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Learning How to Learn

I feel that I have only recently learned how to learn. Throughout my life, I have actively sought out opportunities to learn, attending training and reading constantly, but in retrospect, for a very long time, I wasn’t very good at it.  I wasted a lot of time and effort and didn’t capitalize on the time I was spending trying to better myself.  What changed is that I realized that there are two components that you need to consider when learning something, being able to access information and being able to apply that information to the situation you find yourself in. When you understand these two concepts, they will accelerate the pace of your learning.  When I say that you can learn more quickly, I’m not offering a “get rich quick” scheme, or a way to lose 80 pounds in less than a month, but a way to think about how to learn in a deliberate manner so that you can get build off of the topics you have learned in the past.

Missed Opportunities

In order to provide a little bit of context, let me explain why I think I wasted time spent trying to develop myself. At the beginning of my military career, my learning was simply disorganized. Entering the military meant that everything was new to me.  I didn’t grow up learning about machine gun employment or how to lead a platoon attack, so I had to immerse myself if I was going to succeed. I became an “active reader,” I would highlight sections of a book and jot notes in the margins. I would take a ton of notes during classes, debriefs and after action reviews, to capture whatever the mentor I was with had to offer. And then, with all of those notes, I never did a thing.  With the pace of training, I wouldn’t have time to go back and review lessons learned from Tom Clancy’s Battle Ready,and check to see what I had highlighted. During the times where I probably needed that information, I was likely already in the field where I wasn’t carrying a library of military history books with me. The notes that I did take were spread throughout multiple notebooks; so trying to go back and find the right page from the right notebook would have been improbable. Even though I had “learned” something, it didn’t mean that I had the ability to recall or locate that piece of information when I needed it, making it unusable to me.

The notes that I did have were also of limited application because they were grouped by event, not by function. If the training evolution was centered around conducting a platoon attack on a fortified position, the after action review (AAR) would cover topics from each phase of the attack. There could be guidance on mission planning, reconnaissance, leadership, tactics, combined arms use, troop employment and whatever other thoughts came to the trainer who was conducting the debrief.  So if I wanted to improve on one element, let’s say how I planned an attack, I would have to go back through multiple notebooks and scan through multiple events to see everything about the topic. If I later read a book about attack planning, those notes wouldn’t be located with my notes from the AAR, further limiting by ability to systematically expand my understanding on a topic. I might remember that I “learned” something about planning an attack, but without an effective way to recall and find that information, I couldn’t build off of it.

Because I didn’t know how to effectively learn, I am sure that I had to be told things multiple times or made the same mistakes twice. Sometimes, a lesson might not sink in while conducting training in the field because of fatigue or because you went immediately into the next event. Sometimes, I might not have yet had the context to really understand the power of the lesson or know how to apply it in real life. But that is why you take notes, so that you can recall it later on. Without a central spot to look for notes on a certain topic, that information would disappear into a pile of notebooks on my bookshelf.  I knew that I wasn’t learning in the most effective way, but I didn’t see a better solution. That didn’t come until I got out of the military.

Accessing The Information That You Need

We live in a world where we face information overload more often than we find ourselves in an information vacuum, which changes how we need to think about information and learning. There are two types of information that you want to be able to access: information that you don’t know and information that you should know, whether that comes from something you have read, been taught or have thought of. Today, you can Google anything that you don’t know and find what someone else has written about a topic in a public forum, but what I needed was a way to store and search for the information that I knew.  After I got out of the military, I found Evernote, which allowed to me to do just that.

Evernote is an app that lets you consolidate and search for anything that you write down in a note, and I love it. It isn’t the software itself that makes it awesome, but the empowering capability that it provides.  It lets you maximize your retention for the things that you’ve learned.  All you need to remember is that you learned something and took a note of it and you’ll be able to easily find it. You can quickly find what you are looking for by searching through PDFs and pictures for specific text, quickly sort notes that have a certain tag or even search by the geographic location where you remember creating the note. It expands your searchable memory and the amount of information you can quickly access by digitizing your learning. I consolidate all of my class notes, PowerPoint handouts, blog posts that I want to come back to, reports, debriefs, and any random thoughts that I might want to come back to later, in Evernote.

I know that there are people who are going to say that having this information stored in the cloud and relying on technology makes us dumber, not smarter.  There are people who are going to say that having information stored anywhere other than your brain has not made you smarter or more capable. I disagree.  If I need to recall something in real time, I won’t be able to search Evernote, but I also probably won’t recall that information in the absence of the program either.  Evernote helps with learning because you can connect concepts in your head when you are reminded of them.  With quick access to everything you’ve written, you can build off of previous learning, connect concepts and think critically in a way that isn’t possible if you only take notes on the side margins of a page in a notebook.

Making Sense Of The Fire Hose

Having access to information is only one part of learning and you still need to develop a system to help you organize that information in your head, not just through an app on your phone and computer.  For that, you need build mental models.  Mental models are how you group concepts, thoughts and ideas in your head to help you quickly make sense of what you are learning.  Mental models can be thought of as boxes that you will put new information into so that you can better integrate it into your previous understanding of a situation or topic.  For instance, when I am researching or learn something new about human behavior, I assign it to one of eight mental models.

When assigning something to a mental model, I first ask myself to determine where it fits into observing human behavior, which covers my first four mental models:

–       Is this something that relates to assessing individuals?

–       Is this something that relates to assessing groups?

–       Is this something that relates to assessing how people interact with the environment?

–       Is this something that relates to assessing the collective mood of a crowd?

I then ask myself how the information fits into applying the observation, which is the second of my four models:

–       Will I apply it when establishing a baseline?

–       Will I apply it when targeting individuals?

–       Will I apply it when in conversations?

–       Will I apply it when considering decision-making?

These are the mental models that I use personally to constantly improve my ability to assess the intentions of others.  Sometimes a piece of information goes into one box from the first group and one from the second group, while other times it only relates to one model, but this system helps me quickly understand not only how the information applies to my understanding of behavior, but also how I can actually use this piece of information in day-to-day life.   Mental models don’t have to be universally applicable, but they do need to work for you.  Thinking about structuring the information you receive and gain in this way not only helps you organize things in your brain, but can also help you find a way to classify that information tangibly in Evernote, further speeding up the recollection of information.

As you continue to develop your own learning habits, think about how you learn and how you can do it better.  You want to be able to access information, so think about what information you would Google, think about what information you would search for in a digitized Kindle library, and what information you would capture in Evernote. Mental models take time to develop, but you can start by simply categorizing things that you are learning and then see what is most effective for you. The number of models that you use will expand and contract throughout your life, which is a normal part of the process, but it also means that you are still learning. Continuously improving upon the database of information that you have available to you and the mental models needed to tie the seemingly random facts of life together will help accelerate your learning, keep you from wasting time and maximize what you get out of your personal development.

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