Picking what to learn next

Note: I originally posted this article on LinkedIn

Humans are living longer and longer. The majority of children born in developed countries today can expect to live to more than 100 years. Many of us reading this article will work until our 70s and 80s. At the same time, the world is changing quickly, so we must always adapt, grow, and learn new things.

However, even if you have decided to block some time for continuous learning, you have another problem. There is an abundance of learning resources out there. What should you learn? What learning resources should you pick? You have limited spare time and you can't possibly learn everything.

Start with WHY

Finding the time to learn is hard. Learning new things and getting to proficiency is hard. Therefore, understanding WHY you're doing these hard things will help you along the journey.

Everybody will have different methods to understand their WHY. I've used a framework from the book Getting Things Done by David Allen, which gives me the following “horizons” to review:

Build a framework of WHAT you want to learn

When it comes to learning, Elon Musk is a person that I really admire. As an entrepreneur, engineer, and industrial designer, his career is very diverse. Consider that he is founder of X.com and executive at PayPal (financial services), founder of SpaceX (aerospace), CEO of Tesla (automotive and clean energy), founder of The Boring Company (infrastructure and tunnel construction), co-founder of Neuralink (biotechnology), and co-founder of OpenAI (artificial intelligence). It takes skill and discipline to be able to learn such diverse fields of knowledge so that he can lead those multi-million dollar companies.

In 2015, Elon Musk hosted an Ask-Me-Anything session on Reddit. Answering a question about how he can learn so much and so quickly, Elon Musk gave the following answer:

“It is important to view knowledge as sort of a semantic tree — make sure you understand the fundamental principles, i.e. the trunk and big branches, before you get into the leaves/details or there is nothing for them to hang onto.”

To use the tree analogy, learning starts with the tree trunk, then the branches, and finally the leaves. In other words, start with understanding the fundamental concepts of what you want to learn. At this stage, coming up with good questions is more important than answering them.

For example, recently I wanted to learn about the palm oil industry and its impact on environmental sustainability. Typing a few broad search terms on Google (such as “palm oil sustainability”) is always a good starting point to get the brain going. The first few search results whet my appetite to ask more questions, such as: How does the palm oil industry work and what type of companies are involved in it? What are the environmental issues caused by the industry? What is the industry doing to combat this problem?

You can learn faster by connecting new knowledge to existing knowledge. When you are learning a new field, try to relate it to something you already know. Even if the field is something totally new to you, quite often you will find at least analogies to something you know. Having a big repertoire of “mental models” will help you.

For example, I learned that a palm oil industry player can get certified to prove that its products and business practices follow sustainability guidelines. Sustainability certification is very important in the palm oil industry and has a direct impact on revenue. When learning about the certification process in the palm oil industry, I dug into my experience in the audit process in the financial services industry and my university education about manufacturing supply chain. While they are not the same, making analogies between them helped me.

One more tip about building your knowledge tree: As you follow one branch, you will discover other branches. Once I understood the palm oil production supply chain, I wanted to dive deeper into each area and learn more about them. While this is part of the learning process, if you're not careful, you can go down the rabbit hole that doesn't help you achieve your objective. Always go back to the WHY and decide whether you want to go deep or broad in your learning process.

Choose HOW you want to learn

There are theories that different people have different preferences in learning styles. One such theory is the VARK model, i.e. Visual, Aural, Read/Write, and Kinesthetic. However, further studies have shown that the VARK model is merely an indication of preference, not the quality of learning. In other words, anybody can learn using any style.

Personally, I think the best way to learn is by picking the right learning medium for the context. For example:

A word about Just-In-Time vs. Just-In-Case

Congratulations if you are already blocking some time every day to learn and invest in yourself. Now you need to be strategic about how you spend this time.

Be careful about hypes. I work in technology and a lot of topics get over-hyped. I'm sure you've come across many articles about blockchain, artificial intelligence, etc. Don't fall into the trap of trying to learn everything (i.e. Just In Case).

Understand your WHY and treat knowledge like a “semantic tree” so you can decide what to learn and how deep you need to learn. Then, apply Just-In-Time learning by picking the right resources. JIT is very possible today because of online and on-demand learning resources, even for obscure topics — you can find rare books on Amazon, purchase them online, and start reading in minutes.

Regardless of how you learn, don't forget to also reflect and experiment. These two final steps will help your new knowledge to stick.

#systemsthinking #productivity