Brad Keywell

5 Tools to Learn How to Learn

It’s been said that teaching is the art of awakening the natural curiosity of the mind. 

But how to teach best, and what lessons are the most valuable? Winston Churchill said “I am always ready to learn although I do not always like being taught.”

Which brings to mind the beautiful quote by Antoine de Saint-Exupery, author of The Little Prince: “If you want to build a ship, don’t drum up people together to collect wood and don’t assign them tasks and work, but rather teach them to long for the endless immensity of the sea.”

One of the most impactful things you can teach another person is how to learn.

I was a freshman, it was 1988, and my friend Rob invited me to get lunch with him so that he could teach me how to read The Wall Street Journal. He offered to teach me how to learn.

I had recently joined a fraternity where I met Rob, a soon-to-be-graduating senior. He always seemed to be carrying a WSJ. While I forgot the specific question I asked him, I can still hear his answer – “Let’s get lunch together and I’ll teach you how to read the Wall Street Journal – someone once taught it to me, so it’s my turn to teach you.” It was one of the most generous and sincere offers I’d ever received — an offer from a fellow student, an ‘elder,’ offering me his most precious gift (i.e. his time) to teach me how to learn.

It was my first experience of studying not what someone knows, but rather how they learn. It was education at its finest – one person ‘paying it forward’ by equipping another with tools. Tools to gain an understanding, to find material to augment understanding, and to discover ever-increasing paths of investigation to challenge and refine and improve understanding.

Off we went to The Brown Jug, ordered pizza, and covered the entire table with sprawled-out pages of the WSJ. Rob started with an explanation of each section and its purpose. Then we dove in — how to use the What’s News column to frame the day’s news, guidance on which articles are worth reading versus scanning, explanation of the dense stock tables, and musings on the bias of each editorial writer.

He remembered what it was like being a freshman, and he taught me how to mature as one. He spoke to me like an adult, and in doing so he helped me become one.

I deeply appreciate people who are willing to share with me their secrets of learning – what they read (or listen to, or watch), how they consume it, and the tools and tricks they’ve developed to empower their capacity to absorb both content and context. Which is why, on that day thirty-two years ago, I solidified with certainty my definition of ‘Teacher’ – someone who (in the midst of telling you what they know) explains to you the tools and tricks that led to them knowing what they know.

In the spirit of sharing some of the tricks and tools of how I learn, I offer these five tips (in no particular order):
  1. Search not only Google, but also Google Scholar, Google Books, SlideShare, Microsoft Academic, BASE, Wolfram Alpha, and more (these are just a few of the interesting search platforms built for curiosity rather than for advertisers!).
  2. Add “pdf” to your google search term, as it often reveals published papers, academic journals, and polished tools that are more relevant than general search results (plus, they are ready to be printed!).
  3. Read as many newspapers and magazines as blogs possible. I prefer reading old-fashioned newspapers (i.e. on paper!), but any form will do.  On most days, I read the Financial Times, Wall Street Journal, New York Times, and also the local paper wherever I am. In terms of magazines, my favorites for learning are The Economist, Bloomberg Businessweek, Fortune, Forbes, The New Yorker, Wired, FastCompany, Popular Science, Harvard Business Review, MIT Technology Review, The Atlantic, Discover, and Mental Floss.  If you want to consume these magazines online, Texture has created a convenient rolled-up conglomeration of all magazines that is easy to consume on an iPad.  For blogs, Medium is a great way to discover great stories and writers, and Flipboard is the tool I use to organize blogs on the diverse topics that I find interesting into one easy-to-read stream of posts.
  4. Pick up the phone and call academics and/or experts who specialize in the subject you are investigating – those who publish are passionate and active in their practice/research, and if you are similarly passionate about the topic it will likely be a fun conversation for both of you.
  5. Go past page two! The statistics are revealing of the laziness of most learners – only 6% of people even look at page two of a search result and less than 1% of people click on any search result past page two. And even on the first page of search results, less than 2% of people click on any result past the first five. My suggestion is that you distinguish yourself by demonstrating your tenacious curiosity and searching deep into the results – those hinterlands are where I’ve gained so much knowledge and perspective!


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© Brad Keywell 2021