Learning and Memory

Learning and memory are the ultimate metaskills. All other skills will lean on your ability to A) take in new information, and B) retain that information for later retrieval. Without understanding and optimizing these two skills, your ability to adapt is compromised.

You probably noticed that I've grouped these two into a single skill. I did that because they are interdependent–you can't have one without the other. They form a loop: information is learned, evaluated against what you already have in your memory, then integrated into your memory stores. When you learn something after that, that new information is compared with what you learned previously, then stored in memory–and so on.

Before you do anything else, you must educate your self about how to learn and how to use your memory. Once you do that, picking up the other skills you need to survive becomes easier and, most importantly, faster. When you can learn faster than those around you, you have a distinct adaptability advantage that's hard for any competitors you face to overcome.

Computers can learn, but only in limited, well-defined ways and only when they have access to massive amounts of data. Even when there is boatloads of data, their ability to see beyond their own domain is nonexistent. For example, a piece of software that is designed to learn how to determine if a picture contains a cat will not be able to automatically learn how to spot dogs as well. Furthermore, that software has zero awareness of what a cat actually is–it's only looking for some basic features within the photos and doesn't know anything about fur, meowing or litter boxes.

Being an excellent learner also maximizes your economic value. The pace of change we're all living with means that you'll need to rapidly pick up new skills and domain knowledge in order to stay relevant. Anyone who can't keep up will get left behind. By fine-tuning your learning and memory abilities, you will make yourself flexible enough to make changes to your knowledge and skillsets when a big change shows up.

How to Develop New Skills

As you'll discover throughout this process, learning is a combination of gathering information and using it. Figuring out the balance can be tough, so I'll give you a framework you can use to begin with.

You can make adjustments as time goes on, but this should get you on the right path immediately:

  1. At the beginning, spend 90% of your time gathering information–reading books, watching videos and, if you have access to them, talking to experts. At this stage, focus on the fundamentals so you can grasp all the needed concepts that are at the core of what you want to learn. Spend the remaining 10% of your time applying what you've learned in some way. You won't be able to do much this early on, but find some way to start applying what you've picked up.

  2. Gradually start to shift that 90% downwards as you learn more. When you start to learn more actionable pieces of the puzzle, then you should be finding ways to execute actions with those pieces as soon as you can. By the time you reach the "expert" level, the original ratio should be reversed: 90% of your time spent doing, 10% of your time spent gathering new information.

The keys here are to A) constantly develop a bias towards action, and B) never stop learning. Even though you should be focused on action, you should always be looking around for information you haven't come across before that can aid your actions.

With all that in mind, each of these skill sections are just starting points that you can use to begin developing the skills you need to survive automation. Read the books, watch the videos, and, above all, find ways to integrate what you learn into your everyday life.

Learning Materials


Read These

The Memory Mastery eBook Bundle by Ace Eddleman

My books about learning and memory are an excellent place to start (yes, I'm biased). The progression you get in this bundle is exactly what I was talking about in the "How to Develop New Skills" section: it starts out with a simple book that covers the basics of learning and memory (Frequently Asked Questions About Learning and Memory), then moves into an intermediate text about memory (Memory Fundamentals), which is then capped off with an in-depth guide for building a comprehensive learning system (The Learning Factory).

How We Learn: The Surprising Truth About When, Where, and Why It Happens by Benedict Carey

An excellent companion to my books, this book goes deeper into some of the subjects covered in my writing. His emphasis on the importance of variability is especially important in the context of developing your adaptability.

Neuroplasticity by Moheb Costandi

This short book is designed for people who have a little bit of neuroscience under their belt, but it's worth reading regardless of your previous knowledge. Neuroplasticity is the biological mechanism that drives learning, and having at least a cursory understanding of that will serve you well.

Bonus Textbooks for the Supremely Committed

Learning & Memory: From Brain to Behavior by Gluck, Mercado and Myers

Learning and Memory is truly the best textbook-length treatment you can find on these two subjects. It's big, deep and covers everything you need to know about learning and memory. This is for anyone who's serious about taking their learning to new heights, but it's also not for the feint of heart. I personally felt like I deserved a medal after finishing this monster of a book!

Memory by Baddeley, Eysenck and Anderson

Another monster book, this is the definitive volume for anyone interested in the psychological elements of memory (as opposed to the neuroscience, although there's some of that here too). Again, if you want to master the subject of memory this big book is a must-read.

Bonus Web Resource

BrainFacts.org's Learning & Memory Section

If you're looking for a free resource that can help you learn some of the basics and keep you updated on the latest findings about learning and memory, BrainFacts is an excellent resource.

Watch These

None of these are adequate substitutes for reading books when it comes to depth of knowledge, but they'll all provide you with some visual, high-level explanations that might come in handy.

Your Brain is You: Learning & Memory by Dr. David Eagleman

The whole "Your Brain is You" series is worth watching. But if you just want to get a quick overview of how learning and memory work from a neuroscience perspective, this is a great start.

Encoding Strategies by Khan Academy

Khan Academy is filled with high-quality videos on a variety of subjects (including neuroscience), and I recommend you sign up for an account if only to expand your intellectual horizons. This video is another quick overview of some important strategies for utilizing your memory, including mnemonics and spacing.

How We Make Memories by Crash Course Psychology

Another good overview of what memory is and how it works, delivered with high-quality visuals and production value.

Use This Tool

A key component of learning is having a system for remembering what you learn, and the best way to do that is by utilizing spaced repetition flashcards. If you're not sure about what spaced repetition is, then I recommend this in-depth article about it. Spaced repetition flashcards are a big part of the system I lay out in The Learning Factory, and I'm a big proponent of using them to retain information for long periods of time.

It is important to note that spaced repetition is not for learning new things. It's designed to allow you to efficiently remember what you've already learned. This is an important distinction, and it's critical that you understand that you shouldn't just go download someone else's flashcard decks to learn new things.

You could use regular paper flashcards, but there are much better software solutions you can use instead. These will schedule your flashcards for you and allow you to use images and sounds with ease.

The best program, in my opinion, is Anki. It's the most flexible, powerful and easily customized spaced repetition program out there. You should start out using Anki, and if you don't like it, give another program a shot. I know there are plenty of people who also like Mnemosyne.

No matter what program you choose, integrating spaced repetition into your daily routine will boost your retention in ways you never thought possible. You won't really understand the sheer volume of information that you can keep locked away in your long-term memory until you've used it.

How to Take Action

This one is simple: start learning how to learn, then pick a skill you want to pick up and start learning it. You won't know what you're doing at first, but by jumping in you can start to get familiar with the domain you want to get involved with.

If you make sure to improve your understanding of learning and memory on a regular basis, you'll quickly start to see ways to get better and discover methods for applying it to your learning process.

Want to get started right now? Download Anki and learn how to create basic flashcards. Learning how to use this piece of software will boost your ability to remember what you pick up along the way, which in turn will make you that much better at learning.

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