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Aristotle once compared human memory to a wax tablet that starts out hot and flexible, but eventually gets cold and becomes difficult to mold. For a long time this was the predominant view of our ability to learn . That is, when we are young, our brains are in excellent learning condition, but as we age, it becomes increasingly difficult for us to acquire new skills. In simple terms: you can’t teach an old dog new tricks … can you?
Recent research has challenged this belief, showing that other factors, such as an older person’s confidence in their ability to learn, are also at play. So if we stop thinking that our brain agility erodes minute by minute, we might actually be able to learn something. And in today ‘s knowledge economy , where the ability to quickly acquire new skills is more valuable than ever, this is great news for entrepreneurs looking to make themselves and their teams more competitive.
As CEO, I read industry posts and blogs every day, plus at least one non-fiction book at all times. I hire world-class consultants who keep our employees up-to-date on the latest tools and strategies, and we’ve been able to make great progress in areas where our competencies needed underpinning, for example our website SEO.
However, dedication to learning is only the first step. Metacognitive activities, such as thinking about one’s own thinking through reflection, planning, and monitoring, can also significantly facilitate learning. With all of this in mind, I wanted to share with you some personal and science-backed techniques to become a better student for life.
1. Start with a spaced repetition
Whether you’re learning to play the saxophone or studying a foreign language, repeating scales or reviewing vocabulary is the only way to mastery. Practice, or repetition, makes perfect. There is a scientific explanation for why this works. Repetition increases the myelin, or fatty coating, around the axioms that connect the neurons in our brain. The more myelin, the faster our neurons work, and the better we learn something.
It turns out that spacing out the replay, rather than grouping it into a single session, is even more effective. Demonstrating the power of spaced repetition, Gabriel Wyner, author of In Fluent Forever: How to Learn Any Language and Never Forget It, writes :
“In a four-month period, practicing for 30 minutes a day, you can expect to learn and retain 3,600 cards with 90 to 95 percent accuracy. These cards can teach you an alphabet, vocabulary, grammar, and even pronunciation. And they can do it without getting tedious, because they are always challenging enough to remain interesting and fun. “
So we not only increase our retention, but we also avoid the traps of waning enthusiasm, also known as boredom.
To use this learning technique, start by establishing a manageable study schedule. Then I would recommend choosing a method for storing and organizing the information. In the old days, that meant using cards, but today we have useful software options like Evernote and SuperMemo. And don’t forget to test yourself periodically. Tracking your progress will increase your motivation to continue.
2. Take the time to reflect
Reflection can be invaluable for learning and improving performance at work. Harvard professor Francesca Gino and her colleagues found that employees who spend 15 minutes at the end of the day reflecting on lessons learned have 23 percent better learning after 10 days than those who did not.
In addition to solidifying what we have already learned, reflection also helps generate new ideas. I’ve had some of my best product ideas when I’m not working. During my morning exercise or on the walk after lunch, I will find the perfect solution to a problem that has been bothering me for weeks.
As the psychologist Scott Barry Kaufman explains : “Our most creative ideas do not usually appear when we are consciously focused on the problem. Great ideas come from interacting with people, gaining experiences, and letting the mind make connections. ” In fact, Kaufman found that 72 percent of people have new ideas … where else? The shower. These “shower ideas” are the result of reflection, as our brains make connections between the information that we have already consumed. That is why I encourage my employees to use their vacation days. After some genuine free time, they return to the office with more energy and often with a new vision.
3. You have to break it down
I’m sure teachers will agree that the best way to learn something is to explain it to someone else. That’s why the first step in Nobel Prize winning physicist Richard Feynman’s learning formula is: teach it to a child . Or at least trace how you would explain something to a child. As Feynman once said , “If you can’t explain it in simple terms, then you don’t understand.”
If you try to break down a concept in its simplest terms, you will quickly find out if you really understand it or if you have knowledge gaps. And when we do find those gaps, Feynman’s technique suggests going back to the source material and relearning what is missing.
When my wife was pregnant with our second child, I decided to take three months of (mostly) uninterrupted parental leave. To do so, I would have to delegate a large part of my responsibilities to my employees. Months prior, I began to guide my colleagues through each task step by step. I soon realized that by teaching them how to do my job, I was strengthening my own skills, as well as recognizing the areas where I needed to brush up.
4. Transfer what you learn
I think we can all agree that Elon Musk has an extraordinary learning aptitude. From software and energy to transportation and aerospace, the rocket company’s CEO is a true polymath, or expert in various fields. But Musk’s wide range of knowledge is actually integral to his ability to learn, because taking what we study in one context and applying it to another helps deepen our understanding of both. It’s a technique called transfer of learning, and according to Musk’s interviews, it uses a two-step process. First, it deconstructs knowledge in its fundamental principles. Then he rebuilds it in a new field. Let’s say you are studying Italian, but you also want to become a better cook. You can simply take a cooking class in Italian. The latter will most likely strengthen your understanding of the language and teach you how to prepare, say, a half-Bolognese spaghetti. Another advantage of becoming a polymath is that it can lead to innovation. For example, a thorn caught in a dog’s fur became the design inspiration for Velcro.
Entrepreneurs and their organizations have a lot to gain from engaging in continuous learning, but on a personal level, I think this approach also makes the day-to-day experience richer. Just have confidence in yourself and you will see: you can teach any dog a new trick.