What to learn and when to learn it?

FTC#3: Three mental models to help you choose what to focus on.

What to learn and when to learn it?

A simple question, perhaps, until you add some unfortunate and very real constraints:

  • Your time is limited,

  • Your attention is limited,

  • Your energy is limited,

  • (Let’s face it) your cognitive capacity is limited.

As with everything else in life, learning therefore becomes an act of ruthless prioritisation and stone cold dismissal of great-but-not-superb options.

Choosing between great options can be difficult to the point of “paralysis by analysis”. The paradox of choice is very real in the learning realm, especially for the curious among us. So, going back to the questions posed at the start – what to learn, and when to learn it? If you’ve ever asked yourself these big Q’s, here are three mental models to help you choose what to do when.

Mental Model #1: “Toyota Learning”

In the world of manufacturing, JIT is a famous acronym. It stands for “Just-in-Time” manufacturing, which is a way to struture a manufacturing process for optimal efficiency and output. JIT is popularly known as the “Toyota Production System”, because the Japanese car manufacturer pioneered the method in the 1960’s, which helped the company transition from a small weaving machine producer to the automobile behemoth it is today.

Just-In-Time production is all about minimising waste along a production line, including waste of time, raw materials and other input factors. Today, “The Toyota System” is generally known as LEAN manufacturing, and has been embraced by organisations big and small all over the world.

The notion of “Just”-in-Time Learning” follows a JIT logic: learn something just before you need to apply it. Learn something just-in-time, instead of just-in-case you’ll need it in some hypothetical future.

This approach has many benefits:

  • You don’t forget what you’ve learned by the time you actually need to use it.

  • You don’t waste time, attention and cognitive capacity on learning things that turn out not to have any application value in your life.

  • Your motivation to learn continuously stays elevated, because the problem you are trying to solve, or end state you are trying to achieve, makes it perfectly obvious why you are exploring a given subject.

  • The virtuous cycle of learn ➡️ do ➡️ reflect ➡️ learn more ➡️ do better ➡️ reflect ➡️ repeat makes your skill improvements obvious, because you continuously apply your new skill/knowledge to solve an actual problem or to improve a real condition in your life.

All this being said, there’s an argument to be made for “Just-in-Case” learning as well, to make you a well-rounded, well-read and interesting human being – just like there is an argument to be made for the classic liberal arts education.

Mixing JIT and JIC can give you the best of both worlds: specific problem-solving skills, and generalised knowledge and insight about the world. Pursue a balanced mix of both.

Mental Model #2: Learn with Lindy

Lindys Restaurant Broadway and 51st Street New York City.JPG

A classic concept among Talebians is the notion of The Lindy Effect, which argues that old ideas are generally more robust than new ones, because they have survived the test of time. I quote from Antifragile:

If a book has been in print for forty years, I can expect it to be in print for another forty years. But, and that is the main difference, if it survives another decade, then it will be expected to be in print another fifty years. This, simply, as a rule, tells you why things that have been around for a long time are not “aging” like persons, but “aging” in reverse. Every year that passes without extinction doubles the additional life expectancy. This is an indicator of some robustness. The robustness of an item is proportional to its life!”

According to Nassim Taleb, this theory got its name from Lindy’s restaurant on Broadway, where comedians and actors would hang, dine, drink, see and be seen in between their shows. Their favourite topic to discuss was how far into the future the shows on Broadway could expect to be played, and they gradually came to realise that the best was always to assume that the show had just as long time left to live, as it had already lived.

What’s the link to learning, you ask? Whenever you decide between two topics to explore, or between two sources of information to read, Lindy suggests you should pick the oldest one. The Bible is more likely to be relevant in 2000 years from now then the current best selling self-help book. You’ll learn more timeless wisdom from Seneca and Marcus Aurelius than the current guru-du-jour, most probably. Old ideas, books, philosophies and bits of wisdom have stood the test of time, which is the best quality filter in the universe.

Mental Model #3: Master the Amplifier Skills

In his fantastic book “How to fail at almost everything and still win big”, Scott Adams makes an interesting claim: some skills universally amplify the value of everything you already know. These meta skills mix well with any other skills you have, much like a fine, round red wine that improves any meal it is paired with.

Some of Scott’s “super-skills” include:

  • Public speaking: lets you communicate your ideas from all other fields.

  • Psychology: to understand and influence others to help your cause.

  • Business writing: to communicate clearly, effectively and at scale (thank you for reading my practice outlet!).

  • Conversation: obvious to most, still a work in progress for me!

  • Technology: to scale yourself, and to stay competitive (or get an edge) in the increasingly tech-enabled white collar labour market.

My list would include:

  • Meta-learning / “learning how to learn”.

  • Deep reflection: because experience without reflection leaves most lessons and learning unextracted, leaving you no better prepared to deal wih similar experiences in the future.

  • Self-awareness: Know Thyself, or growth and development is almost impossible.

  • Getting Things Done: I believe the present and the future are increasingly ruled by “The Effective Class”.

  • Decision making: because you are what you (repeatedly) do.

  • The Subtle Art of Not Giving a Fuck: because this is not your practice life (video below).