This is NOT about study habits or skills. Nor is it learning ABOUT learning, but HOW TO ACTUALLY LEARN EVERYTHING YOU WANT TO KNOW HOW TO DO BETTER: be a better companion, parent, or do whatever work you do better, and be healthier, avoiding stress-related illness and even brain disorders like A.D.D., Bi-Polarism, and Alzheimers or Dementia.
Learning how to learn sounds very esoteric at first; very enigmatic. What could I mean?—Learn how to LEARN? Everyone knows how to learn: you repeat the times tables and definitions and capitals’ names again and again, until you REMEMBER them. THAT is learning, right? NOOOOO! That is toilet training, folks! That is holding poo-poo in until the teacher says you can go, then letting it out on demand; not LEARNING.
Think about it—in however many years of education you have, through the sometimes seemingly endless hours sitting still needlessly, upon pain of punishment and public shaming, forbidden even from harmlessly gazing out the window at the tender ages of seven, eight, nine years old when things like trees and clouds and the very ground were still magical, not mere objects of study—when did anyone ever give you so much as a single five-minute lesson about HOW TO LEARN, itself? In the immortal phrase of the master of international mystery and intrigue in films, Charlie Chan: AMAZING!
Let me put this another way, to highlight the absurdity—no, INSANITY!—of what you were put through and countless students of all ages are STILL being put through, for as I think no less an authority than Einstein said insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results, because the fact is that we never DO learn how to LEARN, repeating information over and over again. We just learn how to do what we’re told, which is increasingly insufficient because computers do what they’re told faster and more accurately than even Einstein’s can! Learning how to multiply and divide, names of things, and who won the War of 1812—IF we can even remember who fought it—when called upon to dislodge the information from the bowels of our memory, doesn’t do squat when it comes time to figure out how to USE what you learned to figure out things you HAVEN’T learned yet, because as you’ve probably noticed already, the questions on tests, and even more so at work, are rarely if ever quite the same as the ones you did in class. How SMART is it, gentle readers, attempting to learn ANY of the many important things we dearly want to know, like companionship and parenting, business survival skills like sales and leadership and teamwork, not to mention just dealing with the puzzling way our mind sometimes works seemingly against our own best interests, without learning how to LEARN, in the first place?
Okay, so let’s get down TO it. The role of a teacher, according to Plato, is to show people what they already know. What he meant by that is showing you things you DON’T understand in terms of things you already know, so you learn how to do that continually, yourself. The goal of a student, therefore, is learning how to ACCESS what you already know, to help you understand what you don’t. I showed a class of Second Graders, who were struggling with first learning how to fill in blank spaces of sentences from words at the top of the page, that it was like putting pieces of a puzzle together, which may at first LOOK LIKE they fit, but upon closer examination from other criteria than the obvious, don’t. Ahhh, they’d done THAT 100 times! The problem that immediately arises like a giant dragon for most people, and forever stands between them and ever learning how to learn, is SELECTING what we already know that is SIMILAR enough to what we don’t, to help us understand it, as well. THAT is our subject.
Hark! You may have noticed, for instance—MUST HAVE noticed, I should say—that our mind does this INNATELY when we dream, or what else did you think all the confusion you experience then is about? Your mind Search Engines for things you already know to help you understand things you don’t; only you can’t make heads or tails of the connections it makes when your silly insecurities and inhibitions are asleep, so your dreams baffle instead of enlighten you. Not to worry: we will unravel the very fabric of information for you here, so you can tap your mind’s innate abilities all day long, out of a hat, on a dime, as they say; not just on a macro level about new kinds of people and new systems being discussed around a conference table, but on a micro level, comment by comment across a dining room table.
Look around you. Lo and behold, as different as the people you see are, we are actually very similar in structure. As different as their clothes and book bags are, they are very similar in structure. As different as all the elements on earth are, stacked neatly together in the Table of Elements, the structure of their atoms are again very similar, varying in the number of electrons, protons, and neutrons much the way people are different heights and weights. Wellll, wouldn’t it stand to reason that INFORMATION also has a relatively uniform structure?
The problem people have discerning that structure, themselves, since it is NEVER pointed out to them, is that the compartmentalized, inconsistent way composition is taught from one Grade level or text book publisher to the next, actually FALSIFIES its true nature. Yes, Hamlet is largely a drama, but Hamlet’s “To be or not to be” soliloquy is about as expository a disquisition as ever were written. There is also as many profound lyrical components as the collected works of most other major poets. Similarly, every essay of Montaigne’s or Time Magazine, for that matter, also contain dramatic or anecdotal elements, as well as lyrical ones, while being largely expository. So unlike the way they are taught separately in school, as though exposition were exposition, drama were drama, and lyric were lyric, ALL good communication includes elements of all three to varying degrees.
Here’s the rub: that process of instantaneously recognizing and using things you already understand that are similar to things you don’t know, is a function of the soundness of your verbal composition structure, just as it is difficult to get the picture if too many pieces of a puzzle are missing. “Here’s the rub,” for instance, came to mind as I was writing this, from Hamlet’s fore-mentioned soliloquy, the way the ball bounces back into basketball players’ hands while spinning and changing directions at full speed, according to the laws of physics, because the structure of their motions are properly aligned, from having done it thousands of times and mastered the necessary speed, strength, stamina, flexibility, timing, and touch.
I don’t deny that there is an element of sheer talent to athletics and communicating, as there is to playing music well, but they are largely skills that anyone can learn and improve faster and farther, the more systematically someone practices. Once you learn what the fundamental components of composition are, which we will derive from what every situation has in common—as scientifically as you learned to classify things since elementary school according to common characteristics—you can begin doing exercises and drills like those that athletes and musicians do, to improve the speed, strength, stamina, flexibility, timing, and touch with which you, too, can ACCESS the unexpected, not just wait around for it to appear. A few people seem to write and speak brilliantly because they have brilliant ideas, whereas the opposite is true. They get brilliant ideas because the soundness of their narrative structure promulgates them, just as holiday ornaments remain in the closet, so to speak, until the holiday tree is present to hang them on.
Students often ask me if I already know what I’m going to say, or make it up as I go. I tell them, using the same process again, that verbal skill is like when you learn math and can use it to figure out all kinds of things that come up.
Companies spend billions on training of all kinds, but not a dime on how well people LEARN what they are taught. Any coaching or managing about how well they APPLY it is still just more lessons, without two minutes devoted to learning HOW to apply what they learn, to begin with. The premise is that people who want to do well, try harder, and therefore do better, or are just smarter, whereas all evidence points to everything people want to learn being at least as much of a skill as a matter of innate ability. How good a companion, parent, student, and worker we are (whatever we put our hearts and mind to) is likewise as much or more a function of how WELL we LEARN at all, as how MUCH we learn about them and try to do them well. Anyone can learn how to play any musical instrument or sport; only a handful of people ever get to the Olympics or Carnegie Hall.
I'll give you a hint: every book or article about doing anything well uses numerous anecdotes to illustrate their point and draws analogies between the matter at hand and the world at large, showing you things you don’t know about in terms of other things you already understand. People who learn how to do that, themselves, continually see how things they don't know about are similar to things they already understand, and therefore learn geometrically instead of arithmetically, bringing everything they know to bear on any given matter at hand. The entire learning curve is accelerated instead of incremental. Sounds simple enough. So does playing the trumpet or soccer, but as the vice chair of a medical school realized, who had been telling students for decades the power of anecdotes in eliciting information from patients, there's as much more to formulating them than meets the eye, as wielding a scalpel. One of the postdoctoral psychologists at the Institute for Rational Emotive Therapy (now the Albert Ellis Institute) pointed out when I spoke there that they already tell psychologists to have patients formulate their situation anecdotally. “That's like telling people who worry too much not to worry about it!” I pointed out. I spent thirty years virtually unravelling the fabric of information, which anyone can then use to make a pillow, a curtain, or a tapestry, as they please, the way children fill in a numbered coloring book.
It also makes learning fun. A seven-year old autistic child asked if I were going to do more magic tricks the second time I came to her class. Not knowing any, I asked what she meant. "The way you change one thing into another all the time." A nine-year old asked regarding the "Think Outside the Box" sign outside their school's guidance counsellor's office, if this were how you get outside the box. A ten-year old asked if you could change your whole brain this way. "And your life," I replied; "maybe the whole darned world." Two minutes later she asked: "What happens to people who can't get outside the box. Less than a minute later, she realized the answer: "they're soon lost in it, as well.
Think about the fortunes spent on after-school tutoring programs. I believe Sylvan is around $8000 down; then you pay $150 / week! Think about the fortunes spent on therapy and marriage counselling. Relationships are a function of ... relating the situation at hand to others like it in the world at large. Wow! How can someone relate well to others, in business or at home, who cannot relate one thing to another, in the first place? This is complicated? Analogies put the matter at hand in perspective with the world at large. Perspective keeps things in proportion! The students are looking at the teacher all day, and vice versa; the husband at the wife. Guess what? We magnify others' faults and minimize our own! Learn how to LEARN; then learn how to LIVE!
Lest I give the impression that I'm merely telling people to use anecdotes and analogies (metaphors, if you prefer), 1000 books and 10,000 sales meetings a day tell people that stories sell, or mesmerize readers and audiences the way they use them. What I have done is broken down the one common bond between every Tony Robbins, Stephen Covey, Dale Carnegie, Norman Vincent Peale, and all the rest. Learning HOW they write and speak—what I call The Lesson WITHIN The lesson—is actually more important than WHAT they are saying because they keep USING that process over and over again, different as each lesson may be. When I point out how uncomplicated the process is, that is of course once I teach it, as I've done for people from 7 to 87 with or without diminished capacities.
Here is the question of questions for you: how can you hope to use what others teach you about life or work, in person or books, lacking this one skill, without which the authors or speakers couldn't explain what they are teaching? Think about it!
Even unleashing your passion for life, let alone other things, is a function of how fully, deeply, vividly, and clearly you can think about them. I think; therefore I feel, not just am!