The lessons I learnt trying to learn too many lessons

I began this year with reflection, looking back at the past year trying to connect the dots. One thing stood out: I had consumed a ton of information in various shapes and forms and had several realizations of my own. And yet, I didn’t feel I had managed to keep a good record of these let alone internalize and act on them.

So I came up with this idea to keep track of everything I learn and distil lessons into simple, actionable directives that are easy to implement. That’s how these posts were born: 1 2 3 4 5 .

What I expected from doing this:

  • Remembering what I learn
  • Putting what I learn into practice
  • Personal growth

What actually happened

  • I hardly ever went back to reread those lessons
  • I put few of them into practice and when I did, it was not because of these notes
  • I felt like I had to consume even more information now
  • And I felt I had to keep track of it all…

So it was a spectacular failure, but not without its lessons.

Lesson #1

The greatest obstacle to learning is new learning.

New incoming information pushes the old out. As new neural pathways are formed in the brain to make memories, old ones get discarded. ¹,² So the best way to learn anything is to

  1. only focus on the thing you want to learn
  2. cut out all interfering information
  3. learn in small chunks to give your brain space to digest and to solidify newly formed pathways

What about “being like a sponge” and absorbing as much information as you possibly can? That might be good advice for a kid who doesn’t yet know what he is into and just wants get exposed to all sorts of things. But if you do that as an adult, you’re probably falling for this trap:

Lesson #2

Do not mistake entertainment for learning.

I thought I was bettering myself by consuming all that information. I thought I was learning and growing. Some of that information was world class and the lessons seemed extremely valuable and relevant.

So how do you tell real learning from entertainment and distraction? Ask this one question: does it lead to action?

If your learning is not followed by action, it’s entertainment.

If you learn something just for the sake of knowing it, that’s entertainment. You are only doing it to keep yourself busy and because it’s probably fun. And that’s fine, there is nothing wrong with that. It’s a quite noble form of entertainment. Just be aware of the difference and don’t expect much personal growth merely from feeding the hungry beast inside your skull with ever more information.

Lesson #3

You can’t have know it all.

This exercise got me greedy for more and more information. Again, that’s not necessarily a bad thing if you are a kid or a teenager, but later in life, you’ve got to be more selective. Also, I was largely motivated by the fear of missing out – now that I look back. I wanted to know it all.

You’d better face facts and realize you can’t. You could not know everything there is to know in a dozen lifetimes. Make peace with that.

Lesson #4

The mind needs a break.

Rewind a few hundred thousand years. Humans were gathering berries and chasing the occasional game. The information we had to process was limited to our sensory impulses and little to no abstract concepts. Our brains haven’t changed much since then. And yet we are making them process gigabytes of information day in day out – way more than what we were designed to process in a lifetime.

We even “relax” by processing information, because we are too neurotic to sit still and do nothing.

I’m not saying let’s all go back to picking berries again. But stuffing your brain with too much information is overloading your psyche without you noticing it. And some nasty side effects may follow.

Lesson #5

To make it stick, you must repeat daily.

Religions preach a lot of bullshit but they are not stupid. They figured out over millennia that whatever is repeated daily sticks and whatever is not does not. It’s no rocket science and yet, I don’t see a whole lot of people applying this – my past self included.

So if there is something important that you want to learn and put into practice, repeat it daily. Like Christians would the Lord’s prayer or Hindus would the Gayatri mantra.

Lesson #6

Knowledge is overrated.

While a sharp intellect, a thorough understanding of the world, a rational mind and an ability to adjust one’s own behaviour based on new learning are all the marks of a fully rounded human being, it’s easy to overestimate the significance of all that. Or rather, underestimate the importance of what cannot be grasped by the intellect.

Reality itself, cannot be grasped by the mind. In fact, the mind gets in the way of experiencing reality as it is, because it acts as a filter and gives you a picture of reality as it is to you. That is a distorted picture by definition and no amount of knowledge can fix it. Contrarily, only absence of knowledge and thoughts can.

So just know that most of what you consider learning is actually entertainment. Do less of it. Try doing nothing for a change and giving your mind a real break.



Photo Credit: Nick Kenrick