Learning you can learn, and learning how to learn

TL;DR: The ability to learn and adapt is the ultimate skill in life. It has become increasingly important as the traditional relationship between employers and employees has dissolved. Recognize that you can learn new things at any age, and spend time figuring out how to do this well (see below!). It will be an unending source of both competitive advantage and enjoyment as you move through life.

The only constant these days is change. Gone is the idea of employment for life with a single employer. The old model is dead. Corporations don’t really care for you. They might appear to care for you if it’s expedient to their hiring and retention policies. But at the end of the day, those managers are beholden to their fiduciary duty to maximize shareholder value. You are an input to their machine. You are a line item for them. Consequently you owe no loyalty to the corporation. Loyalty to people (managers, colleagues) is a good thing. Those people are your network, they are part of your brand. But loyalty to a legal fiction is not. The only person you should be 100% focused on taking care of is yourself. Nobody else will look out for you, and when you step back from it, that’s probably a good thing. Would you really want to leave your livelihood in the hands of a faceless corporation, or worse… elected government officials?

This new reality can be both exciting and frightening. It means you have less security in one sense, but those same things that hold you up can also hold you back. So with less security comes more freedom. The people who survive and thrive in this future world will be the ones who move forward. Those who are able to adapt to change. In effect, the ones who can learn and apply those learnings most rapidly.

That’s why it’s critical to understand you can learn new things, at any age in life. Then, perhaps more importantly, you need to learn how to learn new things.

Learning you can learn

They say you can’t teach an old dog new tricks. The idea that older people are less able to learn and adapt is subtly reinforced in countless ways in our society. It’s just a myth though. These are all self inflicted wounds. Yes, it’s true that older people seem less plugged into new technologies, and in some cases less able to adapt or change… but when you dig in to understand why, a few alternative reasons surface to the top, none of which have anything to do with ability:

  • They feel the opportunity cost is too high – they are already accomplished in certain things, and feel they’re better off continuing with the thing they know well
  • They’re afraid of falling or failing – they can’t bring themselves to face the difficult path mastery requires
  • They are too comfortable or too lazy to put in the effort – very similar to the one above, just more lethargy than fear
  • They feel that it’s too late for them to try – they will be dead before they make real progress
  • They feel like they’ve missed things in the past that make catching up insurmountable – tied to compounding skills and abilities

Of course, these are all just excuses. Humans are really good at using our intellect to rationalize why we shouldn’t do something that might involve discomfort or pain. But all growth requires some degree of discomfort and pain. It requires pushing the boundary of your limits just beyond where they sit today. Just like working out requires the exertion and breakdown of muscle. So it is with learning new things and acquiring new skills. It will hurt. It takes effort. You might look silly at first. Yet, it’s unavoidable that it’s the only true path forward.

There are countless examples of people who have reinvented themselves mid-career. Gone off in new directions and started from scratch. Personally, I made a pretty sizable career shift mid-flight from working in consulting and finance, to jumping into the world of tech. At the time I had never written a line of code or been involved in the creation of software in any meaningful way. But I committed myself to mastery of this new field. I taught myself programming in my evenings and weekends. Learned about all the pieces on the chess board, and figured out how they work best together.

The point here is that you can learn. More importantly, you will most certainly need to learn at some point over the course of your career.

Learning how to learn

So this begs the question of how to learn. Admittedly, I haven’t codified my best practices on this. But one of the best resources I’ve read on the subject is Dan Coyles ‘Little Book of Talent’ which explores the techniques employed by countless world class training centers across a wide range of disciplines. If it could be summarized in a sentence or two, it would be this:

No matter what skill you set out to learn, the pattern is always the same: See the whole thing. Break it down to its simplest elements. Put it back together. Repeat.

Coincidentally, if I were to summarize my approach, it involves an iterative process of going broad then deep. I think intuitively, the ‘broad’ approach is about seeing the ‘whole thing’, and the ‘deep’ approach is about breaking it down and mastering it to then put it back together.

Go broad

To start, I will zoom out on any particular topic and try to get the 30K foot view of things. What are the broad strokes, key concepts, themes, terms etc. I will do this by reading as much material on the subject as possible over the course of a few weeks to a month. I am much less discerning at this point around what I read, because I don’t really know how to filter, nor do I want to filter things too aggressively at this point.

During this process, I’ll consult people with the experience I’m looking for (the experts!). I’ll ask them for recommended reading, and other folks I should connect with. Again, follow up on everything they suggest, and boil the ocean.

Go deep

Once I’ve got a good lay of the land, I am equipped to figure out where best to go next. This is when I will focus and go deep on a particular topic. This phase is about developing a high degree of mastery within a specific sub-topic. I try to keep that area of focus pretty tight so that I can actually make meaningful progress on deepening my expertise. The key at this point is to close yourself off to distractions. There will be a hundred other shiny objects all vying for your attention, but once you commit to going deep in a particular area, you need to be ruthless about your focus.

Once a reasonable degree of expertise and competency is developed in one area, then it’s good to step back. Pull up to 30K feet again and review the lay of the land using the intimate knowledge of where you went deep to inform how you view the broader topic. Choose the next area of focus that makes sense to reinforce your previous learnings, then go deep again.

Wash, rinse, repeat.

This is admittedly a very high level, theoretical set of suggestions. I apologize for that. I want to break my process down further, and will try to do that at some point in the future. In the meantime, here are a few other resources on learning that might be helpful:

  • Google: This sounds trivial, but I think it’s worth noting. There are so many free resources out there today, that an exhaustive search using Google should be the first step you take in any journey. Learn how to search well – this means figuring out the right terms to use in your search to optimize your results
  • Learning How To Learn (Coursera): This is a very popular online course focused on learning. I haven’t explored the course thoroughly myself, but I’ve heard rave reviews about it, so I recommend checking it out
  • Tim Ferriss: Tim is a master of learning new things. He tends to focus on rapid skill acquisition using proven methods and hacks.

Above all, the key things to remember here are that:

  1. The future belongs to those who can learn and adapt
  2. You truly can learn anything, at any age

Excellence looks insurmountable to the person who has yet to take the first step on a journey, but once you dig a little deeper, any topic will become more approachable and less daunting. Once you realize that your mind is flexible, and you have the ability to impact the world, you’ll never be the same again.


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