There are two questions people ask me all the time. I’m glad they do. It shows that maybe I’ve stirred something in them. They ask me “How do you stay current?” and “How do you read so much and so widely?”
The fact is that today we have to know more than human beings ever have—just to survive, much less thrive. I’m sure you’ve heard this fact: the amount of knowledge in the world doubles every three years. You can feel this even if you didn’t know it. You realize that if you don’t stay up to speed in your field, you’ll wake up one morning and find that you’re behind. Way behind. You’ll hear the clock of obsolescence devouring everything you learned to get your diploma or degree.
The solution to all this is actually pretty simple. We have to teach ourselves. We have to learn the skills of self-education. Yet if we don’t relax, develop a plan and commit to it over the long haul, we’ll be ruled by fear and we’ll spend time trying to catch up that we ought to spend on the essential matters of life—God, family, romance, and whatever else we are called to pursue. What we need then, are methods, tactics really, in the battle to learn.
I certainly have not mastered all this. I have, though, learned some helpful tactics. Here are a few of them, in this first of a series on learning how to learn.
- Keep it Raw: Everyday, I need data coming to me in distilled form. I need it raw and fast. I know that somewhere someone specializes in taking vast amounts of information and condensing into its most concise form so others can master it quickly. I hunt for people like this. I subscribe to services offered by people like this. I cut and cancel fluff. I keep concise and useful. For example, I get two newsletters everyday in my email box. They tell me much of the raw data I need to know about current politics. They are Politico’s “Playbook” (www.politico.com/playbook) and “Morning Score” (www.politico.com/morningscore). These are insider newsletters that provide statistics, analysis and links to a wealth of cutting edge articles and speeches. Now, I already have advanced degrees in political science, like you have training for your field. I don’t need someone to interpret Aristotle’s Politics for me. I need hard data. I read these newsletters because they are tight, current and worth it.
- Use Ingenious Apps: I read almost nothing online. I read almost nothing friends and experts send me when they send it. I read everything of this kind in an app and at a time I specifically set aside for this kind of reading. My favorite app for this is Instapaper. It allows me to read every kind of digital text stripped of pages and advertising and in a font and background I prefer. I think it is fair to say that I’ve doubled or maybe tripled my absorption of information because, first, I no longer read new material right when it comes to me and distracts me from other tasks, and, second, I read this material stripped of everything that hinders intake. Instapaper also allows me to read all of this material offline. Once I’ve read an article or blog, I can delete it, share it or send it to a folder of similar information.
- Use Zite: I do not read major magazines, journals and newspapers. I read a news journal of my own design called Zite. With this app, I choose from a pre-set list of broad categories like “politics” or “health.” I can also create unique categories like “public speaking” or “reading.” Zite finds articles that fit my categories and imports them into an elegant-looking magazine format. Then, once I begin reading in each of these sections, Zite lets me fine-tune. I can respond to each article, indicating whether I like it or not, whether I want to see more from that author or publication, whether I want to read more about two of the six topics in the article or whether I never want to see anything from this author or publication again. This means, for example, that I can turn my Health section toward racquetball and nutrition or that I can turn my Public Speaking section toward the technology of speeches rather than the language of speeches. I can get as sophisticated or as simple as I want to about theology, history, or science. I can rate and share, even store, everything I read.
- Join a Team of Learners: Hear this: You simply cannot learn all you need to learn alone. You need a team of scanners, thinkers and sharers in your fields. I have this. I have a gang of historians, lawyers, theologians, prophets, politicians and just plain back-bedroom geeks who are constantly reading, sharing and making their case. I do the same. We read. We learn. We share. We contend. We serve each other. This process streamlines. It condenses. It makes us all better, and brings us a huge amount of information we would probably never see otherwise.
- Don’t Just Read: I admit it. Listening isn’t my strong game. I’m very visual. I tell my family if I’m not looking at you, I’m not listening to you. However, I’ve begun working to increase my channels of information. I’ve begun realizing how much more I might learn, for example, by listening to podcasts and books on tape and the like. I live part of the year in Washington D.C. and I walk miles—hundreds of them. It is the perfect time for listening to an incisive podcast or a speech by a leading expert describing what’s about to happen in six months. I’m pushing against the habit of years in this, but I may end up doubling again the amount of information I take in. It’s worth it, then, not to depend exclusively on one avenue of information into my mind.
- Read Books—E-Books: I love the feel of a hardback book in my hand. I love the smell and the texture of the pages and how I look at the cover art again and again as I read the book, seeing it differently each time. I will always read great books, “real” books and many books. Still, I’ve found that books worth reading in my fields of knowledge should be e-books. Why? Because I can make more rapid, more extensive notes. Because when I use Kindle books (though not iBooks) I can copy sections of text for my writing or video presentations. Because I can do word searches in e-books. Because I can read any Kindle e-book on any of my devices—my laptop on a plane, my cell phone when a friend is late for lunch. Because when I’m done with a book, it lives in the “cloud” but is always ready for use without taking up space in my home. Simply put, e-books cost less, I learn more, I can mark them up more usefully, I can use them for reference more readily, and they don’t clutter my life.