One way to think about life I’ve always found helpful is to view it as a journey through places, relationships and time in search of meaning and purpose. And, as you’d expect, the meaning you find along with way comes from doing things that feel meaningful — building important relationships, creating important memories, and accomplishing important things.
Your definition of meaningful and important may be different than mine or the next person’s, but we’re working off the same starting formula.
And when it comes to finding and creating meaning in life, there are a few things more important than learning — study, education, and enriching your understanding.
We all want to reach goals faster. That’s why we teach ourselves to crawl, walk, run, swim, bike, drive, and maybe even fly.
We all want to challenge ourselves and do things we’ve never done before. So we observe, read, practice, sit through classes, and consult with trusted experts — all in an effort to grow in the ways that matter the most to us.
When you look at the most popular and shared articles from The New York Times, there’s a clear trend. After politics, tragedy, and disasters (and I suppose you could make a good argument that’s one and the same these days), the most popular stories are about self-improvement. How do we get better at love? How do we lose weight and eat healthier? Where should we travel to open our eyes to new experiences and cultures?
It’s in our nature to want to better ourselves and teach each other. And that quest, whether it’s achieving long-term career success or losing five pounds to look our best on our wedding day, starts with learning.
At the end of the day, only you can control and decide what’s meaningful to you. So as you journey in search of it, I can’t tell you what you should learn.
But I do want to see if I can help you prioritize how and where you should learn.
To me it starts with this simple learning model I call the “Learning Box”:
Allow me to explain.
I think it’s helpful to think about learning on two dimensions.
The first is big picture vs. details. Macro vs. micro.
What those mean should be pretty straightforward to you — I’m not deviating from their common definitions.
On the other learning dimension is engineering vs. abstraction. Quantitative systems like math and science vs. qualitative systems like philosophy and culture. Objective vs. subjective, or physical structures vs. mental structures, in a sense.
We can then use those dimensions to divide learning, expertise and skill into four areas:
1. Engineering detail. Understanding individual pieces and principles and how they work to create the full physical system. These are formulas, equations, building blocks, and other important technical concepts and components.
2. Engineering big picture. Seeing and understanding the complete physical system. Architecture, geometry and the Internet are all examples of these types of systems.
3. Abstract detail. Understanding the individual pieces and principles and how they work together to create the full system of ideas, concepts and symbols. Individual pieces of communication — a poem, a GIF, a tweet — could be considered abstract detail.
4. Abstract big picture. Envisioning and understanding a complete system of ideas. Personal meaning and fulfillment themselves are both abstract big picture examples.
While we all have our own natural strengths, weaknesses and biases — maybe you’re a “big ideas person” who struggles when it comes to detailed steps, or maybe you commonly find yourself obsessing over intricate features and facts — the best performers in any discipline tend to be well-rounded across all four areas.
For a concrete example, let’s say you want to learn to become a better cook.
If you think about the different parts of cooking, you can organize them into those four boxes. For example, understanding food science helps you understand the different physical, biological, and chemical aspects of food and how they fit together to produce flavor, texture, and color. That would fit in engineering big picture. By comparison, if you’re thinking about what the meal represents — is it a first date? a family dinner? what should the food and setting communicate and accomplish? — that’s abstract detail.
Here’s what a simple Learning Box for cooking might look like:
Any skill or discipline can be broken down and organized this way.
Ok, now how can we better apply this model to accelerate and improve our own learning?
What I like to do is follow this process:
Step 1 – Fill Out Your Learning Box
Whether you write it out on paper or just fill it out in your head, note the important things that belong in each of the four learning model categories for your chosen improvement area or subject.
When I wanted to teach myself how to play piano a few years ago, I used a model like this to outline the different elements and skills I’d need to learn, like this:
Step 2 – Grade Where You’re Starting From
Depending on how organized you are and how you like to learn, it can be helpful to give yourself a learning score.
Consider each box to be worth 10 points. There are four boxes so the full model has 40 points.
Rank yourself from 0 to 10 in each box based on your current knowledge and abilities. This can be entirely based on your gut feel; the actual number doesn’t really matter and there’s no need to apply a quantitative framework unless you want to. It’s not important per se what the difference between a 6 and a 7 is, what’s important is framing how far/big of a gap there is between where you feel you are now and what you’d consider to be a 10 (i.e., expert mastery). You can always come back and re-grade yourself as you learn.
Say I went through this exercise for learning how to play piano and came up with this. I know a fair bit about music, and I know some theory from playing violin and guitar as a kid, but I’m pretty out of practice and I’ve never touched a piano. I might grade myself like this:
Overall, I’m a 17 out of 40. I’ve got a ways to go, so I better get started.
Step 3 – Using Your Grades to Prioritize Where and What to Learn Next
Different approaches will work for different people — there’s no perfect answer here — but here are some ways you could use your learning grade to prioritize your immediate next steps.
Approach #1 – Start from a Point of Strength. If you want to build from a point of strength, pick your best area and try to push that up to an 8, 9 or a 10. This should be easiest because it will line up well with how you naturally think and learn best by building on your existing knowledge and expertise. This can be a good way to build initial learning momentum when you first start out before you go tackle a more challenging box.
Approach #2 – Challenge Your Weakness. The opposite approach is to pick your lowest score and prioritize that box first. This can be hard and discouraging at first because you’re intentionally attacking the weakest area of your learning balance. But, if you stick with it and make progress, it’s a great way to give yourself a more well-rounded overall foundation to work from. A big weakness or imbalance in your learning profile can really slow you down later in your learning journey if you fail to address it soon enough.
Both of these approaches are also good because they encourage focus and repetition in a narrower study area.
Approach #3 – Balanced Learning Roadmap. If you want a very structured approach to your learning prioritization, you can use the “balance” approach. Take your four scores:
1. Engineering detail: 4
2. Engineering big picture: 4
3. Abstract detail: 3
4. Abstract big picture: 6
For a total, as I mentioned previously, of 17 out of 40. 40 – 17 = 23, which is your “learning gap.”
10 – 4 for ‘engineering detail’ and ‘engineering big picture’ = 6 each. 6 is 26% of your total learning gap (6/23 = 26%). 10 – 3 for ‘abstract detail’ equals 7, which would be 30% of your total gap. And 10 – 6 for abstract big picture is the remaining 17% of the gap.
If you had 10 hours a week to focus on learning your new skill, you could get really precise and spend 3 hours of abstract detail, 2.5 hours each on engineering detail and engineering big picture, and two hours on abstract big picture, just by rounding those gap percentages and applying them to the total time you have. You could also weight the relative importance of the different boxes in the context of your overall goal — but don’t overthink this. It isn’t — and doesn’t need to be — an exact science.
Again, you can be as precise or as strict with yourself as you want, depending on how you learn best, but the “Balanced Learning Roadmap” approach can be helpful to prioritize if you don’t know where to start or you want to simultaneously tackle a lot of different improvement areas.
Another motivation technique you can use is to assign yourself time-based goals based on your Learning Box, then re-score yourself at the end of each one. I find 3 month, 6 month or 1 year goals particularly good for striking the right balance between “short enough to be clear and measurable” and “long enough to reach and see meaningful improvement steps.” By re-scoring yourself over time, you’ll be able to track your progress, as well as start to better understand your learning style and how quickly you learn in different areas of the Box.
Whatever you’re learning — and whichever Learning Box method you choose — it’s critical to learn through spaced, repetition over time. Many studies show that “repeated encounters with the material over time produces superior long-term learning, compared with repetitions that are massed together.”
Hopefully, if you’re someone looking for a little more simplicity and structure to apply to your personal improvement, you can use the Learning Box as a model to learn things easier and faster. I’ve personally found it helpful for me over the years, and I’d love to hear your thoughts and feedback on it.
Now go out there and learn something awesome 😊
p.s., here’s what I feel like I’ve really learned so far.