Bringing It All Back Home

I'm paranoid about learning.

Not that I'm paranoid about what happens if I learn; I'm worried that I won't learn at all.

I recently finished reading a book that took me 23 hours to read. Twenty-three. That's almost a day of my life spent in one book over the course of several weeks.

What if I don't remember any of the facts and stories I got from the book?

Worse, what if I read the entire book and none of it’s useful? What if nothing connects to what I’m doing now or what I’m going to do later?

Information today is a consumable rather than a treasure. With around 6,000 tweets sent per second and 150m+ bloggers on the internet, there’s a wealth of information. How much of what you consume can be made useful?

Though synthesis might not help you turn a meaningless tweet into a spark of genius, it can help you create a network of knowledge that applies to all aspects of life. (Later on, it will start to generate more sparks of genius.)

Billions of neural pathways in your brain find ways to converge on high-order ideas. Information once separate now comes together. Synthesis is a form of mastery. It feels like a superpower when you're synthesizing, and hopelessness when you're not.

Learning isn't about memorizing quotes or statistics. In fact, it's not about remembering anything. It's about connecting information; creating a large, cohesive community of knowledge.

Your brain is a massive house party, and new knowledge walks in like a friend who recently moved from another city. Your new friend is looking for similar people to talk to.

If you're a mediocre host(ess), the new friend will feel lonely. They won't come to your next party because you haven't introduced them to anyone. No connections, no return.

Your goal is to make new knowledge feel welcomed. Introduce it to new people. Find the common threads between it and the other knowledge, even if they're hard to find. “Oh, your great-uncle had a pet hamster, too? Wow, you guys should so be friends.”

If you fail to do that, new knowledge will leave—never to be seen again.

(Some knowledge owns the room. It’s intriguing and demands attention. It’s rare, though when it comes around, you remember it.)

If you rely only on memory, you trap information inside. It’s less of a house party and more like the Hotel California. For that reason, it sticks around but it never interacts with other information. It doesn’t create connections, it just exists. What good is that?

Synthesis is intangible and hard to describe, but it’s real and the most powerful function of the brain. It’s the only reason that any one piece of information impacts the rest of our lives. When we connect what we know to what we don’t know, we expand our horizons.

After reading this article, take a second to reflect on some things you’ve learned in the past couple of days. Write down 3-5 big ideas or insights that you’ve gathered, and ponder them. Ask yourself three questions about each insight:

  • How is this valuable information for me and others?

  • Does this indirectly connect to my work or my life?

  • How can I take action on this knowledge?

I call this practice a “creative review.” I do this every Friday by looking through my commonplace journal to see what items stick out. I’m deliberate in taking time to ponder ideas and how they can apply to my life rather than write them down, never to be seen again.

Since I started doing this, I feel a lot less paranoid about my learning. I don’t think of reading as a chore where I have to write and remember everything. Now, it’s a practice. I read to reflect and connect fresh ideas with other ones. The words are meant to make me think, and that's a much more enjoyable experience.

That's how learning is supposed to feel.