When I was in middle school my parents announced I had to read books over the summer. I thought great, I can catch up on my book club reading. Then book club was that pamphlet of books they passed out in class that you could order for a discount. I pictured myself enjoying the breezy days under a willow tree (there were no willow trees where I lived) and losing myself in imagination. Sike! These were books of their choosing. At my age I couldn’t necessarily say these were exciting books but I learned quickly the point wasn’t to be excited it was to be enlightened.
I claim south side of Chicago as my home because it’s where I spent my summers and holidays. I was born there as well. But my parents attended college in a small suburb not far from the Chicago Metro Area. I spent my formative school age years there. My parents were extremely concerned that I wasn’t being exposed to literature that would put our history in the proper context. So while I had dreams of reading The Hobbit, I read books like The Color Purple and Native Son. Books I was unlikely to read in a mainstream public school. One summer my dad took it a step further, I had to write a book report. My dad was a photojournalist, well-read and an on-the-verge activist. I knew there was no way I would be able to to just wing it. One day I asked in frustration why I was being made to read these books and write a report. The response was both refreshing and simple. Refreshing because it wasn’t the normal “because I said so” and simple in that the words said it all – “to learn what they don’t teach you”.
For my parents school was a place to learn how to learn and to get the basics, life was for teaching. Little did I know then that this simple act of book-reading over the summer would set me up for a life full of success. In high school I started to look beyond what was right in front of me. Not too much, I was still focused on boys, friends and sports. When it came time to graduate and go on to college that lesson my parents taught me was the foundation for achievement. I didn’t have the best grades, but I did have a desire to learn more. I opted to earn two degrees simply because the finance degree had very little soft-skill class requirements. And why minor or double major when you can double degree? I wanted to learn what they didn’t teach me.
This trait blossomed when I entered the working world. When the person training me would teach me the steps I would ask a series of why questions until they needed a break. I would ask those around me what they did and how they did it and why. As you can imagine if you work with people who don’t necessarily care about the why, I became pretty annoying. I would ask to be cross-trained or write up new procedures to old tasks as I found easier ways to do them. I was so highly efficient at my job that I once had a manager at an investment bank tell everyone to give their work to me. I essentially worked three of the four trading desks that day. Now this wasn’t to put me up as a shining example, this was out of spite. This exercise was meant to break me. As my coworkers sat around the entire day with almost nothing to do they watched me in astonished amazement because I had successfully completed the day with ease. I learned what they didn’t teach me.
Over the years I just kept doing this while racking up one success after the other. The most successful entrepreneurs, CEOs, etc will tell you one of the keys to their success was to always be learning. It was to constantly read and incorporate what they were learning. They speak to others and learn from their experiences. They teach what they learn thus imprinting it on their brains which in turn allows for more learning. They invest in themselves by taking courses and engaging in communities of like-minded individuals to learn even more. Many, if not most, can take both sides of any argument and debate it fully based on the amount of knowledge and understanding they have amassed.
How To Always Be Learning
Much like the process for defining success for yourself, the process to always be learning is simple. No time like the present to get started:
Turn off the television. This is a tough one for me. It’s one of my vices. Television sucks up so much time. I’m not saying cut your favorites TV shows out of your life, just don’t veg out in front of the TV. Instead use the myriad services to capture your shows to watch at a designated time. This, however, doesn’t include sports. You have to watch your favorite teams, but it shouldn’t be your entire weekend. I get it. TV is a great way to decompress after a long day. Try another way to decompress. A long walk or catch up on some light reading. I like to read at least two books during the same time period. One is serious or non-fiction on the topic I would like to know more about; the second is frivolous fiction where I can let my mind wander. The point is use the time you would have spent in front of the TV to learn something.
Ask other people what they do, how and why. This is a great way to get new ideas. It’s also a good way to get a fresh perspective on what you may think you already know or do well. For example, as a product manager I launched and recalled product. The basics are fairly straightforward, it’s the nuances that can make a launch really great or just okay. Of course I would speak to other product managers but I would also ask people in other industries what they do when they roll out a new product or piece of software. The need is the same for both, get people interested and using it. But it can be just as important to know the why behind the how. If you ever answer your own “why” with “because that’s the way we’ve always done it”, it might be time for a new how.
Learn a new skill. When I wanted to start a blog I basically taught myself. I later learned how to do social media and build simple websites. I’m betting my brain grew exponentially during this time. Experts say that the brain physically changes shape when you learn something. It’s adding in a new connection. This is why experts advocate playing “brain games” as you get older to help stay sharp. The skill you choose could be directly related to what you for work or it could be totally different, a hobby. The point is to keep your brain fresh and ready for new information. When we use that information repeatedly or incorporate it into something else we already do the brain has to make even more connections. When you are able to connect dots that no one else sees there is bound to be some success that comes out of that. You should learn one new skill every three months if you aren’t exposed to learning new things routinely.
Teach someone a new skill. A great way to learn something is to teach it to someone else. I recently started doing a crossfit’esque workout. They teach us a workout, we do it and then the next time we do a quick review. During the review one the instructor asks us how to do the moves. When your brain shifts from learning to teaching it sees the topic in a different light. It has to interpret what was taught then convert that into the inverse to teach it to someone else. The extra added bonus is if you teach someone who learns completely different from you. The brain has to work harder to convert the information into something you understand then convert that into something that someone else can understand. Do you know how many connections in the brain it takes to do that effectively? For a single skill, probably tens of thousands depending on how complex it is. Challenge yourself by teaching that skill to a second or third person. You will find that you can become expert fairly quickly at a skill you just learned yourself.
The secret to learning is 10 x 24 x 7. There is a formula to accelerated learning. This means you review something every 10 minutes, then everything every 24 hours for 7 days. The brain learns in chunks. Once we get over about 10 minutes without review our brains can start to tune out. This doesn’t mean stop what you’re doing to do a full review of everything at 10 minutes. It can be as simple as asking yourself basic questions. Better yet, if you’re teaching someone ask them reminder questions every 10 minutes. For example you can ask “what is the proper position of our hands on the dumbbells?”. I got that one from my group fitness class. Then review everything you learned every 24 hours for the next 7 days. I really wish I knew this when I was in school. I probably would have done better. Oh well, I know it now.
The most successful men and women first defined success for themselves, but after that they will tell you they learned everything they could about whatever they could. They are voracious readers and great conversationalists. They learned what they could from media and filled the gaps through experience. If you find you’re not reaching your goals or not as successful as you would like to be ask yourself what was the last new thing you learned? What was the last book you read? Who was the last person you had an extended conversation with and what did you talk about? What was the last thing you taught to someone else? If you can’t answer these questions readily, you may need to work on this key to success.