To Learn or not to learn? How to make most from your learning

Learning is a natural part of life. All animals, humans first and foremost, learn in order to adapt to their environment, which is always changing, and to maintain/improve their life’s conditions.

Learning can be fun or boring, engaging or interesting, sometimes it is necessary, sometimes it is accessory, yet the capacity of learning of an individual is often correlated to his/her level of success and adaptability. If we all learn, some are better at it than others.

That being said, effective learning might not but dependent to higher levels of IQs, although it helps, but more so with effective methodologies.

Methodologies, learned from others or developed for oneself, have a definitive impact on the effectiveness of our learning process. Therefore, even if learning is a natural process, it does not mean that we cannot consciously better ourselves at it.

There are plenty of articles and ressources on how to learn more and faster, but in my opinion, that not all there is to it to effective learning. As I’ll try to show in this article, effective learning is as much about what and why we learn as why we learn. It is about making the right learning decisions. It is to learn purposefully.

Spending time to think about learning may be the first step to become a better, more conscious learner. I aim to provide some ideas to do just that.

The applicability of knowledge: being picky about what you learn

In today’s connected world, there is literally and endless supply of information. Even if we lived “forever”, we would have a hard time consuming the information that has already been created, let alone keep up with the new one being created. Fortunately or unfortunately, not all of it is good.

In the past, most of the population had a lack of access to relevant and useful information. If it is still the case today in some part of the world, the majority have a perfect tool at disposition, a box of pandora, the internet.

Finding information to absorb is easy, what is harder is to find relevant information.

Before spending time on learning anything, it is helpful to determine, how useful, applicable and relevant is to you.

For example: If you have chosen to pursue a career in law, learning plumbing skills might not be that relevant for you.
One might argue that all skills are useful, and plumbing might come in handy. Agreed, yet the return of learning plumbing for a lawyer is a lot less than for a plumber.
A lawyer might learn skill that elevate his/her salary and then be able to employ a plumber for his/her plumbing needs.

Another example is to read books about skill that you never use: Why read gardening if you never garden, why read investing material if you do not invest, why read self-development books if you do not apply the tools given, etc

The first step to effective learning, is to try to establish how applicable it is to you.

When looking to learn a new skill, ask yourself:
Is this knowledge applicable in (my life, my job, my relationships, hobbies, etc)?
Is it relevant to my current situation ? How quickly can I apply this knowledge?
How useful is it to my situation? What are the impact that I can expect from learning this? (in order of magnitude)

From these questions, you can start to priorities your learning in order to get a more from it, a higher return, more impact in your life.

I am not suggesting that you do not learn out of interest, but aligning your interest with your needs brings congruency and meaning to your learning.

The Skill cost/return ratio

It is important to establish the cost/return ratio of a skill before learning it.

This ratio has objective and subjective/personal components to it.

The lack of clarity in cost/return surrounding skills is often what creates controversy around some educational systems, such as college degrees in some part of the world.

How do you establish a skill cost/return ratio?
There will always be to many parameters to establish a perfect answer. However the simple process of trying to establish the consequences of learning a skill, what you will get from it, what it takes to acquire, through a simple pros and cons table can be valuable.

Obviously it seems silly to go through this process for small skills, or things that can be understood in a few hours, but for valuable skills that take months if not years to acquire, it is time well spent

Different knowledge/skills have different returns.

For example:
If Skill A and Skill B cost the same amount of time/money/effort to learn, but I can make a wage from skill A at 50k/y and skill B at 70k/y, skill B is clearly superior. Therefore, we will priorities learning B over A, assuming we are leaving out variables and enjoyment factors.

There are a few other ratios we can explore to establish objectively the cost/return ratio

The rarity/ return ratio:

Skill that are rare are usually more highly valued. Prioritizing these skills will often yield a higher return.
Skills can be rare for multiple reasons:
-The demand for the skill is higher than the supply.
-It is difficult to acquire, it requires a lot of time and effort
-It takes special talent, characteristics to acquire (what are you naturally good at?, whats your edge?)
-It is a completely novel skill, based on new technology or new problem (in this case try to establish how long the skill will remain relevant for)

Time cost, difficulty cost/ return ratio:

Obviously all skill are different, and varies in their investment costs to acquire them.

The harder and the longer a skills takes to acquire, the clearer you should be about their return before engaging in the learning process. As we can’t develop that many skill to expertise level, it is important to pick which one we are going for.

On the flip side, it is also interesting to find which skills are easy to learn(low time, low effort) and have significant returns, add significant value to our lives.

The cumulation of small, high return skills has a compounding effects that can be much more powerful that dedicating unreasonable amount of time in a very specialized field.

Ideally, you can pursue both, few expert skills, and as many surface high value skills as possible.

Price/return ratio:

Some skills are free to learn, while other cost money. It is useful to identify the monetary value of some skills and also of learning courses.

Some free skill are undervalued and have high return, while there is plenty of expensive course about “fake” skill that have little real life applications.

The reason to pay for gaining skills should be:
-Paid tuition greatly reduces learning time over learning for free
-There is a guarantee or high probability that the skill will have/produce more value that the cost of tuition
-High enjoyment level or learning for leisure
-The tuition provides a diploma/ proof of competence that has real/identifiable value to reputation, and opens opportunities.

The enjoyment level:

Learning is a natural process which can also be very enjoyable. We do not only learn for practical applications, but also to enjoy ourselves and to stimulate our curiosity and creativity. Personal enjoyment while learning is a return in itself.

The more we like what we learn, the more valuable the learning experience will be for us, besides, enjoyment greatly improves learning efficiency.

The best returns from learning balance usefulness and enjoyment.

Spending time to develop a passion, to truly immerse oneself in the world of a body of knowledge/skill can make all the difference to one’s quality of life, and capacity for learning.

The lasting quality of knowledge: Learning skills that last

When you learn something new, it is preferable to make sure that what you learn will stay relevant for as long as possible.

Because the environment is always changing, a lot of the knowledge we learn is quickly outdated, hence the need to constantly relearn new things.

Unless, you are an expert in a field, at the top of human advancement in that field, needing to keep up with the evolution of knowledge in that field, learning timeless principles will have a higher return and be more relevant to you.

Before learning a skill, ask yourself:
How long will this skill be relevant?
Am I Learning a skill in a domain that is fast changing?
If it is a changing field, is there a core of knowledge/principles that remains the same?

Establishing the life spawn of the knowledge you want to pursue can definitely influence your decisions in what is important to learn.

Surface learning/ deep learning

The quality of learning is of different levels.

In a shallow level, one can remember facts for a certain amount of time. The information is retained and can be used, if it is needed, until forgotten.

A slightly deeper level of learning is when the information is retain over a longer period of time, some years, or over the lifetime. The fact is that a lot of the things we learn, get filtered out of our brain. Lot of the educational material that we went through during our education is already gone.

This filtering process is useful, when the brains discards junk, useless information, but it tends to also discard useful information. Increasing the life spawn of the retention of information equates to deeper learning.

A deeper level of learning still is when the learner is able to fit the information into a framework of knowledge, arranging it into a system or models, so that it relates and combines with previous knowledge, when new information gives opportunities for creativity.

Another deep level of learning, is when the information learned is internalized, experimented and experienced by the learner.

Internalizing the information, means that the information learned changes future behaviors and/or mental processes such as decisions. If the information learned remains stored and unused the learning is shallow.

For example: If I learn how to invest and what are good investments but never have invested and never will, the information is useless, and it cannot be tested.

Deep learning involves tests, feedback and real world application. A person that has truly learned becomes a new persons. If there is no novelty after a learning process, there was no learning, it was a waste of time.

In this sense, deep learning always involves two phases and sometimes a third, that of consuming information, that of internalizing information, and that of application/transformation (novelty)

Ask yourself:
What level of learning do I want regarding a particular skill to fit my needs?
How much ressources do I want to dedicate?
How deep do I need to learn that skill?

Essentialism in learning

When it comes to learning, it pays to be an essentialist. Being essentialist means to focus on one thing at a time, preferably on priorities.

In our lives we can be divided between many responsibilities and desires, sometime in conflict, which pulls us in different directions. We either try to learn different things at once, or fit to many things in the schedule.

It is better to learn one thing well, than many approximately. It is likely that the return will be higher, and the learning process faster.

Hopefully the ability to priorities what you learn will help in the decision of what you should learn and let go of the rest, for now. Once you have learned the skill, you can move on to another one.

To become essentialist you must become ruthless with your options through decisions and prioritizing.

It is also important to know what you are after before engaging in learning. Knowing your learning outcomes will help you save time and efforts. It will also help you to prioritize further, to be more selective of the sources from which you learn and more specific in your approach.

Ask yourself:
What are the must have and the nice to have?
What are the highest returns on my time/learning?
What are my indulgence?
What’s conflicting desires and which should I eliminate?
What are my learning outcomes?

Compound learning

When choosing what to learn, it is interesting to think about what skills have compounding and symbiotic effects. Learning relevant skills is not an addition but a multiplication.

I humain life, there is a prevalent factor which is always present: time.

Because our lives are finite, learning something early on is therefore more beneficial that later on, since you will be able to use that knowledge for a longer period of time, assuming you do not forget and that maintenance is minimal.

For example: If you learn to choose/make/keep quality friends when you are 15 rather that when you are 40, there will be a big compounding advantage from the former.

The one learning to make good friends at 15 is likely to have a lot more friends at say age 45 that the one who learned at 40. On top of that, the quality of the relationships the first will have developed is likely to be of higher quality, since there will be 25 years of extra shared experience.

Obviously a lot of skills and knowledge are age and situation relevant. Learning to take care of your child if your not a parent, or your retirement if your not retired is ludicrous.

However in most cases, learning something early as an intrinsic advantage over learning something late.

This goes for most of life’s important skills, from, saving and investing money, to establishing relationships, to expertise in a domain, to emotional management, to learning efficiency, to health and fitness, etc

In this respect, it really pays to identify the gaps in your important life skills as soon as possible,

Which will make a significant impact on you quality of life and will have a compounding effect?

Take a moment to think about it:
-whats your skill gaps?
-What are really useful skills, that compounds, that you are missing out on?

The longer you wait to learn them, the more their return/usefulness decreases.

So we see that skill and knowledge compounds with the effect of time, but that’s not all.
On top of that, certain skills and knowledge have a symbiotic effects. It is like multiple peaces of a puzzle. You can still glean at the picture if you are missing some peaces, but only when you get all the peaces together does it shows its true value.

In term of effectiveness, in a lot of domains skills stack on top of each other, so that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts, as Aristotle best put it, in a synergistic effect.

It’s the case in finance, relationships, sports, personal development, management, etc

As an exercise for reflection, pick a domain. try to think about the skills that you already know in that domain and the skills that you are missing. you can write them down if it helps. Think about what the combinaisons of theses skills would allow you to do.

That’s not even all there is to it, some skills are transferable in multiple domains, which multiplies their applications, we call them metaskills. For example, learning skills .

Meta-learning: developing metaskills

When we look at the applicability of skills and knowledge to learn, we try to determine what skills are transferable and a foundation for other skills, metaskills.

Metaskills are very valuable to learn in that they provide returns in lots of aspect of life, thus being continually useful.

For example: Learning to learn is a meta-skill. After you have learned to learn more efficiently, all your subsequent learning will be made easier.

Other examples of metaskills are: concentration/focus, dealing with emotions and thoughts, creative thinking, problem solving, relational skill/ social skills, financial literacy, Mental models, Behavioral/habits training, languages, Arts and Sciences, logistic, personal management, strategy, etc

The more transferable and the more useful it is, the more a skill can fit into the category of metaskill.

Finding and learning metaskills:
-There are some example above
-You might posses already a lot of metaskills. When facing a new problem/situation/domain, take some time to reflect, ask yourself, is there anything I know or can do that I can apply? That gives me a competitive advantage.

Cross-disciplinary thinking is often what gives birth to amazing inovations.

-Use modeling of others to identify metaskills. Observe your entourage, find out what each persons does consistently well over a fast array of disciplines. You can also model successful people in their respective areas, what are their strength?
For example: What are the commonalities between athlete in different sports?

-Do some research on meta-skills, so many are already identified, it will save you some works.

Learning efficiency

It is important to understand that effectiveness and efficiency are two different things. Effectiveness means the accomplishment of what is most impactful/useful. Efficiency means the accomplishment of something rapidly and with good ressources management.
There is no point in being efficient, if we are not effective first. This applies to learning as well.

Learning efficiency is a very vast topic. There is an ocean of tips and tricks to learn better, as humans always tried to improve faster to gain a competitive advantage.
In this article we dealt with learning choices rather that learning skills per say(which I might explore this topic in a future article). About effectiveness rather than efficiency.

Nonetheless, here is a list for research/exploration purposes:
-Enjoyment in learning/ quality of experience
-Learning in systems and framework
-Understanding over remembering
-Thinking in first principles
-Feynman method
-Pareto principle
-Deliberate practice
-Time management in learning
-Passive/ active learning
-Optimal learning environment
-Multi-sensory learning
-Focus training
-Memory training, mental athlete
-Tests and feedback integrations
-The vast world I don’t know about


In this article, we’ve explore the decisions that we make surrounding our learning.

Unfortunately, for a lot of people, the choice of what they learn happens automatically, opportunistically, without second thoughts.

We can spend a lot of time learning how to learn more efficiently, but does it matter if we spend our time learning the wrong things?

What I tried to emphasize in this article is that for our learning to be effective, to make a difference in our lives, learning as to be done purposefully.

Before being efficient learners, we should be effective learners.

I believe choices in learning are not as straightforward as they seems. Hopefully using these guidelines can take your learning to the next level.

I hoped you have found this article usefull and enjoyable, do not hesitate to share it with others so that they may benefit to.

I am gratefull for your time and attention, and hope that I served you well.

All the best


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