Learning Things | Just Reflections - Issue #6
Welcome back. As always, thank you for your support and your feedback. I’d like to encourage you again to post your replies even if you don’t agree with me or when you feel you didn’t really connect with the issue. I’d like to hear it. It helps me to keep evaluating myself and to keep growing.
Okay, enough of that, let’s get it.
“We’re often told, ‘follow your passion that is the key to everything’, ‘follow your passion and your life will be a better place for you’. … But your passion develops around what you’re really good at and some things take much longer to get good at. So don’t just follow your passions, broaden your passions and your lives will be greatly enriched.” - Barbara Oakley
I love learning new things and I often try to follow Barbara Oakley’s advice, but things don’t always go very well.
Ever watched a great video that’s very well explained, where the principles are broken down immaculately and it comes to an interesting conclusion and you think today I’ve really learned this thing? Then a few hours later someone asks you to explain it and you can sort of recall its major points, but you can barely connect ideas together as well as you thought you would.
This happens to me many times when I read books, articles, watch movies and TV shows, and listen to podcasts, etc. I feel like I’ve learnt the thing when I’m done, but when it’s time to show my knowledge, I realise I didn’t really learn it as well as I thought. And I likely didn’t really learn much, I just felt like I now know it. I tricked myself into thinking I was competent.
This week I want to talk about learning things on the internet. In particular, why it is challenging sometimes and how to understand and remember the things we learn long term.
We all have a tendency to overrate how much we know. One reason for this is a cognitive bias called the Dunning-Kruger effect. According to Simply Psychology, “A cognitive bias is a subconscious error in thinking that leads you to misinterpret information from the world around you, and affects the rationality and accuracy of decisions and judgments.” The Dunning-Kruger Effect — first identified by psychologists David Dunning and Justin Kruger — says that people with a low ability at a task are prone to overestimate their ability at that task.
We all have a tendency to hold overly favorable views of our abilities in many social and intellectual domains. To learn more about the Dunning-Kruger effect, check out the paper titled “Unskilled and Unaware of It” and for a simpler explanation, check out Sahil Bloom’s brilliant explanation on this Twitter thread.
Dunning-Kruger Effect 101
In a year when the markets have minted many new self-proclaimed geniuses, it is worth remembering the Dunning-Kruger Effect.
But what is the Dunning-Kruger Effect and how does it work?
Here's Dunning-Kruger Effect 101!
In her Coursera course, “Learning How to Learn” (it’s free, check it out), UC San Diego professor Barbara Oakley explains what she calls “Illusions of Competence”; how we easily trick ourselves into thinking that we are learning when we actually aren’t.
Seeing information in front of you, such as reading a book, doesn’t mean you know it.
Seeing or hearing someone come to a conclusion doesn’t mean you know how to get to that conclusion or explain their argument.
Searching for something on Google gives you the illusion that the information is in your brain.
Spending lots of time with material doesn’t mean you know it.
These sound obvious, but you’d be surprised how often we all fall into the trap of thinking we know something just because we’ve seen it on the internet.
The best way to combat this is to consistently challenge our beliefs about our competency levels. Do you actually know something as well as you think you do? What would an unbiased third party say? Take Mortimer Adler and Albert Einstein’s counsel on this;
“The person who says he knows what he thinks but cannot express it usually does not know what he thinks.” - Mortimer Adler
“If you can’t explain it simply, you don’t understand it well enough.” - Albert Einstein
Feeling informed vs understanding
We live in a world of social-media hype, and it’s easy to feel pressured to stay current, to learn every trendy thing that floats by on Twitter. Because of this abundance of free information constantly beckoning for our attention, most of us are informed about many things. We can more or less parrot opinions we read online and site random facts and statistics we get from the internet. But when asked to explain what something is really about, why it’s that way, its connection with other facts and theories, and to put it all in context, we’re stumped. This is because there is a difference between feeling informed and truly understanding something.
There are many times where I’ve felt really strongly about a position, but when pressed I could hardly argue for it. In retrospect, it’s usually because I read something somewhere and I thought I now know it.
The internet makes us feel like understanding things for ourselves is obsolete. Everything is constantly available in well-packaged arguments and carefully organised statistics for us to easily Google, copy and paste when we want to sound smart in the newest argument in the group chat.
Unfortunately, we usually take the information we find online at face value and we rarely take time to formulate our own thoughts about it. After all, It’s presented such that we never need to generate our own opinions. Why should we when we can just reflect the neatly wrapped opinions that these ‘smart people’ have already baked? Well, philosopher Mortimer Adler has a response for this;
“To regard anyone, except yourself as responsible for your judgement is to be a slave, not a free man.” - Mortimer Adler
Recognizing that the opinions we hold are not truly ours and we rarely understand them fully is crucial. Like Confucius puts it
“Real knowledge is to know the extent of one’s ignorance” - Confucius
Our lives would be so much fuller if we actually took time to understand the things that we have convinced ourselves that we understand. How do we achieve this true understanding? Well, first we need to remember the things we learn.
Why do we keep forgetting?
According to Nicholas Carr in the book “The Shallows: How the Internet Is Changing the Way We Think, Read and Remember”, our memory has two parts, long-term memory and short-term memory.
You’ve probably heard of this already. Long-term memory is the seat of understanding. It stores facts and context and connections between facts which together form many complex patterns of knowledge. These are all made up of things we have learnt over long periods of time. As we gain knowledge about diverse fields, that knowledge compounds over time as it makes connections with what we already know. What you may not have known is that for information to get to the long-term memory, it has to go through a part of the short-term memory called the working memory.
Working memory acts as a filter for the infinite amounts of information around us. It forms a bottleneck at the bridge between short- and long-term memory and has limited space where we process information. The problem is what we hold there can quickly vanish if we don’t keep thinking about it or rehearsing it for an extended period. Which means it never gets sent to the long-term memory. The reason we find it difficult to process information or to keep ideas for long is that every Instagram notification, every email, every new Netflix show that your phone and computer keep notifying you about is competing for some space in your working memory.
As we mindlessly scroll down our Twitter feed or binge YouTube videos, information takes a slot in our working memory and then quickly fizzles off as it’s replaced by the next thing, and on and on. Therefore, we feel like we know so much and yet can remember very little. It’s because very little, if any, of it makes it into our long-term memory.
“As we reach the limits of our working memory, it becomes harder to distinguish relevant information from irrelevant information, signal from noise. We become mindless consumers of data.” - Nicholas Carr
It’s not just information overload that makes it hard to focus. Multitasking is just as bad. Our brains can only consciously handle one thing at a time. When we multitask, what we’re actually doing is quickly switching from one task to another, which is something we don’t do very well. Ultimately, the result is that we do each task less efficiently than we would have if we had just done them one by one in succession. So if you’re continuously switching tasks and checking notifications while you’re trying to learn something, chances are that very little of what you’re doing will be committed to long-term memory. Each time you switch, it’s like hitting the reset button on your working memory.
We can fix our problems with remembering things long term by avoiding multitasking, eliminating distractions and limiting the amount of information we’re bombarding ourselves with at a time. Easier said than done, I know. I’m also a millennial who feels an itch if I haven’t touched my phone for an extended period, even when I’m absolutely sure that there’s nothing new on it. But hard as it is, that’s the best way to learn.
When you’ve eliminated all the noise and you have that single source of information in front of you, a book or a Ted Talk, how do you ensure you remember it? How do you get the book’s arguments into your long-term memory to the extent that you can explain them to someone?
Building a learning system
As someone who changed careers and had to learn a completely new set of professional skills on my own, I’ll point you to a few of the ideas that Dr Barbara Oakley shares in the “Learning How to Learn” course that have worked well for me.
Recall and reflect: When you finish a book chapter, video or podcast, don’t just move on. Take few seconds to take it in. Recall what you have just learnt and reflect on the key points. Go through the steps in your mind, summarise them on a piece of paper. Talk to other people about what you just learnt. This will disabuse you of the feeling that you know if you don’t actually know. If you find you can’t recall the knowledge you thought you had, repeat the cycle until you can do it.
The best way to learn is to teach: When you feel confident that you know the subject, write out an explanation as if you were teaching it to someone who didn’t understand the subject. Whenever you get stuck, go back to the material and re-learn what you missed. Fill in the gaps in your knowledge until you can write an explanation without source material. Finally, simplify it. Get rid of any technical or convoluted language. Simplify it so that a kid would understand it. Think of analogies you can use to explain and try to bring the ideas you’re learning into actual life situations. No matter how difficult the problem you’re working on is, if you find a way to explain it simply, you’ll be able to understand it much more deeply.
Learn in small chunks: It’s much more effective to read and recall small chunks of the things you want to understand every day through the week than trying to dedicate one entire day over the weekend to learning everything. In sports and music, we all understand that the best and most effective way to ensure that the things you learn stick is to practise persistently. Interestingly, we don’t apply the same techniques for learning other things. We believe the brain is like a computer, so once we store information in it then it’s there forever. But what’s closer to reality is that the brain acts more like a muscle. We must exercise it for the neural connections to be strengthened. The more often you use the neurons while grappling with the information you want to commit to memory, the stronger those connections will get and the stronger your memory and understanding of that information will be.
Spaced repetition: In order to strengthen a memory, you need to access it right as it’s about to fade away. And every time you strengthen the memory, it lasts just a little longer. If you’re interested in learning more about spaced repetition, I strongly encourage you to check out this explorable explanation by Nicky Case: “How to Remember Anything Forever-ish”.
One reason I started this newsletter was to create a second brain for all the ideas I learn because I found I didn’t have a reliable note-taking system and even where I took notes, I never had a single place to synthesise all the ideas and consciously look for connections. Through writing for this newsletter, I get to think about all the things I learn and figure out what fits into what I am writing right now. What I write may only be a small part of the things I’ve read, but the result is that I understand the subjects I’ve written about really well because I’ve spent time reflecting on them and internalising them.
Quality over quantity
Understanding things long term takes time. We’re usually pressed for time and doing all this work outside of our jobs and other requirements of adulting can be stressful. This is probably why we end up just taking the ideas we find online, it makes a lot of sense. These ‘smart people’ have likely gone through this process. Some of them have jobs that require them to study their subject over and over, so mastery is part of the job. Therefore, accepting their opinions at face value is also not entirely a terrible decision.
Life is not a knowledge acquisition competition. While some of us enjoy learning random things, it’s not everyone who does. My wish, however, is that we all spend more time learning about and mastering one important thing at a time instead of trying to absorb all the information that’s thrown at us, only to forget most of it. This is how Charlie Munger puts it;
“Our job is to find a few intelligent things to do, not keep up with every damn thing in the world.” - Charlie Munger
The call is to increase the quality of the information you take in instead of the quantity and to spend more time with it.
That’s all I have for you this week. If you like the newsletter, consider sharing it with others on Twitter, WhatsApp or Facebook. Hit the thumbs up or thumbs down below to let me know what you think about the issue.
I hope I’ve given you something to think about this week and I wish you ever-increasing curiosity.
Until next week.
Impactful ideas that challenged my thinking.
I have a lot of interests so I'm always learning all kinds of things, some of which really challenge my thinking. In the Just Reflections newsletter, I'll be sharing with you a summary of the ideas that challenged my thinking recently and hopefully they will challenge yours too and we grow together.
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