Learning How To Learn

When I got into digital nomading, and later on, into the broader topics of location independence and financial resilience, a consistent part of my approach was to learn new skills. For instance, skills that allow you to generate income without being tied up to an office, or to a fixed place. I still think learning new skills is an important part of this process, but I recently found out there is more subtle, almost hidden layer, that comes before that.

I mean, it’s still important to master the skills of budgeting or investing, but what’s the link between, let’s say, generating a part of your income in a passive way, living location independently and maintaining a healthy mental hygiene? All these cover very different areas, apparently there’s little, if any, overlapping between them, so obviously, the conclusion is that you have to spend a lot of time even to get to a decent level at any of these.

Well, not if you learn how to learn.

Exactly. That’s the layer that comes before mastering any skill. It’s the art of learning how to learn.

If you master this art, then you can accelerate the learning of any new skills, and, even more, you can predict when you will be at a good enough level to tackle other skills, or to make significant improvements in your lifestyle (like moving to a better place, or engaging in more rewarding projects or jobs).

If you’re good at learning, then you can group together seemingly incompatible goals or topics, and make sure you will make consistent progress.

I Need It Right Now – The Biggest Problem

The good news it that learning how to learn is not that difficult, if you really take the time. But the biggest obstacle in learning how to learn is the assumption that it doesn’t pay off to learn something so abstract, when the real thing that you need right now is very practical. Why wasting time with these odd things, when all I need right now is to understand what compounding income means, or what jobs allow me to work remote?

Well, skills have an expiration date, whereas learning how to learn, doesn’t. It may take a little more time, but it will pay off more than any practical skill you want to acquire right now. Because, from the moment you’ve learned something, a clock will start ticking, measuring the obsoletion of that learned skill. 10 years ago, for instance, PHP was still a decently well paid programming language. But now React pays better (I know React is not a language, it’s a framework, that’s not the point). And, in 5 years time, I’m sure Python, or whatever AI will use predominantly, will be even better paid than React.

So, instead of chasing the next shiny thing, why not making sure you can just learn how to learn, and choose the actual topic when the market condition are ripe.

Learning How To Learn – A Mini Framework

There are many ways to do this, and obviously, a blog post is not enough to cover even a tiny part of them. But a blog post can cover a minimal framework, a set of simple guidelines that will help you implement your own approach in learning how to learn.

So, here are the questions that I use to define my playground.

  1. How urgent it is?
  2. How good should I get at it?
  3. What’s the risk / reward?
  4. What’s the cost / benefit?

Let’s take them one at a time.

How Urgent It Is?

There are two extremes here: I either need it yesterday, or it’s a life long process. For instance, if I want to move to a new country (a process which is unfolding as I write this) I need to learn very fast what’s the best way to find decent accommodation. Every country has a different approach to this. In Spain, for instance, it pays off to just visit the area where you want to live and try to find a neighborhood real estate agency, and ask those guys. Also, in Spain the commission is split between tenant and owner. In Portugal, you’re way better going through internet ads and use an aggressive contacting strategy. The commission here is supported only by the owner, the tenant doesn’t pay. All these are details that are important for the transaction part, but there are also details about location, cost of living, transportation, hidden problems, trends, and so on and so forth, all requiring a lot of attention.

So, to make a long story short, I prioritize big chunks of time based on urgency. If there is something that is time sensitive, then I prioritize it aggressively, sometimes putting behind other activities that I can safely reinstate once the urgency has passed. To continue the example, I already put my guitar learning process (which I consider to be a life long process) on hold until I solve the accommodation aspect of my move.

How Good Should I Get At It?

This is a very important part, because it basically puts the end to that specific learning activity. There are skills that I should get really good at, like my day job, where I’m sure I will be able handle competition, but there are others at which it pays to be just good enough. To continue the example above, I don’t want to become a real estate agent, so once I get to a decent level of understanding of the real estate market, I should just stop the process, free resources (time and brain cycles) and move on to the next thing that I want to internalize.

The answer to this question modulates also the assessment periods. How often should I assess my progress? If it’s just an urgent one time task, then it’s clear that I don’t need any intermediary assessment, just dive in. But if the skill is not that urgent, or if the risk / reward balance is somehow skewed (see below) then it pays off to assess often and then discard or increase the allocated time accordingly.

What’s The Risk / Reward?

Learning something always poses a risk. The risk of losing time and not being able to use the skill afterwards. This is a question that must come after “how good should I get at it?” and here’s why. Suppose I decided to learn some AI frameworks, just to brush up my skills and improve my chances for well paid remote work. After I decided how urgent this is (not very, let’s say medium) and how good should I get at it (employable level), I look at the risk / reward balance.

In this specific case, the risk is relatively high, and the reward, surprisingly, relatively low. The risk is high because the competition is heating in AI, there are many programmers learning this, and the reward is relatively low because the compensation is not as stable as it is for other lines of work. There are, indeed, many AI companies, but there are also many flops and the area is moving very fast. So, although in the beginning it looked like a promising avenue, after I considered all the angles, it’s not that spectacular. So, I just put it on hold, after I got to a decent level (I do know what a GAN is and how to train it, if you wonder).

What’s The Cost / Benefit?

This may seem identical with the one above, but it’s different. While the question above assesses the overall risk and reward, once the skill is mastered, the cost / benefit looks at actual resources that I have to put it. Most of the time, it’s only time, but there are situations in which I have to spend money too, and not just a few bucks. A good AI course can get be between $150-$300 (I’m talking about the ones that can offer you a real certification at then end). And if I need to move (in another city, or another country) then the costs are even higher, including travel expenses, temporary accommodation, sustenance during search for permanent accommodation, and other logistical stuff.

This final question actually starts the process. Because it introduces a new variable, the most important one: “can I really afford to learn that?”. Too often I am enthusiastic about a new topic, a new idea, a new course that my life would take, but I don’t take the necessary time to ask all these questions. And when that happens, I realize I got into something I cannot afford. Being it a relationship, a skill that’s simply not necessary for me (I could learn to cook paella, for instance, but I seldom eat paella, and I will never be a chef, or at least I don’t see this as a possibility in my life right now), or simply an idea that’s too far fetched (I could move to Bali, but I really can’t afford this now, and it’s not because the finances).

Once I assessed that I can really afford (cost) whatever I want (the benefit), then I start the process.

The Nitty Gritty Is Easier

Now, what tools do you actually use to start the learning process, that’s not relevant. You can use whatever you like.

But what’s important, at least in the beginning, until you form a more clear vision about where you’re heading (and why) is to always have answers to these 4 questions. Because the better you get at learning how to learn, the easier it would be to tackle more and more complex projects. And succeed at them too.

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