Learning to Learn, the Most Versatile Tool

Have you learned to learn? In proverbs about learning something new every day, or keeping an open mind, or in the concept of school, we see praise for learning as a virtue. Yet, I feel that so little learning is actually done, and when it is accomplished, it is inconsistent: People generally are not good at learning what they want to learn.

There are two quotes I love about learning. One comes from Eric Greitens, who in Resilience, gives the example of a girl who wants to play violin. She gets a violin, and there’s no one stopping her from playing it. Yet, there’s still a terrible barrier between herself and her playing violin: She doesn’t know how. Until she learns, she is not truly free to play violin. Greitens uses this idea to say we must practice self-mastery and acquire skills to really gain the ‘freedom’ to do things. I see the same with learning: To be free to learn, we need to learn how to learn. The other quote comes from vegan entrepreneur Miyoko Schinner. In an interview, she mentioned how her college education taught her how to learn, and how she realized that “she could figure out anything on her own.” When generalized, this contains a compelling and liberating idea: One can learn anything. Put together, these ideas suggest that we must earn the ability to learn, and that once we do, our potential for learning and doing new skills is, figuratively, limitless.

But this may sound overly optimistic, and doubts may arise about how much we can actually do. If so, we need to address these obstacles to our learning before we address the assets.

A dominating thought many have when it comes to their learning concerns their innate ability to learn. When I studied philosophy of science, my professor mentioned how philosophy undergrads tend to think it’s their fault they can’t understand Kant when they read him. But Kant is hard to read even by other philosophers, and was accused by some philosophers as having many claims that were simply meaningless. One of my professors joked that Kant couldn’t read Kant. This is one idea I think should be more widely shared: When you don’t understand something, don’t think it’s necessarily your fault. If you can’t read this article, I may be a bad writer; if you can’t understand a politician in a debate, he may actually not be making sense.

Of course, sometimes one is limited by his or her ability. Obvious examples of natural restrictions are seen with height in basketball or in vocal timbre among singers, yet less obvious examples can manifest in learning ability. My professor of science gave this analogy addressing the topic: In basketball, height is necessary, but once you reach a certain height, it doesn’t help to be taller. Similarly, having some intelligence is necessary to learn, practice philosophy or whatever, but after some baseline level of intelligence, it’s not important to worry about how smart you are. And I think many more people meet the natural baselines for reading or writing complicated works, practicing athletic disciplines, playing instruments, and so on, than they realize. In any case, it is profoundly unproductive to wonder whether you meet the baseline to learn some discipline to the point of proficiency. A mindset of being naturally inferior will stop you before you start.

There are many other issues which one may worry will restrict him from learning, like the lack of time, or the lack of passion. There are too many to name in this article. But I think the majority of people who fear the learning of something new will benefit from hearing this: Don’t think you’re too lazy to start. Don’t think you’re not good enough. Some of your concerns will have a rational basis, like the lack of time. Yet, if you want something, you are adaptable. Beethoven was deaf; Hellen Keller was Deaf and blind; Nelson Mandela was imprisoned for much of his career, including the time during which he earned a college degree. Like your ancestors who worked to get you to this point, like the other humans who have shown determination and resilience throughout history, you can find a way. So find it.

And when you’re ready, here are some thoughts that have helped me with learning.

One of the most important tools one can have is that of knowing what understanding, or learning, feels like. The professor of philosophy of science told this idea to me: Most people just don’t know what it feels like to really understand something. When you know it, after having observed complicated arguments and logical puzzles, it becomes so much easier to learn. The feeling he was referring to has to do with simplicity. When one understands a concept, he doesn’t have to jump through hoops of memorization and deductive logic to recreate it. As is often said, one demonstrates true understanding of a concept when he can explain it simply. The feeling associated with this kind of understanding is the feeling of understanding. This is my best attempt to directly and concisely explain it, but it can be more directly experienced by learning from models and facing challenges with complicated arguments.

With the understandings that we gain, we must be flexible with them, to hold pragmatism as our highest aim. Often, we find something that usually works for us, like a way of communicating, and we say it is the right way of doing things, as if any deviation from it were a flaw. But learning cannot be about doing things right, in a sense that is timeless and context-resistant. For example, in boxing, a boxer does not try to learn a punch that always works against everyone, at any time.

It is helpful to think of how we even label concepts as right. Imagine a discipline like cooking. To high-end chefs, there is a sense of freedom in their actions, because they get to pioneer their fields in some sense. Others try to mimic trends that these chefs have created and call these “right.” For them, to strive for perfection is to do all the ‘right’ things and none of the ‘wrong’ things. But to the chefs, there is no such thing as perfection, or else it would make no sense that they could pioneer their crafts. They only lead by breaking convention, by doing ‘wrong’ things—things that deviate from the successful trends they previously set.

Funnily enough, the same seems to be true for areas we may see as more rigid, like physics. At the theoretical level, physicists have reached a point where they cannot even imagine what they’re saying, and propose tradition-breaking solutions to problems. Some theories propose literal multiple realities, and variations on those theories propose how the different realities are created. Others reject the law of non-contradiction, by saying that something can be both true and not true, or maybe neither. Seemingly no piece of knowledge, no ‘right’ way of thinking, is held sacred at this level.

We can have ideals of correctness to strive for, but nothing is resistant to context. Ideas and methods can be revised. So follow traditions and pieces of knowledge insofar as they are practical, and otherwise adapt.

The importance of context is so great that it must be sought out when learning an idea. We hear so often to be courageous or open-minded, and yet the recital of just those words may not do much for us. For many, to hear from Jordan Peterson that they should make their bed (disclaimer: I’m not endorsing him) is not the same as when they hear it from their mothers. It is not just because Peterson may be someone they respect more as an advice-giver. It is largely because he gives the advice in a context of ideas that fits in with their lives. He shows how it fits into his puzzle, and showing the puzzle is tremendously important to understanding an idea, much more than a short summary or definition of it could be. The mistake of forgetting the ‘puzzles,’ or contexts, is one which I think is often made. We try to learn in lists, like ‘the ten things you should to do be successful,’ or in related structures of learning, rather than in the context of an author’s wider body of ideas.

I used to have the ideal that good ideas were democratic, so that rather than read a book from one person about something, I thought I should read many articles from many people about that thing. But from the view of context, to seek out many articles is to find many ideas not adequately fleshed out in these greater puzzles, these contexts. I have found it to be a very unrewarding task in comparison to just reading books by accomplished people.

When one learns to learn well, I think it manifests clearly for the world to see. They accomplish themselves in multiple areas, because they have multiple interests as everyone does, but unlike most people, they are also able to achieve them. Earlier mentioned, Eric Greitens was a Navy SEAL, founded a consulting company to help veterans, was a NYT best selling author, earned a PhD in philosophy from Oxford, and became governor of Missouri. Miyoko Schinner is a chef, entrepreneur, and author. Yul Kwon earned a law degree from Yale, won the 13th season of Survivor, and was a government official. There is no need to make a contest out of this, but I think it is helpful to see the kind of ability to learn that I’m talking about. I think it is helpful to seek some of these people and learn about or from them, keeping their ability to learn as an ideal.

One last note on learning: As I mentioned to forget about what is ‘right,’ that applies to learning about learning. The ideas here have helped me, and I hope they can help others too. But they are not strict truths. For example, don’t think you’re learning incorrectly because you’re not open-minded enough. (As a side note, there is such thing as being too open-minded, and it manifests in having no strong opinions and also entertaining stupid ideas like flat earth theory, because one has no system to discern between more and less practical ideas.) That said, I urge you to take the points mentioned here. Half the battle is knowing you can learn anything, and starting. After that, when one focuses on pragmatism above all, I think the rest will fall into place. The ideas in this article should help as useful supplements. Learning doesn’t have to be a goal unto itself, but it is a tool. And with it, we can do great things.