When I was in college, I took a semester course in organic chemistry. It was only a three credit course and I needed to take a lot of courses to move toward the two separate college degrees I was working toward, so I loaded my schedule down with twenty credits that semester (where twelve is considered a full time load).
It turned out that organic chemistry was the hardest class I’d ever taken. It hit me like a freight train. I wound up dropping it.
A year later, I gave organic chemistry a try again. I knew it was going to be hard. I also knew that I was going to be similarly loaded with credits. Thus, I knew that I needed to approach it in a very different way.
I got a B+ (that would have been an A with slightly better reading comprehension on the final).
Even more impressive, even now, fifteen years on, I still remember lots of elements of that organic chemistry class. I still remember what a Grignard reagent is and why it’s useful. I can still draw the structures of quite a few organic compounds from the name, and vice versa.
Since then, I’ve used the same set of techniques whenever I’m trying to absorb a large body of knowledge. I’ve done it with personal finance, with economics, with Western philosophy, with genetics and genetic algorithms, with several different programming languages, and that’s just for starters.
What was the difference? Why did I fail so badly the first time and yet learn so well the second time?
Obviously, the difference in these two patterns is a key part of succeeding in an information economy. If you’re able to absorb a lot of things quickly, then you’re more useful at almost every desk job under the sun.
Here are the seven central pieces to my plan.
1. Like what you’re learning.
This is key. You should enjoy the subject for what it is, not for what it gets you. If you have no interest in learning about the topic except that you’re told to learn about it or that you’re supposed to learn about it, it’s very hard to absorb and retain a signficant amount of knowledge. You can always cram, of course, but it’s hard for that information to have lasting power if you’re not interested in truly learning the information.
This isn’t to say you shouldn’t have goals with your learning, but that if you’re not enjoying the process toward achieving those goals, you might want to find a different aim for your learning.
2. Find a place where you’re comfortable yet undistracted.
It’s hard to learn if you’re constantly distracted by a ringing cell phone or the ding of your email program. Seek out a place with minimum distractions and an environment where you’re comfortable. I do my best learning in the rocking chair in my office, for example. I’m very comfortable, I’m not sitting in front of the computer, and I feel happy and ready to learn.
3. Chunk it.
People tend to remember the start and end of their lessons the best, so I simply chunk my learning into small bits. I’ll study something for fifteen minutes or less at a time, then I’ll put it down and do something else for a while. Almost every day, I’m learning something using this exact method.
You might learn more over a long period of study than a very short one, but you learn less per minute spent studying. If you want to maximize an hour of learning, you’re far better off breaking it into four fifteen minute or five twelve minute chunks spread out over several hours instead of studying nonstop for an hour.
4. Jump into the deep end of the pool.
It seems obvious that if you’re new to a topic, you should start with beginner’s topics. I find the opposite to be more effective. I jump right into the deep end of the pool, reading something very advanced or trying something very difficult. I see what I can absorb from that advanced topic, then I go back and fill in the holes in my learning with simpler material.
I tend to look at learning more as building a scaffold, then building the structure around that scaffold. That’s what happens when you start with advanced topics and then patch it with the areas where you’re confused.
5. Apply what you’re learning as quickly as you can.
If you learn a new idea or new technique, try to use it quickly. For example, if you’ve just started learning about a particular computer programming technique, go try it. If you’ve learned about a new time management technique, go try it. If you’ve learned a new set of rules about naming organic molecules, go try them.
Try the new things you’ve learned several times. Doing this really helps make the information stick in your head.
6. Try different methods of absorbing information.
This is actually just an extension of the above tactic. Try listening to talks about things you want to learn about. Try reading about it. Try talking about the information with someone who already knows about the topic. Watch a documentary or a video about the topic.
Different learning styles work differently for each of us. I tend to learn different things from different educational methods, so mixing them up results in the ideas being strongly reinforced in my head.
7. Focus on patterns.
Almost everything that we learn about is filled with patterns. Languages. Philosophies. Sciences. Skills. They all include many, many patterns. Seek out and identify those patterns and you’ll learn more quickly.
For example, if you’re learning Spanish, knowing that many words in English that end in -tion are the same in Spanish except they end in -cion and you’ve vastly increased your vocabulary. If you’re learning computer programming, the pattern of an if-loop is essentially the same in every computer programming language – and your abilities in all languages have grown. If you’re learning how to play a musical instrument, the chords (and elements of them) repeat themselves over and over throughout songs – and you’ve got the tools for an infinite array of musical pieces.
Learning itself is a valuable enterprise, both in the process and in the results. The more you learn and the more skills and knowledge you acquire, the more valuable you become, not only in the marketplace, but as a person.