How I learn

I am in the process of moving some of my old LinkedIn articles over here.  This is the first one.

Go to bed smarter than when you woke up” – Charles Munger

I love this quote of Charles Munger and it is a principle that I take seriously.  I considered many different titles for this, from How I read a  book through to A guide to what Brian is scribbling in his notebook.  In the end, I opted for the simple and straightforward How I learn.

I started thinking about this because people would always ask me how I knew stuff (“stuff”, noun. technical term for a unit of knowledge) across such a wide range of topics.  The really simple answer, I read a lot, didn’t seem to be sufficient!

When it comes to extracting knowledge from non-fiction, I tend to use the analogy of the butcher.  A complete beginner, handed a set of tools and pointed towards a carcass, would maybe hack off a couple of rough edges bits of meat only charitably described as steaks and leave a lot of meat on the bone.  As skills develop, you can extract more and more meat and the cuts become finer.  The same is true of extracting “chunks” from books (and this is *actually* a technical term for a unit of knowledge!) – with practice you get more out and the chunks are better formed.

A mind needs books as a sword needs a whetstone, if it is to keep its edge” – Tyrion Lannister

Only practical experience will truly help you get better at this so, yes, I read a lot.  I set myself a target of reading 50 pages a day.  Sometimes I manage more, sometimes less but the very fact of setting a target means I am more conscious of my reading.  I am quite ruthless too – if something isn’t working for me, I will skim the rest of the book to see if there is anything in there for me to learn from.  If not, I ditch it and move on.

There are techniques you can learn to get more out of a book.  I can recommend reading Mortimer Adler’s book “How to read a book”, C Wright Mills’ “On Intellectual Craftsmanship“, and the Farnam Street blog.  The second of these was aimed at an academic audience but I am of the view that modern “knowledge workers” need to think about their careers more like academics – this Forbes article is a good summary of why.

As I read a book, I take notes and highlight sections.  I regularly transcribe these notes, and even quotes from the book, into a notebook by hand.  There is something about writing things out that makes them stick better in your head.  Also, this study suggests that the diagrams, sketches and vectors that plague my notebook are actually helping too.

Once I have finished reading a book I can survey the notes, quotes and miscellanea (including references to other books) that I have gathered.  I try to pull it together into a unified whole, paraphrasing and synthesising as I go.  I try, where possible, to apply the Feynman technique:

  1. Choose a concept to write about
  2. Pretend you are teaching it to someone else and write out the explanation in your own words
  3. Refer back to the text as required
  4. Go over your explanation and simplify the language (just because something is technical doesn’t mean it has to be difficult – avoid jargon and write like a human being!)

Its as simple as that really.  Read it, comprehend it, and move on to the next one.  Charles Munger’s partner Warren Buffet has spoken of how knowledge builds like compound interest (and he is a man with a truly prodigious reading habit!).  Over time, your notes on a text will refer to more and more other books and ideas and the result will be more insightful as a result.


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