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Learn How to Learn. Yes, There's a Best Way

"Take the controls," she said. She didn't blink, didn't smirk, and didn't waiver. I glanced at her quickly, then again as her words sunk in. Two thoughts flew through my mind:

  1. Was she joking?
  2. Was she serious?!

Our Cessna 172 engine drowned what once was an otherwise quiet airfield. After cranking the engine, the propeller came to life with such force it felt as if the entire aircraft would shake itself apart. The plane rattled uncomfortably on the runway, wanting desperately to fly.

My instructor chattered instructions through the headset for the next 45 minutes, all of which she left me in control of the airplane. From taxi to takeoff, flying to the landing approach, I was in full control (she didn't let me land, it was my first flight after all). 

And through the sweat of this first-time, hands-on experience, I learned more practical information about flying than all the previous books I'd read on the subject combined.

A Basic Understanding

Of course, for a profession like aviation, the amount I learned on that quiet, clear afternoon barely scratched the surface. A heavy amount of hands-on experience combined with book study would be required to pass a set of exams leading to a certification let alone fly without an instructor.

The class Cessna 172... nearly rattled itself apart in the air, making for a visceral and memorable experience. 

And aviation isn't the only field to require such certifications. Medicine is another example of a profession that requires multiple degrees, certifications, and continuing education credits to practice. These are important (critical even) to asserting a basic level of understanding, providing a basic level of confidence, and ensuring the practitioner has reached the necessary threshold of knowledge to do-no-harm.

These certification processes, professional development programs, and university degrees however often have little to do with how we learn. Rather, they are (rightly) concerned with the outcome. They don't care so much whether we have the desire to learn, only whether we can. 

In other words, on one side of the learning equation is the body of knowledge necessary to be respected, to be an expert, or to be able to practice what you know. On the other is that burning desire to begin learning in the first place.

The Burning Desire to Learn

This dichotomy reminds me of the life of John Adams:

"JA taught during the day and studied law at night. He was a thrifty man, but he had no reservations spending most of his money in books. By the end of the two years, he became a well-read man in legal and political literature of the eighteenth century. In 1758 when he was twenty-three, John Adams was ready to practice the legal career." - http://www.john-adams-heritage.com/early-life-education/

Neither John Adams nor the self-taught men and women of past generations waited for approval to learn. They didn't start learning by chasing a degree or certificate. They saw a need and had the burning desire to learn, so they did. They got out there and experienced all they could about their professions early and often... their degrees and certificates came later.

Experience Trumps All

Experience is the mother of learning. Experience teaches us in a primal, direct way that no other type of learning can reproduce. Experiences like my introductory flight engage all the senses, driving home new information with remarkable efficiency. Unfortunately, when pursuing knowledge through university courses, professional development, or self-study, experience can be the most difficult kind of learning to arrange.

While these types of learning are driven heavily by reading, understand that learning happens through all the senses. Whether the material you need to learn must be read, watched, or heard, we can engage multiple senses to come closer to the real world experiences of yesteryear.

Think for a moment about all the ways in which you can learn something new:

  • Reading, of course. Books and articles and magazines and blog posts are all excellent sources of knowledge.
  • Watching is more fun. Movies, documentaries, even Youtube videos can be full of useful information in your field of study.
  • Listening is yet another way to learn and can often be done while "on the move." Audiobooks, podcasts, and speeches are more resources we can draw upon to learn.
NOTE: If you're genuinely interested in understanding your learning style, check out http://www.studygs.net/metacognitiona.htm

No surprises here. But what if you combined these singular methods of learning? What if instead of sitting back and reading new material, you reached out to the author and interviewed him or her directly? What if you listened to an audiobook and immediately taught someone else what you learned?

Learning How to Learn

These ideas breath life and experience into otherwise passive ways of learning. They turn learning into an experience, and I guarantee you'll remember your newfound information much longer than you would have otherwise.

How then should we learn? By diving in. Learn by experiencing all you can about your field of study. When you read something new, write about it in your own words after. When you watch a documentary, teach as many details as you can to someone else. Get out there in the world and interview experts, going to conferences, and signing yourself up for as many hands-on experiences as you can.

Take The Controls

Now, removed from my intimidating flight situation by a few months, my flight instructors words echo through my conscious differently. "Take the controls," she said. Whereas before I wondered (and sincerely hoped) she was joking, now I understand that it was the best way to learn. Instead of spending 45 minutes being flown around, I spent 45 minutes sweating and worrying, learning and flying!

Now, with all this in mind, and whatever it is you need to learn to live a successful and productive life, I say this:

Take the controls.

(Yes, I'm serious.)