Dec 192008

I sincerely hope that I never stop learning.  My father once said to me that his ideal lifestyle would involve being able to go to school throughout his life, continuously learning.  And a friend of mine named Stork years ago explained that he wanted to gather knowledge completely without any ambition to apply that knowledge to anything useful.  He was a man focused on learning for learning’s sake.

I don’t think either of those approaches to learning apply to me, but I do strongly believe that one will never really grow in life unless that person is committed to be open to new thoughts, new experiences, and new knowledge.  So I am always trying to learn new things and to expand what I am capable of.

Generally, I think I do a pretty god job of reading, internalizing, and learning.  I am always hungry for more, which is preceisely my problem sometimes.  See, I often get so excited by the possibility of learning something new that I take on too many things at once.  It’s like I’m in an ice cream shop, and I can’t decide on any one flavor since they all look so good, and instead I try one, then want to try another, and another, and another, until I am so full I feel sick and the staff is mad at me for eating so many samples and not actually committing and buying anything and now they are giving me angry looks and all the people in line behind me are pissed off but damn it all tastes so good and I can’t stop.

Yeah, that describes my approach to bookstores, to reading things online, to new activities, etc.  Everything looks so damn cool, you know?  It would be great to be able to do everything I want to do.  So I find myself in the midst of trying to learn dozens of things at once, which I would desribe as a type of life multitasking.  And you know what?  It has been shown conclusively that those who multitask (say, splitting time responding to emails along with writing a blog post) do both things with a lower level of quality.  If I were to focus on the blog post, and then respond to the emails, the tasks would be done better and probably in less time.

So I postulate that those who engage extensively in life multitasking suffer from the same lack of quality in what they do.  If I were to focus my efforts more exclusively on learning a limited numbers of things, I would likely learn them more quickly with a better retention rate than using my current methods.

Actually, this is precisely the approach to learning that a brilliant man, Josh Waitzkin, is advocating.  This name might actually tickle the brains of some of you – Josh Waitzkin was the subject of the 1993 film Searching for Bobby Fischer, about a chess prodigy.  Josh believes in diving deep into whatever it is you are learning, to focus on it such that you attain significant depth in your learning.  Here’s a quote from Josh:

Let’s say we have three skills to learn. The typical approach is to take them all on at once. It is much more effective to plunge deeply into one, touch Quality, and then transfer that feeling of Quality over to the others. A martial artist, for example, should internalize one technique very deeply instead of trying to learn 10 or 15 superficially. This approach engages the unconscious, creative aspects of our minds, and we start making thematic connections which greatly accelerate growth. It is also important to point out that deep presence is required for a state of neural plasticity to be triggered—our brain does not re-map effectively when we are skipping along the surface

So my goal is to target my efforts into learning one thing well before moving on to the next, rather than trying and struggling to learn 3, or 4, or 12 things at once.  I am sorely tempted to order Josh’s book on learning from Amazon, but I already am reading about 6 different nonfiction books at once.  I’ll try to finish just one first, I think he would approve.

 Posted by at 4:01 pm

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