Over the past few centuries, we started seeing learning a lot like we see sports: something you do when you’re a kid. Once you’re an adult, you’ve passed that point in your life, and you’re busy doing other stuff.
So anybody who kept playing sports, or who kept learning, was someone who did it at a really high level: either you’re a professional athlete, or you’re an academic; the “normal” people were off doing other stuff.
In the past 40 years or so, the sport industry figured out how to get more people involved in sports at all ages. There are so many different ways of playing sports now, you can’t even figure out how they invented them all.
But education still hasn’t really gotten there. Education is still mostly stuck in that 5–22 range, those are the ages between which you’re learning. Learning came to mean that you weren’t yet qualified, it was the opposite of being an expert. Learning after a certain age was something that only professional teachers or researchers did.
But the internet changed things. All of a sudden, there were no boundaries to knowledge and learning. And so now the big contrast isn’t in terms of age — it’s just between the people who know that they can learn anything and the people who haven’t realized that yet.
For example, in previous generations, if you wanted to do math, you needed to be a mathematician. You had to go to very specific places to learn (mostly universities), because that’s where math knowledge was held; otherwise it was inaccessible.
There was a direct link between expertise and a lack of information. Experts exist in places where the price for accessing that information is high. But if you can access what those people know for a very low price, you don’t need the expert.
So in 2019, you can teach yourself tons of math that used to only be available if you were at an elite university. And you can do it at any age. It doesn’t mean it’s not difficult or that everyone will be able to learn it. But there’s no structural reason that will block you from getting to where you want to be with that knowledge.
That means that today, for every one of us, our real superpower isn’t how much we know, but how fast we can learn.
Learning speed is affected by lots of things, but one thing that really makes us learn quickly is being able to learn for a practical reason. Back when you were learning things in school, there was a whole range of things you had to study, even if you weren’t really that interested in them and didn’t get to do anything practical with them. But if you’re an entrepreneur and you need to learn something because you need it for your business, your rate of learning can go way up. Practical learning can be so much more efficient, because you can concentrate on only that knowledge that is necessary.
That leads to another issue, which is that today there is a kind of crossed learning effect that is becoming more and more important.
Basically, during the 20th century, we created more and more specialists. Knowledge became a tree, with more and more branches, and more and more specialized leaves. That tree of knowledge grew incredibly large, but it also became more and more difficult for people to access knowledge growing on other branches of the tree.
So if you were an algebra specialist and you worked on cryptography, you really became strong in that field. But you couldn’t easily access other knowledge in a field like geography. It’s not because you weren’t capable, it’s just because you didn’t have the time or the access to that other branch.
Today, though, when you learn things in a practical way, you aren’t trying to master a branch. Instead, you’re trying to get what you need no matter what field it is. So now people are able to cross knowledge branches in new ways. That’s creating new pathways for knowledge that couldn’t have even been imagined before.
Take a simple example, Google’s server clusters. When Google started, and they needed to figure out a new way to master an amount of data and information that nobody else was having to deal with. And they realized that what they were thinking about resembled the human brain. So they started learning about neuroscience and brain pathology — not as cognitive scientists, not as researchers, but as computer scientists who needed to apply that knowledge to a new field. And that work changed how internet companies thought about their server design.
That’s just one very concrete example of what can happen when you learn things as a non-expert. You don’t learn it to know it, you learn it to use it.
The goal when you learn today isn’t about creating artificial milestones or tests. The only reasons to learn things in 2019 is because you can use them and/or because you enjoy them.
This means learning today is super personal. We all have different ways of processing thoughts — some people are analytical, some people are guided by our senses, some people like to listen, some people like to read, etc.
Unfortunately, as a society we still have a hierarchy on the value of knowledge and its forms. So many people still have an attitude where school is the best place to learn, even if today schools are probably one of the worst places to learn.
Take an easy example: What’s the best way to learn a language? Is it going out into the street, speaking with people and messing up? Or is it sitting in a classroom for an hour each day for 7 years? I took 7 years of German, and I’d say that at that pace, it would take me about 100 centuries to master German.
But we keep telling children that school is where you learn, we keep telling them that reading a book is better than watching movies. But some movies are better than books, they can teach you more… and some books are better than movies! My point is just that there is no absolute scale, even though people try to tell you that there is.
Learning cannot be a passive process. It must be an active process.
And so in the 21st century, one big secret is this: Learning isn’t about learning anymore. Learning is about teaching.
The best way to learn something, even on a very small scale, is by teaching it. Teaching reveals what you really know and what you don’t. Teaching puts you in a state of confusion.
I had this happen with the idea of scalability. I thought I understood it, but each time I tried to explain it, people were confused. And I was confused! So I needed to go back, over and over, each time trying to understand it better, to learn more, to communicate better.
Because if you try and teach something, and the person in front of you doesn’t understand it, that doesn’t mean they’re a bad learner. It means you’re being a bad teacher. A good teacher can teach anything to anyone, it’s simply a question of time.
Believe this: On an infinite timeline, anyone can understand anything. Sometimes it can take a really long time. And sometimes, some people only need a very short amount of time to get it. But it’s always possible. No one’s incapable of learning something, no matter what it is.
So let’s get back to the two things that really impact learning: either you enjoy learning it or you need it.
You can’t fake needing something. If you need it, make sure that you’re in a position where it’s really, truly necessary. And you can’t fake loving something, either. Just like with a person, you can try to act like you’re into it, but that doesn’t work for long. You can visualize each subject like a person, you’ll quickly see the ones you’re attracted to and the ones you aren’t. The more you find a subject truly attractive, you’ll want to spend more time with it, you’ll want to find out everything about it, and that’ll quickly compound your results.
The biggest mistake I see people making, all the time, is spending time with things they don’t like. It’s true in life, it’s true in knowledge.
In some ways, I get it. When you’re a kid, you have a sense of who you like and who you don’t like. But for society to work, parents will try to teach their kids openness, basically to hide that emotional reaction and be able to spend time with all kinds of people, whether you like them or not.
And I’m not suggesting doing any differently! To have a functioning society, that makes sense.
But I want you to see the downside of that. When you become more accepting and you’re less judgemental, you will spend time on things and people that don’t necessarily fit who you are. And when it comes to learning, that’s something that will block your learning speed.
You don’t have to learn everything. You don’t have to want to learn everything. Be driven by what helps you, by what compounds your experience. Don’t just throw yourself against your weaknesses. Maybe you need to overcome weaknesses sometimes, but most of the time you’ll do much better by becoming amazing at the things you love and are good at.
This can get us to the questions about specialists vs. generalists that people ask, “Is it better to be a specialist or a generalist?” That question is always coming from a place of fear, because it really does sound cooler to be a generalist. Most people who ask about this are afraid of becoming a specialist that others see as boring.
But most of the time, specialization isn’t boring at all. Being specialized is something that can make people super happy. Listen to yourself, and see if you are someone who enjoys knowing 100% about something, or if you’re ok just knowing 80%. If you’re honest with yourself, I bet you know the answer.
And if you’re still wondering, remember that both specialization and generalization have downsides. A generalist is going to always know that there’s things they don’t know, that they may screw up because they’re a generalist. A specialist knows that they can’t follow their curiosity anywhere it goes that day. The question isn’t how you can avoid those downsides; it’s a question of choosing which downside you prefer.
People will also ask me how much time they should spend learning. You need to be able to separate two things: learning as a necessity and learning as a sport.
Learning because you need something specific is pretty rare. You do it when you start a company, when you’re doing something new and need to figure out a lot of different things. As soon as you start doing those things over and over, you’re obviously learning less, you’re doing that you understand.
This, by the way, is why innovation is so easy for startup entrepreneurs and so hard for big companies. Every entrepreneur aims to innovate, simply because they don’t have anything to lose. But if your company is making $1B in profits every year, are you really going to take tons of risks and try to learn new things all the time? No. You’re trying to protect what you have.
And I’ve seen entrepreneurs change, too — you’d be amazed how many entrepreneurs fall into that trap as soon as they’ve got $5M or $10M in revenues each year. They become scared of changing anything, they fear the new.
If you’re lucky enough to be at a certain point in your life, you can get back to learning for pleasure. How much of your time can you dedicate to learning things just because you like them? That’s the real long-term question: you always want to aim for spending more time on things you love, so how can you achieve that equilibrium over time, where you’re dedicating more and more time to the things you just want to learn?
This is harder than it seems once you’ve become a bit successful. Success means that you have to get very good at saying “No.” If you want to have time to learn things, you need to be able to avoid all those things that will take up your time.
Choosing what you learn is important, especially as you make it a daily habit. Information is everywhere, with your peers, online, formal classes, informal conversations… You just have to find the way to use all that information and knowledge in your favor.
Too many people still think that learning depends on what others teach them. But always keep learning reception in mind — your ability to process information that’s coming toward you, in a way that’s useful for you, because you have the tools to comprehend it all.
For example, one tool I like to use are famous laws. In pretty much any field, there’s usually one theory or law that is a fundamental building block, that anybody in that field recognizes as true. In physics, you could take E=mc2, in law you could take the idea of private property, in chemistry you have the First Law of Thermodynamics, etc.
When something is as famous as those kinds of laws, it’s because they represent something so huge, something that so completely changed the paradigm, that you really want to know it.
And then if you take one of those laws and study it a bit, you find that there’s a huge amount of information that it implies. That’s a great way to learn a lot of things in a lot of fields very quickly. Those blocks of knowledge then form the base for creating mental models that help you to further process more information.
Learning languages is another way to build more blocks and models. When you learn a language, you also learn new ways of thinking and seeing the world. Languages aren’t all equal, they don’t all think about things the same way.
As an entrepreneur, your job is to escape the mental models others give you and to build your own. You need to have moments in your life when you learn something completely new, something that changes how your brain is wired and how you perceive things. The more you do that, the more diverse your thinking will be; the more diverse your thinking, the more you’ll be able to have very powerful thoughts.
Putting more and more mental models into your brain is like putting more and more windows into a house: more light comes in, and you see things better and better.
There’s another benefit to that as well — the more light you bring in, the more mental models you develop, the more blocks you use to build your knowledge base, the faster you can unlearn things.
Everyone today is obsessed with learning, but so many people forget that sometimes you need to unlearn things. It’s an unnatural process. Ask any top athlete how hard it is to unlearn something — Tiger Woods had to do it a while back. Coders have the same thing, where they learn to code with one language and then have to switch and unlearn things when a new language comes along.
But as hard as it is, it’s so necessary. There are so many ideas and techniquesthat are just wrong today, but we can’t unlearn them because they’re so sticky and we don’t have the right tools.
(One great tool for unlearning? Statistics. Take a statistics course sometime, it’s amazing. There are so many things that we think are true but that are really just random, and statistics is a great way to keep questioning and unlearning, to see what actually holds up. Finance is the same, because it forces you to understand every business decision as an investment, which is a completely different model.)
Let me close by saying this: There are still so many things we don’t know about how our brains work. There’s a real possibility that every single one of us has a brain that is absolutely unique, wired in a way that is just ours. And that’s awesome, because it means we can all have our unique place and part to play.
But it also means that there isn’t just one way of learning to learn. The most important thing is to really listen to yourself, to test out as many methods as you can, to figure out what works best for your unique brain.
And so learning isn’t about how many pages you read, what subjects you master, how many hours per day you spend.
It’s about practice 💪