such a path.
He is, according to himself, an average artist/drawer. He’s also a reasonably funny guy. Finally, he has worked in corporate environments for many years. While not being the best at any of these things, the combination of those skills and experiences is what makes his comic strip Dilbert possible and so successful.
Cultivating a wide array of skills is exactly what my year of learning is about. I won’t become excellent at anything by doing it for only a month, but by trying different things, I’ll get a sense of what I want to keep practising going forwards. Then I might just become pretty great at the intersection of different skills I enjoy practising anyway.
5) Extract Learning From Failure
“Steeped to your eyebrows in failure is a good place to be because failure is where success likes to hide in plain sight. Everything you want out of life is in that huge, bubbling vat of failure. The trick is to get the good stuff out.”
-Scott Adams, Author of “How To Fail At Almost Everything And Still Win Big“
Adams’ quote reflects the major theme of his book – failure is not a bad thing if we consistently learn from it and iterate accordingly. Never waste a good failure before you’ve thoroughly extracted the lessons hidden in it.
I expect to fail A LOT during my Year of Learning, as I try things I’ve never tried before. And that’s OK.
In fact, I plan to cherish it if I can. Not in a Silicon Valley type “failing is awesome” style (also known as failure pornography), but in a Scott Adamsy, “learn the lesson then move on” kind of way.
We all know that failure sucks. It’s painful, embarrassing and no fun at all when you’re in the thick of it. Let’s at least mitigate the bad stuff by extracting some valuable lessons before diving into the next imminent screw-up.
I hope you’ll want to follow my continuous failures from the sidelines. I’m sure it will be quite a show.
Also published on Medium.