Fresh out of college, students still don’t know how to learn.
Or they think they do with brute force memorization, endless YouTube videos, and unfinished online courses. But that’s not the learning I’m talking about.
I’m referring to the learning that aims to understand. It doesn’t start with the cheap tactics, but with the fundamental principles. Fast learners think long-term, and prioritize hard work first to make their lives easier later.
In this essay, I will show you how high performers blaze ahead of the competition. I learned everything through intense reading, studying, and personal trial and error.
Here is the roadmap to accelerate your learning:
- The Notebook Mindset
- Find the ABCs
- Practice with Intention
- Build a Temple of Knowledge
- Share Your Work
The Notebook Mindset
In school, teachers give you a syllabus of the course, a splintered textbook, and a heap of assignments and readings. There is no question about what you have to learn. It’s neatly printed on the sheet in front of you.
But if you only study what’s in front of you, you are missing out. The world is infinitely more beautiful, mysterious, and untamed than a stack of musty papers. You have to go exploring with the Notebook Mindset.
The Notebooks Mindset states that you need to learn beyond your specialty. We love to separate objects into small petri dishes and observe them for years under high-powered microscopes. Walls between subjects help us focus and make advancements in fields. But what gets lost are the connections between knowledge. The undiscovered bridges that jump from biology to design, or calculus to anatomy. In a world with more and more specific fields, we put up more walls, and slowly the bridges start to collapse under their weight.
You need to become the connector. From a broad range of interests, consume a variety of material and discuss opposing arguments.
In the most simple terms, the Notebooks Mindset shifts your perspective from learning as a chore to learning as a passion. Start a notebook and document what you encounter throughout the day. Then, when you have time, explore these nuggets, ask questions, read about them, and find connections between information.
Chase the unproductive rabbit holes that make no sense. Because they might not make sense now, but they could tie into your work later. Not everything you learn needs an immediate application. Just because it won’t be on the test doesn’t mean it wouldn’t be interesting to read about.
The universe provides so many intriguing artifacts. Become an archeologist and start looking for them. Walk with your eyes open.
The Notebook Mindset urges you to document all of the conversations, experiences, observations and reading you come across. From a notebook of ideas, quotes, and thoughts, your next step is to bring order to the chaos and find hidden underlying patterns.
Find the ABCs
After exploring the vast array of companies that Elon Musk has started, I wondered how he succeeded in learning so much in such little time. From PayPal to Tesla, and now SpaceX, he revolutionized industries without spending decades in school. How did he manage to launch rockets without a Ph.D. in rocket science?
It all comes down to a habit he cultivated when he was just a child. If you ever looked for young Elon, you would find him with a book. His brother Kimbal Musk said that it was normal for him to read ten hours a day. From brick-heavy science fiction books to the entire Encyclopedia Britannica, it was his appetite that inspired him to do things others were not willing to try. His diverse knowledge from books gave him a foundation to stand on. From there, he pivoted into whatever specialty he wanted.
So how do you find the principles of a field? The Internet is so limitless that it is hard to define a starting point. I like to ditch the search engines and go old school.
Libraries are the dark horse of books for two reasons:
- They provide context
- They have old books
Amazon has dominated selling books, but it fails to provide the services that you really want. When you start to learn something new, you don’t know what you need to know. Browsing and exploring is a perfect way to become familiar with subtopics, authors, and related subjects. Google and Amazon are great tools for when you are looking for specific information. But when you don’t know what you need, libraries are the perfect resource. They provide context in a sea of information.
Libraries are better than bookstores because they contain older books. You might argue that they don’t contain the newest information and books are outdated. But for any subject you want to learn, the oldest books hold the most wisdom. Old books are better than the ones sitting on the New York Times Bestsellers List because their ideas have been tested, tried, and honed by history and time.
The books you’ve collected serve as a map, and now you have to explore. Continue with a curious mind and you’ll start to understand the landscape of a field. The importance here is to grasp the big picture. Let your curiosity take the lead.
Skip the tactics at first and figure out where you are headed. What are 20% of the key ideas that govern 80% of the field? Aim to answer that question in your research.
Practice with Intention
When people think of Benjamin Franklin, they think of him as an accomplished writer, politician, diplomat, activist, and inventor. After all, he was one of the Founding Fathers of the United States. Few know that at age ten, he dropped out of school to help his poor family. Despite his lack of formal education, he knew writing was an important skill to learn. So with no money and no teachers, he taught himself. With a specific system, he rose from a poor dropout to one of America's greatest writers.
These are the seven drills he used to improve his elegance and clarity in writing:
- From The Spectator, a magazine, he found a passage to study. For each sentence, he wrote notes to himself about the content.
- He rewrote each sentence from memory, using only his notes.
- After a few days, he compared his version with The Spectator and corrected any mistakes.
- He then took the passage and converted it to poetry to understand rhythm and flow.
- After he had forgotten the passage, he would convert the poem back to prose to reinforce his understanding.
- He mixed up his notes for each sentence and then tried to reorganize them in the correct order. This drill taught him to structure and organize his ideas.
- The last drill was repetition. Benjamin Franklin did these exercises at night after work or before work in the morning.
Instead of passively reading, Ben Franklin studied the cadence of great writers to understand what made them great. Native practice is what most people do. They go through the motions, multitask during a session, and repeat learned behaviors. Behaviors they learned three years ago. But to become a master, it isn't enough to practice for inordinate amounts of time. It's the quality and effectiveness of each session that enhances performance. Deliberate practice is what counts.
Deliberate practice is
- Designed to improve specific aspects of performance
- Provides immediate and information-rich feedback
- Requires 100% focus and effort
Deliberate practice is a process of continuous experimentation and refinement to achieve mastery. It pushes learning and progress and avoids learning plateaus.
How to apply deliberate practice:
- Know what you want to accomplish and break down the elements needed to become successful.
- Plan your practice before each session.
- Start slowly to build up a good foundation.
- Train outside your comfort zone. When you take on challenging tasks, you learn new techniques that make your overall skills better. It forces you to be present because you are pushing your limits. Choose the hard and uncomfortable over the easy and secure.
- Set constraints. By stressing your ability in new ways, you will notice which parts of the skill are holding you back. Then you can drill those specific parts even more.
- Target your weaknesses and continually work on them until you are good at them.
- Take regular breaks. Don't train for more than one hour.
- After each session, reflect on what you discovered. Treat it like documenting an experiment. What went well? What didn't?
- Keep your body healthy by staying active and sleeping well. You need to replenish your energy to maintain complete concentration during training or studying.
Learning isn't only about the number of hours you practice and study. It is also the quality and value of that practice. Deliberate practice is intentional, improves performance, breaks you out of your comfort zone, and gives instant and informative feedback.
But is there a way to speed up the process even more?
Build a Temple of Knowledge
Everything boils down to fundamental principles that provide a valuable foundation when studying anything. Every piece and fact is another building block.
Without a strong foundation, you get a heap of bricks. Information is complex and requires an order to be understood. You need a mental representation of what you know. I call this structure your Temple of Knowledge. A Temple of Knowledge is a digital or analog house of what you know. Your brain is good at having ideas and noticing connections, but it’s not the best storage solution. You need to build a temple with strong colosseums as core ideas and intricate details for the specifics.
There are many apps that help you do this.
- Roam Research
I use Obsidian because it’s free, easy, fast, and well-designed. Every time I come across a concept, idea, or subject that could be useful later, I make a new note. If it’s a concept, I define it. If it’s a field, I write about what it studies. Over time, I make more and more notes and connect them with links to each other.
Here is an example of how Hick’s Law (a user experience concept) connects with UX Design.
Then, you see how UX design has other notes that connect to it.
As I zoom out even more, I see that UX design is a core component of Product Development.
As I continue to zoom out, you see how notes relate to each other. From a collection of thoughts and information, you build a web that acts like a second brain.
Share Your Work
Learning is a very demanding process. You always have to push against what you understand and what you don't know.
There are two ways to learn:
1. Learning in private without sharing
2. Learning in public with sharing and creating
Learning in private is demanding because you fail in silence. Failure leads to learning but it's also emotionally difficult. You find what you are bad at, and continue doing that until you are no longer bad at it. Or you find what you don't understand and continue to question everything until it makes sense. After a few days, most people give up. They don't feel motivated to keep going. So how do you get around that?
By learning in public. By presenting yourself on the digital stage of the world, forcing yourself to transform what you learned into something your own.
Sharing your work openly and transparently creates faster feedback loops on your work. Feedback loops accelerate learning and improve what you are building. People will judge, comment, and encourage your work. Their feedback helps you navigate what is working and what is not.
You also discover like-minded people who support your work and offer opportunities to learn more and connect with other passionate and curious people. People will want to help you, and some might even mentor you for free.
You discover your potential. By finding different methods to build and share your journey, you find an intersection of interests and skills that make you unique.
Learning is a social and collaborative process. If you share your work, you develop durable ideas because they have seen the feedback of others. If you don’t, you carry the burden of failure, confusion, and overwhelm on your own.
Learning is the only way to adapt to the exploding tech landscape.
You have to learn on the job, learn new software, learn new ways of doing old things. The only constant is learning.
I’ve shown you what you can do to stay ahead of the curve and sustainably acquire new knowledge and skills.
Here is what you can do today:
- Grab a pen and paper and go outside for a walk.
- Make a trip to the library (or visit the digital catalog).
- Before a practice/study session, set an intention of what you want to improve.
- Play around with knowledge base software like Obsidian.
- Share what you’ve been learning on social media.
Learning doesn’t have to be hard or long. It can be a fun and social activity that benefits you and those around you. Don’t be afraid to learn about things that interest you but aren’t related to what you need to do. Knowledge has a weird way of circling and connecting the most diverse parts of the world.