[Framework] The concepts you were never taught about how the brain acquires knowledge
$1.78 trillion in student debt and they never taught us how to learn
The human brain is a superpower. It has allowed us to master the laws of physics and fly through the skies, to travel beyond the stars, and even map the human genome to understand the very blueprint of our existence.
Our ability to learn things has given our society tools that our ancestors would look upon as sorcery, magical gifts from the gods.
We were sent (usually forced) through school to master this superpower, to learn things that would allow us to succeed in the world.
Yet, most of our educational systems have done an extremely poor job of teaching us how to actually acquire knowledge. If anything, it loaded us with debt to the tune of about $1.78 trillion, and for many, taught them to hate learning.
To learn to hate to learn is the greatest failure of any educational system.
Learning, is supposed to be pleasurable (link).
Good learning is supposed to trigger your dopamine system in a similar way that might happen if you eat a piece of chocolate cake, receive a kiss from a lover, or find a $100 bill on the ground.
This is because learning something useful, something incredible, is inherently valuable to us. At a very base level, learning things allows us to accomplish all of our fundamental drives, to eat, to reproduce, to find self-fulfillment & actualization.
Here are some of the most important concepts about how to acquire knowledge that you were (probably) never taught in school.
The feedback loop of obsession & passion
School teaches us that we must learn math. We must learn science. We must learn English. We must go to PE.
But what do you enjoy? What triggers dopamine in your brain?
Working in the medical field I often get the privilege of listening to extremely smart doctors lecture about the most obscure niches of science. Last week it was a Ph.D. basically giving his life thesis about the importance of urine testing for heavy metal toxicity.
You could just hear the passion in the man’s voice.
For this extremely niche area of knowledge, urine testing of heavy metals, he had gone beyond college, beyond a Ph.D. program, and dedicated 20+ years of his professional life to learning & understanding heavy metals.
He spoke in the same way about Bismuth biomarkers that my 9-year-old cousin might speak about diamond armor in Minecraft.
And he spoke to a crowd of like-minded individuals, on the edge of their seat, eating up every word, almost drooling over the shared knowledge.
The thing about obsession and passion is that it doesn’t start off as the end result. It works off the same mechanism that can create a raging alcoholic.
You don’t start off just downing a handle of vodka every day.
You start by drinking a single beer, and your brain goes, “oh, that was nice”. Then you drink more, and more, and more, chasing that reward system.
There’s a saying, “once an alcoholic, always an alcoholic” - this is because as you drink (or do anything that provides dopamine) it creates pathways in your brain that associates that “thing” with the reward.
You can train your brain to acquire knowledge with this exact same mechanism.
When you learn something that brings you pleasure, chase it. It can start small as a science experiment in chemistry class, a meme that goes viral on your social media page, or writing a paper that gets an A+ making your grandma proud.
Every time you learn something that triggers dopamine, it reinforces the pathway in your brain telling you, “this is how I get rewarded”.
There are some things that are painful to learn that you must learn anyways, but you will never ever develop the same level of mastery for them as the things that bring you pleasure, that drive you into a life-consuming obsession for a specific kind of knowledge.
Spaced Repetition Theory
Spaced repetition is an evidence-based learning technique that is usually performed with flashcards … but it is EXTREMELY relevant to advertising, marketing, & team building.
All humans live on a spectrum where there is a certain number of times, over a certain period, that they need to be exposed to a piece of knowledge in order to retain it.
This spectrum can be anywhere from “exposed once & retained forever” to “needs to see it 100 times to remember it a month from now”.
The theory basically states that if you actually want to acquire knowledge, you must be exposed to it multiple times over a prolonged period of time. It’s the reason why you have forgotten 90% of what was taught in school, but can recite the Nike slogan off the top of your head.
Just do it.
If you want to learn something, it’s almost completely pointless to only cover it once. You must have repeated exposure to the concept or your brain will discard the information.
Done with flashcards, you can memorize information by reviewing them periodically over a month.
Don’t read “just one” book over a subject, consume 3-5 with overlapping concepts.
Learn things that can be applied in your daily life, this helps not just with relevancy but repeated exposure.
Spaced repetition is also one of the reasons why remarketing ads are so powerful.
People might discover your brand once, land on your website, then you can cookie them & serve them multiple ads over an extended period of time. This is the core driver of the power of branding.
I haven’t seen an ad for a Purple Mattress in a really long time, but I was exposed enough times to their marketing that I will remember them for as long as I live.
If you want to teach someone a concept, “buy my product for XYZ reasons”, it’s not enough to expose them to it once. You must figure out how to get in front of that person multiple times over an extended period of time.
Small building blocks that make up large building blocks
In the book The Art of Learning by Josh Waitzkin (chess champion, BJJ blackbelt), it talks about how time can seem to slow down during competition for athletes or for people lost in a state of flow.
This concept “time slows down” is because the athlete is processing information quicker than they would otherwise, causing the experience of time moving slower.
What does this mean exactly?
Taking piano as an example, you can think of learning as a series of building blocks that stack upon each other.
[L0] Notes are the most basic elements
[L1] Notes strung together make up chords
[L2] Notes & chords put together make measures
[L3] Measures put together create a song
[L4] Songs put together create a composition
As you begin to learn to play piano, it can take you a long time to find a single key, maybe 7 seconds for one note. Then trying to string together a number of notes to create a chord and you can awkwardly fumble around for 30s-60s trying to put it together.
As you begin to master the piano, you no longer even think of the individual notes. You don’t think about where your hands belong on the piano, how you’re supposed to hold yourself.
You simply play - focused on higher-level building blocks & your brain has completely abstracted away the lower-level processes.
The problem that people often struggle with, is they try and skip levels much too quickly. They want to play the song, without mastering the notes.
Whatever it is you are learning you must begin by deeply mastering the most basic building blocks of whatever it is you are trying to do. Create flashcards, apply your spaced repetition, practice them over and over and over again not just until you know them but it becomes like breathing.
This allows you to maximize the pattern recognition your brain possesses & to consume so much information that time feels like it begins to slow down. Your mind starts to focus on the higher-level game that is being played instead of awkwardly trying to identify each note.
How long does it take to master something?
There are so many “rules” out there about how long it can take to master a skill. One of my favorites that shows just how quickly you can acquire knowledge is the 20 hour rule by Josh Kaufman.
To put this really simply (and definitely not scientifically), how long it takes to develop mastery for most skills goes something like this.
20 hours - 20% mastery
100 hours - 90% mastery
10,000 hours - 99% mastery
A lifetime - 100% if you’re lucky
I practice Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu which is a form of submission grappling and it taught me one of the most important lessons about acquiring knowledge.
You’re not in a competition against anyone else, you’re not limited by a timeframe like a semester in college, the only thing that matters when you’re trying to acquire knowledge is putting in time on the mat.
You can be a slow learner, you can be a faster learner, there is no time limit - it does not matter.
Some people will get their black belt in 4 years, some people will get it in 20.
It’s really simple, the more time you spend acquiring knowledge in a certain direction the more knowledge you’ll gain. There is no replacement for mat time, while you would be surprised how quickly you can gain knowledge in 20 hours, there is no replacement to dedicating a lifetime to mastering a skill.
Our educational systems do a very poor job of teaching us this fundamental truth about learning.
They break up our days into periods, they break up our years into semesters, classes end & you’re supposed to have acquired the right amount of knowledge in the right period of time.
There’s no flexibility for going faster or slower like there is in real life. The process doesn’t reflect the actual learning process that there is no time limit, and the pursuit of mastery never ends.
Learn, Apply, Teach
This is one of the most powerful frameworks for acquiring knowledge, and is the primary reason why I write this substack in the first place.
All knowledge first starts by learning something.
Maybe you take a class on marketing, or you listen to a podcast about managing a team, or you acquire knowledge in some way. It can be YouTube, or Udemy, or Substack, or books, or a mentor, or 1,000 different methods.
All knowledge exists on the internet for free, and you can learn about almost anything if you just search for it.
Once you mentally learn something, you have to actually apply it against real life. Taking what you learn and seeing if it holds up against the world, practicing what you have learned.
All of the theoretical knowledge in the world is useless if it hasn’t actually been applied.
This process allows you to understand what works, what doesn’t work, to throw out what is useless and to reinforce the lessons that will allow you to propel yourself forwards.
Application is such a critical part of the learning process that is so often ignored. It’s one of the reasons why the martial arts world makes so much fun of the disciplines that do not actually spar/fight.
You can know 100 different punches, but have never been punched in the face.
Academia often falls into the same trap, PhDs acquiring a lifetime of theoretical knowledge that has never been properly applied to the fire. Brand new college graduates with their computer science degrees, who have very little experience actually building real things that real people use.
You must build yourself a sandbox in which you can apply the knowledge you learn. If it’s not your full-time job, make it an internship, a side project, something real with real consequences.
After you have learned something, and applied it to the world, teaching others what you have learned allows you to cement that knowledge within yourself.
“The definition of genius is taking the complex, and making it simple.” - Albert Einstein
As cheesy as it feels to quote Albert, there is something extremely compelling about this concept. When you teach someone something, you have to be able to explain it to them in a way that makes sense.
It forces you to deconstruct the concept, to deeply understand the building blocks, and explain it to someone in a way that a beginner could understand.
If you can’t explain it, you haven’t truly mastered the concept yourself. The teaching process doesn’t have to be about inflating your own ego or even some selfless desire to help others - it can be an extremely selfish act, to cement your acquisition of knowledge.
Learning to love to learn
If you can’t tell - I hated school 😂. I dropped out maybe 6 times before finally graduating with a General Studies degree & $30,000 of debt. Surprisingly my real superpower isn’t that I’m extremely good at advertising or that I’m a GTM “expert”, but it’s that I’m world-class at learning new information.
Need a software engineer? I’m your SWE.
Need a mortgage loan officer? I’m your MLO.
Need someone who is a master at a channel that has only existed for 2 months? I gotchu.
The Lean Startup teaches us that the output of a startup is its ability to learn new things. This is the real secret that separates world-class startups and the operators that are able to scale from seed to IPO, is the relentless pursuit of knowledge, the ability to quickly learn (and implement) “the right things” faster than their competitors.
It’s a tad meta, but spend some time diving into the rabbit hole of how to acquire knowledge, and actually apply what you learn, and you’ll find insane gains in your life/career/company. 🙏
This was a tad different than my normal post, I hope you found it useful or interesting! If you love my content make sure to follow me on Twitter. :)