Why does it matter?
Imagine that you were born six hundreds years ago, just before the invention of the printing press. In your village, every useful piece of knowledge would have been passed on through word of mouth, from generation to generation. Your dad had already told you all there was to know about the world and its traditions. In fact, your world consisted of only a few square kilometers where the land you plow was located, and you were going to spend your entire life there.
Traditions were passed on, and they ruled everything, from how you would plow the land to who you were allowed to marry. They had already been perfected over the generations before you, and they guaranteed that everything would work as well as the smartest of your ancestors, and you had some smart ones, had figured out.
The next 50 years were guaranteed to be just like the last 50 years – more of the same and nothing changing.
In fact, it was very risky to change anything, as you had to make sure the summer harvest would bring enough food to feed your family. Those methods and ways of living had proven successful for many generations before you and nothing new justified a change.
For more than a thousand years since the fall of the Roman Empire, change was arriving at a grinding speed. Then came the enlightenment, in which new ideas started spreading across Europe and science started blooming. Things were changing much faster than before, but it was still easy to follow along.
But suddenly, everything changed. Something very special happened with the advent of computers. We passed from a linear to an exponential rate of change. Technology was changing so quickly that within one’s life, things were guaranteed to be much different. The ways of yesterday are no longer serving us. Today, people have to learn new skills to survive in this new and ever-changing environment.
This is only the tip of the iceberg. Artificial Intelligence (smart algorithm) is increasing its capabilities at an amazing pace. Smart robots and software are taking over more and more jobs. Amazon is rapidly replacing most retail store workers with robots in their warehouses, and algorithms that know your taste better than any Target employees, as well as being able to offer you what you want based on your past shopping habits.
Robo-taxis are no longer just a part of science fiction and are currently being used in California by Google and other robo-Taxi companies. Tesla is currently one of the leading companies that will have a fully working fleet of Robo-Taxi across the world within a year or two. Millions of drivers across the world will suddenly be jobless.
Most jobs we once thought were safe from robotization are now squarely in the path of being replaced by A.I. Your general practitioner will be one of the first to suffer. A visit to the Doctor usually starts with him or her asking you a few questions. Then you tell them about your symptoms, and they make you take a few tests. Based on the results this gives them and all they know about diseases and the interactions and effects of certain medicines, they prescribe you a course of treatment, and off you go. This is nothing an A.I. cannot do today. In fact, today, algorithms have been trained to detect tumors on x-ray scan more accurately than trained physicians.
In the very near future, you’ll only need to go to an automated health center, give a bit of saliva or blood, type your symptoms on the screen, and the machine will spit out what you have and tell you if you need further examinations. You’ll only need someone to greet you and tell you where to sit to pass the examination. Ten years of university would be of no use to work in those new facilities. In fact, being a greeter at Walmart would probably be better work experience for later employment in the clinics of the future.
How can people thrive in this new world where the pace of change is in constant acceleration and avoid becoming useless and irrelevant? By learning.
The critical thing to realize is that even after you have improved your skills and got a new job, you’ll again be faced with A.I taking on your new-found job. You’ll have to start the process all over again. Ultimately, you never want to stop learning. You want to ingrain it into your lifestyle, so you’re never left in the dust and looking for a job because you have been made obsolete.
Learning new skills will be the single most important thing to do in this century. Read Yuval Noah Harari’s great book to learn more on this topic, ’21 questions for the 21 century’.
Hopefully, I have convinced you that learning is realistically your only option if you don’t want to become irrelevant. Now, let’s find out the most effective way to get at it and learn new things.
How to learn anything
We’ll look at learning from three different points of view. Planning, Aquisition and Retention. Those points are how I look at learning.
What to learn?
Learning how to drive a horse and buggy would have been a great skill 100 years ago, but today, not so much. You want to plan your learning strategically and figure out not what was useful yesterday, nor what is useful today, but what will be the most useful in 10 years.
I like to ask myself this question – will there will be more of XYZ in 5 or 10 years or less of it? It’s either going up or down, but it will rarely be flat. If you think that the interest and demand for this skill will decline, stay flat or only slightly increase, ditch the field. You’ll be competing with all those other people in the future for one piece of a shrinking pie. You want a growing pie that you’ll be able to get your fair share of.
Look for something with growing interest, like a nascent industry, and figure out all the skills you’ll need to compete in that field. If you’re not sure what to choose, the government generates many industry forecasts that you can access for free. You can also ask the smart people you know and search the internet. Once you have all the data, it will be much easier to make a good decision.
Also, you have to take your interest into account. Try to go where your natural abilities and interests lie. You don’t have to be good at it; you only need to have an interest, so learning becomes a fun journey.
What if you were bad in school?
Don’t take your past experience in school as a guide to know your natural abilities. A lot of us were made disinterested in math for example because our teachers were boring and non-engaging. It can be exciting when someone who is actually passionate about a subject teaches it(if you don’t believe me, watch the math or science series on khanacademy.org). With all the online tool today, you can find a teacher on any subject that will kindle the passion inside you for almost any topics. So never sell yourself short despite your bad past experience in school.
What if I don’t have the time or energy to learn something new?
If you decided to learn something but don’t know how you’ll achieve it, you need help with your goals setting. Most people have goals but never achieve them because they tolerate problems that stand between them and their goals.
How to achieve any goals
Ray Dalio, one of the top richest man in the world, has a great book called ‘Principles’ which in it, explains how to achieve any goal. I’ll try to resume is views here, but I’d suggest you to go and read it. First, you need to decide what you want to do. Then, you figure out what problems are stopping you from achieving your goal. Do not tolerate any problems. Most problems are only the symptoms of something deeper, so you have to diagnose your problem and find its real root cause. Finally, find a solution and apply it; it’s important that you never tolerate your issues once you have found them. Let’s look at each step in more detail.
First, decide what it is you want to do based on your interest and an assessment of the future opportunities that will be available to you. This is just like what we talked about earlier. Make sure it is something you are interested in or that you think you could develop an interest in over time. Remember not to sell yourself short.
Then, figure out what are the problems that are stopping you from achieving your goals and do not tolerate them. Successful people do not tolerate problems. It’s great to make a list and write all these steps on paper so you can reflect on them more deeply.
Once you have figured out all the problems that are stopping you, you have to diagnose them and find the real root causes. If you don’t know the root causes of your problems, you will be focusing on the wrong thing. You need to spend a good amount of time in the diagnostic phase, 15 minutes to 1 hour, as you want to make sure you are working on the real issues. You can ask people you trust to get a better picture of these problems. Whatever you find, do not tolerate those issues; you must not permit problems.
The second to last step is to find solutions. Once you have found the root causes of your problems, design solutions to resolve them; this is much easier to do if you did the diagnosing well. You also want to be spending a good amount of time on this section.
Finally, go and do it. Don’t put up with the problems you have found. They are standing between you and your goals and you have to go after each problems and obliterate them. The more you do it, the more it will become a habit.
Now that you know what you have to learn, let’s find out the best methods to learn it.
How you go about learning is very important indeed. One thing is that you always have to start with the most up-to-date sources of information first. If you are passionate about philosophy, I don’t think you should start by reading Plato or Kant. We know today that a lot of what they said is no longer valid because of our advencements in science and our understanding of how the human brain works. For example, Aristotle thought that the seat of the soul was the heart. Save yourself a lot of questions and doubts, jump directly to modern authors like Sam Harris, Eliezer Yudkowsky or Jaron Lanier. Once you have a good grasp of the current state of knowledge, then you can go read the classics to gain a better grasp of the historical context of the set of current ideas.
Also, some fields change so quickly that learning some things that were true 10 years ago might no longer be true. So it’s preferable, depending on the field, to start reading the information published in the last two years or sometimes even more recently.
Learn it all from one person
Once you find someone who is passionate and interesting, stick with them. Watch and listen to everything they have on the subject, from the basic to the most advanced stuff, so you get a full picture of the body of knowledge they have created in their mind. Read their books and watch their videos. You want to understand what is going on inside their head and how the content is organized and then model it.
Once you know enough on that person, start modelling them. Do they carry a notepad in their pocket? if so, carry one too. How do they think? How do they write? Try to pick up on subtle techniques they use, pay attention to the vocabulary they employ. Obviously try to discriminate between what is linked to the field of study and what is not but sometimes, the link is not that obvious. So in doubt, do it anyway. This might sound silly, but it is the fastest way to make sure your subconscious takes over and does the heavy lifting. Your brain will start thinking that you are actually him or her, and you will act accordingly.
Imagine you are teaching
Richard Feynman, one of the greatest scientific of the last 50 years had a great way to learn – he imagined himself teaching the information to someone else. This forced him to make sense of the information and arrange it in a way that is easy to understand before he could explain it. This will quickly make you realize what you don’t fully understand and what requires extra time on your part to study.
Create a Dictionary
Continuing with the Richard Feynman technique. He would create a dictionary of all the important concepts. Every concept is explained in your own words, just like you would teach it to someone else. Put the title at the top and under it write and describe in your own words how the concept functions. This is one of the greatest tricks to learn.
Create a list of the available knowledge
Take a piece of paper and write on it where you can find any and all of the information available on your topic. The goal is to have a map in your mind of all of the places where you will go to get information during your journey. For example, there are podcast, online platforms like coursera.com or khanacademy.org, books, YouTube videos, blogs, etc. What is advantageous about the internet is that if you don’t fully understand a textbook, you can go on YouTube and get a video explanation of the concept, from many different people. You can also go on coursera and get a courses on that topic particularly. Many ways to learn are available online, you can pick and choose what fits you the best.
There are many books that have been written on how the memory works and on mnemonic techniques. You can find most of them on Amazon or a bookstore and I’d suggest you to read some to familiarize yourself with the subject.
First of all, you have to be a note-taker. Take copious amounts of notes and carry around one or multiple notepads at all times. Those notepads are what you will use to record what you learn and brain dump your thoughts so you can use your mind to analyze the problem at hand instead of wasting energy trying to keep ideas in your mind. Try to fill in 2-3 pages a day. Note-taking should be a part of your everyday life anyway. It is a great tool to help you reflect on your life and be more strategic on how you go about living your life.
Review the information
The most effective way I found to review information is to incrementally increase the time intervals between reviews. For example, your first review would be 5 minutes after you first assimilate the information, then 10 minutes later and so on. You can follow this guideline if you want:
After every time interval, you increase your retention rate. From 60% to 70% to 80%, 90%, 95% 98%. Finally, you only need to review the material once a year and you should never forget it.
I had a friend who, before falling asleep in bed, would review in his mind the different concepts he had learn while studying at university that day. Once you commit something to memory, it can take only a few seconds to recall it and it will do wonder to cement your learning.
Teach what you learn and start a blog
It is well known that the best way to learn is to teach. Remember our Richard Feynman technique of earlier? If you are in school, you should volunteer to be a tutor for other students. This will force you to take better notes, and also you’ll also always be thinking about how you can explain the new concepts you are learning in your tutoring class later.
Whether you go to school or not, you should also create a website and put all the information you learned there. This will help you summarize and filter what is important from what is not. You’ll force yourself into creating a complete and polished version of your notes. It also, as an added advantage, open yourself up to other people who might be interested in the subject and stumble upon your website. It could be the start of a new opportunity in your life. (Kind of what i’m doing with this website)
Pat Flynn, a very well known and successful internet entrepreneur, actually started his online business like this. He put his study aid on his website for himself to help with studying until he realized that thousands of people were reading it. He decided to create and sell an e-book with all the content organized and easy to digest created a business out of it! So, learning can be fun and lucrative!
This is how you learn anything. First, you figure out what you want to learn based on your natural aptitude and inclination. Then, you find a few mentors online or through books and online courses, and learn everything they teach, so you create a complete body of knowledge from them on the subject. Then you want to create your own dictionary written in your own words with all the essential concepts, then revise the information with increasing time intervals. Finally, make sure you teach to others face to face or through a blog so you can cement your knowledge. If you do the above systematically, you will enjoy learning and be much more effective at it too.
I hope you have enjoyed reading this as much as I have enjoyed writing it.