“By three methods we may learn wisdom: First, by reflection, which is noblest; Second, by imitation, which is easiest; and third by experience, which is the bitterest.”
I’m a huge fan of Laurence Endersen’s book: Pebbles of Perception: How a Few Good Choices Make All The Difference. I think it deserves to be on the shelf of every knowledge seeker in the world.
There is a chapter in the book on lifelong learning.
When we are captain of our own ship, life can be a wonderful continuous voyage of discovery. Yet we frequently pigeonhole our learning and discovery into limiting discrete blocks. There are the childhood years, filled with exploration and getting to know the world around us at a sensory level. The early school years follow, during which we are introduced to reading and writing. Middle school years bring a range of core subjects and some people will finish up the formal part of their education with university-level learning.
Then we add some work experience and attain a certain level of competence. From this perch we coast pretty well. It’s like driving. How many of us are getting better at driving? All of those hours behind the wheel are not deliberate practice. If you consider the product of the modern knowledge worker to be decisions, all of this coasting without getting better should concern you.
The incentives to follow a path of lifelong learning are not easily apparent.
When assessing our competence in any particular discipline, we can place our level of ability somewhere along a continuum moving from ignorance, to conversational competence, to operational competence, then towards proficiency, and finally all the way to mastery. For most of us, if we get to operational competence in our main career area we are happy enough. We can get by and we don’t have to expend too much energy continuously learning. We become what I call flat-line learners. For the flat-line learner the learning curve might look something like this:
And yet, Endersen argues that if we pursue a path of lifelong learning our path more closely resembles this:
You could even make an argument that lifelong learning puts you on a non-linear path but I’ll leave that for you to think about.
The question as to why everyone doesn’t want to become a lifelong learner remains.
It may boil down to choices and priorities. It is easy to be drawn towards passive entertainment, which requires less from us, over more energetic, active understanding. Inconvenience might be an alibi: “I don’t have time for continuous learning as I am too busy with real life”. But that excuse doesn’t withstand close scrutiny, as experiences (coupled with reflection) can be the richest of all sources of investigation and discovery.
Why not make a conscious decision to learn something new every day? No matter how small the daily learning, it is significant when aggregated over a lifetime. Resolving early in life to have a continuous learning mindset is not only more interesting than the passive alternative, it is also remarkably powerful. Choosing lifelong learning is one of the few good choices that can make a big difference in our lives, giving us an enormous advantage when practised over a long period of time.
The ignorant man can’t learn from his own mistake and the fool can’t learn from the mistakes of others. These are the primary ways we learn: Through our own experiences and through the experiences of others.
While both avenues have their place, there is no substitute for direct learning through experience – which we enhance through reflection. The process of thoughtful reflection makes our experiences more concrete, and helps with future recall and understanding. Reflecting about what we learned, how we felt, how we and others behaved, and what interests were at play, hardwires the learning in our brain and gives us a depth of context and relevance that would otherwise be absent.
Even if it were desirable, which it’s not, there simply is not enough time to learn everything we need to know through direct experience.
“Reading,” writes Endersen, “is the foundation of indirect learning.” Learning how to read and finding time to read are two of the easiest and best changes you can make if you want to pursue lifelong learning.
Many read for entertainment. Some read for information. Too few read for understanding. Adler’s book (How To Read a Book) is concerned with reading to understand. Being widely read is not the same as being well read. The more effort and skill we put into reading, the greater our understanding.
The Feynman Technique
As for testing whether we really understand something after we’ve read it, there is a powerful and elegant technique called the Feynman Technique.
Step 1. Choose the topic or concept that you are trying to understand. Take a blank piece of paper and write the name of the topic at the top.
Step 2. Assume you’re teaching the topic to someone else. Write out a clear explanation of the topic, as if you were trying to teach it. A great way to learn is to teach. You identify gaps in your knowledge very quickly when trying to explain something to someone else in simple terms.
Step 3. If you get bogged down, go back to the source materials. Keep going back until you can explain the concept in its most basic form.
Step 4. Go back and simplify your language. The goal is to use your own words, not the words of the source material. Overly elaborate language is often a sure sign that you don’t fully understand the concept. Use simple language and build on that with a clear analogy. An example that springs to mind is Warren Buffet’s explanation of compound interest (i.e., interest earned on interest), when he likened it to a snowball that gathers snow as it rolls down a hill.
Lifelong learning is a better path than flat-line learning.
Savour experiences as opportunities to learn. Reflect on your experiences. Read regularly. Learn how to read for understanding. Know how to test whether you really understand something by demonstrating that you could teach it in simple terms with a clear analogy.
The best way to do that? Follow Einstein’s advice.