“If you get easily bored, it means that your BS detector is functioning properly; if you forget (some) things, it means that your mind knows how to filter; and if you feel sadness, it means that you are human.”
— Nassim Taleb
Being great at learning is a powerful skill, perhaps the most powerful of them all. It opens up the door to making every other kind of life achievement possible. If you’re able to learn new things quickly and effectively, then any new challenge or goal you wish to tackle can eventually be accomplished.
There’s certainly been a lot of great research on general techniques of how to learn effectively, especially in the field of cognitive psychology. But those are all low-level tactics, the kind of thing you might apply once you already found out what to do, and are looking to optimize your learning experience.
Knowing what to learn is just as important as knowing how. Doing it well saves you time, allowing you to focus on the things which are most useful in making you successful.
What we need is an overarching strategy, one that is just as effective for finding out what to learn as it is for effectively learning it.
A fantastic strategy for learning was presented by none other than Nassim Taleb, author of the book Antifragile: Things That Gain From Disorder. It’s simple: the most natural and effective learning strategy is to avoid boredom.
Running away from being bored
Taleb tells an insightful story of how he first developed this strategy. He hated reading in school since he was forced to read in very specific books, in very specific subjects, assigned by his teachers.
The thing that saved him was when he started to pick out his own books from the local library on any subject that interested him. This led to his love for reading and thus a much more powerful learning experience.
"I figured out that whatever I selected myself I could read with more depth and more breadth — there was a match to my curiosity…The minute I was bored with a book or a subject I moved to another one, instead of giving up on reading altogether — when you are limited to the school material and you get bored, you have a tendency to give up and do nothing or play hooky out of discouragement.
The trick is to be bored with a specific book, rather than with the act of reading. So the number of pages absorbed could grow faster than otherwise. And you find gold, so to speak, effortlessly, just as in rational but undirected trial-and-error-based research. It is exactly like options, trial and error, not getting stuck, bifurcating when necessary but keeping a sense of broad freedom and opportunism. Trial and error is freedom. (I confess I still use that method at the time of this writing. Avoidance of boredom is the only worthy mode of action. Life otherwise is not worth living.)"
It is interesting to see how many people gravitate to seemingly lucrative things while never considering their own inherent desire to learn the subject, especially in school. For example, one may go to Medical School or Law School simply because the profession to which those schools lead pays far above the average salary.
Yet we certainly understand naturally the concept of interest playing a strong role in our ability to learn. If you love to learn new languages, then taking a few classes will seem fun and exciting. You’ll be more focused and willing to put in a lot more time into it, thus enhancing your learning. The opposite is quite obvious too: if you hate learning languages, then no number of classes, especially in an environment as mundane as the school classroom, will help you learn effectively.
If you want the absolute best learning experience, pick things to learn that you find most interesting. The sheer joy you get from learning that which interests you will open your mind to embedding it in memory more strongly. You are less likely to forget what you learned. Most importantly, you are more likely to want to learn even more.
At the same time, don’t be afraid to immediately drop anything that you’re not interested in. If you’re working on something and eventually become bored of it, spending even more time on it isn’t going to magically make you more interested. Your learning effectiveness will decrease with your loss of interest.
“For everything, use boredom instead of a clock, as a biological wristwatch”
Keep chasing the interesting
We’re often taught in school and by our parents to finish what we start. Yet it is often far more effective to just switch to doing something that you’re more interested in. Fighting your natural feelings and urges to avoid boredom isn’t helping you, it’s stifling your progress. There is no harm or shame in switching, especially since you’ll still be learning and making progress, just in a different subject.
Taleb also touches on that point of switching with his mention of “the trick is to be bored with a specific book, rather than with the act of reading.” It’s perfectly fine to switch the books you read, activities you do, the skills you practice, and even work you pursue. The only thing to keep in mind is to continue to work hard and stay focused on improving. As long as you’re learning, you’re still moving forward and at a much faster pace since you’re doing something you’re interested in.
Avoiding boredom is the most effective learning strategy because it is the most natural. You constantly gravitate to what you want to do, so that you’re learning in the fastest and most effective way possible at all times.
** All quotes in this article are from Nassim Taleb