How to Learn Faster and Better

How to Learn Faster and Better

The homestead lifestyle comes with a necessity to learn new skills; one must become a jack of all trades. Things like construction, animal husbandry, plumbing, welding, electrical, machinery repair and gardening all come with wide, deep learning requirements. The ability to learn quickly and efficiently is one that is important to develop, even moreso when your aptitudes relate directly to the amount of food on your plate.

The acquisition, integration and application of new information is something that I have always appreciated. “ Knowing things” has always been appealing to me, for its own sake, but more important is the extent to which this knowledge can impact you on a day to day basis. Acting from a state of knowledge conveys benefits and advantages that cannot be duplicated by the ill prepared, the unlearned.

I would like to share some concepts with you that have assisted me with learning. Perhaps they will serve you well too.

Be confident in yourself

The first thing is to understand that to learn, you must be supremely confident that you WILL learn. Nothing is beyond your capacity to grasp, and “getting there” is only a matter of time. BELIEVE this. Once you have this lofty, optimistic, yet purposeful mentality, approach your topic broadly, quickly.

Learn your subject in stages

Get a high level overview of your subject matter. Fly over it, and see what sits next to it. Get a lay of the land. Rotate around your subject matter to get an idea of its contours.

Once you have a sense of what you are looking at, look closer. Take a look at what the BEST OF THE BEST does, and see what the “ ultimate grade” of your interest can produce. Take a look at what middle of the roaders produce. Take a look at what beginners, amateurs produce.

Now back off again, and look at the old ways of doing whatever it is you are interested in, if applicable. Look at the new ways, the various differing techniques. Try to understand how the topic evolved, and WHY. WHY do we do things this way, when yesteryear, we did something else entirely? Understanding the evolution of a thing can help you understand its essence.

  • What is it? Why do we need it? Why do we do it?
  • Where did it start? Who invented it?
  • How is it done? Are there different schools of thought?
  • Where is it now? What is the state of the art?
  • How have things evolved, over time?
  • What do field leaders think?
  • Are there sub-branches, alternatives? What do they think?
  • How do hobbyists/professionals differ?
  • What are the key aspects of being beginner/intermediate/advanced
    at this topic?
  • What do I need to focus on in the early days of study?
    Intermediate days? Advanced level?
  • How will I know I’ve “got it?”

Become a generalist first

The key thing here is to know a fair bit about the subject, generally, before delving into it specifically. For example, if your topic was diesel generators,you’d know a lot about the history and theory of operation of diesel engines before you ever turned a wrench. By over-equipping yourself with general topical knowledge you’ll be MUCH better able to appreciate the specifics. If you understand why cylinder compression is so important to the diesel engine, for example, you’ll understand why a bad seal is so problematic. If you understand that diesel fuel has more capability to do work than gasoline, you don’t need to ask why they are cheaper to operate. If you understand that compression ignition generates higher cylinder pressure than a spark plug, you’ll know why diesel engines tend to be heavier, beefier than their gasoline counterparts.

By over-equipping yourself with general topical knowledge you’ll be MUCH better able to appreciate the specifics.

Take detours when necessary

Another thing to consider is that you may very well need to meander in your area of study, such that you might walk before you run. If your algebra, for example, is not 100%, calculus is going to be very painful if not impossible. If, in the course of learning a subject, you determine that knowledge in another area is mandatory for expedient progress, take the time to gain that knowledge properly. You will do yourself many favours. While performing these detours, remain mindful of the original learning goal, because the length of time you need to spend on the detour is completely within the context of this goal (unless the detour becomes more interesting than the initial learning objective, which is often the case.)

Be quick when possible

With that last paragraph in mind, be quick when possible, because there is a lot to learn in this world! In many areas of study, especially if your goal is not to be among elite practitioners, one time saving mechanism is to forget about memorizing the exact specifics and instead focus on the the essentials, the general lessons, the general trend, the general idea. In many cases, this is sufficient for your purposes. In computer networking, for example, at a high level, you had better know the OSI layers inside and out, and be able to troubleshoot *anything* within that context (or a similar context which gives you the same troubleshooting ability.  If you just want to set up a home IP network though, “get the IP, subnet mask and default gateway right and you’re golden in 99% of cases.” If you have no interest in networking, don’t go past the essentials.

Question your sources

Be confident in your source of information. I have been shown things by very well intentioned people that turned out to be completely and utterly wrong. There is a big difference between someone who has done something for a long time, and someone who has done something WELL for a long time. Learn to spot the difference. People who are really good at what they do tend to make it look very, very easy, and trivialize what they do. Choose your teachers wisely: the best ones will keep you breathless, trying to keep up, just at the edge of your capability.

There is a big difference between someone who has done something for a long time, and someone who has done something WELL for a long time. Learn to spot the difference.

Learning preferences

We all learn differently and we have all heard much about how it is important to match learning style with our learning pre-disposition. I disagree with this, mostly. We may each have a learning preference but we all possess the capacity to learn in alternative ways. Do you prefer to learn via audio? Force yourself to learn it by reading. Are you a hands on learner, naturally? Focus on the theory. Are you a theory guy? Get into the field, pencil neck! As you learn, why not learn in ways that increase your learning capacity? By simply changing our approach, we cultivate TWO skills at once, the original skill, plus the increased ability to learn in ways that may not be our most preferred. Consistent application of this theory results in the ability to learn anything, in any format, equally as well. By my mind, that is an incredible skill on its own .. being able to learn in any way.  Its value is far greater for being what we can consider “a spin-off benefit.” It is a travesty that the educators of today rush around to be accommodative, to tailor content delivery to the preferences of students. I advocate for the opposite, as it yields more benefits.

Case study

As a small personal aside, I have delivered a few courses in my time. One course in particular saw Inuit students from the Kitikmeot region of Canada brought together to a training facility in Fort Providence, at which they were given six weeks of computer training. Some of them could not speak fluent English. Some of them had never left home before, never spent a night away from their family. It was the biggest, most different thing some of them had done, ever.  This course was a big deal to these students, daunting in any number of ways. In addition to the course content, there was loneliness, fear of the unknown, isolation from family and culture, food differences, and more.

Day one, it became apparent that the students were hands on learners, not too keen on the written, and scared to death of public speaking. From the second day onwards, we emphasized written/theory, with the hands on work being used as a “bonus”, and in cases where the theory was not working. Also, each day started with three or four minutes mandatory, extemporaneous speeches from each student.

The first day, there were significant tears from forty percent of the participants. The second day, there were almost tears but plenty of nervousness. The third day it was “sigh and smile” normal, and by the end of the course, all the students could speak reasonably comfortably in public (really.) One of the students gave an unprompted graduation speech about the revelatory, transformational nature of the course. The parts he spoke tearfully about had nothing to do with computers, and everything to do with being forced out of his shell, having to cope with new demands and a new environment, being forced to do things he was not comfortable with. He excelled in the course, and later, he went on to provide IT support for the Government of Nunavut. No one will ever convince me that coddling is the answer. No one will ever convince me that making students comfortable and at ease is the answer. Far from it. Academically, students should be thrown the wolves, pushed on their weaknesses and challenged at every turn. Coming to class, students should understand that anything could happen, because with a good teacher, anything can. They should also be just a wee bit fearful of what might happen. A certain, subtle “fear of the unexpected” is an excellent way of keeping students on their toes. When your students set up a rotational security watch to ensure you do not disable their workstations during lunch break, you know they are truly learning something.

Be realistic

Moving forward: be willing to bail, and be realistic. A lot of people would offer the advice “persevere, no matter what.” I agree with it entirely. I also think it is silly to its core, and is actually is befitting of association with Einstein’s definition of insanity, which is “to repeat the same behaviour, expecting different results.” You need to know when to persevere, and you need to know when to say “This stuff is beyond me, I don’t REALLY want to do the necessary work to get where I want to go, I should spend my time elsewhere.”

For a time, I wanted to attain the rank of Chess Master. After spending enough time in chess, I now know that there is no way I would ever commit the time required to get to that level (assuming I have the chops to get there in the first place.) Before playing thousands of games and reading thousands of pages of instruction, I had NO IDEA how much work is involved to play chess at a really high level.  I realized that I really do not want to spend years with my nose in a book, memorizing opening variations and theory, to achieve a real chess rank. There is too much in life to experience, in my mind anyways, to devote the time to that single pursuit. The desire to be a chess master is gone. I have no mistaken aspirations, and I can enjoy chess simply for its beauty. My willingness to come to terms with my lack of commitment brings me greater contentment in the game, in that I play it for fun, not for a rating, and not for a goal.

Learn to read quickly

Other than knowing how to approach a subject, the ability to rapidly digest and integrate information is critical. Learn to speed read, or develop your own mechanisms. Have you ever seen a guy guzzle a beer, without any swallowing? It’s a steady pour, from glass to gullet. You can learn to read the same way.

Routinely check your progress

Routinely check your progress to ensure you are actually making some! Honestly evaluate the work you are putting in and the returns you are getting for this work. If the results are not there, something in the equation may be off and may need to be re-evaluated. Maybe you missed a fundamental concept. Maybe your overview was bad and you are working on the wrong things. Maybe you are so far out of your depth you have no hope! As an adjunct point to consider, remember that certain things take time. Things involving muscle memory, for example, cannot be rushed and will take months/years/decades to develop fully. This long learning time frame further underscores the need to be conscious and efficient in our learning techniques. If we are going to spend decades doing ANYTHING, we might as well try to do it as well as possible. A ten percent gain in learning efficiency is a full YEAR we could spend doing something else, assuming we spend a decade. Ten percent can be squeezed out of almost anything that has not been optimized.

In summary, be very conscious about how you go about the process of learning. Recognize that learning itself is a skill, one that is worthy of the most careful attention. Be tactical, strategic in your learning approach. Start overly broad, narrow focus over time. Pick your teachers carefully. Develop the ability to learn without preference to form: audio, video, written, hands on, it should not matter. Don’t waste time with poor learning technique, and don’t waste time on fruitless learning endeavours: expect results, and if you are not getting them, figure out why.

Good luck, Brainiac.

If you enjoyed reading this you might also like: Observations of an Observer. 

3 thoughts on “How to Learn Faster and Better

  1. Rick says:

    I would think that asking someone to believe something, and then telling them in the next sentence that they’re deluded for believing it might not be that best way to build a foundation.

    • Ryan Walker says:

      I see your point. The contradiction was intended to be a suggestion that you must approach, mentally, your subject, as though there are no obstacles. You will look at everything, you will never say “too hard to try”, too complex for me. At the same time, you must know that you are not going to write a physics paper tomorrow if you just picked up the topic, and you are not going to jump into the ring with Mike Tyson after a little boxing practice (maybe even after a lifetime of devoted practice.) Don’t limit yourself artificially, but maintain a tether to reality.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *