How To Learn Faster

All engineers want to learn faster. Engineers in general need to stay up to date with the latest technologies and developments in their fields. Engineers are required to learn almost constantly, but we all suck at it. Here’s my view on why we suck at it, and some concrete ways to learn faster. Most of this is going to be from the context of engineers, but I think it can apply well to anyone who wants to learn faster.

 

Why Learning Is So Difficult

The first reason could apply to most people in general, not just engineers. The second and third reasons apply mostly to engineers.

 

Reason #1: Horrible Learning Habits

The American Education System sucks. It doesn’t teach you anything valuable, useful, or interesting. It forces you to slog through mind-numbingly boring, bullshit classes. You don’t learn any marketable skills, and you end up not giving a shit. Most of the teachers I’ve had are aware of how pointless their job is. So, they outright tell you everything you need to know to pass their exams and get a good grade.

 

Since there’s almost no effort or skill required to get a good grade, students enter a state of extremely passive mental effort. Their critical thinking skills generally go to absolute shit. Learning to graduates of the American Education System is memorizing a series of facts that they don’t really understand and then regurgitate them on written exams to get a good grade.

 

Let’s compare mental training to physical exercise. Graduates of the American Education System have become the mental equivalent of a lazy couch potato who plays Xbox and Minecraft all day on a diet of mostly pizza, Chinese food, Doritos, and Mountain Dew.

 

The problem is that we carry these bad learning habits with us into adulthood. We never learn how to acquire and retain knowledge, and we likely end up doing asinine things like not asking questions. We try to learn EVERYTHING about a particular subject or technology by going down a list. None of those things have any context or seem connected, so we end up not really learning any of it. We’re basically doing that old “memorize and regurgitate” bullshit again. We’re also easily distracted. This goes back to the mental zoning out we did back in school.

 

Reason # 2: Engineers Can’t Teach For Shit

Engineers are generally horrible at teaching, with very few exceptions. They usually hate teaching newbie engineers, seeing it as a waste of time and effort that could be spent on projects. Consequently, they’re not going to teach you effectively. They’ll focus too much on one or two aspects that seem important to them, but neglect covering the whole picture. You lack context for how everything is all connected.

 

Also, these more experienced engineers will usually take over on a project and do most of the work. This is because they genuinely enjoy working on projects, and they’re able to finish the project faster than you. But, you’re missing out on valuable, educational project work.

 

Second reason, a lot of engineers try too hard to seem smart. They talk way too fast to make themselves sound smarter, to make you feel dumber because you have a hard time understanding them, and to hide any dumbassery they might accidentally say. These kinds of engineers enjoy lording their superior technical skills and intellect over others. Fuck teaching you. If anything, they’re going to actively keep you ignorant and in-the-dark. They’ll discourage and belittle you constantly, and they may even outright teach you incorrect information. They’ll say it’s to help you learn from your mistakes. This might sometimes be true, but it’s usually just to mess with you and make you feel incompetent.

 

I talk more about how to work with these kinds of engineers in another blog post.

 

Third, a lot of engineers I’ve met come from families of engineers. So, they’ve basically been learning engineering and working on projects their whole life under the tutelage of a family member who wants to see them learn and succeed. They’ve been groomed to become engineers.

 

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not insulting anyone or dismissing these engineers’ accomplishments and knowledge. Engineering is still difficult even with that high quality, lifelong instruction.

 

But the fact still remains. Their technical knowledge comes so naturally to them, they have a hard time teaching others. They just don’t understand what it’s like to not know anything. They don’t know how to structure a lesson plan to help you get the most out of it.

 

Reason #3: It’s Generally Hard To Self-Teach

Reason #2 wouldn’t be so bad if you could teach yourself a lot of what you need to know. In fact, a lot of professors will tell you that you’ll need to self-teach.

 

Here’s the problem:

 

Engineering is learned through hands-on project work. That’s why most classes have a lab component.  A classroom-style learning method is only useful for a few things, like learning a CAD/CAE (Computer-Aided Design/Computer-Aided Engineering) software or going over a few very basic equations or concepts.

 

Self-teaching online through videos or courses is essentially the same as classroom-style learning, and it’ll only really help you with learning new CAD/CAE-related software and learning these concepts and equations. You won’t really be able to learn how to apply that knowledge to engineering work. Projects involve, among other things, using the engineering design process, being able to visualize and foresee potential problems in designs, how a design is going to be manufactured and implemented, and equipment procurement (knowing what vendors to seek for parts, getting the right parts that meet technical specs, etc.).

 

This doesn’t include soft skills of motivating other team members during stressful times, teaching other team members, learning new information, project management, and creating presentations for design reviews.

 

You can learn soft skills through books, like Dale Carnegie’s How to Win Friends & Influence People. But, the other skills can only really be learned through hands-on project work.

 

Commandments To Learn Faster

These “learn faster” methods can apply to people in general, not just engineers. Basically, we need to undo the shitty learning habits we developed in the K-12 education system, and stop letting bored, unmotivated, incompetent, and/or sadistic teachers jerk us around.

 

Commandment #1: Problem-By-Problem Basis

Learn things on a problem-by-problem basis. The biggest issue I’ve seen from teachers and professors at colleges is that they teach very specific things that you have absolutely no context for.

 

Let’s take Circuits class as an example. You’re learning about Ohm’s Law, resistors, capacitors, etc. But, you won’t really learn how to build a real electric circuit. You certainly won’t know how to apply everything you learned to making projects and solving problems. You won’t learn anything about soldering wire connections, heat shrink to wrap around soldered connections, terminal blocks and perfboards to make multiple wire connections, or the importance of fusible links and circuit breakers.

 

The ideal learning path would be to have you build something, it could be making a simple circuit to turn on a light bulb, then cover Ohm’s Law. You would build progressively more complex and intricate circuits, and you’ll learn about capacitors, resistors, and inductors when you need to use them. You’ll learn something once you need to know about it, on a problem-by-problem basis. You’ll have a lot more context for what you’re learning and how it’s all related, so you’re more likely to give a shit and not zone out.

 

Also, you get to do hands-on project work, the most effective way to learn engineering. The engineers from “Reason #2” section who were taught by engineer family members almost certainly learned what they know this way.

 

Learn things, especially in the classroom-style, only when you need to learn them. Learn on a problem-by-problem basis.

 

Commandment #2: Avoid Information Overload

Avoid information overload like a truck full of month-old horse manure. This is closely related the first commandment: learn on a problem-by-problem basis. The first commandment also helps you avoid information overload.

 

Information overload kills productivity and accomplishment. It, among other things, causes procrastination and burnout. Procrastination is the act of continually delaying work on a task or problem. You do it when you’re overwhelmed by a task or problem. You unintentionally try to avoid it by continually delaying it.

 

There’s no real method to avoid information overload. It’s more like a habit. You need to develop the habit that you’re going to ignore any and all information unrelated to solving the problem in front of you. So this means that you’re not going online and you’re not reading Facebook posts, tweets, or watching unrelated YouTube videos. You’re not going to get distracted.

 

Getting too distracted and spending hours on social media or just consuming a bunch of unrelated bullshit when you should be working on your task is essentially like running on a treadmill. You’re exerting all this mental effort, reading shit online, watching YouTube videos, writing tweets and Facebook posts, but you’re not making any progress on your task.

 

Focus solely on information that will help you solve the problem in front of you. Ignore everything else. Don’t get distracted.

 

Commandment #3: Take Control of Your Learning

Like I said, engineers can’t teach worth shit, and most teachers can’t teach either. If you want to learn anything, you’re going to have to take control of the lesson. Bare minimum, you should be actively engaged with the lesson and asking lots of questions. Don’t passively listen to your uninterested teacher drone on about shit that you don’t understand and have no context for. Be involved in the lesson.

 

Always paraphrase what your teacher says to make sure you understood it.

 

And again, ask lots of questions.

 

You may not have understood everything. But unless you ask questions to show how and where you’re confused, the instructor will assume that they can move on. Asking lots of questions also helps the instructor. They can structure their lesson around questions, instead of guessing what topics they need to covered.

 

For engineers in particular:

 

The engineer teaching you shouldn’t be acting as a formal instructor. You should mostly be teaching yourself. You should be doing a lot of work on projects. The engineer is only there to answer questions and occasionally nudge you in the right direction.

 

This way, you get to do more hands-on project work, and the engineer has an easier time teaching you. You both benefit.

 

This isn’t the same as teaching yourself, since there’s still someone there helping you, but you should TREAT IT as teaching yourself.

 

Do You Need Passion To Learn Faster?

Passion is definitely helpful to learn faster. You’ll spend more time and effort on something if you’re passionate about it. But I think passion is overrated, and you definitely don’t need it to learn faster or be successful.

 

I talk more about this topic in another blog post that I’ve linked to here.

 

Basically, discipline and a high level of productivity trump passion. I’ve seen guys in school who were passionate as all hell about engineering. They spend all their free time working on engineering projects. They have immense technical knowledge and have done internships since their freshman year. And, they fuck up. They did so shit in their classes they needed a whole extra year to graduate. The companies they did internships for aren’t going to reserve a job opening for them

 

Guys who are doing engineering as a job, not as a passion? If they managed to put in the time and effort, they still got internship experience and a respectable pool of knowledge. They managed to graduate in four years with a job lined up before putting on the cap and gown.

 

Passion is overrated. Discipline and a high level of productivity are at least a million times better, and will lead to greater success.

 

Final Words

Overall, I don’t see all of the above info. as ways to learn faster. I see it as learning the way we’re meant to learn. K-12 schooling is responsible for completely gimping us with bad learning habits. To learn as you were meant to learn, it’s important to undo those 13 years of utter brain cell annihilation.

 

Learn only what you need to solve the current problem in front of you, ignore anything not related to helping you accomplish your task, be actively involved in your lessons, and passion is overrated.

 

All right, that’s the end. I know I’ve been MIA for awhile. I started developing a pretty serious caffeine addiction, and I wanted to spend the entirety of last week dealing with that. It was utter hell: low energy, absolutely no motivation, headaches, just general lifelessness. But, I beat it.

 

Caffeine addiction might be something a lot of you guys are dealing with. So, I’ll write a blog post on overcoming it. Keep on the look out for that within the next few days. And if you haven’t already, sign up for my free newsletter to stay up to date on the latest content.

 

All the best,

Brandon

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