Brain overload: Why and how you should change your learning patterns
Piotr PodskarbiHead of QA Team
Modern engineers and entrepreneurs face a big challenge: they have to match, or, better yet, surpass their competitors’ knowledge and skills. Which, you may think, is nothing new. Over the years, leading experts in various disciplines have prided themselves on their extensive knowledge which they were constantly increasing. What is new, however, is the abundance and ease of access to this knowledge. If you want to succeed, you have to change your learning patterns.
In the old days, people craved books, lessons and training, but nowadays, we seem to be buried under them. Almost every area has been broadly discussed on the web and knowledge is sold as courses, often for a pittance.
With so much knowledge, how and (more importantly) WHEN can you absorb it all? How can you incorporate the process of learning into everyday duties?
The short answer is: you should change your learning patterns. But how exactly? Hopefully, this article will show you how. I’ll be basing my observations on three core principles:
Choose your knowledge sources more carefully.
Seek deep understanding rather than shallow, junk information.
Instead of compulsive knowledge gathering, build self-trust.
The age of info-invasion
These days, like never before, we’re bombarded with tons of tutorials, manuals and video courses on virtually all subjects imaginable. Most of these aids are free while some are commercial, but cheap. Of course, you can still find very expensive materials, but it doesn’t necessarily mean they’re the best. Most people will do very well with what they can afford.
“OK, so where should I start now?”
With so much content on the web, not to mention books and magazines, you’re bound to get overwhelmed. Watching everything from just one specific section on YouTube would probably last several lifetimes. So, you definitely have to choose. And choose wisely, or else you’ll end up hoarding tons of books and tutorials (which you’ll never use).
Why did it come to this? Probably because, nowadays, anyone can become an author, a teacher or even a guru using the web. E.g. you can work as a YouTuber and earn money by publishing your content online. You don’t need to be certified or even have any knowledge to publish on YT or start a blog.
Most authors dedicate their materials to beginners, for several reasons.
First of all, beginners account for most of the market. It comes down to statistics – in every area, beginners are the biggest group, followed by intermediate users, and, at the very end, the advanced ones. Real experts are at the top of the pyramid and, therefore, hard to find.
Also, it’s generally easier to sell something to a beginner because of the lower threshold. You have to get to an intermediate level in order to teach a beginner, but some people can create an illusion of teaching without actually having or sharing useful knowledge. Finally, when beginners compare their own abilities with those of the teacher, even intermediate skills might look like magic to them. That’s how some trainers attain a guru status.
Beyond the shiny cover: choosing the right resources
Choosing learning aids is not so simple, considering you have to follow certain criteria to pick one source and reject another. The problem is, we sometimes base our choice on superficial observations, especially if we’re beginners at something. We’re tricked by charismatic speeches, colorful and well-designed websites, professional recording or simple manipulation.
We choose certain services over the ones which are better in terms of real value, but lack on the marketing side. Plus, as beginners, we cannot really assess the level of our teacher’s knowledge because we lack that knowledge ourselves.
Sometimes, a beginner has an advantage over someone who has developed bad habits. But you have to avoid these bad habits yourself by choosing a proper teacher and an information source.
How can you do that without a basic level of skill? First of all, you can benefit from the help of someone who’s already advanced in the field. You can ask them about good introductory resources and reliable teachers. Better yet, ask a few people the same question and choose the most common answer. You should also learn to look beyond the marketing layer and compare knowledge alone.
Finally, find out more about the teacher. Are they really experienced in the area they’re teaching? What background do they have? Is their narrative based on creating something new or regurgitating common knowledge? Were they inspired by others or do they criticise everyone in the industry? Do they put their knowledge into practice and have measurable results? Do their students have significant achievements?
Ready-made solutions vs deep understanding
After you find a proper learning resource, you have to face yet another problem: how to reach for in-depth knowledge instead of superficial information. You can always tell a beginner from an advanced learner by the questions they ask. Of course, it doesn’t mean you should stop asking questions in order to hide your low skill level. It’s quite the opposite – “The man who asks a question is a fool for a minute, the man who does not ask is a fool for life”. Still, you should be aware of the fact that your questions reveal how much you know.
Using ready-made tools and solutions is nice. But, most of all, you should aim for deep understanding.
For example, in the area of time management, there’s a concept of Parkinson’s law which states that work expands proportionally to the time available for its completion. On the other hand, short deadlines are one of the main stress factors. So, should you organize tasks in a restrictive manner or give employees more wiggle room and risk unwanted expansion of work? A superficial-knowledge seeker will look for a definite answer: which one is true? Should I give them more or less time? A more advanced learner knows that it all depends. Rather than looking for one simple answer, they will try to find the tools to help them determine each and every case.
Life is much more complex than theoretical models. Ready-made solutions will fail unless we alter them according to specific conditions. If you’re using ready-made solutions without much thought, you can’t alter anything, because you lack deep understanding. You can’t make an exception, because you don’t understand the underlying rules.
If you grasp the rules behind simple solutions, then, instead of memorizing ready answers for every single situation, you’ll be able to improvise and create your own solutions based on those rules. Such an approach is more advanced and, at the same time, easier: you can manage a wide scope of different situations, and there’s less to remember.
Let’s take physics. In such a simple case as horizontal projectile motion (an item thrown with an initial horizontal velocity), you have to remember many different equations in order to determine the object’s range, time of motion, final velocity and other parameters. Or you can obtain all those equations simply basing on the initial velocity and Newton’s second law of motion. If you know the calculus, you can also determine the acceleration and the locus of the item in any time of motion. You don’t have to remember anything but the initial values.
You have a choice – either learn principles to adapt to any situation or memorize an infinite number of varieties.
Unfortunately, many people choose the latter, simply because it seems to require less effort. It might be so, but only initially. As you progress, you’ll probably face more and more obstacles. The real situation won’t fit the learnt model. Yet we still choose this way, mostly because of our modern habits. There’s an inspiring book called “The Shallows” that explains how the Internet has changed the way we think. The way we search the web promotes shallow understanding rather than concentrating on the problem. When we switch websites, we start discarding previous ideas, which does not help build deep understanding. The key is to start noticing which way of learning you (often subconsciously) choose.
From rules to freedom
Finally, you must realize that you don’t need to gain all the available knowledge nor watch all the YouTube tutorials. That’s impossible and, at the same time, unnecessary. What you SHOULD do is understand the rules. When you really understand them, then you can start using the rules more flexibly by simply applying them in real life. The more you do it, the more structures your brain creates. In the course of time, those structures will help you react faster. They’ll accelerate what your brain is doing – which is processing input according to the rules you’ve learnt before and producing output (the proper actions).
When you focus on the rules, you’ll eventually get to a point where superficial sources of knowledge won’t add anything to your experience. You’ll be able to easily eliminate most of them without feeling guilty. Then, you’ll be able to focus on valuable resources made by the pioneers in their respective fields, and ignore the “false gurus”. As soon as you understand that, you’ll be able to take a breath and discard the compulsive need for more knowledge. When you become a real expert, you won’t need any materials presented on the web – you’ll be capable of creating the same resources yourself.
I hope that I encouraged you to dig a little deeper and explained how to deal with too much knowledge. The rest is up to you. But first, you need to decide to become an expert. Remember, everything starts with a decision.
Being a true "jack of all trades", Piotr is not only the Head of Quality Assurance Team at The Software House, but also a great advocate of self-development. His workshops on assertiveness, self-motivation and dealing with stress are always attended by many co-workers.
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