Learning How To Learn

The ideas presented herein come from Farnam Street blog.

Lets get started…

With the advent of the internet age, one of life’s biggest problems is learning how to learn. Schools and even universities (for the most part) throw a bunch of information and facts at us, expecting us to ROTE learn them and regurgitate them in an exam. For most of my life this is how I’ve learned. It worked pretty well for me at school. I mastered the art of cramming for tests and I got good grades, but beyond the classroom this method seems to be failing me.

The next biggest problem is learning what to learn. There is an abundance of information out there, taking the form of blogs, websites, wiki entries, books, essays, academic papers and podcasts (the list goes on), that it almost becomes overwhelming. Having completed a bachelors degree, I finally have the freedom to curate my own information diet, so to speak. But where does one begin? What’s actually worth my time? I could read endlessly but not actually absorb anything worth learning. How does one cull the wheat from the chaff? Amazon reviews are a decent place to start when it comes to deciding what books to read next, but its not enough. My daily information diet consists of far more than books, so how does one begin to organize not only their information intake, but the way it is organized in their mind, to get the best bang for their buck?

Too much information, too little time! 

Shane Parish, the author of the Farnam Street blog, argues that we can absorb the most valuable information by studying only the biggest and most important ideas from the biggest disciplines: physics, biology, psychology, philosophy, sociology, literature, history, etc. Instead of attempting the seemingly impossible and foolish task of memorizing facts from all these disciplines, we need only to digest the big ideas and a few colourful examples which help us to apply these ideas to life. This is the process of forming a latticework of mental models: a way of mentally organizing information in a form that is both memorable and applicable to life. With these models in place we are better prepared to analyze a wide variety of situations and make better decisions.

This approach to learning comes from the ideas of Charlie Munger, who said that “developing the habit of mastering the multiple models which underlie reality is the best thing you can do.”

  1. We need a latticework of theory on which to hang our facts. Isolated facts are useless without the context required to understand and apply them.
  2. The more models the better. With only a few models we unconsciously manipulate our experience of the world to fit with our preexisting notions of the way the world works. By accumulating a number of models from a variety of disciplines we reduce the change of being afflicted by confirmation bias and other similar quirks of human psychology. All the wisdom in the world is not confined to one discipline.

“To the man with a hammer, everything looks like a nail.”

But we still don’t know where to look for these models. When learning about anything you will start to identify recurring themes hidden sporadically among the millions of random facts. These are the diamonds in the rough, the core principles that govern the field, and these are precisely the mental models that we should try to accumulate. The secret is to acquire as many diverse core principles as possible. It isn’t enough to have one grand unified theory of the world, one great mental model, because you will all too often forget that a good idea has its limits.

“The best antidote to this sort of overreaching”, argues Parish, “is to add more colors to your mental palette; to expand your repertoire of ideas, make them vivid and available, and watch your mind grow.”

At this point thinking takes on a whole new form, in which good ideas begin to compete with each other for superiority. That’s when the real learning happens.


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I am a science graduate, wannabe freelance writer and newly converted blogger. A nomad at heart, I travel as much as I can whilst treating my mind and body like some kind of twisted laboratory, often testing the mental boundaries of sanity and mental health. I write at theneocortex.wordpress.com, an exploration into the human condition and well-being through the lens of neuroscience, psychology and practical philosophy. I consider myself a humanist, albeit a highly flawed one. Peace Out.

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