Having a software engineering background and currently working as a data scientist, I’m a lifelong learner. During my university years, I always thought that my learning skills needed to be improved, but I must admit that I never did anything to make it happen. I was an above-average student, however, I always had the feeling that I needed to do more than others to get similar results.
Having an eight-hour workday, I struggled to keep up with my learning (and consequently career) goals. Then, I realized that I should take advantage of the lockdown to solve this problem, it gave me the time I needed to take a break on my goals so that I can achieve them faster.
I started by doing some research about books on learning, reading some blog posts, and checking their ratings and reviews at Amazon and Goodreads. This got me a list of three books. In my opinion, they are going to give you all the insights needed to change the way you learn.
A Mind For Numbers, by Barbara Oakley
This is the book I wish I had read before I went to high school, it just goes straight to the point!
The author’s ability to write clearly and with a good sense of humor is just a plus to all the useful techniques this book provides. Although a few tips are obvious after reading about them, I believe that most of us don’t apply them while studying.
Besides the learning techniques, Barbara Oakley can truly boost your motivation! She explains that everybody can learn math and science, using herself as an example since she changed from linguistics to engineering. Note that these techniques can be used not only in math and science but in every subject.
You get introduced to the focused and diffuse modes of the brain, and how you must intertwine them to ease the struggles of figuring out new ideas and solving problems. This approach, together with other techniques described in the book like recall, deliberate practice, and chunking might completely change how you learn. How to fight procrastination, improve your memory, and test-taking tips are subjects also covered in “A Mind For Numbers”.
If you prefer MOOCs to books, there is a Coursera course based on this book.
Moonwalking with Einstein, by Joshua Foer
“Moonwalking with Einstein” is a 3-in-1. Joshua Foer narrates his exciting story, how he became the 2006 U.S.A Memory Champion, which he thought would be impossible since he was the kind of person who couldn’t even remember birthdays and phone numbers. To do that, the author surrounded himself with Grand Masters, like Tony Buzan, Ed Cooke, and Lukas Amsüss. Foer discloses in this book some delicious parts of conversations with them.
Being a journalist, he carried out extensive research to realize if our memories can be trained from zero to hero, or if memory masters are gifted people. He describes several interesting experiments made by researchers who study human memory and tells two intriguing stories: “The man who remembered too much” and “The most forgetful man in the world”. At the same time, Foer gives further explanations on how the brain works, why we can remember, and why we forget things.
The icing in the cake is the memorization techniques outlined, being the “memory palace” the most relevant (which is also depicted in “A Mind for Numbers”, but “Moonwalking with Einstein” gives an in-depth explanation and provides several examples to put it in practice).
The Art of Learning, by Josh Waitzkin
I would say that this is more a mind-changing read than teachings on learning or memory. Waitzkin, a former chess prodigy and a martial arts champion, unveils how to develop the perfect mindset to achieve success and fulfillment. It is very entertaining, both journeys (chess and martial arts) are narrated in a manner that you just won’t want to put the book down.
From my point of view, this paragraph summarizes very well what this book is going to teach you:
“In performance training, first we learn to flow with whatever comes. Then we learn to use whatever comes to our advantage. Finally, we learn to be completely self-sufficient and create our own earthquakes, so our mental process feeds itself explosive inspirations without the need for outside stimulus.”
What does this really mean? You need to become at peace with what you can’t control, actually, you must figure out how to use those variables to your advantage. Then, you must give yourself to the learning process, you have to put your ego aside and face every mistake as an opportunity for growth instead of a crisis. Enjoying the process is critical, you must not aim at the results, they will come if you focus on the process. Lastly, you need to increasingly put yourself under pressure in order to improve, to not be stuck at a plateau.
Sure you will get some learning methods, deliberate practice, spaced repetition, and chunking for example, but what really makes this book different from the others are teachings like how to cope with noise and stress when you need to concentrate. Josh Waitzkin also provides you with a framework to get into the zone whenever you want.
If you want to get a wide set of techniques to improve your learning, A Mind for Numbers is the book you should read. If you need to improve your memory, give Moonwalking with Einstein a chance. The Art of Learning is a must-read if you wish to develop the right mindset to become a lifelong learner and a top performer.
For further explanations on the learning and memory techniques outlined here see this follow-up.
Disclosure: I am a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for me to earn fees by linking to Amazon.com and affiliated sites. I only recommend these books because I really think they are valuable readings. At no additional cost to you, I might earn a small commission. Thank you!
Previously published on medium
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