Alternate title: The best article ever written about optimizing your learning process and becoming smarter than 99% of people.
I was watching the new X-Men movie with some friends recently.
There was a scene early on in that movie where the villain, Apocalypse, touches a TV, and the young mutant Storm asks him, “What are you doing?“.
Apocalypse answers: “I… am…..LEARRNINGG!”
And just like that, Apocalypse had learned everything there was to know about mankind for the last 2000 years (while he was asleep). A few seconds later he formulates a master plan for conquering the world.
When I went home that night, I got curious and read up on some things.
For example… did you know that Marvel (which is behind X-Men) is the biggest and most profitable comic book company?
Or that DC Comics (which owns Batman, among others) is #2?
Or. . . that Disney owns Marvel and many other companies? 1
To Learn Optimally You Need a System, and…
Like Apocalypse, I too, have my secret ways for learning.
–A Framework for Learning.
You need one of these as soon as possible in life.
I realized this when I was around 20.
It was perhaps one of the most important turning points of my life, but there was nothing to indicate it.
It was totally undramatic.
Sometimes making progress is just about keeping your head down.
Why formulate a “Framework of Learning,” and what does it entail?
A Framework of Learning is a systematic way for screening out useless info and memorizing the most useful information.
It’s 100 % achievable by anyone (who’s willing to do the brain-work required).
And the reason you want one ASAP is because it’s one of these things that really SCALE over time. So the earlier in life you formulate your own Framework of Learning, the more you stand to gain from it.
–Except perhaps money.
Crafting Your Master Katana
Everyone has an optimal learning strategy.
. . . but most people don’t take the time to find it.
Japanese katanas are some of the coolest objects made by man.
Katanas are now relatively cheap and easy to come by because they are mass-produced.
The average person cannot tell the difference between a mass-produced katana, and a katana that has been crafted by a swordmaster.
The mass-produced katana will rust and break. And it weighs too much.
The swordsmaster’s katana will never break down or rust. It will move through the air with elegance and cut anything that crosses its path to pieces.
The public education system pops out people that are like these mass-produced katanas. They’re mentally dull.
You want to be like the swordsmaster’s katana; elegant and incisive.
A katana is made by hammering on a piece of metal.
Your Framework of Learning is the hammer and the idea is the metal.
The master swordsman knows how and when to apply just the right amount of force behind his blows.
He knows when to keep hammering and when to follow his inspiration and do something eccentric. He also knows when to stop hammering and put the piece of metal in cold water, allowing for it to harden into shape.
The art of learning is exactly like that.
The experienced learner, with an eye apt for ideas, knows when something is useful and relevant. He also knows exactly how to hammer that idea into his long-term memory, with the help of his Framework of Learning.
The “cool-down period” translates into (a) waiting for the next blow and (b) summoning your subconscious to synthesize the idea into context with information you already know.
This happens most easily during flow-inducing activities such as:
- Working out
- Walking, running, swimming
My 7-Step Framework of Learning
It’s not easy to craft a master katana, but once you have it, you can slice through the complexity in life with an ease that causes others to marvel.
Here are the 7 steps I go through to craft the katana:
- Taking in the information.
- Taking notes.
- Reviewing your notes.
- Summarizing the key takeaways.
- Teaching it to someone else.
- Building a rich bank of associations.
- Integrating the idea/info with your commonplace.
The first 5 steps are about spaced repetition. Each repetition represents a blow from my hammer.
The last 2 steps are synergistic complements. They represent the cool-down period, which boost synthesis.
The reason my Framework of Learning works is because it’s based on 3 fundamental cognitive processes:
- Spaced repetition–to hammer in the idea.
- Association–to increase mental serendipity.
- Filtering processes–to ensure that we only deal with gold.
I believe tranquillity is nothing but the fine ordering of the mind… He who follows reason in all things is both tranquil and active at the same time, and also cheerful and collected.
Step 1: Taking in the Information
My preferred way for taking in information is to read high quality books, exhaustive articles, or summaries of either.
I am not a very fast reader. Perhaps slightly above average. However, and more importantly, my retention is excellent.
When you’re reading–or taking in information of any sort–there are 3 things to keep in mind. And they are in order of importance:
- Filtering out the crap to find the gold.
- Assigning importance and deciding when to read.
- Reading and applying your Framework of Learning.
To filter out the crap and find the gold, you need to learn basic speed-reading.
All You Need to Know About Speed-Reading in 30 Seconds:
When you’ve done this enough times, you should be able to get a basic understanding of a book in about 1 minute.
The Purpose of Speed-Reading:
Many people misunderstand speed-reading. They think it’s some kind of magic pill. The truth is, speed-reading is only good for filtering purposes. You use it to quickly ascertain the importance of some written material, and then you decide whether or not to continue reading.
You do not use speed-reading for learning purposes.
To give you some sense of perspective, you should spend 5% of your time skimming material and the other 95% on reading and processing it through the necessary steps of your Framework of Learning (depending on how important the material is).
“Some books are to be tasted, others to be swallowed, and a few to be chewed and digested.”
Gold books are to be chewed and digested.
How to Rank the 4 Types of Information by Order of Importance/Quality:
- Gold books (original books with multiple ideas).
- Special purpose books (typically biographies and “how-to” material).
- One-idea books (books that take 150+ pages to describe something that could be said in 1 page).
- Crap. (99% of all content–especially online).
Think 80/20 and limit your reading to gold books and special-purpose books.
Try to avoid one-idea books and crap. There are some good one-idea books out there, but most are simply not worth the time. Reading a summary of the book, or a blog post about it, is often a better idea.
Step 2: Taking Notes
Most people think taking notes is boring and tiresome. Not me.
When I take notes I think of it as hammering the idea into my brain.
Take notes as often as you can. Having a commonplace is a must for this reason, because then you can organize and access your notes for the rest of your life. It scales nicely over time.
Now for 3 tips on proper note-taking:
1) Always Write 30-Second Summaries:
Do it after reading an article, a book chapter, listening to a podcast, attending a meeting, listening to a lecture, and so on…
This simple little trick might be the most important “learning hack” out there.
Lee Kuan Yew did it all his life. So did Nixon. Both men noted that most other great leaders (over the age of 40) did not have the same mental sharpness as they did, and therefore had to rely on assistants to a higher degree.
Doing 30-second summaries is more important now than ever before. We are deluged with excessive amounts of shallow, useless information. Having a computer with Internet access is a wonderful thing, in theory. . .
When I read things on the Internet, I typically just search for some information and make a checklist of what I need (a 30-sec summary). . .
. . . then I’m on my way!
2) Learn Color Coding:
Color coding makes it easier for your brain to process information.
Once you learn to associate a color with a certain category of information, you don’t have to expend precious brain-space for putting that information in its correct context.
Color coding also makes it easier (and faster) to review old notes.
I recommend buying multi-colored pens. These two are the ones I use:
Deciphering my color code:
- Blue/grey for normal text.
- Light blue for quotes.
- Red for important things.
- Green for chapter names/headlines.
- Purple for key takeaways.
- Pink for mental models, ideas, or new things.
3) Always Write Down New Words
Either do it as you go along, or list them all together at the last page of the book (if it’s a physical book).
If you have a commonplace, you can keep a section with all new words you learn and go through it once per month.
Step 3: Reviewing Your Notes
You’ve now delivered two blows with the hammer: Reading and writing.
–It is now time for blow #3.
Other than the obvious benefit of spaced repetition, another benefit of reviewing your notes is that it may give you a new perspective; freed from the initial complexity of having had to learn the material the first time.
On a second review, it may become clear that you were over-weighing some specific information (typically due to being focused on a particular goal at the time of reading).
Reviewing your notes is most useful for gold books.
On a second review, your interpretation of the material may be different. It will be simpler and more concrete, as an effect of having screened away the initial clutter from the first read.
Here’s an example of something I thought was extremely funny when I first read it, but on a second glance I realize it’s completely useless information:
The text is in Swedish. Here’s a direct translation:
“Ludvig [king of France] was 58 years old and an old man for his age. He was incredibly fat, but despite this enormous corpulence his appearance was marked by great dignity, rooted in a strong self-esteem and a complete absence of every doubt regarding the righteousness of his demands and the inviolate nature of his position.”
Step #4: Writing Book Summaries
This is the 4th–and most powerful–blow with the hammer.
Except for repetition, there are two more benefits to writing a book summary:
- It forces you to filter out the fluff and prioritize the useful info.
- It remains as high quality material for future reference.
Start keeping a “Book Summary” section inside your commonplace or buy an empty book and fill it up. Maybe do both. You need to do at least one.
If a book is good, it should always be summarized.
[Pictured: My book summary books and their TOCs of~200 book summaries.]
If a book is great, then–in addition to being summarized–it should also be re-read at some point in the future.
When you summarize the book, always keep in mind: “Will this information be useful or interesting to me 5-15+ years from now?”
To learn more read: How to Keep a Book Summary Book
Step #5: Teach it to Someone Else
It has been said that if you can’t explain a subject to someone else, then you don’t know the subject well enough.
So write a blog post. Shoot a video. Give a speech. Tell a friend. Make an infographic. . .
. . . or whatever your preferred medium is for sharing the information with someone else.
If you think this wouldn’t work for you, then look no further than at the system we use to
teach indoctrinate doctors.
Learn one, do one, teach one.
After this procedure, the information sticks–sometimes a bit too well. 2
That concludes the first 5 steps of my Framework of Learning.
A Brief Note on These First 5 Steps
All these first 5 steps have to do with hammering in the idea until it sticks in your brain. The more important something is, the more steps you put it through. However. . .
Most things don’t qualify for going through more than the first 1-2 steps of my Framework of Learning. (If even that.)
For those times when you come across really powerful ideas, you want to have a structured process for hammering it into your head. Forever.
The more sophisticated your eye for idea becomes, the more you’ll be able to use your Framework of Learning. You should not ever have to read crap.
For the last two steps: They act as synergistic compliments, and everyone should use them to some extent.
Step #6: Building a Rich Bank of Associations
Most people believe that most of their thinking is self-willed.
They are wrong.
Most of the thinking we do stems from subconscious factors. The thought process is originally nothing but an advanced coping mechanism for helping the human animal to better maintain homeostasis.
Probably the biggest subconscious trigger behind our thinking (and certainly the easiest one to manipulate) is the associations we have.
Retail stores know this when they place the milk in the back of the store. This forces you to walk past lots of other stuff, which triggers associations in your brain, making you “remember” your need for these products. You go in for some milk and you walk out of there with some broccoli and dark chocolate.
There are many ways to practice associative learning.
In my opinion, the top 3 are:
- Studying history.
- Being mindful of Dunbar’s Number.
- Studying successful people.
By mastering these three principles, you’ll significantly improves the chances of triggering a benevolent thought pattern via association. This increases your serendipity of becoming an elite thinker. 3
1) Studying History:
The similarities you spontaneously notice.
Nothing is new under the sun.
Reading history and biographies has excellent transferability and it will make you more successful in other areas of life also.
The study of history allows you to pick up on similarities and subtle patterns. When other people are easily deceived and misdirected, you go, “Hey, this is like that time in the early industrial revolution when….”
Associative learning is like being out on the sea and casting out a net.
On a neurological level, what’s happening in your brain is this: You build up a large web of neural pathways. Kind of like a net. Then when you cast that net out into the sea you can more easily catch fish because your net now has hooks in it!
Sea = Information
Catch fish = Learn and remember
Hooks = Associations
The best way to acquire these “hooks” is by reading history and biographies.
In my commonplace, I keep a section specifically for collecting trivia. I have like 500 notes; all of which act as “hooks” to help me memorize some big idea.
(I also have further categories for these trivia, for easy overview, in case I need to use them to explain something or illustrate a point.)
2) Being Mindful of Dunbar’s Number
Your peer group (as perceived and imagined).
The human brain is limited to ~150 people4 that it automatically compares itself to, trusts inherently, and thinks about from time to time via association.
In cave man days, these 150 spots were all occupied by our tribesmen.
Today, for most people, these 150 spots are taken up by:
- Actors playing pretend roles.
- Celebrities and other highly publicized personalities.
- People they vaguely know who post ego pictures on social media.
When you’re not mindful of your Dunbar’s Number, you’re giving away the most valuable real-estate that exists.
And—as if it couldn’t get worse—not only are you letting others5 benefit (financially) off of your stupidity, but you’re also limiting your brain’s ability to think properly.
Those 150 spots should be reserved only for family, close friends, and role-models (dead or alive).
3) Studying Successful People
Role models and anti-role models.
Learn from the successes of the best in history and study their failures so that you can avoid making them.
Step #7: Integrating The Ideas With Your Commonplace
Every valuable piece of information I come across gets filed into my commonplace for life-long access.
[The main interface of my Evernote commonplace (where I do most of my work and studies). Right click “view image” for full screen.]
For the important and useful ideas, I create an appropriate list:
- A list of best practices (for understanding).
- A list of examples (for association).
- A checklist (for application).
If something is REALLY important, I may build an entire system around it.
I’ve done this for all my major projects, as well as for all major cognitive biases and mental models. These systems are to be updated and used for the rest of my life.
That concludes the 7 steps of my Framework of Learning.
How to Use This
Copy what you need to build your own Framework of Learning.
It will scale for the rest of your life.
The first 5 steps (banging the hammer) can be modified, but everyone can and should use the last 2 steps (controlling associations and commonplacing) for their Framework of Learning.
“What if I’m Starting from Scratch?”
It took me well over a year before I was able to put all of these pieces together into a coherent framework and master it.
Here’s how I would do it step-by-step if I were to start over:
- Read regularly (at least 30 minutes per day, or the equivalent weekly).
- Do 30-second summaries and book summaries.
- Start a commonplace.
- Learn the basics of speed-reading to not waste time on crap info.
- Create a method for note-taking on computer and/or physically.
Do you already have a framework of learning?
If so, please describe it.
The Ultimate Commonplace System:
For more information on commonplacing and how to build the right systems into it, check out TUCS
Like Lucasfilm and Pixar… Disney is becoming one heck of a powerful corporation, nearing a monopoly on popular culture through its influence over movie production and such. ↩
(This is why the medical community isn’t exactly known for its open-mindedness.) ↩
Newton may have been “lucky” to have had that proverbial apple fall on his head, (which triggered associations that made him intuit the idea of gravity) but there was nothing lucky about his putting in many years of rigorous brain-work prior to that serendipitous moment. ↩
or fictive entities perceived as people or personalities. This is a BIG caveat. ↩
*cough* Mark Fuckerberg *cough* ↩