7 + 1 tips for Learning in Order to Excel in 2012

Do your success and happiness depend on your reading and learning? If yes, then before you put the finishing touches on your goals and plan for 2012, you should ensure that you have satisfactorily considered your learning objectives. So please read on, as this post will help you develop Stephen Covey’s 7th habit, “Sharpen the Saw” (TM).

As a student, once you had selected your courses, many of your educational decisions were made by the instructor. As a knowledge worker, you have the freedom, but also the responsibility, to choose and plan your learning. In other words, you are the master of your growing excellence and expertise.

Steve Jobs said something that all successful business people know: “Deciding what not to do is as important as deciding what to do […] That’s true for companies, and it’s true for products”. Such focus is also true for one’s reading and learning. It would be naive to assume that planning one’s learning is trivially easy.  There is a superabundance of potentially useful knowledge to acquire; but it competes with the Information Junkfood Market (impotent news sites, articles, emails, etc.). Given the preciousness of your very limited time, your learning requires careful consideration.

Of course, there is no simple, one-size-fits-all algorithm for planning a year’s worth of personal development. But here are some ideas that may help make 2012 a year of tremendous intellectual and all-round growth.

  1. Review your long-term objectives and consider what you need to learn in order to achieve them. Consider the personal excellence you wish to develop.
  2. Apply the same strategies of goal setting and planning that serve you well in other areas of your life. For example, propose a list of candidate learning goals and choose amongst them. Set goals that are difficult but attainable and specific. Record your goals and monitor your progress. You know how to do this; but most people don’t sufficiently factor learning across their regular workflows.
  3. Consider your learning objectives with respect to all aspects of your life (as you are doing this time of the year for other types of activities and outcomes). I.e., consider what to learn with respect to character, biological health, relationships, career, organizations, community service, finances, etc. Each one of these areas is sufficiently complex that one must deliberately continue to try to master them.
  4. Resolve to focus on the most potent resources. By resources, I mean particular documents, webinars, videos, courses, etc. This means you must develop a tendency to explore and rate potential resources before choosing one to “process”. To rate a resource is complex at first but gets easier (like anything else) with practice. I’m not suggesting you use a mathematical system. Just keep in mind the criteria that matter most to you. Here are some useful criteria for rating and choosing knowledge resources:
    • Relevance to your goals. Given any resource you are considering, ask yourself which one of your existing purposes it serves, or which new goals it might generate. E.g., a document my present an opportunity you hadn’t considered. You might also factor the goals’ urgency, importance and other goal dimensions.
    • Promisingness. Ask yourself how effectively the resource might serve your learning objectives. Before encountering a document, one does not actually know how potent it is, one just knows how promising it seems. As one’s confidence in the promisingness of a document increases, one better understands its potency. This may include the resource’s generality, fine-structure, extensibility, applicability and rigour. Maintaining excellence requires a propensity to detect, pursue and capitalize on potent knowledge resources.
    • Trustworthiness. Is the author reliable, honest, biased, an authority? Does the author use bibliographic references? Is the resource accurate? For example, when it comes to nutrition, I read the monthly Nutrition Action newsletter, partly because of its trustworthiness.
    • Conceptual richness. Does the resource introduce you to new ideas (concepts), theories and/or useful terminology? Concepts are the building blocks of thought. Yet they are highly under-rated! Great authors change or elucidate concepts. Newton changed the concepts of space, time and mass. Einstein changed energy. Aim to master potent new concepts in 2012. And reject resources that won’t stretch your mind. But with conceptual richness and novelty come…
    • Difficulty. I do not suggest you attend to resources that are purposefully abstruse. I like plain writing as much as anyone else should. However, if there is no pain in reading a document, it may be that (a) the document is shallow, or (b) you are failing to stretch your mind. Given that you are reading the CogZest blog, odds are you value cognition. But no matter how smart you are: no effort, no gain. Accordingly, you’ll notice that this blog is more difficult to read than your average blog (if it’s not difficult, you may be missing out on its potency.) So, I suggest you systematically monitor these two aspects of difficulty this year. It’s worth reading fewer documents but spending more time on potent ones. Your net time spent learning might actually decrease, while the scope of your understanding will increase.
    • Critical rationality (balance, comprehensiveness, completeness, methodological rigour, logic, coherence and avoidance of bias). As a university student, you may have been trained to critically and rigorously analyze documents. Unfortunately, it is easy to let one’s guard down while reading;  doing this systematically is a route to intellectual perdition. Conversely, to be systematically critical of resources is one of the most productive “brain games” you can play.

      This year, by systematically considering the foregoing dimensions before you choose and learn from a resource, you will make optimal use of your reading and learning time. Furthermore, you will derive greater personal benefits from the resources! Why? Because you will be elaborating on potent information and discovering how it can help you achieve your goals. You will also discover your knowledge gaps and those of the resource. As we discussed previously, progress depends on such monitoring (or motive generators). This will help you develop your understanding even further.

  5. Consider which of the many depths and types of “learning”  to pursue with respect to particular knowledge resources and goals. Are you merely seeking familiarity with knowledge? Or is the resource worth learning in depth from? Given a potential document, one might just: (a) dump it; (b) file it for future reference (e.g., using a tagging application such as Yep or Yojimbo); (c) skim it; (d) master some aspect(s) of it (i.e., go deep). One might master something strictly for the purpose of building a product. Or one might want to develop one’s personal excellence (mindware) on a permanent basis. You can choose the type of mindware changes you want to achieve: e.g., lasting understanding, skills, attitudes, moods, personality changes, habits and/or propensities.
  6. Aim for some deep mindware benefits. Depth requires effort and time. So you must choose your resources carefully. That’s why it’s a great idea to plan your deep learning for the year (and to review). If you fail to seek deep changes this year, you will be missing out on the greatest opportunities of the Knowledge Age (your competitors might not).
  7. Apply strategies that guarantee success towards your deep mindware-development goals. To learn in depth requires that you interact with the resource systematically and productively. Re-reading is of limited use. Depth requires that you process information offline over time: think about it, talk about it (even to yourself), elaborately practice it, write about it, apply it, fine tune it, improve it, assess and reformulate your understanding of it, etc. Hence, again, the importance of selecting what to learn.

    Here’s a bonus tip (reminder) :

  8. Most of the best knowledge resources available today do cost money; but they can pay huge dividends.  Your knowledge, skills and other mindware helped get you where you are. Your future excellence depends on finding, analyzing and mastering potent resources. This blog post can help you find the best. So, spend some time and money this year on some of the most potent resources you can find.

Deriving excellence from knowledge resources requires effort and cognitive zest. But what can be more fun and rewarding than the pursuit of excellence?

Focus, take ownership and enjoy your learning in 2012!

Zestfully yours,

Luc P. Beaudoin


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Luc P. Beaudoin

Head of CogZest. Author of Cognitive Productivity books. Co-founder of CogSci Apps Corp. Adjunct Professor of Education, Simon Fraser University. Why, Where, and What I Write. See About Me for more information.