How to Learn Anything - Lessons in Neuroscience from My Dad

In a previous post, I reflected on some life lessons I believe have made me what who I am today. The list is pretty popular and some have asked me to specifically elaborate on my Dad's advice to my Mom. You see, my Mom was told by everyone else that it was a waste of her time to seek to be something other than a secretary.

My Dad meanwhile had grown up in a small town in Missouri, far far away from the glitz and glamor of Hollywood. He was raised to follow his dreams no matter how difficult they might seem. One day he saw Cecil B. DeMille’s “The Greatest Show On Earth”. From that moment on, he knew he wanted to make movies. How could a Midwestern boy hope to learn all of the skills and talent to be a Cinematographer? I'll let him tell you:

When I (my Dad) was in junior high school I started reading photography books. They were all technically over my head. I was very depressed. I had been told that I didn't have the aptitude for math and science. I feared that if I couldn't learn the essentials of Cinematography I would never have a chance. One night I decided to force read the text, hoping that by glossing over the terms and concepts I didn't understand someday I would recollect the information when I had a deeper ability to interpret. Even though I glossed over the ideas I was able to connect the dots and put it all together. I used that tool for everything I didn't understand.

Later on he left Missouri for Los Angeles and began his journey towards becoming a Director of Photography. While working as a projectionist he met my Mom and while dating, she talked about her interest in science and nursing which had been inspired by Isaac Asimov books like Fantastic Voyage. Quoting my Dad again:

When your mother was having trouble I just told her what I did. She was very frustrated in the beginning. I insisted she read her textbooks before she even went to class. That way she would have a recollection of complex phrases and ideas when the teacher introduced them. For her she had already read the material which helped her to overcome her initial fear.

This same advice was passed onto me and my brother. Whenever I would get my textbooks before school started, I would always flip through them and skim the information. My brother and I would always go to the bookstore or library to learn something new. He has taught himself to read and compose music via this method, and I have learned almost all that I know simply by reading books and materials that I didn't at first understand.

I later discovered that Richard Feynman followed a similar method which he humorously retells in "Surely You're Joking"

When Feynman was a graduate student at Princeton, he was allowed to sit in a biology course if he agreed to do the assignments. One involved giving a report on research that had been done on cats. He was unfamiliar with the names of the muscles mentioned, so he went down to the library to get “a map of the cat.” Then he gave his report, beginning with an explanation of the cat’s anatomy. The biology students immediately stopped him, saying they already knew all that. “Oh,” he replied, “you do? Then no wonder I can catch up with you so fast after you’ve had four years of biology.” As he wrote, “They had spent all their time memorizing stuff like that, when it could be looked up in fifteen minutes.”

It is frustrating and confusing at first, but everything eventually clicks. The trick is to not stop until you find the answer. It is far easier to do that now with Google, Wikipedia, or YouTube and I love being able to take control of my learning and not have to pay or wait for others to teach me.

In case you think my family is unique somehow in being able to do this, it is simply not true. Motivation + Resources is all that is necessary.

Tech Support:
If you want to learn any new technology there are three pieces of advice I would give you.

1) Think like a computer (or at least a programmer): The way we use technology was developed a long time ago by a few individuals and organizations. I am talking about file folders, windows, mice, and all that we take for granted. It could have been developed many different ways but this is the system we have. Jaron Lanier does a great job of talking about this system in his book You Are Not a Gadget.

If you can train yourself to think like a computer programmer or a computer itself, then you can figure out anything. Can't find the command you want? Look around and ask yourself what possible places it could be. This takes practice but can be done and leads me to my next piece of advice.

2) Play with the technology: Explore it, try things out. If you are using working with software you can almost always hit the undo button. My Mom was always calling me for help over the phone, but one day her tech support calls stopped coming. I eventually called and asked her, are you having any technical issues? She said yes, but she had figured them out herself!

The turning point for her was, "realizing that I could experiment and try things without breaking the computer". Now her and I talk all the time about cool things she is discovering in technology. All because she decided to be adventurous.

Keep in mind you will make mistakes so save anything important.

3) GIYF: This acronym is not mine but I think of it when people send me a question, and then 10 seconds later I send them the exact answer back. They are amazed! How could I know the answer to so many questions? Quite simply...I don't. Google Is Your Friend is a Internet slogan stating, if you don't know the answer, see if someone online has already asked and received the answer.

Another famous Internet acronym is GIGO. Which stands for Garbage In Garbage Out. If you don't search correctly, you will not get the answer you want. It might be out there but called something else. I always liken this to how telephone books still use the term Apparel instead of Clothes. Here are Google's suggestions on how to effectively search, and if you get the hang of those try these powerful search tricks.

Have you tried these ideas or something similar to learn something new? Post a comment and share it with us. What do you do to solve your technology issues?

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