I hear (and see) lots of folks mention that they’re a “lifelong learner.” It’s a fantastic attitude, but… well, for me, it doesn’t always feel like enough. Here’s why.
Lifelong learner sounds more like a willingness to learn. And being willing to learn is great, but it’s also fairly passive. Just because you’re willing to learn doesn’t mean you are learning.
Learning is a Muscle
From the perspective of cognitive science, learning is the brain’s process of creative synaptic networks from your daily experiences. Your various senses “live” in different areas of your brain, and each sense that’s involved in a new experience “lights up” neurons in that area. They all get connected via synapses, forming a network. Those synapse-encoded experiences will then often be linked with other networks that represent other experiences, and that’s how we connect new pieces of knowledge to what we already know and, to put it in a single word, learn.
People often think that it gets harder to learn as we get older, but that’s not true. Learning is like a muscle. When you’re young, and your muscles are still new, stretching, running, and other forms of movement are usually easier. As we get older, we don’t keep working those muscles, and so they get tighter, and less willing to respond. Learning is the same: your brain can always learn, but if it’s out of practice, then its mechanisms for creating new synaptic networks, and connecting them to existing ones, gets rusty.
The way to make learning easier is the same as making your muscles stronger: constant exercise. Use the learning muscle, and it’ll be ready to go when you need it. Let it get fusty, and it won’t be.
A Regiment for Daily Learning
That’s why I prefer daily learner over lifelong learner. A daily learner is someone who learns something new, even if it’s small, every day. It’s a quick set of push-ups for your brain, even if what you’re learning is completely unrelated to your job, your life, or anything else.
With this post, I’m launching a new series of daily inspirations on my social media feed, to help you be a Daily Learner. Read on to learn how it works.
Step 1: Grab the Daily Post
Each of my social media feeds — Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn — will post a link to a Wikipedia article or other source. These posts go live at 8am Pacific time, seven days a week. So follow me on whatever platform you like, and look for that 8am post. They’re all tagged with #DailyLearner, too.
I will warn you in advance that these articles are going to be random. Politics. World history. Science. Science Fiction. Chemistry. Medicine. Art. The intent is to disconnect you from your day-to-day and make your brain learn something new and abstract. That makes it harder for your brain to create connections to existing information. Basically, this is forcing your brain to life more than it’s used to, just like you’re supposed to “push yourself” when weightlifting or running. It forces your brain to refine its synaptic-build techniques, and makes it work harder for you.
I must stress how important it is for you to dive into the article whether it seems immediately interesting or not. Workouts aren’t always “interesting,” although I’ll be sure to toss in plenty of cool stuff now and then!
Step 2: Read
There’s a trick to reading these daily articles. Remember, our goal is to exercise the learning muscle, not read for pleasure, so you do have to have a couple of things in mind.
- If the article seems over your head, don’t sweat it. Read the bits that make sense.
- Your goal is to extract one new fact from your reading session. A fact you understand, and you feel you could explain at a high level to someone else.
- Go down the rabbit hole! Follow links to related articles and read those, too. It’s actually important to engage and indulge your curiosity more than it is to finish every article you wind up viewing.
- Watch the clock. Your learning session needs to run at least 10 minutes, and probably doesn’t need to run longer than 30. Anything less than 10 minutes won’t cue your brain that you believe this to be important, and so it won’t engage its learning mechanisms. This is especially important in the first couple of weeks.
- Do this every day. Unless your brain believes that this “learning thing” is going to happen every single day, it won’t start limbering up and responding. You can schedule your learning session at any time, but try to keep it at about the same time every day.
- Focus. Don’t use a text reader to “learn” during your commute: you need to be single-focused on the learning session in order for your brain to take this seriously. If reading the article feels like a distraction, your brain won’t engage.
Step 3: Recycle
Send me a tweet or comment telling me what you learned. This is an important part of the cognitive process: repeating something back, in your own words (don’t let me catch you copying and pasting) helps reinforce the importance of the information, and it triggers a stronger synaptic network “build process” in your brain.
Better yet: create your own post on social media. Start with “TIL” (today I learned), and finish with #Dailylearner and a link to this article. Inspire others to become daily learners, too!
And your fact of the day doesn’t have to be from the suggested article! If you start following links and find something fascinating, share that (along with a link to the page). The important thing is to learn and then share.
Step 4: Repeat
Again, I can’t stress enough the importance of doing this every single day. It might feel silly or useless at first, but if you stick with it — just like at the gym — I swear that you will see results. The daily things you have to learn at work will start coming to you more easily, and you’ll start feeling more confident that you can learn anything, anytime you need to.
Finally, please consider making a small donation to Wikipedia.