Relentless Learning

Estimated reading time: 15 minutes

When people find out that I write a self-improvement blog, they sometimes ask, incredulously, “So, you’ve got it all figured out, do ya?”

Well, no actually. I don’t have it all figured out, and I never will. There will always be new things to learn, and my understanding of the things I already know can always be made deeper. And that is why I practice relentless learning.

The acquisition of knowledge and wisdom is a lifelong pursuit with endless benefits. Learning makes you more intelligent and more creative, it enhances your career prospects, and it can make you a better person. These are the reasons why I’ve chosen it as one of the cornerstones of my self-improvement philosophy.

All humans are capable of learning. It is our species’ signature strength. But the ability to learn is both a skill that requires practice and a muscle that requires exercise, so if you stop learning, you become less and less capable of learning. The world is changing quickly, and sooner or later you’ll need to learn new skills in order to adapt. If you’re not practicing relentless learning, you won’t be ready.

But if you make relentless learning part of your lifestyle, you’ll maintain your innate capacity for learning, and you’ll stand a much better chance of being ready for the challenges of tomorrow. If you make education and self-education a daily habit, your brain will strong enough to thrive well into the 21st century.

Intelligence

“A mind needs books like a sword needs a whetstone.” –Tyrion Lannister, Game of Thrones

Did you know that, in every country where IQ records have been kept for the past several decades, people have been performing better and better?1 Indeed, IQs have been going up by about 3 points per decade, meaning that each generation is doing significantly better than the last.2 This phenomenon is known as “the Flynn Effect” because it was discovered by James R. Flynn.

Now, IQ tests are problematic for a number of reasons, and it would be a mistake to simply equate performance on an IQ test with “intelligence.” But IQ tests do measure some meaningful aspect of cognitive ability, and they do have some predictive value. And the research Flynn and others have done demonstrates a very important fact: cognitive ability can be improved.

If the idea that humans can become smarter seems wrong to you, consider some familiar examples of this happening within single individuals: Young children are clearly less adept thinkers than older children. And why is that the case? Well, there are two reasons:

  1. Young children’s brains are less physically developed, and
  2. Young children have spent less time learning difficult concepts and tackling challenging cognitive tasks.

Unfortunately, we tend to ignore the second reason and the lesson it has to offer.

Modern neuroscience has demonstrated that the brain is like a bunch of muscles that get stronger when we use them. Lift heavy weights, and you’ll get stronger. Challenge your mind with difficult puzzles and rigorous learning, and you’ll get smarter. Indeed, the Flynn Effect is mainly attributed to the fact that people in western countries now spend more time in school and are more likely to work in cognitively demanding jobs.1 In other words, people are doing better on IQ tests because we’re using our brains more.

But the Flynn Effect is a measure of average performance, and not everyone is choosing to take their brains to the mind gym. LinkedIn creator Reid Hoffman points out that, “for far too many, focused learning ends at college graduation. They read about stocks and bonds instead of reading books that improve their mind.”3 If you stop learning, your brain muscles will atrophy, and your mind will decline.

“Just as iron rusts from disuse, … so our intellect wastes unless it is kept in use.”

–Leonardo da Vinci4

So if you want to maximize your intelligence and stave off cognitive decline, you’d better practice relentless learning.

Adaptability

Never-ending self-education is also essential for career success in the modern world. In the past, you might have been able to get by with the knowledge you acquired in college and your initial job training, but the 21st-century economy is evolving too rapidly for you to rest on your laurels. To be adaptable and to stay afloat in our ever-shifting job market and our ever-changing technological landscape, you’ll need to be learning continuously.

In Homo Deus, Yuval Noah Harari writes:

“Since we do not know how the job market would look in 2030 or 2040, already today we have no idea what to teach our kids. Most of what they currently learn at school will probably be irrelevant by the time they are forty. Traditionally, life has been divided into two main parts: a period of learning followed by a period of working. Very soon this traditional model will become utterly obsolete, and the only way for humans to stay in the game will be to keep learning throughout their lives, and to reinvent themselves repeatedly.”5

We forget that the true purpose of school is not to learn things like Shakespeare and trigonometry; the true purpose of school is to learn how to learn. We do not know what the future holds. The economy of tomorrow will probably be radically different from the economy of today. To adapt, you will need to be able to learn. Writing about how to succeed in the modern economy, Cal Newport says prophetically, “If you can’t learn, you can’t thrive.”6 In fact, I would describe knowing how to learn as the #1 skill for the 21st century.

(The science and practice of effective learning is much too large a subject for this article, but if you’re interested in becoming a better learner, check out the blog I write for Northwest Educational Services. I explore memory formation techniques, strategies for studying effectively, the neuroscience behind good learning, and much more.)

Career Capital

“Become a lifelong student of your craft. School is never out for the professional.” –Brian Tracy7

Cal Newport defines “career capital” as “the skills you have that are both rare and valuable and that can be used as leverage in defining your career.”8 He recommends devoting time and energy to focusing deeply on learning unique skills that enhance your career prospects.8

Sometimes, your work will automatically help you develop career capital by forcing you to learn on the job. For example, in my work for Northwest Educational Services, I’ve had the opportunity to learn several useful skills outside of my job description. Ostensibly, my role is that of academic coach, blog writer, and administrative assistant. But in my time there, I’ve also written and taught group classes, learned WordPress web-development, figured out how to set up affiliate marketing, and written marketing copy for our website and email campaigns. These skills are all broadly useful in the modern economy.

But whether or not your job forces you to learn new skills, you should also be acquiring career capital on your own time. In order to broaden my reach as an academic coach, I’ve engaged in relentless self-education over the past four years by studying calculus, biology, chemistry, history, literature, Spanish, and French. I’ve also been working on skills unrelated to my current career: behavioral change coaching, online marketing, and writing this blog. This practice, known as “second-skilling,” is a way to cultivate economic resilience.9 Should things change for the worse with my job, I’ll have options.

Second-skilling is developing expertise in a second field while maintaining a career in the first.9 It could be adjacent – learning accounting while working in business management or learning computer programming while working as an electrical engineer – or it could be seemingly unrelated – studying psychology while running a small business or studying literature while working in marketing.

The benefits of learning an adjacent skill are obvious: You have more flexibility and breadth, you can handle more dynamic projects, you can relate more effectively to other members of your team. But there are also important benefits to those seemingly unrelated skills: Becoming an expert in psychology will help the woman running her small business better understand her customers and employees, thus improving her marketing and reducing turnover; studying literature will help the marketer tell more compelling stories in his advertisements.

“Second-skilling is a good idea in today’s swiftly changing career environment. A second skill can allow you to be more nimble if the unexpected arises in your day job.” –Dr. Barbara Oakley9

Furthermore, relentless learning is an essential part of the journey to finding fulfillment in your career. In my article on the Japanese concept of Ikigai, I explained how you do not find your true calling by sitting and thinking about your passions; you create your calling through learning, practicing, and hard work.

Relentless learning is essential if you want to work your way toward the center of this diagram.

For more insights into the current and future economy and why relentless learning will be essential, please check out this episode of The Knowledge Project. In this podcast, economics professor Tyler Cohen draws a parallel between compound interest in financial investments and “compound learning.”10 If you practice relentless learning, your knowledge, understanding, and wisdom will grow exponentially and pay great dividends.10 I believe this is because ideas tend to mingle with one another, so the more interconnected knowledge you possess, the more opportunities there are for surprising combinations. And with that, we turn to the next major benefit of relentless learning: creativity.

Creativity

“The innovator seems driven to learn as much as possible about the domain, to improve, to drive himself or herself beyond personal limits and eventually beyond the limits of the field.” –Geoff Colvin11

Creative insights typically arise from the combination and evolution of ideas that are already known. This is why, in his massive study of creative people, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi found that innovators are almost always experts in their fields.12 This finding parallels what Malcolm Gladwell noted in Outliers: The thing that such varied creatives as Bill Gates and The Beatles had in common was tons of experience and practice – tons of learning.13

Within a given area of expertise, be it playing the cello, practicing law, or teaching chemistry, the pursuit of mastery never ends. There are always more insights to be had. There is always more to be learned.

“The most eminent creators are consistently those who have immersed themselves utterly in their chosen field, have devoted their lives to it, amassed tremendous knowledge of it, and continually pushed themselves to the front of it.” –Geoff Colvin11

Csikszentmihalyi also found that highly creative individuals tend to take an interdisciplinary approach to their work; they refuse to be confined to the boundaries of their academic domain.12 Biologist turned history writer Matt Ridley explained this phenomenon by drawing a parallel between the intellectual creativity of combining ideas and the biological creativity of combining genomes during sexual reproduction.14 When ideas combine, the rearrange themselves into novel entities, or in Ridley’s words, “Ideas have sex.”14

This means that creativity is most likely to occur when you practice relentless learning, both within your domain and beyond it. And the people who are driven to do that have managed to maintain and cultivate their innate curiosity. Darwin, for example, was obsessed with cataloging the natural world. In addition to studying the world’s flora and fauna aboard the Beagle, he did deep dives into esoteric topics like beetles and barnacles.15 All this data, combined with his knowledge of geology and population dynamics resulted in one of the most profound insights of all time: that the driving force of biological evolution is natural selection.15

(If you feel you’ve lost the curiosity that you had as a child, fear not – you can get it back. Here’s a quick article from creativity coach Tara Broyhill about how to rekindle your curiosity, plus some tips on helping your children stay curious.)

I’ve said this before, but it bears repeating: Creativity is essential for self-improvement, and it’s essential for the future of the human race. So creativity isn’t just about making art or music, and it isn’t just about having better ideas to offer at the next staff meeting. The problems we face, both as individuals and as a species, demand solutions. And these solutions will not simply arise from the ideas we currently have. As individuals, we have to constantly seek out new knowledge and fill our minds with a wide variety of potentially useful ideas. That’s our best shot at sorting out our personal problems and living our best lives. And as a species, humanity needs to push the limits of our collective knowledge and thereby expand the realm of what’s possible. That’s our only hope for surviving and thriving in the long run.

Wisdom and Self-Improvement

“It is a mistake for anyone to think to think he has lived too long in his old, unsatisfactory ways to make the great change. If you switch on the light in a dark room, it makes no difference how long the light it was dark because the light will still shine. Be teachable. That is the whole secret.” –Vernon Howard16

All learning is self-improvement because learning makes you more intelligent, more well-informed, and more creative, but people serious about self-improvement will seek out a specific type of learning: wisdom. One way to do this is read books or consume audio content that teaches about the human condition or the psychology of wellbeing. As many of you know, my favorite source of this content Brian Johnson’s book summary service, but that’s just one option among many.

For example, even though I’ve already written about everyday mindfulness, and even though I strive to practice it daily, I’m reading Mindfulness on the Go: Simple Meditation Practices You Can Do Anywhere by Jan Chozen Bays. The book is reinforcing some things I already know, reminding me of practices I would otherwise have forgotten about, and offering brand new insights, further showing that I don’t have it all figured out.

I believe that the practice of consuming some form of wisdom every day is an essential practice for anyone walking the path of becoming better. And I’m not alone in thinking that:

“A commitment to lifelong learning is a natural expression of the practice of living consciously.” –Nathaniel Branden17

“Because the fire of enthusiasm can become extinguished unless it is refueled, try to read some self-help material for at least five minutes a day.” –W. Clement Stone18

“A mind stretched to a new idea never shrinks back to its original dimensions.” –Oliver Wendell Holmes19

You can always acquire wisdom from other people. There are many people in your life who know things you don’t know, who have had experiences you’ve not had. And it is always possible to learn from the behavior of others, good or bad.

And of course, you can also learn from your experiences and your own self-awareness. You might try to avoid such learning, but life often has a way of forcing lessons upon you. Author and therapist Gay Hendricks notes:

“20,000 therapy sessions during the past 30 years have taught me something that I now believe in my bones: We choose how gently we get our lessons by how open we are to learning. Life teaches us with a sledgehammer if we refuse to pay attention. It administers the same lesson with a feather tickle if we show a willingness to learn.”20

We want to be on the lookout for the lessons that life can teach us. Usually, these come in the form of something unpleasant, annoying, or painful. That discomfort is there to motivate us to learn something, so we can make better choices in the future. This mindset is a way to turn supposedly negative events into positive events. As long as we’re eager to learn from life, even major screw-ups can be blessings in disguise. (See also: The Gift of Big Problems)

Now for some quick tips on the actual practice of relentless learning:

#1 Be serious about it.

Relentless learning should be a major part of any serious program of self-improvement or career growth. It cannot be avoided or minimized.

Read thought-provoking books. Take free online university courses. Attend local lectures and seminars. And take notes. Writing about what you’re learning helps ensure you’ll actually remember it.

Synthesize the various facts and ideas you’re learning into a coherent worldview. Challenge yourself to think deeply about it all. Share what you’re learning with others.

#2 Hustle.

“Learn as if you were following someone whom you could not catch up to, as though it were someone you were frightened of losing.” –Confucius21

Learn something new every day. Schedule your daily learning. Make it a priority. Make it a habit.

#3 Be Patient.

“Do not be impatient with your seemingly slow progress. … If you are studying, reflecting, and trying, you are making progress, whether you are aware of it are not.” –Vernon Howard16

The practice of relentless learning is, as Tyler Cohen noted, like putting money into a retirement account.10 You shouldn’t expect to see big gains right away, but growth is happening. With personal savings, you just need to tuck away a little bit of money, paycheck after paycheck. With personal growth, you steadily and faithfully tuck away a little bit of knowledge, day after day. The good news is that, unlike a retirement account, you probably won’t have to wait until you’re 65 to start cashing in on your hard work. Keep your eyes on the process, and you’ll be sure to make progress.

#4 Have fun with it!

Learning doesn’t have to be a chore. I sometimes study things I’m not particularly interested in because I need to learn them, but most of my self-education time is spent learning things I’m curious or passionate about. I love to geek out on zoology, history, and astrophysics, so I learn about at least one of these things almost every day. And I’m a big fan of the educational entertainment that has proliferated on YouTube in recent years, such as CrashCourse, Kurzgesagt, and Smarter Every Day.

Caveats

The phrase “relentless learning” might make you think I’m advocating for 24-7 studying. I’m not. Taking breaks, short and long, is essential for learning. In fact, deep learning actually requires downtime, periods of rest and relaxation.22 Nor am I saying that you pursue education at the expense of taking action. Be well informed, yes, but don’t get lost in analysis paralysis.

By “relentless,” I simply mean that there won’t be a time when you get to say, “That’s it. I’m done. No more learning.” because when you say that, you’re committing to stagnation and decline. You might imagine that there is a place where you could hang up your thinking cap and rest on your laurels, but you’ll never get there.

Likewise, you can’t hope to learn everything. There’s simply too much knowledge for any one person to absorb in a lifetime. But don’t let this dishearten you. Everything counts. And if you take steps toward becoming a relentless learner, you’ll soon be way ahead of the average person.

Conclusions

Our hunter-gatherer ancestors might have possessed less collective knowledge than we do today, but their very survival depended upon relentless learning. The challenges of scraping out a living as a nomadic forager required constantly learning about new terrain, new plants, and new animals, so it’s in our very nature to relentless learners. Today, we learn different things to survive and thrive, but the need for learning and the drive to learn remains.

And if we don’t use that drive, we’ll be left feeling unfulfilled. An animal must fulfill its innate drives in order to be content. An eagle must fly, a gazelle must run, and a human must learn. You can certainly learn with particular goals in mind – enhancing your career or becoming a better person – but relentless learning doesn’t need to be directed at any particular goal. It is a way of life. As humans, it’s our way of life.

“The most successful people are lifelong learners; they constantly ask questions and never cease to explore the wonder-filled world around them. Regardless of where you are in life—whether you are fifteen or a hundred and fifteen, whether you are going through a rough patch or are thriving—create an education program for yourself.” –Tal Ben-Shahar23

On that note, I’ll leave you with the motto of one of my favorite sources of online learning:

“Stay curious.”

 

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Works Cited

1 Flynn, James. “Why our IQ levels are higher than our grandparents’.” TED2013. https://www.ted.com/talks/james_flynn_why_our_iq_levels_are_higher_than_our_grandparents?language=en

2 Lisa Trahan, Karla K. Stuebing, Merril K. Hiscock, and Jack M. Fletcher. “The Flynn Effect: A Meta-analysis.” Psychological Bulletin. September 2014. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4152423/

3 Hoffman, Reid. The Start-up of You: Adapt to the Future, Invest in Yourself, and Transform Your Career. Currency, 2012.

4 Gelb, Michael. How to Think Like Leonardo da Vinci: Seven Steps to Genius Every Day. Dell, 2000.

5 Harari, Yuval Noah. Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow. Harper, 2017.

6 Newport, Cal. Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World. Grand Central Publishing, 2016.

7 Tracy, Brian. Eat That Frog!: 21 Great Ways to Stop Procrastinating and Get More Done in Less Time. Simple Truths, 2013.

8 Newport, Cal. So Good They Can’t Ignore: You Why Skills Trump Passion in the Quest for Work You Love. Grand Central Publishing, 2012.

9 Oakley, Barbara, PhD. Mindshift: Break Through Obstacles to Learning and Discover Your Hidden Potential. Penguin Random House, 2017.

10 “Thinking About Thinking: My Interview with Tyler Cowen.” The Knowledge Project Ep. #39. https://fs.blog/tyler-cowen/

11 Colvin, Geoff. Talent Is Overrated: What Really Separates World-Class Performers from Everybody Else. Portfolio, 2008.

12 Csikszentmihalyi, Mihaly. Creativity: The Psychology of Discovery and Invention. Harper Perennial, 1997.

13 Gladwell, Malcolm. Outliers: The Story of Success. Back Bay Books, 2011.

14 Ridley, Matthew. “When ideas have sex.” TEDGlobal 2010. https://www.ted.com/talks/matt_ridley_when_ideas_have_sex?language=en

15 Johnson, Steven. Where Good Ideas Come From: The Natural History of Innovation. Riverhead Books, 2011.

16 Howard, Vernon. The Power of Your Supermind. New Life Foundation, 2011.

17 Branden, Nathaniel. The Six Pillars of Self-Esteem: The Definitive Work on Self-Esteem by the Leading Pioneer in the Field. Bantam, 1995.– Gay Hendricks from Conscious Living: How to Create a Life of Your Own Design

18 Stone, W. Clement. The Success System That Never Fails. Wilder Publications, 2009.

19 Bowen, Will. A Complaint Free World: How to Stop Complaining and Start Enjoying the Life You Always Wanted. Harmony, 2013.

20 Hendricks, Gay, PhD. Conscious Living: How to Create a Life of Your Own Design. HarperOne, 2009.

21 Confucius. The Analects of Confucius. Arthur Waley translation. Vintage, 1989.

22 Oakley, Barbara. A Mind for Numbers: How to Excel at Math and Science (Even if you Flunked Algebra). Penguin, 2014.

23 Tal Ben-Shahar, Happier: Learn the Secrets to Daily Joy and Lasting Fulfillment. McGraw-Hill Education, 2007.