You Can Teach Yourself Anything

You Can Teach Yourself Anything

It's so easy to learn things on your own. Most people's biggest issue is that they just don't try very hard and limit themselves before they even start.

You can learn anything you want in a very short amount of time if you just roll your sleeves up and try. Take this new RV-buying adventure I'm on, for example. Two weeks ago I didn't know anything about RVs, except that maybe I wanted to live in one. Maybe.

Prior to this I'd spent one week of my life in an RV and didn't know anything about cars. I bought mine based on color. At this point, a very short time later, I know a TON about RVs. I have opinions about gas vs diesel, Chevy vs Ford chassis, different mechanical systems, quality of different makes, and various onboard appliances.

All of this was trivial to learn. I'm familiar with the best practices for driving a Class A motorhome, I know how to handle and care for dump tanks, I know how to install and maintain minor appliances, and I know what apps and websites to use to supplement a nomadic fulltiming lifestyle.

This is a LOT of specialized information! But it wasn't hard at all to gather. I learned what I needed to know through a combination of reading forums, Reddit, YouTube, and self-published books in the evenings. One of the core skills I pride myself on, and one of the keys to professional success in my career, has been disseminating and ingesting large bodies of new information quickly.

If you can learn to develop this skill, you can do anything. It's an accelerator skill.

"Accelerator skills", as I call them, are the most valuable thing you'll ever learn. They're things that make you better at obtaining and honing other skills. Reading is an example of an accelerator skill we all develop. Optimizing your ability to learn quickly is exponential.

The hard way to do life is to count on your one accelerator skill you picked up decades ago and count on other people transmitting information to you and often paying them to do it. This is dumb. Don't do this.

The easy way to do life is to understand your own learning style and find information sources that vibe with it while developing new methods of learning information and returning to them often to hone your intake methods. This will make you better at everything you do.

The best part about practicing accelerator skills is that they're applicable literally EVERYWHERE. Work, relationships, health, spirituality, finances. There's nothing that doesn't improve when you improve your ability to learn quickly and in a self-directed manner. Lots of people struggle with traditional schooling. That's because it's a one-size-fits-all model that doesn't encourage you to go outside the box. If you suck at reading textbooks and listening to bloated lectures, too bad. You will limp along and get mediocre grades. This is so dumb in an era where we have limitless information at our fingertips. Learning to unlock self-directed learning will blow barriers out of your way like nothing else.

Let's talk about my methods and how I approach learning stuff. I'm a systems thinker. I don't want to just "know a thing." My goal is always to "learn a space." Get familiar with the jargon, understand how the pieces fit together, see the landscape. You want to get a feel for the forest before you study a tree deeply. This is very important because when you're learning something new, it's hard to know what's useful and what's not. If you pour all your effort into one skill or one detail area before you know what's important, it might be the wrong one. That's bad and a waste of your time.

A good example of this is with writing: If you study how to do really great character design, your dialogue and scenes and pacing might still suck a lot. Unfortunately, building compelling characters requires you to weave through all of those things. You can spend months studying "making compelling characters" and miss key (and possibly obvious points) because you don't have the context for some of the things you'll be learning because you're so narrowly focused.

That's why it's really important to do something I'll call a "landscape survey." You go broad and get familiar with the whole area before you go deep. This doesn't mean you need to learn everything. It just means you should sample broadly at first.

When I'm learning something new, I often go hunting for articles, videos, and how-tos that discuss "top tips" or the "most important things to know" that cover broad areas of a topic. I read lots of those. Over time, themes emerge. You want to pay attention to those. This begins to form a map of your "idea space." I do this in my head, but I also take notes on things I need to go deeper on. Writing down an explicit index of an idea space is a great way to start organizing your self directed research.

To return to my RV example, my "idea space" index looked a lot like nested topic areas. "living in an RV", "caring for an RV", "driving an RV", "buying an RV", for example. Each of those had subtopics. Note that I wasn't writing down any actual info yet. I was reading, absorbing, and trying to describe and classify the different areas I needed to learn more about. Each of these categories had subsections.

"Living in an RV" included things like "using living space well", "healthcare", "decoration", "using RV bathrooms", etc

"Maintaining an RV" included "handling dump tanks", "electrical systems", "exterior maintenance", etc

Again, just making categories of knowledge.

This is useful because you can come back to this index for further notes as you do more research, but more importantly, you can self-assess how comfortable you feel with each area and gauge how important it is. The more you survey, the more the big picture of your "idea space" becomes clearer and less intimidating. Very good notes you trip over can start going in as sub-bullets under each section. After a while you'll stop adding new sections because they'll be repeating. This is how you know you have a pretty good map of the important ideas in your space.

When you've exhausted the high-level section areas in a way that resonates with you personally, you can start going deeper. So you go, "okay... I'm really uncomfortable with dump systems and everyone talks about them. Those seem pretty important. I should fill that out."

So now you go googling for that topic explicitly. YouTube videos, how-tos, forums, books. Whatever you need. You repeat the same process from before. Make notes on good tips until you're reading a lot of the same info over and over. Pay attention to what people say is important. Note conflicting information and try to understand why it conflicts. When you have a cursory understanding of the topic (not expert level but key bullet points), you move on to the next area that seems important and makes you feel uncomfortable and repeat. Keep going.

What's cool about this is that the more you read, the more contextual information you pick up about not just the header you're working on but also other areas you haven't looked into yet. You can either remember those bits or file them under the appropriate header for later. It's kind of like a puzzle. At first it's big and scary and seems impossibly complicated. But as you go bit by bit, the pieces start to fit together. You accelerate as you approach the end.

By filling out your idea space, you start to develop context. Learning electrical systems gives you context on good questions to ask about other maintenance systems and might teach you something about your fridge. Learning dump tank maintenance might help you know to look into different kinds of bathroom fixtures. You just keep cycling on this process as quickly as you can with the learning methods that work best for you. If you prefer watching videos to reading, do that. Just take notes and keep refining. Don't sweat information that doesn't make sense right now. The key is to not get stuck on any one concept and keep refining your map of the idea space.

You then periodically reassess your top level categories in light of the new stuff you've learned. By breaking everything down in this way, you've turned a really complicated, scary problem into something manageable that you can work with and given yourself the appropriate map to know where you need to go deeper.

Not coincidentally, this is exactly why tools like @RoamResearch are so brilliant for research. It supports the process I'm describing very explicitly. Building a Roam graph of the thing you're learning is great practice for honing this skill. At this point, I do most of this mentally. But even if you can't do that yet, writing it down will help you develop the ability to hold all the connections and reorient yourself on your idea space map and not lose track of things you read were important at an earlier time. So that's the process of building an "idea space" map for further research.

But let's return to accelerator skills for a second.

Building an idea space map is just one of those skills (although a very important one to not feel overwhelmed). What else is useful? Reading is the most obvious and universal one. The faster you can read, the more information you can absorb quickly. But skimming well is also important: Many books and articles have a ton of bloat.

If you can learn to pierce the bloat and skim for key points, you accelerate. When I'm reading nonfiction, I skip all the "life story" type stuff about how the author applied this skill with her cat and look for mechanical information. Bullet points are a good tell. Shifting from quotes to block text is another good tell. You can read lots of articles on how to skim well (maybe a good first application of your idea space skill practice?) and building this skill will save you thousands of hours of time over the course of your life.

Another great tip is that you can speed up most YouTube videos to 1.25 or 2x speed and still understand the speaker. Most people speak slowly and video intros are often pointless. When you're learning from YouTube, start fast.

The key is not to waste time on bad info. You can always re-watch or re-read books and videos that seem useful more slowly. But you can't get time back that you wasted on bad content. Priority number one is always assessing the quality of what you're reading, and THEN absorbing the information.

Another tip is to double down on good information sources. Because sorting signal from noise is so important, when you find a really rich information source, you should look for more content by the same creator. Also look at the sources they recommend. This is also why broad surveying is important, to return to my earlier point.

By reading broadly, you get a sense for how detailed and useful any particular article or creator is. I read two books on RVs the other night and one was VASTLY more useful than the other. I skimmed both pretty quickly and then ditched the one that was less useful. The one that was more useful I kept, plan to re-read, and plan to review for more sources to read. This way you optimize the time you put into learning because your sources are higher quality.

Another thing I'll do when I'm going for deep, specific information is google for the topic + reddit. Blogs often have cursory info, but the best deep information is usually in books and forum posts. I'll open 5+ threads that seem relevant from the google results and skim.

Having access to a wide variety of books for topics you need to go very deeply on is key, because sometimes you just have to crack a book when online doesn't go deep enough. There are lots of ways to handle this without spending $$$. Many of you are familiar with the illegal methods, but there are plenty of legit methods to access lots of books too.

Kindle Unlimited is $10/month and MOST of the specialized content you need is in that program in this day and age. You also have this awesome thing called "a library", in case you didn't know. I have library cards to three different libraries. There's a Chrome extension called "Library Extension" that sits on top of Amazon which is super useful.

This app tells you whether your library has an available digital or audio copy of an amazon title for you to instantly check out when you're browsing the amazon product page. It's saved me thousands of dollars. The best part of actually writing all these notes down as you're building out your "idea space" map is twofold:

1) You can return to it later to refresh yourself
2) You can share your research with others to help accelerate their own learning

When your friends realize you know a ton about topic X, they'll have questions for you at some point. It's so much easier (and impressive, if you care) if you can just hand them an index of all the important info for them to jump off of. Furthermore, you can monetize it if you want. Your idea space is literally a spawning ground for a whole series of blog posts or videos of your own, or even the outline for a book. There are so many useful ways to use a well-researched index.

Use these methods the next time you're trying to learn something new. Literally the only obstacle in learning almost anything is your own fear of the subject matter.

Don't limit yourself.