Personal reflections on learning

"Learn how to learn" is a phrase that I first heard in the context of education through the schooling system. Its recursive nature and alliteration makes it a catchy and cute little phrase. But to me, it articulates the key benefit of education systems. I think that university is beneficial for learning how to absorb course material, aside from its non-flexible and potentially toxic sink-or-swim environment. Anecdotally, I've observed that many graduates tend to forget a majority of the content of their courses. Personally, I can already notice some knowledge evaporating. What I do see retained is the ability to absorb and filter even more information effectively. Each graduate has their own method of learning; some parts they explicitly think about but largely parts they do unconsciously. While most of us would agree we're better at learning after university, I want to focus on the explicit learning techniques portion of learning ability and share what I've learned so far.

1. Methods for learning should evolve; experimentation is key

While I'm sure I've gained a lot of passive skills in terms of ability to decipher and absorb information, I spend a lot of time explicitly thinking about methods that I use to learn better. When I talk about methods, I'm thinking about different ways I extract information, filter information, record and recall information, review information and share information.
- A method could be note-taking during lectures.
- A method could be creating flash cards in science class to remember all the details.
- A method to me could be writing important tasks on sticky notes and putting it on your monitor.
- A method could be writing minutes after and meeting to solidify important learnings.

I want to be clear that to me, learning methods in my use can encapsulate any concrete and repeated process that you perform or use to augment your own mind and memory in order to deal with information more effectively. Learning to me is gaining knowledge or wisdom through experiences and methods just help to augment this process to fill in any shortcomings of your brain. All the examples of methods that I listed above are processes that I've used to try to learn faster; that is, learning faster is to gain more knowledge or wisdom from some experience.

While I hope to share methods that I've found to be incredibly valuable, I want to preface this with something more important that the methods themselves. While these methods might bring great value to you, what's more important than reading and adopting advice from others is to experiment and learn what your own shortcomings are and to find methods that fill in these weaknesses or help to grow in these areas. Without being open to new ideas and techniques, you'll never know what potential your mind might have or where the shortcomings in your current systems might be. Things like what medium you take notes on (keyboard, vs. handwritten, digital vs. paper) is a simple of example of something that you can experiment with and see what provides you the most value. Another example on the topic of note-taking is the verbosity of your notes. While more verbose notes are great for reviewing details, summary notes might be beneficial for regaining high level context on certain topics at a glance. For note-taking, I've found a lot of value is keyboard because of speed, and found summary notes are best as I rarely review detailed and verbose notes which might be of lower quality than a simple hyperlink. I've found that paper notes are hard to search quickly while digital notes and indexed and more accessible. These are all things I've learned through experimenting with my methods and systems for note-taking. This can of course extend beyond note-taking to other learning methods like improving recollection, being more receptive to feedback, getting more out of reading, or finding ways to get the most out of conversations and meetings. What's most beneficial is tweaking methods and tools and experimenting with new processes to find how you learn best.

2. Knowledge management has been helpful for organizing thought, for retention and for satisfaction

My original intention of this writing piece was to reflect on learning and how I've tackled it and share some hidden gems that have really influenced how I learn. This reflection is both for the benefit of myself to express and understand what I value most out of my systems for learning, and to also share these systems.

On the topic of methods, knowledge management is one area where I've applied many methods to and iterated often on. Of course my system is never complete and the methods may likely change in the future, but what's working for me really well right now is having a single repository of notes that is organized and searchable. In its current state at the time of writing, it is hosted publicly on GitHub and being a git repo allows me to document important learnings from many different places including my text editor of choice, from the web, on my phone or offline on a plane ride. The simplicity of this design makes it portable, but also easily version controlled with the use of git.

Some key drawbacks of using a simple model is that there is little support for notes that require drawings, visuals, diagrams or formulas. I have tried tools like "CamScanner" to have written notes digitally accessible and enable handwritten diagrams and drawings, but the lack of centralization makes note review harder to conduct as I've found it's harder to find relevant notes. I've tried "Quiver", a rich text editor that allows segments with different syntax, including markdown, plaintext, rich text, and UML diagrams, but it lacked portability and made it difficult to takes notes on the web or on my phone, or from multiple computers. This also meant I couldn't review it as easily. While these tools didn't work well for me, my purpose for sharing these details is to gain an idea of the iterative process and not to discourage use of new tools.

There remains the argument that learning from the note-taking process is less reinforced or less effectively committed to memory comparing typing to handwriting (especially for kinetic learners). While this may be true, for me the aspect of organization and retrieval benefits allow me to better perform reviews of the notes that I take, making the learning reinforcement more effective.

There have been some major benefits of centralizing notes beyond its effectiveness and usability. It has profoundly beneficial psychological benefits for me; namely, I gain a sense of satisfaction that I have measurable learnings and can reflect on longer periods of time and look back on all that I learned. This helps to retrospectively look back and evaluate alignment to my career and life goals and also feel proud of the accomplishments. There's just something so satisfying about seeing a green square on each calendar square on GitHub :). The explicit encouragement to have discipline to record learnings and reflect is a major benefit in my opinion. Additionally, it helps to remedy the slow knowledge decay over time by have quick points of reference for rusty topics. While my note-taking methods and learnings might not be relevant to others who have different learning styles or shortcomings, these methods have helped to augment my memory and to flex the right areas to train my mind to get better at knowledge retention and thus slowing the decay of knowledge.

Finally, by explicitly consolidating each day, I've learned what kinds of information is useful to retain and record and what is less useful and ignored during my reviews. This in turn extends to recognizing what ideas to commit to long term memory which I think is a great skill to develop to learn more efficiently. Overall, knowledge management through note-taking to me is the most profoundly impactful method that I systematically and consistently use to learn, and has had a positive impact on my retention, ability to review and my mental health regarding growth.

3. Explicit methods can extend to learnings beyond academia

I opened by talking about how we "learn how to learn" by enduring the rigor of academia, but often times these methods that people use in academia are rarely transferred and leveraged outside of it. Note-taking is something that I feel in the minority for in industry, and flashcards even more so. While everyone carries the implicit skills beyond academia, I feel that the explicit methods used in academia were effective for a reason and that these could be leveraged outside of academia with great effect. Note-taking was great in coursework for retaining knowledge throughout the school term. I've found note-taking at a wider scope than a four month school term has helped to manage my knowledge and wisdom learned throughout my career. Flash cards helped us in school to learn terminology and similarly, has helped me ramp up in a new work environment with all these new code names and acronyms in a new workplace. TODO list methods for assignments and due dates has extended to managing my workload professionally. These are just a few examples that I can think of. Perhaps this section is obvious to you for those who do pull methods from academia to other parts of their lives, but I think it's worth the shout-out.

4. Everyone learns differently, but mental alignment with methods and processes is key

I've shared some details about methods that have helped accelerate my learning, but maybe they don't resonate with you at all, and that's fine. What I think it more important to articulate is that you have to believe in the methods that you use, and find problems to solve instead of having solutions that seek problems. There's two distinct ideas here, the first of which is believing in your system. It's much like agile methodologies in software. If a team uses them without understanding and believing that they might be beneficial, it becomes a burden on execution. Similarly, process in learning can be detrimental if you are adding it to your workflow without really knowing why it might help you. So when I say believe in your system, I'm not encouraging blindly following the gospel preached by others, but rather consciously evaluating tools and methods and using ones that you believe will truly help you learn. The second idea here is to find problems to solve, not solutions to problems that are not present. This is any easy pitfall for developers who are blindly adding new tools to their setup without having a problem to solve. Similarly, in learning methods, you will not find any profound value in any processes or rituals without first identifying a problem with how your currently learn. If you find an inefficiency with how you tackle absorbing new information, this is truly where there are gaps to be filled and untapped value to be discovered.

This is a space where I wanted to reflect on how I learn, and on any parables I might be able to share with others hoping to level up their learning capabilities. I don't claim to have a clickbait solution to let you download the matrix, but I do hope you gained a possibly fresh perspective on how to tackle learning. Be skeptical of new methods, and scrutinize them to make sure it's what you need to be more efficient. And finally, always iterate and reflect on how you learn. It'll help you understand yourself and curiously learn effectively. While school might be where we started learning how to learn, we have any empty canvas ahead to continue tweaking ourselves and to grow to be better versions of ourselves.

The 5 hour rule

It's the idea that many successful entrepreneurs follow, of having a set aside amount of time daily to learn and grow. This follows the article on work-life balance; maintaining your fundamentals is important, one of which is learning. This is something I am strongly aligned with, as per the existence of this repository of thoughts and notes. By setting aside time every day to learn, you can ensure that stagnation will be avoided and you can see compounding effectiveness as you improve learning workflows. The article goes on further to say that others spend this 1-hour a day thinking about their mental models and perception of the world around them, while other's spend it experimenting with new ideas.

The way you read books is important

This article articulated some important concepts around how to tackle books in digestible and reasonable ways. The biggest takeaway for me is to not approaching books with a completionist mindset, and instead optimize for value (non-fiction material). I think people get hung up with hearing statistics about billionaires finishing a book a day or something in that vein. What really matters is extracting value out of reading material in an effective way. It highlights that having a reading backlog of unread books is a strong habit for ensuring that the books you do end up consuming are higher quality and more impactful. It keeps you humble, knowing how little you know about the world. Reading books like magazines can be a helpful idea for skimming books for value. Treat books like experiments, in hopes of finding life-changing and inspirational ideas.

Deep Work implies Flow

This is a really interesting article that ties together ideas from two books.

Deep Work pushes your cognitive capabilities to the limit, creating new value and improving skills. Often requires a distraction free context.

Flow is a state of mind where time becomes irrelevant and intentional focus leads to active enjoyment (different from passive pleasure). I think about riding roller coasters or enjoying a good dinner. Deep work can induce a state of flow.