How Do You Learn How To Learn? Learn From Learners

learning how to learn

Are you learning as fast as the world is changing? A constant state of change requires a constant state of learning. Only a handful of companies, and people, cultivate learning as a skill.

Put simply:

Cultures of innovation = Cultures of learning

With that said, there is one skill that will always be relevant in the future: continuous learning.

There is a dominant belief that learning stops once you put your diploma to use and get a job. Wrong! Learning is a skill that can be improved, and it never stops.

So, how do you learn how to learn?

Learn From Learners

Sound simple, right? Here’s the thing, there are ways to learn faster and better than how one is taught throughout school.

From Chris McCann’s class notes from Class 18 of Stanford University’s CS183C — Technology-enabled Blitzscaling — taught by Reid Hoffman, John Lilly, Chris Yeh, and Allen Blue. This class was an interview by Reid Hoffman of Brian Chesky — the founder and CEO of Airbnb.

This is Brian’s response on an audience question about learning how to learn:

I don’t have all the answers but here’s a tip.

If I was to ask you to learn about a topic in a week ex. the basics of UI design — how would you do it?

Read a ton of books, talk to people, do exercises? This is a fairly exhaustive process but you could do it.

Now what if I said in the same week you have to learn UI design, front end development, accounting, and how to incorporate a company — how would you do it?

There isn’t enough hours in the day to learn everything. So you have to short circuit the process somehow.

One approach is to learn from definitive sources. The downside is, if you pick the wrong source, you learn the wrong thing; however, if you pick the right source, you don’t have to read anything else.

For example with management I read High Output Management. I just read one book so I don’t need to read anything else about management. Paul Graham was a version of this at Y Combinator and he would point us to the resources that mattered.

One benefit of being more successful is you have access to talk to more successful people. But even before being successful, you can read about the best people.

Another tip is most people will help you if you ask a question — we are here to share information and knowledge. I was shameless in asking Reid Hoffman questions — I was probably annoying but I didn’t care — I just wanted to learn.

My own method for learning varies, but right off the bat I develop a list of questions about a topic, ask people in the know, and immerse myself in the topic. I also read lots of biographies of interesting people; my goal is to understand how they think and then add that to my cognitive toolbox.

Hack Learning By Breaking It Down

Some people have even hacked the learning process. For example, Tim Ferriss has made his name from hacking fitness and cooking. In doing so he identified a process for quickly mastering any skill, which he shares in a talk:

Ferriss has taken his method a step further, and also has a well known podcast where he interviews interesting people who share their own approach to how they learn.

Similar to Ferris, Josh Kaufman has taken a similar approach to hack learning:

Put Yourself In The Context Of What You Want To Learn

Learning how others learn isn’t the only way to understand a topic quickly, putting yourself in the context of what you want to learn is another approach.

For example, my buddy Ivan, who I recently had on the podcast to discuss the ethics of artificial intelligence, is a self-taught programmer. How did he do it? He started hanging out with other programmers and got involved in their projects; and then coded is own projects.

It took him time, but that’s what it takes.

Start From The Basics

Another well known innovator who learns quickly is Elon Musk.

How does he do it?

He learns the foundations and then moves from there.

Here’s what Elon responded to a question on Reddit AMA about how he learns so much so fast:

I think most people can learn a lot more than they think they can. They sell themselves short without trying.

One bit of advice: it is important to view knowledge as sort of a semantic tree — make sure you understand the fundamental principles, ie the trunk and big branches, before you get into the leaves/details or there is nothing for them to hang on to.

Interestingly, as I’ve written about before, starting from first principles is an effective approach to innovation.

Leaders Are Learners

Great leaders simply aren’t satisfied with what they know. They possess an insatiable curiosity for discovery and learning – they are in constant pursuit of what they don’t know.

That’s why the best and most innovative leaders are pattern thinkers, that is they are intensely and endlessly curious. They all have that in common, the skills necessary to innovate: ask questions, pay attention, seek and talk to interesting people and lastly, experiment with ideas.

Bottom line: When we stop learning we stop growing. Continuous learning is a life skill, an antidote to irrelevance. So teaching yourself to master any skill is a powerful investment in yourself.