Learning new things to increase your knowledge and skill set sounds good in theory, but many of us hesitate to try learning something new. We cite common excuses like not having enough time, not having access to good resources, or fearing failure in new endeavors. Our years in school have left us with the impression that learning is one-dimensional and utterly boring. Yet this is far from the case. Here is where learning how to learn becomes so important.
- Rapid Knowledge Acquisition & Synthesis: How to Quickly Learn, Comprehend, and Apply, and Master New Information and Skills (Learning how to Learn Book 11)
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- Peter Hollins is a bestselling author, human psychology researcher, and a dedicated student of the human condition.
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Your Obstacles Are Everyone’s Obstacles
Whether you’re a university student, trying to grasp a new skill or simply attempting to improve your performance at work, learning how to learn may well be the best skill you ever acquire. Whatever our chosen area of expertise, we’ll always fare better if we pay conscious attention to how we learn—whether that’s taking more effective notes, processing new information better, quickly comprehending material or simply learning to read lightning fast.
How we learn is what gets us from Point A to Point B; it is the vehicle that we drive, and we can choose to arrive in a rusted jalopy, or a smooth and sleek Ferrari.
We often assume there is only one way to learn, or that people will naturally find the optimal approach without trying too hard. We believe everyone learns through processes that they are most comfortable, and thus productive, with. Nothing could be further from the truth—effective learning is a “meta skill” that improves our ability to learn all other skills, and it’s something we need to deliberately and consistently cultivate in ourselves if we hope to improve.
This book is about learning—about how to become better at acquiring, processing and retaining knowledge and skills of all kinds. Learning is a complex process of being aware of, managing, comprehending, absorbing, synthesizing and recalling information on an ongoing basis. The better we’re able to manipulate and handle information according to our goals and needs, the more deeply we understand, and the more thorough our learning process.
With that being said, why do so few people spend time developing their ability to learn? Why is there not more attention paid to learning for its own sake, or to sharpening those abilities that support and enable all our other ones?
Unfortunately, becoming better at learning is seldom easy. There are obstacles that prevent people from fully exploring their intellectual potential, and have them operating at a lower, less efficient level out of pure habit. This is why we’ll begin this book not with the techniques themselves, but with all the things that ordinarily impede our mastery of them. In removing our own resistance, we gain better access to better learning.
It’s not about smarts
Can you think of any potential obstacles to learning? If you’re like most people, you might have listed poor time management, not having great study skills or simply lacking intelligence.
Maybe the kind of environments where you typically try to learn—home, school, etc.—haven’t been the most conducive to acquiring knowledge. Distractions, and negative past experiences such as bad teachers or boring, one-dimensional school curricula, are all reasons why someone might be turned off by the concept of learning something new. In rare cases, obstacles might also be presented by physical disabilities such as perceptual or memory issues.
The truth, however, is that most learning attempts are jeopardized way before you get to the stage of sitting down to learn. In other words, the obstacles that are most likely to derail your effective learning are usually psychological and behavioral, not strategic. This means that improving your methods may have a very limited effect in the first instance if you haven’t addressed the deeper barriers that are preventing you from ever getting started with them.
Firstly, this is not a matter of laziness or a poor attitude. In fact, many of the mental and psychological obstacles we’ll discuss here are simply part of human nature, or are otherwise encouraged and even rewarded in our workplaces, schools and society in general.
Human beings want to learn, in many cases, because they desire mastery. What is mastery except the ability to control and command something? Instead of being at the mercy of an unknown, we might seek to dismantle and understand it, so that it’s us who can then manipulate, control or predict the phenomena we confront in the world around us.
But it’s this need for control that can actually backfire in the learning process. In our struggle to retain control, and to avoid any state of vulnerability or ignorance, we may act in ways that actually limit our perspective and keep us failing harder and for longer.
Stemming from this larger unconscious motivation is the need to think of learning as mere problem-solving, as something we do to “win”—over our colleagues, over our own weakness, over nature itself. It follows then that we’ll be squeamish and intolerant of “losing” (or what we characterize as losing) and so behave, again, in ways that actually ensure we lose all the more often. This is often a question of ego, pride, and the avoidance of the nasty feeling of failure. As you may have noticed in other areas of your life, this avoidance of pain can be a quite powerful motivator.
Using learning and knowledge acquisition as a means to increase control also encourages us to be as “rational” as possible, to be infallible, perfect, complete. We will want things to follow neat, orderly and linear logic and be unable to bear uncertainty or ambiguity with any patience or nuance. Again, by doing so we only close down our field of possibility and force a narrower vision of learning on ourselves.
An attitude that approaches learning in this way may work in some contexts, for some of the time, but it will never be as good as approaching learning with a truly open, curious mind—one that is receptive, creative and willing to tolerate the unknown or feelings of incompetence along the road to mastery. One attitude is expansive, open-ended and curious. The other is fearful, controlling and narrowing. Both can lead to learning, but one path will be far easier and more successful!
Being “bad at learning” is seldom a question of technique and more a problem of attitude or perspective. Today, there is a popular model proposed by psychology professor Carol Dweck outlining the difference between a “growth mindset” and a “fixed mindset.” This model closely mirrors the fundamental differences in attitude one might bring to learning.
A fixed mindset is just that—fixed. Static. This is the person who insists that the experience of life come to them in a predictable, unalterable way. This is the person who believes that human abilities are inborn and that you either have or don’t have. Creativity, intelligence or being a fast learner are simply attributes you possess in an unchanging way.
A fixed mindset implies a view of the world and yourself that downplays deep and genuine learning. After all, if you are already all that you can be; what more is there to learn? It would be largely impossible, beyond a few tiny improvements. You look at other successful people and assume that things were simply easier for them because they were smarter or more talented.
This close identification between skill and identity also means that failure is not just failure—it’s a damning statement about your worth as a human being. You don’t fail, you are a failure. With a fixed mindset, not understanding or knowing something is embarrassing and experienced as a deficit in character—something that should be hidden or denied. Not exactly the right conditions for learning to occur!
On the other hand, a growth mindset sees learning in an entirely different light, as something that is dynamic, constantly moving, and always possible to change. With this mindset, we don’t see ourselves as saddled with an unchanging set of abilities, but rather as living and developing beings who can grow and improve with effort.
Whereas a person with a fixed mindset will give up quickly (why try when you can’t do it immediately and easily?), the person with a growth mindset knows that struggling is just part of the process—they expect to feel a little stupid when they begin, and it doesn’t stop them.
Failure doesn’t threaten their identity. They’re OK with making mistakes because it doesn’t say anything about who they are. It’s merely a step in their journey, and they see all learning as a process that necessarily involves a little trial and error. While the person with a fixed mindset will avoid challenge and gravitate to only those areas where they can be assured of winning, a person with a growth mindset isn’t scared off by difficult tasks, by the feeling of being a beginner, or by having to try over and over before getting better.
Put another way, these two mindsets see learning differently—fixed as a means of control, growth as a means of satisfying curiosity. One seeks to dominate and command the skill in question, while the other is willing to approach it humbly, to submit to the learning curve involved and become a disciple (i.e. one who takes a path of conscious discipline) to the process of learning, rather than merely wanting to rush to the flashy end result or outcome.
Ironically, it’s those people who possess more raw intelligence who may be especially bad at learning. Being blessed with large amounts of talent can easily blind us into thinking that inborn skill is the only thing that matters.
Experts and professionals of all kinds can fall into a trap precisely because they have been primed by their own experience and past expectation—i.e., they are even less able to see the world clearly, with a “beginner’s mind” and an open-ended curiosity instead of a blanket assumption about how every problem should be solved. We also lose the chance to develop learning skills and techniques if we’ve skated by largely by the luck of a gigantic memory or talent of rapid understanding.
Or, sometimes, we think that we’re good at learning when in fact we’re only habituated in one small, particular style of thinking that we have learnt over time. We may think we are being creative problem solvers, when we are really operating in a very narrow set of assumptions. Similarly, we may believe we are trying to understand the information in front of us, when in fact, what we are doing is not saying “what are you?” but “how can I control you and get the better of you for my own benefit?”