About two years ago, I started working on my degree in Computer Science. Seeing as how I always had an interest in tech, and had done some programming before, I quickly landed in the more skilled end of the class. Back then I was completely arrogant, and just believed that I was way better than everyone else… Well, that came back to bite me in the behind, and I realized that I’m not actually all that clever. I’ve just been fortunate enough to have the right mindset when it comes to learning new things.
So I have spent the past many months actively trying to figure out, why I seem to be a quick learner, and how I can pass that knowledge on.
Concepts vs Instructions
Probably the single biggest mistake people make, when trying to learn something new, is to remember every single step. This will work in many cases, but what do you do when some variable changes slightly? Now you can’t perform the task at hand, because that’s not how you learned to do it.
Had you instead learned concepts behind it, you’ll be able to work around this slight change, and finish the task just as quickly as you would’ve otherwise. It’s tough to give a general example of this, but it can be things like fueling a car, changing gear in an automatic, unlocking a door. Try to notice the different things you do in life; notice if you’re simply remembering instructions, or you actually understand why you do it.
I once talked to a guy who broke down in his car on the freeway. Engine trouble. Well he just pulled out the shoelace from his shoe, put it in the right place, and drove to the mechanic. This is possible, because he understood why the car broke down. That is the power of understanding why.
When I see people asking how to solve a problem, they usually get an answer like “Just do this”. And while yes, in that certain case the answer is correct, that person will ask the same question again, just with a slight variation. If they instead follow up with “OK. But why do I need to do that?”, the chance of them asking the question again is almost zero.
Valuing the Terminology
I remember growing up, I was so annoyed with how much pressure my teachers put on me to remember specific terminology. So what, big deal that I couldn’t remember what it was called, I knew what it did. It can be tough to see the point, when it’s something like math or economics, but try to explain what a chair is, without saying chair. Try asking someone to turn on the lights, without saying the word light.
What was tough for me to understand, was that terminology doesn’t help me directly. It helps when you are talking to other people. I once asked my teacher a question about a new concept, and when he started explaining I noticed how it resembled a concept called
Singleton that I did know. I asked “Wait, so it’s basically just a variation of Singleton?”. He quickly said yes, and I had now learned a new concept.
That is the true power of utilizing terminology. Something you have spent hours on understanding, can be summed up into a single word, which you can then use to understand new concepts. That is the basics of bootstrapping.
It’s common knowledge that a bigger box is tougher to lift, at least if they’re filled with the same material. It’s exactly the same when it comes to learning. Let’s take ‘learning to drive’ as an example. You don’t just sit down in the driver’s seat, and start driving. First you learn about the clutch. Then you learn about giving gas. Then you learn about shifting gears and so on.
Stop trying to lift big boxes. Divide it into small boxes, master that, and then move onto the next thing. When I tell people this, I usually see them giving it a try, but quickly deviating. They start thinking “I need to do this, which in turn means doing that, which in turn means doing that” and continuing like that.
If it is possible, break your boxes down into yes or no questions, and move on. Once you’ve answered yes or no to one box, move on to the next one and forget about the previous one. Out of all the suggestion in this article, this may be the toughest one, and may take some time before it makes sense.
Some times it doesn’t make sense to break your boxes into yes or no questions, but rather removing options until one is left. If this doesn’t make sense right now, that’s absolutely fine. As mentioned this can be a tough concept. Rather you should keep it in mind, and try and apply it when you see fit.
This is one of the less important points throughout all this, but nevertheless it can be the next step in your journey towards being a quick learner. In a way in contradicts the previous point about boxes a bit, which is also why I would recommend following this tip, once you feel confident in the previous one.
I think Elon Musk is a really great example of doing exactly this; combining worlds. He started PayPal, SpaceX, Tesla and is now working on a device enabling you to control a computer with your mind! There is definitely a common thread between these projects, however they are also very different.
I should state that I haven’t actually talked to Elon Musk, so this is pure speculation, but it’s something I do myself which has helped me a lot, and I highly doubt that it doesn’t happen with him. Something that is happening a lot in the world of Computer Science right now, is to get inspiration from the human body.
Take something like Artificial Intelligence and Machine Learning. They are built around the concept of how the human brain works. A great example of how combining two seemingly completely different worlds, has resulted in some major breakthroughs. Again something that may not be easy to see right now, but give it time and you’ll slowly start realizing that you probably do this in your everyday life. Every time you say something along the lines of “Oh, so it’s just like doing…”, this is probably the concept you are using.
Ask the Right Questions
I will never try to stop anyone who’s learning, from asking questions. Asking questions is the foundation to learning new things. However, asking the right questions can hugely improve how quick you learn. Instead of asking “How do I do this?”, provide some information on what you have tried to do. Specify exactly what it is you are struggling with. The more exact your question is, the more exact the answer will be.
Writing this I’m making it seem easy, but I acknowledge that it is not. A huge problem I’ve personally had is not having a clue on what I should ask. Here you may be tempted to just say “I don’t understand”. There will be cases where this is the only viable thing to say, but when you think about it, you usually understand at least one percent of it. Cling to that one percent. “I understand that tiny little thing of it, but I’m not getting the rest”. When doing that, you are providing something to base a new answer off.
The basis of it, boils down to narrowing it down to your needs. If you keep saying you don’t understand, you will keep getting generic answers. Focus on what you understand, and start building on that. Try to really figure out what specific part it is you don’t understand, and ask about that.
Forget What I’ve Said
If you’ve read so far, and none of these things makes sense to you, that’s completely fine. Everyone is different, and I’m no expert. These are most of the things that have helped me, and that I have seen help other people. But if it doesn’t help you, don’t use it. Or if only some of it makes sense, use that. In the end it’s all about what works for you.
This isn’t meant to be a be-all-end-all guide to learning. Far from it. It’s meant to be a jumping board to new ideas. Personally I’m hoping to look back on this article in 10 years, and using new and better ideas for learning, and hopefully you will too. Always be improving, whenever you can.