Learning to Learn

Forget New Years, back to school is my favorite time of new beginnings regardless of the fact that I’ve been out of school as a student for some time.

empty classroomI’m a bit of a connoisseur of nervous excitement–the kind that slowly builds before you know something big is going to happen. If you want to see it near its peak, take a trip to an IKEA the weekend before the college calendar starts. You can smell the anxiety in the air (smells a lot like pine wood and cinnamon buns) as students begin to frame the paradigm of their new life through affordable decor. Likewise, a more melancholy parental unit shows their nervous excitement by making purchase recommendations a thinly veiled opportunity to reminisce about their college days. “When I was in college, I had a lamp just like this one….” Well, that’s usually the mothers. The fathers stare off into space feigning a smile from time to time. This is the retail manifestation of new beginnings.

I feel a lot of the same nervous energy when I dive into topics above my intellect or understanding. As everyone gets older, we lose the learning muscle as we gravitate toward the familiar and seek to understand only the basics of what we don’t understand. Learning to capture that nervous energy and apply it over and over again has been one of the greatest opportunities for growth in my life. For this month, I’ve assembled a list of articles and books on topics that were originally outside my comfort zone, but have since turned into areas of greater understanding. I hope you enjoy back to school season with me.

What’s Going On (And Why You Should Care)

The No. 1 Lifelong Habit Of Warren Buffett: The 5-Hour Rule (Michael Simmons) – My man-crush on Warren Buffett is long documented. One of the many reasons is that he is an extraordinarily contemplative leader. It’s well documented that he reads three newspapers per day cover to cover. What you may not know is that at 88 years young, Buffett dedicates at least 5 hours per week to learn something new and spends an extraordinary amount of scheduled time to think. As he says, “inactivity can be very intelligent behavior.”

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Here’s How to Learn Absolutely Anything, According to a World Expert (Annabelle Timsit) – This is an interview with Barbara Oakley, an engineering professor at Oakland University in Rochester, Michigan. Professor Oakley created the online course “Learning How to Learn,” which I’ve watched several times. This very condensed version (and plug for her new book), discusses some of the more common misconceptions about learning and expresses how difficult it is to form long-term memories. “Like putting toothpaste back into a tube.”

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Skim Reading is the New Normal. The Effect on Society is Profound (Maryanne Wolf) – In my humble opinion, oversimplification is one of the greatest threats to mankind. What used to be a process for inconsequential understanding has become the foundation for topical learning. It has yielded two horrific outcomes: (1) we think we understand more than we actually do (2) as a result of our overconfidence we often oversell our capabilities and fail as a result. While this may not be a big deal episodically, when it is foundational to how we approach new concepts and problems, the effects can be disastrous.

Books I Read Last Month (That You Might Enjoy)

Capitalism without Capital: The Rise of the Intangible Economy (Jonathan Haskel and Stian Westlake) – Economics is like finance, but for bullshitters. The study of collective human behavior in the context of the scarcity of resources has always been one of those topics that make me roll my eyes. In the spirit of learning new things this month, I took Bill Gate’s recommendation and dove head first into this book. I have yet to take back my sentiment about economics, but I do now appreciate how much I didn’t understand about the metrics economists use to do their study.

This book is dense and took me the full four weeks to dive through. An excerpt: “Our central argument in this book is that there is something fundamentally different about intangible investment, and that understanding the steady move to intangible investment helps us understand some of the key issues facing us today: innovation and growth, inequality, the role of management, and financial and policy reform. We shall argue there are two big differences with intangible assets. First, most measurement conventions ignore them. There are some good reasons for this, but as intangibles have become more important, it means we are now trying to measure capitalism without counting all the capital. Second, the basic economic properties of intangibles make an intangible-rich economy behave differently from a tangible-rich one.”

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The Reason I Jump: The Inner Voice of a Thirteen-Year-Old Boy with Autism (Naoki Higashida, KA Yoshida, and David Mitchell) – In pursuit of learning about something that I fear I’ve oversimplified, I came to the conclusion that I don’t know enough about autism. Like many, I know of it, but little about it. Jon Stewart noted that this was, “one of the most remarkable books I’ve ever read.” I’d have to agree. It’s a short yet profound book that does more to explain autism than all of the academic articles in the world. The unfiltered and emotionally deep words of Naoki will be difficult to ever forget.

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