I cheated in high school. A lot. I’d steal my physics test from a different period and grab a nerd to solve all the test questions for me. I figured out seating positions in other classes so we could strategically place notes on the right desks. If the teacher was oblivious, I’d sneak onto the computer when the teacher wasn’t looking and change our quiz grades. I never got caught. But why did I do all this? To get good grades so I could go to a good college.
Going into college, I decided to end my marriage with cheating. However, I found a new spouse: partying. I discovered the wonders of alcoholic inebriation along with gardens of green-broccoli residue (No this is not marijuana). It was like opening a door to an entirely new universe.
The prevalent partying and the “need to belong”, introduced many nights of cramming, procrastination and recovery days. The cycle continued until senior year, when reality struck me:
I couldn’t find a job.
In both high school and college, I spent a most of my time naively thinking I could outsmart the system. I could cheat, do almost zero work, and get an A. I could stay up for 2 nights in a row cramming and earn a decent grade. I could skip class, read the power point presentations, and still shit on the midterms.
Almost $40k/year of tuition, 15 years of schooling, and I couldn’t find a job. But on a deeper level, why couldn’t I find a job? Because I lacked real skills. I spent most of my time skipping the hard work and focusing on the shortcuts. Not developing skills.
So I started asking myself, how can I actually develop skills for myself? How do I actually learn things that are valuable? I dove into dozens of books on this topic. This post is my answer to that question.
Why Learning is Important(Duh.)
This is completely obvious. But I like breaking things down because it’s fun. Let’s go back 10,000 years to the cavemen/cave-women era. We were hairy. We hunted for our food and wiped our shit with leaves. Anyways, as cavemen, we needed three things to survive:
Without any of these we die. To meet these basic needs, we had two options:
1. Do it ourself
2. Get it from another cavemen
Eh, since we are lazy beings, we don’t feel like doing manual labor. Let’s say we stick with option 2: getting it from another caveman.
In life, its rare to get something for nothing. And from the perspective of the cavemen, we need to pull our weight for our tribe to thrive. We need to be doing our part in the tribe to ensure survival. Whether it’s hunting, cooking, finding shelter etc.
At some point in history, we realized bartering was inefficient. So we transitioned out of this barter-type economy. We agreed that certain slips of green paper to exchange goods would be a valid form of exchange: money.
Rather than trade meat for potatoes, we decided to use money to fulfill our basic needs. But how do we attain “money”? Again, we have options:
- Ask our parents
- Fair Exchange of value
Effective stealing actually requires a lot of skill, especially if we don’t want to get caught. Interesting reddit AMA here.
We don’t want to rely on our parents and effective stealing obliterates our good conscience. Option three seems most reasonable: a fair exchange. And if we need more of these pieces of green paper, we need to trade something for it. But what can we trade? We can trade our personal belongings, but pretty soon, we’ll run out. Those resources are finite. But the other option, is that we can create resources of value to trade. How do we do this? By using the knowledge in our heads to create infinite resources.
Ahhh, so I get it now. From a standpoint of practicality, I use the knowledge in my head to create valuable “things.” But what if I don’t know shit? Well, I gotta learn how to do it then. As a caveman, if I was a fat and slow male, I’d be useless to the tribe. I’d gorge out all the food while being horrific at hunting prey. I’d be easy( and scrumptious) prey for the lion. On the other hand, if I was a badass caveman, sniping down prey, killing lions and being just a Tarzanian badass, two things would happen to me:
- The tribe-ho’s would be all over me.
- I’d have more leverage in the tribe, because I have valuable skills for the tribe.
Being skilled is a requirement to being a Tarzanian badass. Plus, aside from brain injuries, I will never run out of this resource.
But how do I invest in this infinite resource? I’m not really sure. Because I spent my entire school career trying to game the system. Is there a proper method in investing in this infinite resource? I’ve distilled this into three key symbols:
1. The Hermit Crab
When hermit crabs outgrow their shells, they need to leave the comfort and safety of their original shells to find a new, sturdier shell. As a result, they’re left vulnerable to predators on their search. They’re exposed:
The ability to learn new skills starts with our willingness to leave the comfort and safety of our original shell, to search for a stronger and sturdier one. The process is paired with discomfort, vulnerability and exposure, aka we suck. But if we persist, we will eventually stop sucking.
Makes intuitive sense but let’s understand this from the young professional’s perspective:
We, young professionals, coming out of college hate our first jobs, initially. Why is that? We suck at it. We don’t know what’s going on. We’re left on our own to fend for ourselves, no professors or teachers to hold our hands. So we end up spending our time refreshing facebook, staring at the wall, or making our hourly trips to munch on snacks. All the while, we justify our suckiness through this romantic narrative of needing to “find our calling” and “find our passion.”
A couple months later, what happens? We start understanding what’s going on. We build some skill-level and competence. We might not hate it as much because we’ve internalized the rules and have earned the attention and respect from our peers.
When learning any skill, there are usually two commonalities:
- High motivation
Motivation always wears off and the only thing that remains is sucking.
So I guess this is sort of a mindset. We’re all hermit crabs looking for a stronger shell in our lives. The only option is to put ourselves on the line, be shitty( ahem, my drawings), but trusting that things will work out. Time will eventually convert that shittiness into competence.
2.The War Strategist
Napoleon Bonaparte, quoted “There is no man more pusillanimous than I am when I am planning a campaign.” Napoleon would read a countless number of books, intelligence reports in preparation for battle.
Note: I’ll admit, I stretched this metaphor because the image of a war strategist just seems so badass.
When I first get motivated to learn something, I want to start IMMEDIATELY. I WANT TO START RIGHT NOW. And I often did. But what happens here?
- Oh shit, this is pretty hard. Eh, this isn’t my passion.
- I’m so tired. I’ll just skip a day today.
A strategic war general wouldn’t go into battle without a plan. They’re deliberate and methodical, planning each move and expecting the unexpected. If they jumped in without a strategy they’d die in battle.
As Ralph Carrell says:
“Be the chess player. Not the chess piece.”
So let’s see, what would a military strategist do?
A military strategist would:
- Know what the mission is
- Figure out the most effective way of achieving that mission
- Break down the strategy into a step by step plan
- Selectively choose and gather his resources
- Plan for the unexpected.
I decided to draw a picture for this too:
Same ideas apply to learning and skill development. Does this sound like a lot of work up front? Yes. But spending a little more time upfront, figuring out the right strategy will save me from aimlessly wandering down the wrong path. As Abraham Lincoln says:
“Give me six hour to chop down a tree and I will spend the first four sharpening the axe.”
3.The Annoying as Shit Kid
Remember the “why” game when we were kids?
What are the two qualities this kid has?
- Curiosity: He wants to know why his parents were groaning in their room last night.
- Persistence: Continues to keep asking.
Curiosity without persistence is distraction. Persistence without curiosity is boredom. One does not go without the other. But if we add them together? Grit with some curious flavor.
Angela Duckworth, a psychologist who studies grit, created a simple survey detailing a person’s grit called the grit test. She gave her grit test to students at Penn, contestants in the national spelling bee and cadets entering the military academy. When comparing to other measurements like IQ, leadership scores, grit was, by far, the most accurate predictor of success.
Tying back to the second symbol, there’s no point in developing a strategy when we’re incapable of following through on the strategy. That’s where grit comes in. It’s fun to strategize but painful to push through the mind-numbing, repetitive practice. Execution and application, is where we transform that “learned” knowledge into tangible experience.
There are a variety of tactics: memory palaces, mnemonics, learning hacks. But none of that matters, unless we get the principles right from the start. Because when we get the principle’s right, everything else will fall into place. And that’s why I wrote this post. Because I’ve spent so much time figuring out the latest memory hacks and strategies that I forgot to look at the fundamental principles of learning anything: mindset, strategy and execution. But digging into the question, why do we learn in the first place? Is it to only satisfy our practical, human needs, as I outlined here? Yes. But it’s more than that. Because all humans are one of the same kind. We can always have more money. But the greatest gratification of all does not come from satisfying ourselves, but rather, using what we learn to help others. Am I glorifying myself as some altruistic, for the good of the world dude? Yes. But I’ve gotten a taste of it. The gratification from making a difference is infinitely more satisfying than solely pleasing myself. Try it. Take the three symbols and put it to good use.