Learning as Little as Possible

I've always thought learning is a good thing. Learn as much as possible. Keep learning. Be a life-long learner of course. This sounds glorious. But is there such a thing as too much learning? There seems to be, I explore why below. First, I want to explore my relationship with learning.

Learning is my thing. I have a fondness for learning. I'm good at learning. I wasn't always good at learning. That is, I didn't always have the desire to learn. But sometime during my early years of school (4th grade), I got a taste of understanding something deeply and being able to figure out something. I was good at studying so I kept going. If you are good at something you want to keep doing it. This had the side effect of getting good grades (but later at some point the grades became the main goal). Over 16 years of formal education I developed my learning process and a system that worked well.

After I finished my masters program and moved across the country, I missed being on a university campus. I didn't expect to. I was surprised because I had counted down the day to this formal education phase of my life being over. The idea of no-school-forever had seemed so appealing. While I didn't miss the grades, exams, and pressure, I really missed the actual learning. Luckily, I was living close to another university in my new town. I found myself on campus auditing classes and seminars in my evenings and weekends to get my fix. Several years later, I jumped on the MOOC bandwagon. I may actually have been one of the first users of the Cousera platform in early 2012. (In fact I attended a meetup at a park in Palo Alto with the then founders Andrew and Daphne - who were professors at a nearby university. I also applied for a software job there as well. I really wanted to be part of this mission of making high quality university level courses available to the world for free. Though I don't think I ever heard back :)

Most of us don't recall specific things we learn from our formal education years. But if you do recall something specific, chances are 1. it's because you really wanted to learn that thing and curiosity fueled your actions (not deadlines and exams). Or 2. you were not simply told about the thing, but were allowed to discover it yourself and experience the concept first hand. Imagine if we could go back and take a certain course again, 10 or 20 years later. Where we’re not whisked through the material, but can meander through the ideas slowly floating to the other end at our own pace. I didn’t understand it until much later that this is what auditing a class could be all about. Auditing a class is such an awesome way to learn. That is what's exciting about high quality university courses on platforms like Coursera, EdX, MIT OpenCourseware, etc. I recently got back on Coursera to see what was new. And I ended up auditing 3 courses over the last month!

I think this is called binging, instead of binging shows/tv, I am binging online courses :) I took notes for two of them (if you decide to check out the courses or my notes I would love to hear your thoughts). One of the courses, incidentally, was called Learning How To Learn. I've thought about this topic a great deal - both in terms of learning and also teaching - which I think is a special case of learning. so it was super meta.

This brings us back to why there is such a thing as too much learning. I've never thought about learning in quite this way until recently. I was talking to someone during my virtual co-working session. I had asked one of my skip-the-small-talk questions "What do you want to learn? If you could spend all your time learning". He mentioned that he tries to learn as little as possible. What do you mean? Why? I wanted to follow this logic. And here's what came out of that conversation: if the goal is to apply your learning by creating (building, teaching, writing) then it makes sense to learn what you need to know at a given time, for a given project. There is no reason to collect knowledge, to learn as much as you can and try to hold it all in your head. This may have made sense for our ancestors - anyone living before the Internet was in our pockets. The idea of just-in-time learning is something I've experienced many times - this is what we do when we look up a commonly used programming syntax/command in a way. But I'd never thought about actively learning as little as possible.

For example when I watch online courses I cannot count that as creative work. It is not beneficial to others (which is an aspiration I hold for my work). But this is a form of entertainment for me. I’m good at learning and studying and taking notes and connecting ideas. So my brain enjoys doing more of these things.

In the context of creating, I see the argument for learning as little as possible, or more like learning what you need to know at a given time. I will always fall into reading textbook style writing and consuming online courses. But it is a worthwhile perspective to ponder for makers - learn as little as possible.

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