Learning is a Lifelong Process
The more purposefully you live, the more you’ll learn. So watch movies and TV shows. Highlight texts. Take notes. Write. Read. Listen. Travel. Feel intensely. Don’t understand something? Glasp it.
Ernest Hemingway is acclaimed as one of the best authors of all time for a reason. Stories like The Old Man and The Sea are enthralling, straightforward and concise not just because Hemingway was a wizard with words, but because the author actually lived those adventures and told them later.
Before reaching success as an author, Hemingway was an avid overseas traveler. The spark of writing about a Cuban fisherman called Santiago originated from his excursions to Cuba, in which he very likely stepped into the character’s shoes for a while.
No author’s work is ever created in a vacuum, but rather inspired by various lived experiences. Now, I’m not saying you need to be extremely bold on your ventures in order to learn new things and connect different ideas. Not if you don’t want to. What that means is: learning involves much, much more than burying your face in a thousand books and trying to memorize passages.
What’s more, you don’t have to be a novelist to increasingly seek knowledge and know what your brain is capable of. You just have to be human.
Learning is an Ongoing, Curated, and Collective Process
Although learning patterns vary from person to person, no one will ever learn anything by themselves. Even if you’re studying alone in your room at midnight, you’re still reading or listening to something that was previously learned, and then curated by someone else for teaching purposes.
The World History book sitting in someone's vast library doesn’t contain all of History. Not even the most complete book does. Even Historians won’t know everything there is to know about History. That humongous book is but a curation of the most important moments across generations, suitable for aficionados and students alike. Upon reading it, a student will curate it even further, highlighting the parts that are most likely to help them ace the following day’s exam. The aficionado, in turn, will use their curated knowledge as an incentive for further learning.
Speaking of History: collective learning is how humans got smarter across generations. Our ancestors learned by communicating with one another. Children learn things by watching their parents. Students learn by observing a teacher and/or a professional’s demonstrations.
But here’s where it gets interesting: a lot of students are more likely to learn a difficult subject from other students, because their friend is likely to explain it in a more chewed-up, concise, and straightforward way. That’s how you know someone has learned something: when they can explain it simply. At least, that’s what Albert Einstein said.
When a student is explaining something to another, what they’re essentially doing is passing their knowledge on, verbally. And the other student, the one who needs clarification, might have to pass it on to someone else, or cite that knowledge in one of his projects. It’s quite interesting.
Certainly, there are other ways to pass your knowledge on to other people and leave a legacy. It’s as simple as taking notes, and leaving your curated knowledge to whoever borrows those notes. By adding post-it notes to books and adding your own thoughts to a certain passage. Above all, you can leave a legacy by making your notes and highlights available to your community. We’re going to talk about Glasp in a minute, and you’ll understand all about it.
An interesting way authors have left their legacy is by adding marginalia to books, which simply means writing their observations and thoughts across a page. Edgar Allan Poe himself is a big fan of marginalia, stating that he’s always been “solicitous of an ample margin”, thanks to the ease of “penciling suggested thoughts, agreements and differences of opinion, or brief critical comments in general.”
If you ever get your hands on a book with marginalia, don’t take it for granted. Whoever’s marginalia it is, even if it’s from your neighbor across the street, it’s valuable. It gives you an insight into the workings of someone else’s brain, their varying opinions, as well as their questions. You just might end up learning something new.
To borrow from Tim Ferris, people are smarter than you think. They don’t have to be an acclaimed author or a scholar to teach you something new.
You’ll Never Learn Everything About Anything
There’s nothing more frustrating than the knowledge rabbit hole.
A common conversation among students goes something like this: “I feel like I don't actually learn anything I study.”
Truth be told, if they feel like this, that means they’re most likely learning. What a lot of them don’t realize, though, is that learning has no end to it. When you master a subject, that’s when you’re most primed to ask and answer new questions related to that subject. And, as you know, one question branches into 10 more. And then 20 more.
It’s like that quintessential moment when you look up a word in the dictionary, and the entry is riddled with even more difficult words. Then, you have to look those up as well, and suddenly you’re caught in a trap.
The goal is to accept that you’ll never know everything about any subject. For every occasion, focus on the information that matters most for a particular purpose. You’ll have the rest of your life to deepen your knowledge.
We’re all eternal students. There’s no end to the infinite connections we can make with one single subject, let alone with all subjects in the world.
This is food for thought -- and probably for an existential crisis. But when I say learning is an ongoing process, repetition is also included in the mix.
Repeat, Reread, Revisit
Just like your phone, your brain has limited information storage. Your available knowledge “space” is comparable to downloading new apps with limited phone storage: when you download a brand new app, the older ones are put on hold. Unless you go ahead and re-download them, they’ll just stay there, with no real use to you.
One of the most interesting things I’ve read in terms of repetition was this phrase: “The deepest ‘aha's’ spring from an encounter and then a return”. This is from a research from the University of Virginia, titled Repetition is the First Principle of All Learning. Just like practicing and learning a new skill requires repetition, so does learning new things. The more often you revisit a concept, the easier it will be to remember it and explain it, if you ever need to.
Learning is not a one-and-done thing, as much as we wish it was. BoJack Horseman’s Jogging Baboon said it all: “Every day, it gets a little easier. But you gotta do it every day. That’s the hard part.”
Your Brain Never Stops Learning New Things
Your brain has an incredible ability to adapt to novel information. This ability is called neuroplasticity. Doctor Celeste Campbell says neuroplasticity refers to “the physiological changes in the brain that happen as the result of our interactions with our environment”.
In plain English, what that means is: when we challenge our brains to learn new things, we enhance its capacity of attaining and taking in information. In other words, we get smarter the more we do it.
That happens thanks to the power new information has of strengthening our synapses. Synapses are the space of transmission between two neurons that, when exercised, help our brain adapt to fresh knowledge.
Your brain doesn’t stop developing until the moment you die. But, it doesn’t get stronger by itself, either. According to Positive Psychology, “When we learn something new, we create new connections between our neurons. We rewire our brains to adapt to new circumstances. This happens on a daily basis, but it’s also something that we can encourage and stimulate.”
So, how do you encourage and stimulate your brain to learn more?
If possible, travel more and explore new cultures. Learn to play a new instrument. Learn a new language. Read lots of books, particularly those that challenge you to learn something new. Read articles, and as you read them, highlight important passages and take notes. Revisit those notes whenever you feel it’s necessary. Little by little, you’ll be feeding your brain with brand new ideas that will be useful throughout your life.
Learning Means “Borrowing” Ideas From Different Sources, and Making Connections With Your Own
This was my main thought when I created Glasp.
Glasp is a Web Highlighter with a deeper purpose: allowing users to leave a digital legacy by making the insights they’ve collected available to others.
Highlighting a text is one thing. It lets you revisit the information you’ve collected, so you’re able to focus only on the “nuggets” that matter. Great. Now, being able to pass that curated knowledge on to like-minded people (while also seeing what they’ve been collecting) is even more powerful. You’ll be learning new things, and staying organized while doing it.
Here’s a real-life example: If you’d like to learn more about User Interfaces (UI), all you’d have to do on Glasp is to search for the tag “User Interface” or “UI”. This simple action would help you find several articles, tweets, and videos, already highlighted by users. I did that, and arrived at product manager enthusiast Vineet Chaurasiya's impressive collection of relevant UI and UX articles. Not only do I have access to his highlighted bits, but also to his notes and thoughts on the pieces he’s read.
No noise, no distractions -- just the most refined and categorized information available at your fingertips. The most exciting part is: your highlights and notes could also become fodder for someone else’s learning process. With Glasp, we’re all borrowing one another’s notes to be increasingly productive, organized, and above all, smart.
Lastly, Learning is About Finding Comfort in Discomfort
In advertising, one of the first things students learn is to verge on the uncomfortable in everything they do. They’re encouraged to watch Sci-Fi movies, even if their favorite genre is Rom-Coms. They’re encouraged to listen to Country music, even if they spend all day listening to Indie Rock & Roll. But that shouldn’t be a reality limited to creatives. Leaving one’s bubble and expanding one’s worldview should be universal.
We’re quick to judge things we’ve never even experimented with. We let our biases dictate what’s worth pursuing and what isn’t. For someone with a zest for knowledge, that’s the worst path anyone can take. Learning isn’t about being stuck with concepts you’re familiar with -- how could anyone expect to increase their brain’s connections this way?
Next time you’re getting to know something you’re unfamiliar with, do your best to approach it with curiosity instead of judgment. You may surprise yourself with how much you could learn from it.
Live, and You Shall Learn
Knowledge is all around you. It’s in the conversations you have. It’s not only in the connections your brain makes, but the connections you make with people, be it online or in person.
The more purposefully you live, the more you’ll learn. So watch movies and TV shows. Highlight texts. Take notes. Write. Read. Listen. Travel. Feel intensely. Don’t understand something? Google it or Glasp it. Listen to people’s stories. Be observant. Try to find a deeper meaning behind things.
Most importantly, leave a legacy. You have no idea how many people could get smarter because of you.
See you next time,