Learning to Learn

One of life’s most important skills is learning to learn. For most of us, the skills we learn in childhood or at school often bear little relationship to the skills we need to succeed in a new job or life role. Rather than attempting to squeeze in infinite learning into youth, it’s important to learn how to learn. What are some good ways of doing this?

My first tip is to become opportunistic about learning. Greedily seize opportunities to learn something new. It’s much easier to learn French while in Paris than in a classroom. So, if you’re ever approached to teach a class, or write an article, or travel to a new city, jump at the chance. Seeking novelty is critical for learning. For example, many classes of new reinforcement learning methods seek novelty [1].

Another tip is to consistently seek to push just a bit beyond your current capabilities. Athletes often have a personal best they seek to push. The same idea works for learning other skills. Take something you’re a little uncomfortable with and volunteer to do it. Note that this trick doesn’t work as well if you’re completely out of your comfort zone. It’s too easy to get spooked or scared off, especially at first. However, the more you practice pushing boundaries, the more comfortable you’ll become with the uncertainty. Being put on the spot can drive a lot of learning. Be warned that this is a risky strategy since failing publicly can sting badly. But it’s good to learn how to be comfortable with failure. In fact, if you haven’t failed at something recently (even at a small something), it’s possible you’re not challenging yourself.

A common suggestion about learning is that it’s OK to look stupid and ask questions. I don’t completely agree with this. Asking many questions publicly works well if you’re already in a position of power; for a teacher or CEO to ask questions shows humility. But if you’re trying to get in the door, asking too many questions can sometimes hurt. Instead, I recommend doing your homework when you come across something new. Look it up, find a mentor to explain it offline, and if none of these work, go ahead and ask out loud in public. There’s a balance here to strike: don’t be shy, but don’t be obnoxious either. An important counterpoint here is to not be too discouraged if your first tentative questions meet public scorn. I’ve heard repeatedly that teachers and bosses are sometimes less supportive for women’s questions than for male peers. Try to keep your confidence up and don’t let an unpleasant authority choke your voice!

Open conversations with trusted friends and colleagues can open new intellectual vistas. There’s a lot of value to tossing ideas back and forth. In my experience, the best ideas can pop out of casual conversations where you’re telling a friend something you’re excited about, or learning about something new that they’re working on themselves. You’ll find yourself saying something insightful by accident, as profound thoughts bubble up from your deep subconscious.

When confronted with something new, try reframing it in terms of your life experiences. For example, I was a math major in college, so I tend to break down new concepts into step-by-step arguments like those in a good proof. Similarly, an artist might think of a new project in the same way she thinks of a new painting; start with broad, rough outlines and fill in the details over time. By the way, for those of you interested in applying to graduate school, reframing new concepts into known frameworks is a great trick for winning a Hertz fellowship [2]. The fellowship hosts a notoriously challenging interview exam, where examiners often ask questions from fields they know you don’t have a background in. Successful candidates often reframe the questions in terms of their skills and reason out answers, that even if wrong, show how they’re capable of thinking on their feet.

Instinctively distrust any single source of information. Instead look at multiple streams of information that corroborate “facts.” Be aware that this corroboration is much harder than it seems. Misunderstandings and outright lies are often deeply embedded as “common knowledge” and learning to spot widely believed lies is a powerful skill. At the same time, edging into paranoia and distrusting everything isn’t useful either. Most of us go through a phase as teens where we reject established authority instinctively. This sort of aimless rebellion doesn’t win much. A more mature skepticism understands that there are solid reasons (sometimes deeply unfair, prejudicial reason) for the stories we are told. Making positive change requires distrust tempered by empathy. This rule holds equally true while fighting an outdated scientific theory or while protesting ancient injustices.

Another trick is that it’s OK not to share that you’re learning something new. A new talent is often delicate, and exposing it to harsh public scrutiny can wait a while. But it’s good to learn to discuss openly. At the same time, recognize that not all learning is validated with an “A” on a course or a certificate. Many high achieving students often struggle when they’re forced out of schools and made to think and act in a world without grades. In this case, learn to set your own rewards and certificates. Make your goals small, but meaningful, and give yourself a mental pat on the back each time you break through and set one of them.

If you find yourself stuck while learning, it’s entirely alright. There are times when insights flow like rushing water, and others where your thoughts feel like a quicksand bog. Both of these modes are natural, so learn to go with the flow (or the bog) in either case without worrying too much about learning too fast or learning to slow in either situation.

Finally, it’s worth remembering the following Tamil proverb: “கற்றது கை மண் அளவு, கல்லாதது உலகளவு” (Kattrathu kai mann alavu. Kallathathu ulakalavu). In English, the verse reads “What you’ve learned is a handful of sand. What you haven’t fills the world.” These words, from the 13th century poet Avvaiyar [3] hold as true today as they did centuries ago.

[1] https://deepmind.com/research/publications/count-based-exploration-neural-density-models/

[2] http://hertzfoundation.org/fellowships/fellowshipaward

[3] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Avvaiyar

Written on December 26, 2017