My Principles and Practices of Personal Education

One area of my life I struggled with for a long time is education. I love to learn but what I’ve been doing for a long time was far from systematic. I picked books at random. I mostly restricted myself to purely passive reading. I didn’t interact with other people that are interested in the same topic.

This is completely crazy - especially for a knowledge worker.

I’m quite systematic when it comes to nutrition and workouts. I plan, focus on the fundamentals, optimize regularly and my results are amazing. But when it came to education, I left everything to chance.

Everyone knows that it’s a horrible strategy to only go to the gym whenever you feel like it and then pick exercises, weights, and the number of sets randomly. People with such a random approach never make real progress.

And yet this was exactly what I did when it came to education.

I didn’t understand back then that a systematic approach to personal education is possible. Of course, it is! In retrospective insights like this always appear trivial.

In the following, I will summarize my current more systematic approach to personal education. It’s far from perfect and the following sections are primarily reminders for myself.

“The information we consume matters just as much as the food we put in our body. It affects our thinking, our behavior, how we understand our place in the world. And how we understand others.” — Evan Williams, Co-Founder of Twitter”

Keep a list of things you want to know more about

A good starting point is to think about all areas of your life (health, finance, relationships, career, …) that you want to improve. Take a look at your list of long-term goals. What could you learn to increase your chances of reaching them?

Examples: copywriting, entrepreneurship, weightlifting, social skills, …

But don’t just focus on topics that are obviously useful. Instead, also ask yourself: what topics do you feel naturally drawn to?

Examples: physics, the human condition, how the world works, …

The final list should be long. Don’t filter out anything. You’re the only one who will ever see this list, so be honest. And always update the list whenever a new topic sparks your interest.

Populate the list with resources

Whenever someone whose opinion you value recommends something (e.g. on Twitter, in a blog article, etc.) that’s relevant to one of the topics you identified in the previous step, add a short note to your mega list. After a while, you’ll have a list of great resources for most topics you’re interested in.

The purpose of the whole exercise is twofold:

  • You should never read a book or article as soon as you stumble upon it. This will only distract you and sabotage your plan. This is similar to how you’ll mess up your workout plan if you try immediately each new machine the gym adds. Most of the time your desire is simply an instance of the shiny toy syndrome. If you find the book, article, or course still interesting after a while, chances are much higher that it’ll truly help you.
  • Saving resources in a well-defined list will free up mental resources. You’ll always be able to find them again, so there is no need to keep thinking about them.

It’s important to not just jot down the name of the book/article/course but also who recommended it and in which context the recommendation appeared. There are two good reasons for doing this:

Enthusiasm is contagious. So if you save the enthusiastic words someone used to recommend a resource, you’ll be more motivated to use it. You’ll automatically compile a list of people who are interested in the same topics.

Always focus on three topics at a time

To get started, pick three topics from your list that you want to focus on.

If you focus on too many topics at once, you won’t make sufficient progress to stay motivated.

But it’s also not ideal to focus on just one topic at a time. If you have multiple topics to choose from, chances are much higher that you’ll feel highly motivated to continue. Additionally, you’ll be able to discover novel connections between different topics.

I’ve found that three topics is a magic compromise between making sufficient progress and having a large enough menu to choose from at any time.

Formulate desired outcomes

For each topic you picked, try to formulate one sentences that describes what you hope to achieve by learning more about it.

  • “I hope that I’ll be able to move beyond my current plateau and finally start making progress in the gym again.”
  • “I want to get better at communicating my ideas to attract a larger audience.”
  • “I want to earn more money to become independent enough to work on projects I deeply care about.”
  • “I want to understand how the universe works since this will allow me to understand my own place in the grand scheme of things.”

Do your research

Once you’ve chosen three topics and formulated desired outcomes, it’s time to think about how you want to approach them. An important factor is how much you already know about it.

If you’re a total beginner try to find a way to get an overview as quickly as possible. Don’t commit to some long, technical book immediately. The fundamentals of almost any topic can be taught in around 100 pages. There is at least one amazing beginner book for any topic. Your first task is to find it and read it. (Alternatively, pick a course or article. I personally prefer books since they allow me to move through the material on my own pace and I can read them far away from all distractions.)

Have a look at the resources you saved in your list. But use them primarily as a starting point. Check which books you get recommended when you search for the titles of the books on the list on Amazon or Goodreads. Read the reviews and try to find which book might be a good fit for you.

Once you’ve found a book, try reading the first pages (e.g. using Google Books) and determine if it lives up to the hype. If it does, buy it and read it. If it doesn’t, rinse and repeat.

Similar strategies work if you’re already at an intermediate or more advanced level. But at this stage you probably already know what you want to focus on next and it’s perfectly fine to focus on longer, more technical books.

At the beginner level, it’s usually a good idea to focus on a single book. At later stages, you’ll have to jump between many sources to find answers to your questions.

Produce deliverables

Understanding requires effort and passive reading is rarely effective.

Effective learning requires that you constantly ask yourself:

  • What does it mean?
  • How does it connect to … ?
  • What is the difference between … ?
  • What is it similar to?

The best way to make sure you’re constantly running these internal programs is to focus on deliverables or real-world projects.

Real-world projects are, of course, the best option but not always possible. For example, the best way to learn about entrepreneurship is to start a company. The best way to learn about weightlifting is by competing at a championship. If you learn something while simultaneously focusing on a real-world project, you’ll always be able to apply what you learn and read more deliberately. But these kinds of projects require a lot of time and resources and deliverables are often a good substitute.

Examples for deliverables are:

  • a tweet (or a short note),
  • a blog post (or an evergreen note),
  • a podcast episode,
  • a book.

There’s no need to decide at the beginning what kind of deliverable you’ll produce. What matters is that it’s always clear that you do something with the things you learn. Only then you can make sure that you won’t slip into a purely passive reading mode.

Start small by formulating a tweet that encapsulates an insight you got from the book/article/course. Once insights start to accumulate, write a blog post or record a podcast episode. Once blog posts (or podcast episodes) start to accumulate, write a book. (Books can and should be short.) You don’t need to write a book on every topic you focus on. But if find yourself drawn to a particular topic for many months, it’s probably a good idea to write one. The book publishing process forces you to polish and revisit your thoughts which, in turn, will produce novel insights and deepen your understanding.

In any case, make sure that you don’t include quotes in your deliverables. Say it in your own words and include references where appropriate. https://sivers.org/dq

In weightlifting the key metric that decides whether or not you’re making progress is the number of hard sets. Analogously, when it comes to education, it’s the number of deliverables (or real-world projects)that keep you accountable.

A popular alternative to deliverables are artificial homework like exercises but I don’t find them effective or enjoyable.

Make studying a habit

Make it a habit to learn. The best way to do this is to have predetermined time blocks that are dedicated solely to reading, pondering, learning and writing. The length of the time blocks doesn’t matter. (One hour per day works great for me.) Far more important is that you do it regularly.

Learn with the garage door open

One of the biggest challenges in self-education is accountability. A great way to add accountability is by organizing meetings with a small group of like-minded people to talk about your learnings and progress.

An alternative is to keep a public log of the things you’re reading and your learning goals.

Swap topics and resources deliberately

Don’t become a prisoner of your plan. If you don’t like a book, stop reading it and search for a better one. If you’re no longer interested in a topic, swap it for a different topic.

The most important factor in any system is adherence. A plan that is optimal from an objective point of view is useless if you don’t stick to it. So make sure, you’re always enjoying what you’re doing.

“I cannot remember the books I’ve read any more than the meals I have eaten; even so, they have made me.” - Ralph Waldo Emerson

Written on July 22, 2020
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