August 14th, 2017
I was… nervous? excited? scared? proud?
How do you explain the feeling of knowing you are about to achieve something you’ve wanted for four years, possibly more?
I was sitting next to people I had sat next to in class for four years, tapping my heel-adorned feet restlessly, waiting for the emcee to call out my name so I could walk the most important walk to date in my life: my undergrad graduation.
Having worked thousands of hours in the previous four years for this day, the moment seemed almost too diluted.
Does it all come down to this?
I’m sure there’s the journey is more important than the destination platitude hiding in there somewhere, but back then I couldn’t find it.
Nevertheless, on August 14th, 2017, I was awarded the Gold Medal for graduating from NIT Trichy with the highest CGPA in my department, and the second-highest CGPA in the university among 950+ students.
Now, more than four years later, this is one of my greatest regrets masqueraded as an achievement.
Acknowledging My Privilege
A part of me was scared to write this article. I knew a proportion of you reading this would sigh at the title thinking, She can say this because she has already reaped the rewards. And you would be absolutely right. I have.
Focusing on grades and awards and scholarships — the things that my education system and society asked me to focus on — opened many doors for me. People perceived I was intelligent because of my outcomes; I got rewarded monetarily; and, it acted as a stepping stone for more global opportunities.
But, knowing better now, it would be a disservice on my part if I don’t share with you the mistakes I made, so you can turn them into learning opportunities.
Learning How To Learn
You need to step out of a bubble to realize that you’ve been in one.
It was not until I graduated from NIT Trichy and Columbia University that I recognized the bubble I was in.
The version of me I remember from college approached learning the following way,
She was laser-focused on getting the best grade, even if that came at the cost of understanding a concept completely and memorizing something to ace an exam.
She compared herself constantly to those around her and perceived learning as a zero-sum game. If someone else got better grades, she thought it came at the cost of her getting it.
She did not always learn because the concepts presented interested her. For the most part, she learned to reach the next milestone.
She rarely questioned what she learned. Rather, she simply accepted it if it meant getting to the end goal faster.
She did not learn to actively solve real-world problems.
But I only take partial responsibility for my misguided approach to learning.
We are a product of our environments, more so in the first 20 years of our lives when our brain develops the most in building neural pathways.
I was simply a subservient and excellent by-product of the environment I grew up in.
Thankfully, I know better now.
Since graduating, I’ve had to become my own teacher. When that happens, you realize that there is no more a bubble. There is just you, your thoughts, and your curiosity.
Now, what do you do?
You learn the right way.
4 Principles of Effective Learning
A few weeks ago on a call, my mom told me, “Pooja, if you love to read and learn, you will never be bored.”
She was right.
Where do I get access to the information?
…is not a question humanity needs to grapple with anymore. Everything we could possibly want to know is at our fingertips. So the more interesting question to ask now is,
How do you learn effectively in the new age of information overload?
I’ve laid out my thoughts in the form of the 5 principles that one can (and should) follow for effective learning.
1. Being intentional about your content diet
We are not in a period of information overload.
We are in a period of information exhaustion.
Every single piece of artifact we direct attention to has an effect on us.
Just as an example, below is the list of artifacts I consumed just in the past 8 hours (written chronologically, from first to last):
- Messages from 6+ people on WhatsApp
- A chapter from the book Polysecure
- ~20 emails, each requiring me to switch context
- A contract that I’m currently in the process of signing
- An article on Introduction to Scrintal: Tool for Thought
- An article on Human-centered learning
- A fellowship accelerator program for early-stage entrepreneurs
- 4 more emails
- An article on Intelligent Dance Music
- 3 videos clips from Jimmy Fallon’s late-night show
- 3 messages & a few comments on LinkedIn
- Clips from a podcast interview between Suzanne Kingsbury & Chuck Garcia
- Clips from a podcast interview between me & Chuck Garcia (okay, I was curious!)
- An article on Becoming a learning machine
- And all this while listening to 50+ songs on Spotify.
It took me a while to carefully think through, and look through my Chrome history, and calendar to come up with these. And I’m pretty sure this only covers 80% of everything and does not include the people I came across on the road while biking and the sights I saw along the way.
Even for someone like me, who spends more than the average time curating what I expose my attention to, this feels like too much.
It is too much.
Everything we pay attention to demands a portion of our very limited cognitive energy.
In The Organized Mind, Daniel Levitin writes,
“Even towering intellectuals such as Kant and Wordsworth complained of information excess and sheer mental exhaustion induced by too much sensory input or mental overload.”
To put that in perspective, Kant and Wordsworth said this in the 1800s. 200 years ago.
You’re probably thinking, Okay, I got it. I consume too much information. Now, how do I be more intentional?
The answer is three-fold,
- First, know your sources of information: If you’re a knowledge worker, your sources will mostly revolve around books (paperback + kindle), online articles, podcasts, newsletters, courses, YouTube videos, and journal papers. Write down at least the three major sources of your information. If it is books, articles, and podcasts, then write down the list of books, article sites, and podcasts you currently consume.
- Second, ask the difficult question: For each of the sources you wrote down, ask yourself, Am I consuming this because I deliberately chose to and want to learn about this topic, or am I consuming this because it was presented to me unasked for and I feel a sense of FOMO? I’m certainly oversimplifying the process. But for good reason. When you keep asking yourself this question for everything you consume, you will start noticing the volume of artifacts that get thrown into your purview every day.
- Third, weed out the irrelevant sources and plant new ones: About two years ago, I sat down and went through every single one of my newsletter subscriptions (side note: check out this site to easily unsubscribe). And unsubscribed from 90% of them. After a momentary FOMO that I felt while unsubscribing, the feeling that came after was pure liberation. Of feeling proud of taking control of my content diet.
My only request to you is to at least try the above steps in their entirety for a few sources. You might think, But, but. What if I miss out on something great?
Trust me, you won’t.
As the law of Parkinson’s states,
“Work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion.”
Similarly, the sources left over will expand to fill the time available, giving you more time to go deeper into what you’re reading.
This brings us to the next principle.
2. Effective note-taking while learning
The people who work with me on short-term projects share one common thread in the feedback they give me when they leave. They say,
You made me take better notes, Pooja.
I was not always such a cheerleader for effective note-taking. I went back to the documents from my undergrad days to glimpse into my past self. I would give her maybe a 5/10. That’s all.
Somewhere along the way, in the past 5 years, I became better and better as I traversed various roles in my life: a student consultant, product manager, blogger, author, and course creator. They all sharpened my note-taking senses.
First, let’s define effective note-taking. Better yet, below are the characteristics of an effective note-taker,
- You truly believe in and understand the limitations of your brain with respect to the storage and retrieval of information.
- You don’t read passively. You read actively. You pause, think, ask a question, takes notes, pause, think, take notes, pause…
- You write down all the good ideas you have.
- You look for connections between the notes you takedown.
- You are always thinking about your future self when you take notes. Your notes are clear, concise, and all-encompassing.
In How To Take Smart Notes, one of my all-time favorites, Sonke Ahren says,
“If there is one thing the experts agree on, then it is this: You have to externalize your ideas, you have to write. Richard Feynman stresses it as much as Benjamin Franklin. If we write, it is more likely that we understand what we read, remember what we learn and that our thoughts make sense. We all need a reliable and simple external structure to think in that compensates for the limitations of our brains.”
One of my favorite case studies of effective note-taking is the sociologist Niklas Luhmann.
Niklas Luhmann is famous for being one of the most prolific writers of all time. In his 50-year career, he published 70 books and 400 scholarly articles on a variety of subjects including economy, politics, art, religion, ecology, and mass media. Many of his works became classics in their respective fields and over half a dozen books were published after his death based on almost finished manuscripts lying around in his office.
How was he able to create so much in just a matter of 50 years?
The answer almost seems too simple to be true: it was through taking down ideas on small index cards. That’s all.
For a while, Luhmann took notes the way most people did back then, and probably even now: commenting in the margins of a textbook or creating handwritten notes by topic. However, soon, he realized that this did not lead to any new insight. So he built his own system and termed it the “zettelkasten”, which is german for “slip-box.”
Any time he had an idea while reading something, he would create two index cards: one containing the bibliographical information such as the title of the book and page number to reference, and a second index card containing his thoughts on what he read and how they relate to his work and perhaps to another card in his slip box.
This way, he was able to spot connections between what he read and create more than he consumed.
In his lifetime, he created more than 90,000 index cards.
We live in an era where the effort it takes to maintain a slip box has been exponentially reduced thanks to technology and note-taking apps such as Roam Research, Obsidian, RemNote, Logseq, etc. All we have to do is sit down and start writing down our ideas.
If you’re looking for inspiration on how to use Roam Research to take effective notes, check out this article on how to capture ideas with Roam where I’ve shared a framework I developed and have been using for ~2 years.
3. Focusing on retrieval over storage
How To Read A Book A Week.
Have you seen a video or read an article with that title? Probably.
The internet is flush with “experts” telling you how you can read more.
But wait. First, why is there a need to read more?
We’re all reading enough already. You really are. The more skillful questions to ask are,
Am I reading what I want to and extracting key ideas? And, can I retain and retrieve what I read?
The answer to the first question is what we discussed in principles (1) and (2) above. Now, let’s talk about retention and recall. To do that, we need to understand how memory works in our brain. Time for a short neuroscience detour.
How Memory Encoding Works
Below is a high-level representation of how memory encoding works.
First, we take in a lot of information through all of our senses every second: visual, auditory, tactile, olfactory, and taste. By a lot, I mean 11 million bits per second. Of this 11 million, 10 million come in just through our eyes.
Second, we don’t pay attention to 99.9999% of these stimuli. Of the 11 million bits per second that enter our senses, only 50 bits of information are processed by our conscious mind as we pay attention. This enters our short-term memory.
Third, once information enters your short-term memory, it only stays there for ~30 seconds, unless it’s encoded into your long-term memory. This encoding takes place when you (a) repeat the information (e.g. when you try to remember a new phone number), (b) create associations (e.g. when you meet someone new and learn that they’re friends with your colleague at work), or (c) by embedding it to other information already present (e.g. learning that Brazil is ranked 5th not just in population, but also land area).
The more we understand and pay attention to these encoding techniques, the better we get at moving memory over to long-term storage.
But, storage is only one-half of the equation.
Storage to Retrieval
To quote the neuroscientist Daniel Levitin once again in The Organized Mind,
“Memory is fallible, of course, but not because of storage limitations so much as retrieval limitations. Some neuroscientists believe that nearly every conscious experience is stored somewhere in your brain; the hard part is finding it and pulling it out again.”
So, it doesn’t matter how many books we read if we are unable to retrieve any of what we read. Just think about the last book you finished reading. You spent at least 5 hours of your life reading it. So, can you write down the top 10 key insights you learned from the book if I gave you 5 minutes?
If the answer is no, then it’s worth at least asking the question, Is there a better way to consume content that helps me retain more?
The reason you’re unable to remember most of what you read is not only because of the limitations of your memory; but also the limitations of the medium itself.
Books, fundamentally, are not great mediums of information transmission.
Andy Matuschak, a great thinker in the tools for thought space, wrote the following in his famous article titled Why books don’t work,
“Books have no carefully-considered cognitive model at their foundation, but the medium does have an implicit model. And like lectures, that model is transmissionism. Sequences of words in sequences of lines in sequences of pages, the form of a book, suggests people absorb knowledge by reading sentences. In caricature: “The author describes an idea in words on the page; the reader reads the words; then the reader understands the idea. When the reader reaches the last page, they’ve finished the book.” Of course, most authors don’t believe that people learn things this way, but because the medium makes the assumption invisible, it’s hard to question.”
Because books have been around for thousands of years, we don’t question whether they are the best way to impart knowledge to someone.
Could there be a better way?
But, until that new medium is built, we can do our part by setting up systems to focus on retrieving what we learn better, rather than only focusing on stuffing our brain with more and more content.
One way to do this is spaced repetition.
Spaced repetition is a method to remember more by revisiting what you want to remember at specific intervals, such as 1 day, 7 days, 16 days, 35 days, and so on, until what you want to remember gets embedded into your long-term memory.
Gwern Branwen, a researcher, and prolific writer explains Spaced Repetition the following way in his long essay on the topic,
“[Spaced repetition] essentially says that if you have a question (“What is the fifth letter in this random sequence you learned?”), and you can only study it, say, 5 times, then your memory of the answer (‘e’) will be strongest if you spread your 5 tries out over a long period of time – days, weeks, and months. One of the worst things you can do is blow your 5 tries within a day or two. You can think of the ‘forgetting curve’ as being like a chart of a radioactive half-life: each review bumps your memory up in strength by 50% of the chart, say, but the review doesn’t do much in the early days because the memory simply hasn’t decayed much!”
Like all great inventions, this too has an interesting story behind it. Back in the late 1880s, a psychologist named Herman Ebbinghaus became the first to systematically tackle the analysis of memory, and he did this by spending years memorizing lists of nonsensical syllables that he made up. By painfully recording his results on the number of times a list was studied, reviewed, and remembered (or forgotten), he was able to create a decay chart for our memory, also known as the forgetting curve.
Research has shown a clear improvement in long-term memory formation when the learning happens in a spaced vs massed manner, i.e. spacing out what you’re learning over two weeks over cramming it one night before an exam.
And surprisingly, this technique can scale to huge quantities of information. It has been used by contestants on the popular quiz show jeopardy to learn the answers to over 200,000 questions.
Spaced repetition is a powerful technique that is riddled with an unmissable paradox though,
How will I know that I need to review a concept if I’m close to forgetting it?
On the other hand, wouldn’t I remember the concept that I actually did not forget, which ironically, doesn’t need to be reviewed?
Yes. Sadly, that’s another foible of the human memory. But this is where technology augments our cognition.
A plethora of software and apps, including Anki and SuperMemo, are at your disposal if you wish to take your learning to the next level. These apps let you create a flashcard that is sent to you for review at a pre-determined interval. Based on your feedback, whether you remember the information on it or not, it will either be shown again sooner or later.
Personally, I use Readwise since it has a native integration to Roam Research and a lightweight spaced repetition feature through which I can create quick flashcards directly from my Kindle. If you plan on using Readwise, consider using my invite code that gives you 6 months of free trial!
Side Note: Andy Matuschak, who wrote the article Why books don’t work, set up an experiment to test out a new medium to impart knowledge that didn’t come in the form of a book. He and his collaborator, Michael Nielson, set up a website called Quantum Country. It was their attempt at creating a “book” on quanting computing. Except, reading this book is unlike anything else you might have read before. In Andy’s own words, “The explanatory text is tightly woven with brief interactive review sessions, meant to exploit the ideas we just introduced. Reading Quantum Country means reading a few minutes of text, then quickly testing your memory about everything you’ve just read, then reading for a few more minutes, or perhaps scrolling back to reread certain details, and so on. Reading Quantum Country also means repeating those quick memory tests in expanding intervals over the following days, weeks, and months. If you read the first chapter, and then engage with the memory tests in your inbox over the following days, we expect your working memory will be substantially less taxed when reading the second chapter. What’s more, the interleaved review sessions lighten the metacognitive burden normally foisted onto the reader: they help readers see where they’re absorbing the material and where they’re not.”
4. Create something with what you learn
There once lived a poet named Tenali Ramakrishna.
He served as an advisor in the court of Sri Krishnadevaraya, who ruled the Tuluva dynasty between 1509 and 1529.
Although Tenali died in 1528, his name lives on in Indian popular culture due to countless stories of his brilliance and quick wit in the court.
One of my favorite stories that involve him involves poop. Let me explain.
Once, after a sumptuous meal in the court, the court priest exclaimed, “Is there anything in the world which gives more happiness than our King’s hospitality and food?”
Tenali responded without missing a beat, “Yes. Defecating.”
Taken aback by his crude response, the King intervened and reproached him. But, to prove that he was right, Tenali challenged the King to spend one day in a closed-cell without defecating, after eating a full meal. The King agreed.
Not surprisingly, as the day went on, the King’s conviction kept wavering, until he finally reached his breaking point. In the end, the King begged Tenali to let him out of the room. After defecating, he concurred with Tenali, who had once again won an argument.
What does any of this have to do with effective learning?
Well, it will start making sense when you think of pooping in a metaphorical sense.
Consumption to Creation
Every day, we’re not just feeding our bodies with food. We’re also feeding our minds with information. And honestly, if one were to anthropomorphize this idea of eating information, most of us would be an overly obese version of ourselves.
Because we consume too much and create too little.
Or, we eat too much [information]; and poop too little.
And just like eating highly processed food from McDonald’s, it feels good at the moment to eat all the information, but later leaves us feeling bloated and unsatisfied.
The antidote to this, and the 4th principle of effective learning, is to create something with what you learn.
Below are some ways you can do this.
Apply the principles in a real-time project: The three most proud projects of mine of all time — publishing a book, running a course, and building a social organization in college — have all been a result of putting theory into action. None of them happened when I was listening to a lecture passively inside a class. This is in no way discrediting the importance of lectures, theory, or classes. Rather, I want to emphasize that the real work happens after you leave the class.
- If you’re a student, you’re spoiled for options! You can pick courses that come with a project component; email a professor requesting they take you under their research wing; reach out to a friend who would be interested in collaborating on an experiment, or use the resources at your disposal to start something yourself.
- If you’re not in school anymore, you can still find ways to apply theory to practice. It involves experimenting and being okay with failing in the experiments. My book and course were simply the more successful outcomes of my experiments. I also started a YouTube channel, created two Slack communities, and launched two newsletters none of which are still functional. And that’s okay — because they all gave me an outlet to put theory to practice. In the end, this website of the mine itself is a way for me to put theory to practice and learn and produce in public.
If you’re reading a book on building communities, start one yourself. Reading about investing in crypto? Go ahead and open an account on an exchange. Learning what it takes to build lifelong habits? Stop reading and start implementing one framework from today.
Just like pooping after holding it in for too long, you’ll find immense relief when you finally start using your knowledge to create more of it.
Cultivate a digital mind garden: Even if you cannot find a single project to apply theory in real-time, you always have a plan B: cultivate a digital mind garden.
As Patricia Mou writes in her article,
“Digital gardens are a safe space for one to incubate and nurture ideas over time. It is a metaphor for thinking about writing and creating that focuses less on the resulting “showpiece” and more on the process, care, and craft it takes to get there. It is a place to absorb information mindfully and apply it to the context of our lives and careers.”
Even if you don’t create something for the entire world to see, you can still build a sacred digital mind garden that encompasses all of your ideas.
For every 1,000 words, I publish to the world, there are another 5,000 words in my Roam Research workspace that grows unpublished. That’s where I capture interesting ideas, take notes, extract key insights, and create new ones. With time, as you continue tending to your mind garden, it will grow into the better half of your brain, containing your best thoughts and ideas.
If you’re curious about how to build a digital mind garden, check out this article where I share my framework for capturing and cultivating ideas.
Give and grow at the same time: If neither of the two options above seems appealing or feasible, here’s one more: think about a friend in your life who would benefit from your knowledge. You might not always have a project at hand to apply what you’re learning; but surely, you will know someone who could benefit from it. My mentor, Rajesh Setty, applies this principle in a beautiful way. Hear how he does it in his own words,
“I have a quirk. Anytime I read a book, watch a TED talk, or have a conversation, my mind is on the hunt for actionable insights. The moment I find one, I begin thinking, Where can I apply this?. At any point in time, I am working on 15-20 projects. Even so, I come across actionable insights that are not directly applicable to me. When that happens, I begin thinking about the people in my life. For every person in my network, I learn two things about them early on in our relationship: what their superpower is and what they really care about. So with these two data points on every person in my network, I begin thinking about who would benefit from the actionable insight. Once I go down this path, I can easily come up with at least 3 people I could reach out to. Aside from giving me an outlet to implement the insight, this gives me a reason to reach out to my network and help them. Learning is a continuous process,
“As an example, a few months ago I was reading a couple books on pricing. I came across this idea that setting prices that end in “7” lead to more purchases. To test this out, I reached out to a few of my friends who had online courses and shared this idea with them. They ended up changing their prices: from $500 to $497, $100 to $97, and so on. And, it actually turned out to benefit the majority of them.”
Rajesh is also the co-founder of Audvisor, an audio-learning platform where you can find 3-minute wisdom bombs from experts around the world on business, technology, self-help, and more. Every 3-minute insight you listen to is meant to help you take action on it.
In the end, it’s not a skill, but rather a mindset.
The more you think about creating something with what you learn, the more you will automatically begin to spot opportunities all around you.
Plea for Change
A part of me still feels proud of my academic accomplishments.
I feel proud that I was able to set a goal and reach it.
But, I don’t feel proud of the in-between anymore: of what I did to get there, and of what I had to give up to get there.
I learned wrong for 22 years, and ironically, began learning right after leaving the four walls of my education system.
I hope you don’t commit the same mistakes, especially if you’re still in school or college.
You have a choice: you can choose to focus on grades OR you can choose to learn for understanding while keeping an eye on your grades. It depends on what you dedicate more of your energy to.
Treat your education as a virtue.
Treating it any other way would be a mistake.