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How To Learn How To Learn

By: Brian Kim - February 15, 2007

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I remember reading (I think from Mark Cuban) that learning how to learn is one of the best skills you can develop. That phrase - “learning how to learn” – it got stuck in my head and I turned that concept over and over in my mind and asked myself - Do we have to learn how to learn?

After thinking about it, I’ve realized that learning is something so natural that we don’t even recognize that we’re doing it because we get so caught up in the process of it.

Most of us associate learning as something difficult, something reserved for extremely intelligent people, but that is not the case at all. I think the biggest indicator that will tell you how much you will learn is what makes you want to learn in the first place. I know that sounds pretty obvious, but that single factor is very important as you’ll soon see.

Take for example, learning the latest accounting rules because your job requires it as opposed to learning about cars because that’s something you like. If you have to learn something, you’ll only learn as much as you’re required to – in other words the absolute minimum (remember when you were in school?), but if you want to learn something, the sky’s the limit.

It really begins first with choosing the right subject. This is key. This choice alone can determine how much you are willing to learn. You have to develop a love for learning and that becomes really easy when you love the subject itself.

After the right subject is chosen, then comes the education. When education comes to mind, we tend to think of books, tapes, videos but there’s one element that a lot of people seem to miss and that element is the human being. People who are experts in any particular subject can filter through everything and tell you the information you need to read, the actions you need to take, etc., and by doing so, can cut your learning curve in half. That’s the whole logic behind mentors and their students. Mentors have gone through the learning curve on their own and they can then distill what they’ve learned and guide their students through the important points and concepts so they don’t waste time learning the ones they don’t need. They also have the ability to explain difficult concepts and actions more clearly to their students and get their point across because they’ve been in their shoes before.

After the knowledge, comes action. You have to apply what you’ve learned. This stage is where most people fall into a trap. They want to know everything before they take any sort of action. That’s the wrong mentality to have because by doing so, you effectively block yourself from the most important stage of learning - refinement.

The stage of refinement is where the majority of learning occurs because refinement acts as a filter to guide you to the knowledge you need to get again from books, tapes, videos, people, etc., to further your learning experience. This puts you back to the second stage, education which then leads to the third stage – application, which leads again to the fourth stage, refinement and on and on and on. This cycle is where the majority of learning takes place.

Let’s take a simple example and go through this cycle. Let’s say somebody is interested in learning how to make web pages. They go on Google and do some research and find out about HTML – the language that builds web pages.

They open up a text editor, do the and tags and type in “hello world.” They close the tags, save as an .html file and voila, the web page is created.

Success never tasted so sweet. Now what? How do I get it on the web “live”? Now comes the search for the knowledge on FTP, domains, hosting, etc.

How do I show an image? Then comes the search for the image tag. Then they start to realize the importance of tags, quotes, etc.

Do you see where this is going?

After the action is taken, they want to learn how to do more so the refinement is showing them what they need to know and they go back to learning, applying what they’ve learned, refining, in essence, loop themselves from educate -> apply -> refine and as they do so, the knowledge + experience starts compounding on one another until their learning starts to grow exponentially (i.e – realizing the importance of beginning and ending tags, relative, absolute URLs, etc).

This is the basic overall methodology to learning.

The refinement stage is very important because that will determine whether or not you really learn because anybody can learn something and apply it, but few will go the extra mile and get caught up in the cycle of learn -> apply -> refine.

Again, people who are knowledgeable about a subject can help you in the refinement stage because you can ask exactly the questions you need and they can respond accordingly to give you the exact knowledge you requested. That’s something books, tapes, and videos cannot do because those are one sided conversations. You can further capitalize on asking people by leveraging those relationships to ask for introductions to other people who are knowledgeable about the subject as well. Associating yourself with people who love the subject helps a ton because you can pick their brain as well to get even more information.

Other Factors Crucial To Learning

A Humble Attitude – this is critical to learning and is best applied when it comes to asking people for information. Acknowledge the fact that you know little about the subject and that you wish to learn and then ask people to help you and you will be amazed at the torrent of information that comes pouring out from them. People will be less inclined to give out information to somebody who claims they know a lot about the subject as opposed to those who are humble and willing to learn. This leads to..

Listening – The majority of people LOVE to talk about subjects they are knowledgeable about and are more than willing to dish everything out, provided the other party is truly listening.

Experimenting – Don’t be afraid to mix things up when you apply what you’ve learned because that in turn can point to an area of refinement you never knew existed. Experimenting shakes things up and can even lead you to learning something that’s never be known before!

I want you to look back on any learning experience you had with subjects that you were really interested in – whether it was learning magic tricks, computer programming, fixing cars etc., and you’ll find you went through this exact same cycle of learning as well.

Learning begins with choosing the right subject, one that you, and you alone are truly interested in and I know that sounds obvious, but people try to learn things that they are not interested in for reasons outside themselves. How many people study subjects in school that they have no interest in just because it’s one of the “hot” majors to get into? Why do they study electrical engineering if they truly like the subject of art? They’ll probably go farther by pursuing art than electrical engineering because the love of the subject of art will get them to learn all they can about it.

It turns out learning is pretty easy, so long as you like the subject. When that happens, you’ll realize that all that time you spent on it was actually time spent learning. It just didn’t feel like it at all.

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7 Responses to “How To Learn How To Learn”

  1. Peter Says:

    We Learn…
    10%…of What We Read
    20%…of What We Hear
    30%…of What We See
    50%…of What We See and Hear
    70%…of What We Discuss With Others
    80%…of What We Experience Personally
    95%…of What We Teach Others
    –William Glasser

    I can testify to the overall correctness of this quote… In my field, programming, there is nothing like participating in a mailing list and trying to help others, trying to teach others.
    Sometimes you activate LOVE and you are tented to give what you don’t have. You learn by trying to help.

    Bob Proctor’s Insight of the day for today is:
    “The highest reward for a person’s toil is not what they get for it, but what they become by it.” - John Ruskin

    Teaching others makes you better ;)

  2. Mitza Says:

    But what about hose things that we have to learn in school and we don’t want to learn them ?

  3. Brian Kim Says:

    Hi Mitza,

    Those things that you have to learn in school, but don’t want to - you’ll learn only as much as you’re required to, in other words, the absolute minimum so you probably won’t go above and beyond that.

    Hi Peter,

    Excellent point. I agree wholeheartedly. I guess teaching others would be Stage Five ;)


  4. John Wesley Says:

    I love the idea of learning how to learn, and I’ve thought about writing on the idea myself. I think that what it comes down to is desire. Unless something is essential or required for your job, you need to want to learn to really get anywhere.

    So what makes people want to learn? And why do some people love learning about many things, while other people could careless? Who really knows. This is where the distinction between free will and inherent curiosity is difficult to make.

  5. Mitza Says:

    Brian … the school I’m talking about is named College, and require a lot of time, with things that are totally useless.

  6. Brian Kim Says:

    Hi John,

    You’re absolutely right. Desire plays a BIG role in determining how much you learn.

    We’re all different, and we all like different things and I think that plays a big role in deciding what we would like to learn.


    I know how college can be, but remember, it’s YOU who can frame it whichever way you like it. If you think some classes are useless, why take them? And if you have to take them and you view them as useless, you’ll only probably learn as much as you need to in order to pass. On the other hand, if you really like the class, then you’ll probably learn as much as you want.

  7. Personal Development Radar - 24/02/2007 - Personal Development Ideas Blog Says:

    […] How To Learn How To Learn by Brian Kim […]

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