Learning slowly imparts a kind of comprehensive understanding that, over the long-term, accelerates your knowledge and multiplies your opportunities across many domains.
It means asking a lot of questions and seeking the heart of the matter, an unveiling of the thing behind the thing. It is discovery, not merely memorization.
How quickly we move to learn should not be confused with how quickly the value of learning builds. Shortcuts provide immediate improvements but often at the expense of exponential growth.
Stories encode meaning and take time to unfold
I remember sitting on my bed and crying while my mother held a sheet of paper full of numbers in a grid. I was in second grade, and my homework was to memorize the multiplication tables.
It’s one of my earliest memories of learning—likely because of how traumatic it seemed. It was the first time I felt stupid. Whenever the word ‘memorize’ would accompany an assignment, I would fall apart.
Although I couldn’t articulate it at the time, my struggle wasn’t with memorization as a technique (or even an outcome). It was with the speed and depth at which learning took place, especially with the failure to impart how techniques bolster the application of understanding but are not understanding itself.
I didn’t just want to memorize things. I wanted to know things. More precisely, I wanted to know how to know things. The call to memorize was only a trigger, hinting at a lack of foundations upon which learning deeply relies.
It was the story of multiplication—the story of mathematics—that I was craving. I wanted to know the landscape before committing to building on it. Stories, especially those where you act a part, are a more expansive and durable way to learn.
Think of the method of loci (also known as the memory palace technique). It is a kind of story with meaning and associations, not just rote repetition. The memorization that occurs is the result of being embedded in a story.
Embrace your inner imposter and forget about speed
Barbara Oakley talks about how imposter syndrome opens up your beginner’s mind. Being unsure of yourself spikes your awareness. You are more receptive to what is around you and actively seeking the connections that will bring understanding.
She uses the analogy of a race car driver and a hiker to illustrate the different speeds at which people learn and to point out that hikers can often see things that race car drivers miss as they fly by.
Not only does this facilitate deeper understanding but also deeper meaning. It brings the story to life and affords more opportunities for serendipitous events. Hikers can go where the car cannot, like the peak of a mountain where the view of possibility is endless.
But some things need to be learned quickly
Learning slowly is a foundational concept. It is not in opposition to ways of learning quickly. Even the methods themselves have a slow mechanism built-in.
The entire concept of spaced repetition, for example, implies spacing out what you’re trying to learn (i.e., slower). Doing so is a proven way to increasing the rate (faster) at which you learn (or at least memorize).
When approaching a new subject or skill, I like to hit it with everything I’ve got—gather and shallowly consume as much as possible to get a sense of the landscape.
In doing that, I am engaging the foundations of learning I have already taken pains to acquire so that my ability to situate myself in this new unknown is enhanced. There are parts of the plot that are familiar, and I can already begin to make connections.
From there, it is up to the goals and context of the situation whether to treat the new landscape as Walden Pond or truck in the prefab memory palace for some rapid interior decorating.
Time is the greatest teacher
You can’t possibly know a person very well by superficial memorization of a bunch of facts about them. It is the same with all learning. The deeper you go, the more time that passes, the more you know, and the more of what you know changes, matures.
It is why we can read a poem at one point in our lives and be sure of its meaning only to reread it years later to discover a whole new world.
Hindsight is 20/20 means that you’re often better at judging and understanding a situation after the fact rather than while you’re experiencing it. You have the benefit of time and the perspective it affords.
Presence and attention are necessarily slow and unfold in real-time. In the short-term, that can seem like a waste of time when you get the gist, but the clarity, breadth, and versatility of knowledge that comes from embracing emergence in its entirety are exponential in the long-term.
To learn something is to know it; in your mind, in your hands, in your heart. And that takes time.
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