How to Supercharge Your Ability to Learn Any New Subject

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For many, the exercise of organized learning ends when we graduate.

We are then thrown into our professional lives where we spend most of our waking hours working on projects in service of the business we’re helping to build. On those occasions that we do watch a movie or pick up a book, we do so based upon the recommendation of a friend or colleague, generally with the intent to either entertain or improve ourselves in some small way.

When we reflect back on what we’ve read, watched and listened to over the prior year it is usually a patchwork of disparate topics with no unifying theme or thread. It should come as no surprise that long-term learning is often little to none. In fact, think back on the books you read over the last year. Can you name them all? If so, you’re in the minority. Can you summarize them? That would make you rarer still. If you can actually remember discrete facts from them, you’re extraordinarily unusual (and very lucky).

Almost everyone would prefer to be able to remember what they read better and understand it more deeply. Fortunately, this is possible and it leverages a concept many might be already familiar with: immersion learning. Popular for learning languages, it is an educational approach to teaches by placing a student directly into the environment. Significant amounts of research support its efficacy. But its utility extends far beyond just the learning of languages. In fact, with some adjustments, you can create something that approximates an immersion learning opportunity for yourself on any subject you want to learn. It requires a willingness to go deep rather than wide and a commitment to a far more methodical approach than most are accustomed to. But it’s not hard and anyone can do it.

And who knows? Putting the effort into continuing education, far past your college years, might have the unintended benefit of fattening your wallet in ways you never saw coming. A new survey conducted by Invoice2Go, found that 60% of people have been inspired by their time in quarantine to contemplate completely new career trajectories.

Here’s how to re-learn learning…

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1. Determine your target subjects

I focus on the breadth of topics with the only unifying theme being that I am deeply curious about them. Some of my syllabi over the last several years have included ancient Greece, cryptocurrency, modern Russian history, private equity and the rise of the major modern tech platforms. They can be closely tied to your business or not at all, they simply must be subjects about which you wish to learn deeply. Teaching yourself something that you’re not interested in is like trying to fill a leaky bucket, no matter how much information you pour in it’s never really going to stick.

2. Finding the best books

Do your research. Find the twelve or so books that you believe will most effectively build your knowledge on the subject you wish to learn. When you have settled on these books, look at how long each of them takes to listen to as an audiobook (Amazon helpfully lists this for you) and add up all the hours. Most audiobooks are about 10 hours to listen to (and generally you read faster than you listen), so your overall commitment will be about 120 hours.

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3. Plan your year

I commit to reading one book a week. That means I can do one subject every three months, or four subjects a year. Figure out what your cadence will be and build a schedule based on that. Once you understand the total number of hours your “course” will entail you will know exactly how much time you must allocate a day to reading or listening to the books. This discipline is key here — you need to carve out that time every day and account for it in your schedule.

4. Finding the best audio/visual guides

Even though there is no substitute for books it is worth rounding out your learning process by having your other senses play a part. Almost every subject has a myriad of other forms of art and entertainment that have covered it. If you’re doing a course on ancient Rome, go ahead and watch Spartacus and Gladiator. Even though these are fictionalized versions that can play fast and loose with history the point here is immersion and they can help you provide visual context to what you’re reading every day.

5. Take notes on everything you read

If you really want to retain the information from each book it is imperative that you highlight and take notes as you read them. Even if you never revisit those notes again (and for some, you likely will not), the mere exercise of note-taking will help synthesize the information you digested in your head and more deeply implant it into your memory bank.

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Pulling it all together

Ultimately this is a commitment and requires real work. You are essentially designing your own continuing education program. Done well, the amount of learning that takes place can be as deep and impactful as any course from your schooling.

More importantly, it provides a means to scratch that itch to learn about the subject that has always intrigued you but you’ve never really understood or had the time to enroll in a formal class. None of my businesses deal in blockchain or cryptography but I used this methodology to become conversant in some of the basics so I am prepared if and when that technology does enter my professional realm. Similarly, I used it to improve my leadership skills, something that directly impacted my day-to-day management.

Learning does not need to be confined to your career and in fact, you do yourself a great disserve if you allow it to. Study a diverse range of subjects and embrace your inner polymath by using these simple steps and unlock deep learning for your entire life across any subject you so desire.