Wednesday, January 4, 2012

On Learning

On a recent airplane trip, I had occasion to sit next to a singularly impressive young 'un. We started speaking when I realized he was far too young for the neuroscience book he was engrossed in. His little brother, not quite of double-digit age, was timing himself solving rubik's cubes while simultaneously watching documentaries on his iPhone.

In short order I discovered he was interested in finance. This should have been surprising to me, but honestly, it wasn't. If he were a dimmer bulb like yours truly, he would have allowed himself to be distracted by physics. I was an absolute nut about nuclear physics at his age, which proved to be a gateway drug to special relativity, and it was all downhill from there. No, not for him such mundane pursuits: he had on his mind bigger and better things.

"Tell me about investment banking," said he. Needless to say, we stayed in touch.

I couldn't make this stuff up if I tried. I'm not worried about the national debt, if this is the generation we're handing it over to.

Terrible shame he's Canadian.

Today, he continued in his trend of skipping the easy questions and slapping me upside the head with the tough ones. His email read:

I was curious to know the various learning techniques...I want to learn things quickly. I'm interested in knowing if there is a preferred method to learning that has been previously developed that I can use.

I thought I would share my response, edited for blog format.

  • We learn by stories. This is, however, a double-edged sword.
  • Frequency, not intensity, is the primary factor behind how well we learn something.
  • Writing rants helps focus, which in turn helps learning.
  • Tim Ferriss' resources regarding speed-reading can come in handy.

As with most biological processes, it is extremely difficult to find a one-size-fits-all solution that I can recommend. I will instead offer a list of guidelines that I have personally found useful. I encourage you to tailor the tidbits you find useful from these into something that works well for you, and evolve and change as your lifestyle and mindset changes.

I will start by saying that we, as human beings, are built to learn by stories. Several religious texts from the Bhagavad Gita to the Koran refer to this "teach by story" theme. Finance makes this fallacy -- and it is a very serious limitation -- readily apparent. In fact, Animal Spirits devotes a chapter to this (chapter 6, if memory serves). Gödel, Escher, Bach delves farther into this mechanism by positing that many of these limitations arise from the correlation-heavy aspect of neural networks (our brains, of course, being a natural extrapolation in scale thereof).

We learn best when the lesson is couched in a story. So, the point of the incompleteness theorm may best be remembered in context of Hilbert's challenge; special relativity is remembered within the context of the Twin Paradox; Glass-Steagall is remembered in context of the 2007 financial crash.

Limitations of this method deserve a mention here, and I point to those far more articulate than myself. There is a TED talk on the subject (Video|Transcript). Additionally, Taleb's Black Swan absolutely revels in discussing the limitations and their implications to knowledge as a whole.

Another vital aspect to learning is the concept of "Frequency, not intensity." Personally, I have found that working on something for a given amount of time, a little every day, is the path to mastery. For example, as I mentioned earlier, finance happens to be a passion of mine. As a result, I don't sleep until I have learned one new thing for the day, every day. After all, no one looks back on life and remembers the nights they got plenty of sleep.

Much like working out, you can't make it up if you skip a few days then double up the next day. You'll just exhaust yourself, and not gain traction.

Another little trick I find useful is carrying a book and my favorite pen (a little hubris I indulge in) with me everywhere. It's not uncommon for me to stop and scribble for a few minutes, then review the notes at the end of the day. You will be amazed at how much this helps focus. For example, it allows the compilation of thoughts so when one is asked a question out of left field (such as, "how does one learn quickly?") the answer is ready to go from when, say, you considered the question over lunch a few months ago.

Finally, on to more mundane aspects of learning. Tim Ferriss lists several common techniques in his books, specifically The Four Hour Workweek. His work on speed-reading, which is especially useful, is summarized well on his blog.

A word of caution here: Ferriss' works may lead to more extreme methods, since he is by all accounts an unusually extreme person. Personally, I would strongly advise against the use of mental supplements (even benign ones such as Huperzine A) or alternative sleep schedules. While I personally employ some of these, I don't recommend them.

In closing, I want to mention that learning is best achieved with a goal in mind. To paraphrase Lewis Carroll's grinning cat, "If you don't know where you're going, any road will get you there."

I have a date with the European markets in two hours, and will now cease my babbling. I hope someone out there finds this information useful.

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