How to learn

The general way education works in our society is that we learn X amount of years and then we execute on the acquired knowledge. In many cases, this methodology is necessary. Doctors and pilots need to learn a lot of things before they start practicing. Buf often careers are only partially useful and applicable in the real world.

A different approach is learning while you are doing something. I started to use this widely while working in technology. While I have finished a computer science degree, it was only useful to a limited degree. Most of what I learned I never used and while working as a software engineer I had to learn many things almost from scratch and on demand.

In general, learning on demand must be applied in areas where there is no predefined path. Entrepreneurship is a good case. Elon Musk is one of the boldest and most successful Entrepreneurs and he does a lot of things like building rockets without having a degree in that particular discipline. He studied physics and economics which was very useful to him, but he had no idea about building rockets so he read some books.

That might sound funny, but it’s not the whole story. A book is a good starting point and Elon loves books but he is also a master of absorbing knowledge from other people and paying careful attention to feedback. The book Elon Musk: Tesla, SpaceX, and the Quest for a Fantastic Future reveals a good sample.

“Musk initially relied on textbooks to form the bulk of his rocketry knowledge. But as SpaceX hired one brilliant person after another, Musk realized he could tap into their stores of knowledge. He would trap an engineer in the SpaceX factory and set to work grilling him about a type of valve or specialized material. “I thought at first that he was challenging me to see if I knew my stuff,” said Kevin Brogan, one of the early engineers. “Then I realized he was trying to learn things.

He would quiz you until he learned ninety percent of what you know.” People who have spent significant time with Musk will attest to his abilities to absorb incredible quantities of information with near-flawless recall. It’s one of his most impressive and intimidating skills and seems to work just as well in the present day as it did when he was a child vacuuming books into his brain.

After a couple of years running SpaceX, Musk had turned into an aerospace expert on a level that few technology CEOs ever approach in their respective fields. “He was teaching us about the value of time, and we were teaching him about rocketry,” Brogan said.”

In an interview, Elon stresses the importance of building good corrective feedback loops.

“One of the biggest challenges I think is making sure you have a corrective feedback loop, and then maintaining that corrective feedback loop over time even when people want to tell you exactly what you want to hear…” – Elon Musk

The problem with feedback from our peers, especially friends, is that it is often not sincere. This is why Elon recommends to specifically ask them what they don’t like.

“I think in terms of advice, I think it is very important to actively seek out and listen very carefully to negative feedback. This is something people tend to avoid because it is painful, but I think this is a very common mistake.”

When asked where he looks for feedback he responded.

“I get feedback from everyone I talk to, in fact when friends get a product I say to them ‘don’t tell me what you like, tell me what you don’t like’ because otherwise, your friend is not going to tell you what he doesn’t like.”

Ray Dalio is one of the most successful investors and he wrote the book Principles which is one of my new favorite books. He too emphasizes the importance of listening to critique.

Because people are often upset when their mistakes are pointed out to them, most people are reluctant to point out mistakes in others. As a result, an objective diagnosis of problems arising from people’s mistakes is often missing and personal evolution is stunted.

— Ray Dalio

My personal approach to learning is reading a lot, learning all I can from other people whenever I get the opportunity (questions, feedback), and meditating to achieve more mental clarity.

Also published on Medium.

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