6 min read
Learning in Exponential Times
Aug 8, 2015
How to learn is changing, and it’s changing fast.
In the past, we used to learn by doing – we called them apprenticeships.
Then the model shifted, and we learned by going to school.
Now, it’s going back to the apprenticeship again, but this time, you are both the apprentice and the master.
This blog is about how to learn during exponential times, when information is abundant and expertise is fleeting.
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Passion, Utility, Research & Focus
First, choosing what you want to learn and becoming great at it is tough.
As I wrote in my last blog, doing anything hard and doing it well takes grit.
Here are a few tips I’ve learned over the years to help choose what you want to learn:
- Start with your passions: Focus on something you love, or learn a new skill in service of your passion. If you want to learn how to code because it will land you a high-paying job, you’re not going to have the drive to spend countless, frustrating hours debugging your code. If you want to become a doctor because your parents want you to, you’re not going to make it through med school. Focus on the things YOU love and do it because it’s YOUR choice.
- Make it useful: Time is the scarcest resource. While you can spend the time learning for the sake of learning, I think learning should be a means to an end. Without a target, you’ll miss every time. Figure out what you want to do, and then identify the skills you need to acquire to accomplish that goal.
- Read, watch and analyze: Read everything. Read all the time. Start with the experts. Read the material they write or blog. Watch their videos, their interviews. Do you agree with them? Why?
- Talk to people: Once you’re done reading, actually talk to real human beings that are doing what you want to do. Do whatever you can to reach them. Ask for their advice. You’ll be shocked by what you can learn this way.
- Focus on your strengths: Again, time is precious. You can’t be a doctor, lawyer, coder, writer, rocket scientist, and rock star all at the same time… at least not right now. Focus on what you are good at and enjoy most and try to build on top of those skills. Many people, especially competitive people, tend to feel like they need to focus on improving the things they are worst at doing. This is a waste of time. Instead, focus on improving the things you are best at doing – you’ll find this to be a much more rewarding and lucrative path.
Learn by Doing
There is no better way to learn than by doing.
I’m a fan of the “apprentice” model. Study the people who have done it well and then go work for them.
If they can’t (or won’t) pay you, work for free until you are good enough that they’ll need to hire you.
Join a startup doing what you love – it’s much cheaper than paying an expensive tuition, and a hell of a lot more useful.
I don’t think school (or grad school) is necessarily the right answer anymore.
Here’s one reason why:
This week I visited the Hyperloop Technologies headquarters in Los Angeles (full disclosure: I am on the board of the company).
The interim CEO and CTO Brogan Bambrogan showed me around the office, and we stopped at one particularly impressive-looking, massive machine (details confidential).
As it turns out, the team of Hyperloop engineers who had designed, manufactured, tested, redesigned, remanufactured, and operated this piece of equipment did so in 11 weeks, for pennies on the dollar.
At MIT, Stanford or CalTech, building this machine would have been someone’s Ph.D. thesis…
Except that the Ph.D. candidate would have spent three years doing the same amount of work, and written a paper about it, rather than help to redesign the future of transportation.
Meanwhile, the Hyperloop engineers created this tech (and probably a half-dozen other devices) in a fraction of the time while creating value for a company that will one day be worth billions.
Full Immersion & First Principles
You have to be fully immersed if you want to really learn.
Connect the topic with everything you care about – teach your friends about it, only read things that are related to the topic, surround yourself with.
Make learning the most important thing you can possibly do and connect to it in a visceral fashion.
As part of your full immersion, dive into the very basic underlying principles governing the skill you want to acquire.
This is an idea Elon Musk (CEO of Tesla, SpaceX) constantly refers to: “The normal way we conduct our lives is we reason by analogy. We are doing this because it’s like what other people are doing. [With first principles] you boil things down to the most fundamental truths … and then reason up from there.”
You can’t skip the fundamentals – invest the time to learn the basics before you get to the advanced stuff.
Experiment, Experiment, Experiment
Experiment, fail, experiment, fail, and experiment.
One of Google’s Innovation principles and mantras is: “Never fail to fail.”
Don’t be afraid if you are really bad at the beginning: you learn most from your mistakes.
When Elon hires people, he asks them to describe a time they struggled with a hard problem. “When you struggle with a problem, that’s when you understand it,” he says, “Anyone who’s struggled hard with a problem never forgets it.”
We used to have to go to school to read textbooks and gain access to expert teachers and professors.
Nowadays, literally all of these resources are available online for free.
There are hundreds of free education sites like Khan Academy, Udemy, or Udacity.
There are thousands of MOOCs (massive online open courses) from the brightest experts from top universities on almost every topic imaginable.
Want to learn a language? Download an app like Duolingo (or even better, pack up your things and move to that country).
Want to learn how to code? Sign up for a course on CodeAcademy or MIT Open Courseware.
The resources are there and available – you just have to have the focus and drive to find them and use them.
Finally… The Next Big Shift in Learning
In the future, the next big shift in learning will happen as we adopt virtual worlds and augmented reality.
It will be the next best thing to “doing” – we’ll be able to simulate reality and experiment (perhaps beyond what we can experiment with now) in virtual and augmented environments.
Add that to the fact that we’ll have an artificial intelligence tutor by our side, showing us the ropes and automatically customizing our learning experience.
Also read: TOP 50 MOON SHOTS
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