I’ve noticed, that there is one thing that you can do for yourself that is more valuable than just about anything else you can do. If you do it, it will yield an exponential return in any area of your life. It’s something people rarely make time for, even though I suspect they already know the impact.
I am talking about learning. I am not talking about acquiring more education. Education and learning are very different things. I also don’t want you to focus on acquiring more information. If “more information” was the answer we’d all be billionaires with awesome bodies. What I am talking about is self-directed learning that lets you build new skills on top of old ones.
Life Learning Helps You Make An Impact
Did you grow up assuming that you have to find a particular vocation focus primarily on knowledge related to that vocation? That’s what I used to think. Now, I like to spend time studying a variety of different topics because the success of people like Leonardo Da Vinci, Bill Gates, Elon Musk, Warren Buffet, and Thomas Edison indicates that having a working knowledge of different areas improves our ability to solve problem-solving.
When I started creating products for different industries I learned I had to do two things 1) gain an understanding of new topic areas quickly and 2) apply that new knowledge (and existing knowledge) to the unique problem or challenge I was facing. This process is much easier if you are an expert generalist (or T-Shaped). By focusing on core concepts in new areas and relating them back to similar concepts I already understood, I could make better connections than I would if I only focused on my core area of knowledge – but how do I do this?
I do the following activities on a regular basis to learn new topics and apply them to things I am working on. There are other things I do like keeping a thought catalog and having an idea quota, but these three things make up the core.
Step 1: Learn Like A T-Shaped Person
Reading is important, but it isn’t the core benefit. The big bang comes from studying a broad range of topics. Inquisitive people tend to read material from a wide variety of subjects. They also don’t limit information gathering to books. If you really want to maximize your effort when studying wide read book summaries (even if you’ve already read the book), listen to audiobooks, and get notes from friends who are already knowledgeable in a particular area. Each new area of study will give you new connections and combinations that not only add to what you understand but also enhances pre-existing knowledge.
Focus on Learning Transfer
The secret to making information useful isn’t cataloging. You don’t have to write everything down or record easily retrievable facts. For example, I probably can’t name all the U.S. state capitals right now. I am OK with that because I don’t need to be able to recall that type of information on demand. That information can be retrieved when I need it. The secret is learning transfer – or the ability to make new knowledge useful quickly. There are three activities you should include if you want to improve your knowledge transfer skills – Deconstruction, Contrasting, Reconstruction:
- Deconstruction (Finding Essence) – Start by breaking a topic down into its fundamental components or essence. When you are dealing with new information or problems, start by examining its basic nature or pieces. By examining the “what it is” it’s easier to explore “what it can be”. This allows you to extract potential ideas and refine problem statements. Turning knowledge into deeper abstract principles helps you learn them faster because you’re focusing on understanding the parts while seeing the whole.
- Contrasting (Analogies and Metaphors) – Analogies and metaphors are great when you are trying to make sense of new information. Start by asking yourself “what does this remind me of?” and “why does it remind me of that?” Once you know how they are the same ask “what makes them different?” Our brain is optimized to see connections, relationships, and patterns so you can use analogies as building blocks to help you grasp bigger or complex ideas.
- Reconstruction (Mental Models) – After you have broken down an idea and done some contrasting, the next step is applying a mental model. A mental model is some views and interprets a process. In user experience, we use mental models to understand how users might perceive a system and what they may expect it to do. Our brain forms mental models automatically, by noticing patterns in what we experience every day. Very often, the mental models we create aren’t entirely accurate. Correcting your mental models can help you to think and communicate more clearly. Understanding which mental model is being used in a process, conversation or activity is far more valuable than memorizing facts. There are thousands of mental models, and every discipline has a set that you can learn. You can start by keeping a catalog of mental models that you see often. Examples might be self-serving bias, confirmation bias, or Occam’s Razor. Having this list of known models will help you: work in areas where you’ve never worked in before and quickly be productive, see errors in your assessment of a situation, or understand why a user might not understand something you designed.
Step 2: 1% Better and 5 Hours A Week
A few years ago when I started to think about the daily practices I decided that I would do two things 1) Focus on 1% improvement each day and 2) Spend at least 1-hour learning 5 days a week. Those might not sound significant, but the net result has been an incredible improvement. Why? Success is not an event, and the truth is that everything we achieve (or don’t achieve) is the sum of all the moments when we got 1% better or 1% worse. Your 1% improvements quickly become an exponential jump in performance.
The 5-hour rule makes being a “life learner” less cliche and more practical. It means spending a small amount of time daily reading, reflecting and experimenting (practicing). What can you accomplish with this time?
- If you believe what Josh Kaufman says about the first 20 hours, you can learn 12 new skills.
- If you read at the pace of an average adult, you can read 30 to 40 books.
- If you follow my recommendation of generating ten questions or ideas daily, you could generate 3,650 (or more) ideas.
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