How to Learn the Most Important Academic Skill

In last week’s post I argued the formula for intellectual success is QEMCI (Quickly and Effectively Master Complicated Information). In a world of unmerciful change the constant reality is disruption. Disruption causes problems, and problems need solutions. The people who are able to bring practical intelligence to these problems are the people who will become problem solvers. A key trait of practical intelligence is the ability to quickly learn new things. This brings us to the question. How does one go about learning how to quickly and effectively master complicated information? Like most things it starts with practice.

Several years ago I was talking to a student who had earned his college degree through a process that at the time we referred to as Accelerated Distance Learning (ADL). I had just recently started working for a company that had pioneered ADL (important note: I still work for that company and ADL had grown into a very sophisticated, robust, and comprehensive learning system. Check it out here). The student’s name was Aaron and I was very interested in hearing about his educational experience.

What was Hardest?

To begin with I asked him, “What was hardest and most difficult part of earning your degree?” At the time ADL depended heavily on competency based exams to earn college credit. Consequently there was a large amount of independent study and learning that was required. Without hesitation Aaron said that the hardest part of his experience was taking and passing the calculus exams. He told me that he had to basically teach himself calculus. To do that he had to find and use multiple resources from his local library and from information he found online. When he got completely stuck he asked for help from a man from his church who was an engineer who helped him with some tutoring in tough places. Finally, after weeks and countless hours of studying, frustration, hard work, and ultimately understanding, Aaron took and passed his calculus exams and ultimately earned his degree in computer science.

What was the Best?

I was impressed. Teaching yourself calculus seemed like a herculean and perhaps heroic task, one that I would find to be almost impossible. I asked my follow up question, “Aaron, what was the best thing about earning your degree this way?” Instantly Aaron broke into a huge grin and said emphatically, “Teaching myself calculus! It was the hardest thing I have ever done, but it left me completely convinced that I can learn absolutely anything I need to learn to do anything I will ever need to do. I really think nothing can stop me because I can figure out anything!

Learning QEMCI means learning how to learn. Like any other worthwhile skill it takes practice. I often find myself in conversations with a student where he or she tells me about how frustrating and stupid their class on such and such a subject was. Usually the story is about how the material was difficult and worst of all the class wasn’t even in their major and they will never use that information again.  

I agree that it is unlikely they will use the information again. In fact, I think it is highly likely that that you will directly use less than 5% of the actual information you learn in your college classes on anything related to the work you do after college. I think it is probable that you will use 0% (as in none) of the actual information you learn from the classes that are the most difficult for you. If you are not a math person I think it is highly likely that you will never, ever need to use algebra or calculus for anything for the rest of your life. If you find yourself needing to use algebra or calculus for something you will find someone else to do it for you. You need to learn algebra and calculus anyway.

The Real Value

Why!? Because it isn’t the actual information that you learn in the class that is valuable. What is valuable is the process and the learning skills you learn in learning the information. Learning algebra if you aren’t a math person isn’t valuable because you learn how to figure out mathematical formulas, it’s valuable because it teaches you how to learn something that is difficult. The skill that is lasting and transferable is the skill of learning. The discipline, process, practice, and effort that you learn from learning the subject is the gold that you are mining for.

If you think that you are learning algebra merely to learn algebra to pass a test and earn credit with information that you will never need to use again then algebra class is a grind and a persecution. On the other hand if you approach algebra knowing that learning this difficult thing and training your mind to work in a way that is unusual and difficult for you will result in you making exponential gains in mastering QEMCI, a skill that is the key intellectual skill that you will need for the rest of your life, then that changes everything.

That perspective change can begin to open the door to the second critical skill need to master QEMCI, and that is developing a love of learning. Master musicians are master musicians because they practice all the time. They practice all the time because they love music. They love playing their instrument. If you want to become a master at QEMCI, which means you will become a master problem solver and a master at practical intelligence, you need to practice learning all the time. It is easier to practice learning all the time if you love to learn.

Natural Curiosity

How do you train yourself to love learning? You cultivate and indulge your natural curiosity. Your mind naturally asks questions and wonders about things. You can suppress this curiosity or you can indulge it. The more you indulge it the more you will ask questions, seek answers, and naturally practice learning.

When you find yourself curious or wondering about something pursue it! Do a quick web search and get an overview of the subject. Find a book or more to read on the subject. Then apply your new found knowledge by finding someone to talk to about it. Ideas and understanding are sharpened and honed by discussion.

When you make this pursuing of what makes you curious habitual you will find that you will make learning habitual. You will be practicing learning new things daily. Combine your natural learning talents with the skills acquired through learning difficult subjects through more formal learning environments such a school or work and the result will be mastery of QEMCI. Master QEMCI and you have mastered one of the critical skills for practical intelligence. Learn how to routinely employ and apply practical intelligence and you will become a world class problem solver. When you become a problem solver you become someone who is able to make a difference in your organization, your company, your community, your family, and your world.

Difference Making Learning

There’s an old proverb about how if you give a man a fish you will feed him for a day, but if you teach him to fish you will feed him for a lifetime. Teach a student calculus and he can solve calculus problems. Encourage him to teach himself calculus and he can learn any information he needs to solve any problem that he needs to solve.