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Four Steps to Turn Learning into Value

learning May 27, 2020

A few days ago, I wrote that I’ve found Information is NOT Power; it’s actually quite the opposite. I want to make sure you understand I’m not saying information is bad and that we should all climb into our bomb shelters, cut off all information sources, or some other extreme measure. As the Good Book says:

People perish for lack of knowledge.

What we need to understand is how we can convert that information INTO knowledge (which, when combined with experience, becomes wisdom). Here’s the process I use:

1. Screen Your Information

When you are trying to learn something new, keep yourself focused on only the information relevant to what you are learning. The stops by Twitter and random news sites are deadly – they not only distract you, but forces your mind to process needless information (see “another dead read” from the beginning of this post). Your mind is finite – once it’s “tapped out” on information consumption, it’s done. You stop and learn on another day. Ideally, find the information you need grouped together. The worse possible case is trying to Google-search endlessly to find bits and pieces of information you have to cobble together; this is what makes YouTube one of the worse platforms to learn a new skill: you only get bits and pieces from a variety of publishers. The best case is finding a book or training site with all the information in one place.

2. Learn it and Gain Understanding

The first time through the information (whether it’s a book or training series), just read / listen and take copious notes. For example, right now I’m listening to a project management course on 2x speed with Microsoft OneNote opened on a second monitor rapidly transcribing / typing key information I hear. If it ever gets ahead of me or I lose that initial comprehension of what’s being said, I simply pause and rewind to hear the information again.

This initial read / listen through gives you a “sense” of the information, but not a deep learning. That’s what comes when I go back through the information slowly and convert to handwritten notes (what?!? yep). I pull out a journal or yellow-pad and begin writing the information I’ve rapidly typed in OneNote and group together common themes and topics. This is also where I do deeper research on the topics I don’t understand. A very helpful tool here is a practice exam after each set of knowledge that allows you to test what you remember and understand. If such a thing exists, I’ll go through the test and put asterisks next to each answer I’m not sure about. It’s those topics I look at deeper when I pass through my second review.

3. Explain it Back to Someone

I’ve once heard it said, “The best way to learn something is to teach it.” After 20+ years of creating training, I can affirm this wholeheartedly. There are registry keys I can still remember from teaching Microsoft courses around the turn of the century! It sticks with you.

Now, this step is quite easy for me, simply because I teach for a living. However, blogging (or journaling) is an extremely effective way to do this as well. Quick example, check out https://packetlife.net/about/ – a blog started years ago by an aspiring network engineer, Jeremy Stretch, just to document his understanding during his studies. This turned into a ‘living resume’ for him that created many career and connection opportunities.

The key in this step is to master the ability to explain topics back without looking. There’s a reason we still look at recipes for meals we’ve made many times or reference GPS maps for destinations we constantly visit. Our mind does not work to commit information it is not forced to process. Reading a book or watching a video and understanding something is only a small piece of the puzzle. Side note: I’m sure this is one of the top reasons we fail certification exams – we read the topic and feel good about ourselves, but when the exam forces us to recall that information, it’s nowhere to be found.

4. Use the Learning Practically

This final step is where you begin to transition the knowledge into your permanent memory banks akin to riding a bike: use it! This is where most traditional education (schooling) falls short – they believe that by teaching you the pythagorean theorem, their job is done and you are set up for success in this world. But how many times have you actually used the pythagorean theorem? Or does that name simply send quivers down your spine from some past memory earlier in life?

This may take some creativity and (gasp!) time. If you’re learning technology, build a lab! If you’re learning management, engineer situations and conversations with others that allow you practice the skills on a smaller scale. This is where being married to an understanding spouse can be worth its weight in gold. If you have no spouse, the cashier at Starbucks might do, or perhaps the lawn care company you brought in to rake the leafs up from your yard. Again, creativity is key here: build these situations at home and at work.

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