Levels of learning: when reading more means knowing less

If you’re a serial learner, you know how difficult it is to choose.

First, choose what you what to learn.
Another book on launching a business? Or maybe you want to learn UX design.
What about a course on optimal nutrition? Mmmh, maybe I should learn about stoicism, since everyone talks about it so much.

Often, the default is not to choose.
Just say yes to all of them, leave the books on a shelf, open your Facebook timeline, and click on “27 Pairs Of Leggings You Can Wear As Pants, Dammit”.

Dammit indeed.

But let’s say you do choose. Let’s say you want to focus on marketing for two months and really understand what is it that your missing. Decisions, great!

You read one book about how to find your first 100 customers. It blows your mind. You want to know more!
So you pick up another book. You want to be an expert!
By the end of your third book, you’re confused. Though the three books have a lot in common, they’re also pretty discordant.
Should you start from Facebook ads? Should you create a landing page first? Are Messenger bots a fad or the future? What about social media? You’ve got to be on social media.

You know more, but you feel like you know less.

Now you need to know more.
So you get another book, or binge-watch youtube, looking for the perfect answer. It must be somewhere.

The same story goes for nutrition and fitness. Or building an app. Or going on amazing dates.

The more you know, the more you realise you don’t know.

The learning cycle

How many books did you read before learning how to walk? Or to ride a bicycle?

I’m going to have a wild guess: zero.

Learning how to walk is usually pretty messy.
Here’s the step by step:

Rock on your back for months.
Then learn to sit up.
Crawl on the floor while random adults make the ‘ooohh’ sounds of a house haunted by ghosts.
Finally, stand up and fall on the floor like a sack of potatoes. Usually with a loud thud.
After a while, you will find yourself walking.

Keep at it, and then you’ll be able to run.

Except, I left one step out: observe people that already walk, then copy them.
You could summarise the whole process in three steps: observe, practice, master.

learning levels

When it comes to learning a specialised skill, the same three steps apply.
This time though, you’ll have to look for guidance outside your comfort zone. The more specific your learning subject, the harder you’ll have to look for information and find people that have done it before you through books, blog posts, video, podcasts, mentors, coaches…

Observe, practice, master. Repeat.

Levels of learning vs Chasing certainty

Of the three steps, practice is where most people get stuck. Practice is messy. That’s where babies fall flat on their faces, and adults get discouraged, hurt, embarrassed.
So most people stay stuck in the first step. They keep observing. They read another book. Google another blog post. Send another question. All to avoid taking action.

Reading another book might make you feel like you are decreasing uncertainty and mitigating risk. But actually, it’s adding more information that needs to be actioned, increasing complexity. Eventually, you have so much to action it’s overwhelming.

So you’re stuck swimming in theory.

The more you travel, the less you know. - Tao The Ching Click To Tweet

Levels of learning

To make sure you progress in your learning, take action. Learn something new, then take action without adding more information.

This takes commitment. Commitment to one school of thought, to one tactic, to one way.
You have to trust, and take action to figure out how it fits in your own situation. It can be messy, but only that way you’ll turn knowledge into experience.

Once you get comfortable, it’s time to move on. Use your new level of mastery to move up and try something new. A new school of thought, a new tactic, a new way.

Except, this time you will be able to count on your new level of mastery.

Observe, practice, master.

Just don’t get stuck.

— Matt

PS: know how to recognise procrastination from busyness

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