How to Keep Learning (When You Are Not That Young)

At some point in our lives, we all notice that learning does not come as easily as it used to. We start wondering if it is too late or we are too old. But what if there are ways to keep learning even when you are not that young? Would you want to?

Bridging What You Know To What You Don’t Know

If everything that can be learned is an ocean, then what you have learned so far is a bridge. It may be a large bridge like the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco. But it does not bridge over the entire ocean. What it does do though is give you an opportunity to extend what you know to things you don’t. This is learning by analogy. Visual learners learn well this way. If you know how to write, you know how to think logically, if you know how to think logically, you can learn about algorithms, if you understand algorithms, you can understand computer science.

In fact, by learning one thing you can bridge to everything else that can be learned.

Learning Styles

Do you know your learning style? VARK is a model that classifies all learners into visual learners, auditory learners,  kinesthetic, and reading/writing. The model has its critics, but many universities use the model to counsel their students on how to learn successfully.
Even if you know your learning style, do you seek out the types of learning tools that suit your style? If you are a visual learner, for example, do you visualize your thoughts, write visual notes, or visualize your work product?

Still you may feel that your learning style is more nuanced than the four-category VARK model. Perhaps, the theory of multiple intelligences from Howard Gardener’s book Frames Of Mind describes your way of approaching the world, from which you can extrapolate your learning style.

Unlikely Friends Teach You the Most

By our mid-twenties most of us have already chosen the types of people we like and get along with. We understand them. Ironically, these are not the people we would learn from the most. They already agree with us, they share the same habits, they probably have similar skills. Being around people who are not like us would be uncomfortable, even painful, but they would show you the limitations of what you have learned so far.

Reconstruct your learning experience

Remember how you learned when you were a kid? You probably don’t remember exactly because of memory biases. But if you look at your writing and drawings from your childhood, you can reconstruct your thoughts and transport yourself back into that hyper-learning state of mind.

Explore your weaknesses

Are you still great at writing but bad a math? Why is that? When did it start? Have you tried to use math as an adult for your work? Look at a math textbook now that you are an adult. Does it still look scary? Why is it scary? Those questions will point you in the right direction. Do this analysis for everything you consider yourself bad at.

Study biographies of super-learners

“Super-learners” is another way of saying “late bloomers”. People who have a talent for what they do are not necessarily super-learners. Early success is a bad teacher. The people who succeeded later in life, however, most likely did so because they kept on learning as adults without the early manifestation of talent. Study their biographies. Here are a few of them.
Too Late Too Learn - Late Bloomers, Infograhic by Anna Vital Read more on Funders and Founders

Teach yourself

If you suffered from a bad teacher, rediscover your ability to be your own teacher. You know yourself best by now. Now that you have lived with yourself for a few decades, you know how to interest yourself in learning and how to reward yourself. If you received negative feedback from a teacher before, you might find that they just didn’t find the right approach to you. Now you are not dependent on another adult to teach you. Now are your own teacher.

Learn a very foreign language

Learning foreign languages challenges you to relearn fundamental truths about life. The more “foreign” a language is the more it will challenge what you think you already know. I learned Mandarin Chinese for this reason – different writing system, tonal phonetics, and a culture that began a few thousand years before mine. Learning a language is inseparable from learning about life. Let me give you an example. The Chinese say “drink soup” not “eat soup”. Is it odd? Or is it because soup should be so “runny” that it makes sense to “drink it”? Maybe western soups are too thick? Indeed, Chinese medicine expects that you “drink soup” before eating the main course to warm up your stomach. That’s why it does not make sense to “thicken” it. By learning just one word, we might have reexamined our soup eating/drinking habits that might have challenged our assumptions about healthy eating and traditional medicine.

Being fluent in a foreign language will change you in ways you never thought possible.

Work With Young People

Watching young people learn will remind you of your pre-knowledge self. What were you like before you learned to talk? Do you remember how you didn’t know anything at all and then you learned somehow? Did you think in pictures or in words? What did your train of thought look like? Sequential or multi-threaded like a tree?

Become an Early Adopter

Using new software challenges you to interact with new interfaces, reshaping your habits. Unlike the physical world, in the digital world the speed and convenience of doing things changes fast. New interfaces simplify tasks and optimize our thinking about them. Interface designers spend their time to figure out how to make your brain react faster and go through fewer steps to accomplish what you want. By adopting a new interface you upgrade your brain. So do it often and it will become a skill in itself.

Artificial Intelligence

Learning about AI shows a world where leaning is non-judgmental because the machine is the one doing the learning. Do AI algorithms make mistakes? Sure. We call them errors. We have separate names for people making mistakes and machines making mistakes. We judge people. We do not judge machines. When we get passed the judgement, we can see that the real key to learning is 1. detecting errors, 2. learning why they happened, 3. changing our algorithm to avoid those errors. For machines error detection and finding their cause sound matter-of-fact. For people? Instead of analyzing our errors we might dwell on them or ignore them. We take errors personally. We are afraid they are not a glitch but an attribute of our character. We are afraid that our errors are unfixable. But if errors are the key to learning in machines, why is human learning any different?

Adopt ELI5 (Explain Like I’m 5)

Be completely unafraid to show your ignorance of anything. Unlike machines, people judge each other. We don’t always want to, it comes naturally.  Using acronyms at work for example, is a natural thing. When someone new comes and they don’t understand us, we assume they are just lazy to learn what they mean.

Explain Like I’m 5 is subreddit that is devoted to explaining things to adults in a non-judgmental, non-condescending way. Why is judgement so bad? Doesn’t it motivate people to learn so that they are no longer judged once they have learned?

The problem with judgement and all negative motivation (motivating people by giving them something they want to avoid) is that you don’t know if you are giving them the right dose of it. It is one thing to judge someone who could easily ask their parent a math question, for example, it is another to judge someone from a dysfunctional family where no one finished school.

The reason why you should be unashamed to ask others to explain is that most people, no matter how successful, have deep knowledge in some limited area. People who are great in technical disciplines might have a fifth grader’s ability to draw and a very limited ability to distinguish colors, for example. An adult designer might have a hard time figuring out middle school math.

Of course, people will be surprised at your ignorance. Of course, they might not even realize their own. Tell them about ELI5. Ask them what they were like before they learned what they are so good at now. Both of you will learn from that.

Keep learning.

I made Adioma because I am tired of people thinking that there is only one way to learn: it’s the stereotypical “learn while you are young”, “read more”, “listen to the teacher”. All this may be true but it does not describe a big part of world’s population. The result is we have a lot of adults who never found their learning style and can’t keep learning. What if you are a visual learner, like me? You get ridiculed for having to look at pictures. What if I have to have something to see to learn? Why are words superior to images? Today pictures are cheap and easy to make. Why are we rewarding one type of learning over all others?

I think this is about to change. With global internet access, people will soon have access to learning tools for all learning styles.

This guy is skeptical and he is showing it.