For about a decade, for most of my thirties, I lost touch with active learning.
This isn’t to say that I didn’t learn anything for those ten years. I learned passively, reading nonfiction and news. I had hundreds of fascinating conversations. I worked, and learned by doing (LBD), acquiring new skills by throwing myself into unfamiliar activities (screenplay and novel writing, DJing) and learning on the fly.
Still, my approach to acquiring new skills and knowledge was haphazard. The few times I did dedicate time and resources to active learning yielded large dividends (for example my “DJ bootcamp” experience), but this was the exception, not the rule.
For the most part, I ignored:
- creating a learning plan, setting learning goals
- memorization and quizzing
- active practice (noticing and correcting weaknesses)
- comprehensive review of the subject matter
I don’t have statistics, but I would guess that falling out of touch with the habits of active learning is more common than not. High school and college students are compelled to learn actively, or they’ll get failing grades. In one’s twenties, getting on your feet professionally often involves active learning. But later on, even moderate career success can end up being an enemy of active learning; what you know is working for you, so it’s possible to coast on the basis of existing skills and knowledge, and stop pursuing new ones.
The biggest trap is to incorporate what you don’t know into your identity. If you define yourself as someone who “can’t dance” or “doesn’t speak Spanish” or “doesn’t understand music theory” then you have created an artificial and unnecessary barrier against learning.
What Is The Learning Tax, and Why Pay It?
The Learning Tax: Time and energy spent conducting rote memorization, comprehensive review of subject matter, and active analysis of one’s own skill and knowledge base (with a focus on finding and correcting weaknesses).
Active learning is difficult. It requires effort and the expenditure of willpower. It’s possible to get through life, and even achieve a reasonable level of success, without ever paying it.
We can learn enough to get by via passive learning (reading, lectures, conversations) and learning-by-doing (working until you get stuck, then either asking someone for help, or looking up just what you need to know). Paying the Learning Tax is optional. But there are benefits.
The Problems with Learning-By-Doing
Throwing yourself into an activity, and figuring out what you need to know as you go along, is an effective way to pick up new skills and knowledge. It’s a shortcut; a way to learn without really paying the Learning Tax.
The main problem is that learning-by-doing doesn’t provide any framework to enhance knowledge and skill once the job is done. Good enough becomes the rule and the limitation. There is no path to mastery or excellence via LBD.
Another problem is that not every skill and knowledge area can be penetrated via LBD. If you want to learn how to read Hebrew or Japanese, for example, you can’t just start. You need to actively learn (memorize) the characters first.
Memorization vs. Project Based Learning
The modern zeitgeist dismisses “rote memorization” as both old-fashioned and unnecessary (after all, you can just look it up on wikipedia, right?). The same can be said for frequent testing. “Project-based-learning” is more popular.
Project-based-learning is a good thing. For kids, it exposes them to the brain-warping complexities of actually getting a job done (working with other people, messy reality not matching neat-and-tidy models, two-steps-forward-one-step-back, and so on).
But project-based-learning should complement (not replace) rote memorization and comprehensive review of subject matter. Both are necessary to achieve the ideal learning program, as is passive learning (reading and lecture).
“Personal Style” is a Red Flag
When someone describes their way of doing things as their “personal style,” it’s usually another way of saying that they don’t like paying the Learning Tax. Personal style is usually constituted of bad habits and limitations in knowledge and skill.
People who have achieved mastery, on the other hand, can produce or perform in a number of styles, using either traditional or innovative/modern techniques.
Since active learning requires some effort, and also humility, it’s often easier to find a quick-and-dirty fix or workaround, avoiding learning new material and doing it right. We can go to great lengths to work around our ignorance and weaknesses.
For example, I went an embarrassingly long time as a music producer before I learned how to use sidechain compression (a technique when you route a signal to dynamically reduce volume on a different audio track). When producing early versions of Loöq Radio, I actually resorted to manually drawing volume control data to reduce the music track volume while Spesh and I were announcing track titles. Finally I learned how to use sidechain compression, and producing the show got much easier and faster. Those of us who are self-taught need to be diligent to make sure we’ve covered all the basics; often there are gaping holes in our knowledge and skills that can hold us back.
In the long run it makes more sense to pay the Learning Tax, to methodically expand our knowledge base and skill sets.
When You’re a Hammer …
Another pitfall of not paying the Learning Tax is a narrowing of perspective when it comes to problem solving. In other words, when you’re a hammer, everything looks like a nail. Since I’m a database applications developer, that’s often the solution I try to apply to data management problems that come up. But sometimes a spreadsheet is a better choice, or a text document, or writing a list on a scrap of paper.
When Spesh and I first started our record label back in 1998, I diligently started to write an accounting database application to track our income and expenses. “I’m pretty sure you can buy software that does that,” suggested Spesh. He was right — Quickbooks came out that same year. Learning how to use Quickbooks was a much better use of my time than creating a bad version of the same software from scratch. I was trying to solve a problem using my available skills and knowledge, instead of exploring what skills and knowledge I needed to gain in order to solve my problem.
I’ve made the same mistake in other areas. Since I know a lot about food and nutrition, I tend to overemphasize the role that food and nutrition might play in causing or curing a particular ailment, and underemphasize areas I know less about (environmental factors, infectious agents, genetic conditions, emotional and psychological issues).
So paying the Learning Tax not only applies to a particular skill/knowledge area, but also to how we approach problem solving in general. If I want to be richer, for example, I’ll need to consider both reducing expenses and increasing income. If I’m reasonably good at saving money, but not that good at earning it, then I’m better off paying the Learning Tax and focusing on the latter (instead of redoubling my efforts to scrimp and save).
The Ideal Learning Program
When learning a new skill and/or body of knowledge, the ideal learning program might look something like this:
- Consider what to learn and why. What do you need to know (and know how to do) to make progress towards your life goals, or to change your life and/or change the world for the better?
- Get a handle on the basics, via some combination of active learning (deconstruction, memorization/active recall) and passive learning (reading, talking with experts, or watching videos on the subject).
- Jump right in and learn by doing. The more you care about the activity, the more quickly you’ll learn. Do something that counts.
- Review your progress and evaluate what you still need to learn. Invest more time in active and passive learning on the subject.
- Repeat steps 3 and 4 indefinitely.
Efficiency is important when it comes to active learning, especially for those of us who are not naturally gifted at quickly acquiring new knowledge. My own brain likes to clean house regularly, and if a piece of knowledge isn’t used frequently and regularly, it is irreverently jettisoned into the atmosphere. Because of this, I often get discouraged when tackling new unfamiliar knowledge areas. There’s so much to learn, and I keep forgetting it!
So finding ways to learn quickly, efficiently, and effectively is important. It helps us gain confidence and momentum.
Tim Ferriss pays his Learning Tax. He’s made an impressive career out of it. He speaks a number of languages, practices a wide variety of martial arts, and more recently has taught himself to cook. Tim is obsessed with deconstructing the learning process, and maximizing efficiency when it comes to effort vs. accomplishment.
What are the minimal learnable units, the LEGO blocks, I should be starting with?
Which 20% of the blocks should I focus on for 80% or more of the outcome I want?
In what order should I learn the blocks?
How do I set up stakes to create real consequences and guarantee I follow the
Ferriss also shares his learning techniques, acronym “CaFE”:
Can I encapsulate the most important 20% into an easily graspable one-pager?
How frequently should I practice? Can I cram, and what should my schedule look like? What growing pains can I predict? What is the minimum effective dose (MED) for volume?
How do I anchor the new material to what I already know (using acronyms, for example) for rapid recall?
Ferriss’s techniques are useful, especially when taking on a brand new skill. Rapid progress in the beginning of the learning process builds confidence and gets you over the “I can’t do that” hump.
- Active, conscious learning requires time and effort, and many adults (myself included at times) try to avoid paying “The Learning Tax” and instead coast on the basis of what we already know
- Holes and gaps in our knowledge and skill base hold us back and lead to ungainly kludges; working around these deficiencies often requires more energy than methodically learning the relevant material
- We can rationalize not paying The Learning Tax by defending our personal style of doing something, but “personal style” can be a euphemism for bad habits and limited abilities
- A limited, narrow range of skills and knowledge can lead to tackling problems with inappropriate/inefficient tools (“When you’re a hammer, everything looks like a nail.”)
- An ideal learning plan includes motivation (why are you learning it?), active learning (memorization, study, active recall, practicing subskills), passive learning (reading, conversation, lecture), and learning by doing (project based learning, or using the skill to actually do something that counts)
- Active learning can be made easier by the use of certain techniques (mnemonic devices, anchoring, Pareto [80/20] principle, optimizing review frequency, etc.)
Tools & Resources
Khan Academy: a free learning site with video tutorials and practice exercises on a wide number of topics including math, science, computer science, economics, history, art history, and test preparation (SAT, GMAT, etc.)
MIT OpenCourseWare: free online MIT courses
OpenCulture: an index of free courses and other online educational resources
Edit: Just learned about CodeAcademy — looks like a great site.