Structured learning is different to unstructured learning: The difference between structured and unstructured learning is in intentionality. With the former, the learning path is guided by pre-defined objectives. With the latter, there is generally no such explicit direction and occurs more naturally. There’s nothing inherently good nor bad with either form, but personally I favour structured learning for the simple reason that I enjoy it more knowing I’m working towards a larger objective. It’s probably why I enjoyed school and university so much.
Why structured learning becomes difficult after school: In high school, there are very clear learning paths charted out — whether it was higher education, a gap year, or an apprenticeship. There are guardrails in place to ensure you can achieve that next milestone. After school, however, this disappears. You’re in a job, and sure, you get want to get a better one. You can identify areas where you want to up-skill, but there’s just not that same structure in place. The burden shifts to the individual to drive such behaviours which is easier said than done.
My approach to structured learning: I think about structured learning as having three distinct phases. Discovery of new ideas, sense-making, and experimentation. Cycling through the three can take days or months, time generally doesn’t bound each phase.
- Discovery — this phase involves keeping an eye out for areas that warrant further exploration as I naturally move through life.
- Activity: walking through life with eyes wide open. Taking cues from work, hobbies, consumed media or literature. Noting down mistakes and successes and why or how they came to be etc.
- Outcome: generate a backlog of topic areas that I can allow myself to jump into, each tied to an objective i.e., where and how I can realise the value if I choose to spend the time learning a topic.
- Output: an ever-growing “list” of topics to explore, and what value there is in exploring them generally kept in any old note-taking app (I use Heptabase).
- Sense-making — the trigger for this phase is identifying a topic from the discovery “list” and deciding that I want to research and go deeper.
- Activity: consume as much content as I can surrounding the topic. I start by finding the thought leaders in the space and queue up podcast episodes from them to kickstart things. Any further content will generally emerge as suggested further reading from these podcasts.
- Outcome: build a strong POV on the topic area and map out the most popular / effective mental models.
- Output: a visual knowledge map on Heptabase e.g., map for key consulting skills. In addition, I keep track of all of the major sources of literature I consume e.g., books on Goodreads, written content on Glasp.
- Experimentation —
- Activity: I make an attempt to put into practice what I’ve learnt (if applicable) and document the learnings in doing so along the way.
- Outcome: practice i.e., putting in the reps. “Knowing” something is not the same as internalising it, I aspire to achieve the latter in this phase.
- Output: artefacts on my public channels e.g., tweets or threads on Twitter, articles or visuals on this blog (what you’re reading here, now, is an example of such an artefact).
Structure in the form of “with the garage door up”: If I were to approach learning like I did in school, it would involve working within myself and for myself and I wouldn’t get very far. Internal motivation would peter out in the absence of formal structure i.e., school had exams and the promise of getting into university or getting a job was a powerful motivator. My hypothesis is that replacing institutional oversight with the public record of the internet would encourage similar behaviour. Something that’s proven true the last couple of years.
- I don’t no longer have exams, but I’ve built an expectation within myself to produce artefacts online as I go about learning and doing things.
Why I build structured learning into my day-to-day life: I like going down rabbit holes, like many of you reading this too I imagine. Every time I struggle to process most (if not all) the new novel ideas I come across. My chosen remedy is to be thoughtful and document as much as is possible (while still being convenient) the literature (I use this term loosely to encapsulate any piece of content that exists in the wilds of the internet). Doing so enables me to:
- Think more thoughtfully about why I am spending my time investigating a specific area.
- Treat each trigger for documentation as an opportunity to process what it is I took away from a piece of literature.
- Feel overjoyed knowing that I am leaving breadcrumbs that others may find value in long after I move on from learning of a topic area.
- Make a (small) contribution towards mapping and making sense of the vast wilds of the internet.
Platforms I use to leave a trail of artefacts: Intentionally sharing my learning and progress in public spaces is my antidote to the post-school learning motivation challenge. I use various platforms to track the progress I make during the learning cycles
- If I read a book, I shall log it on Goodreads.
- If I listen to a memorable podcast, I’ll shelve it to one of my many public podcast playlists.
- If I watch a memorable video, I’ll shelve it on one of my many public YouTube playlists.
- If I read a compelling piece of written content, I’ll annotate and shelve it accordingly with Glasp.
- If I have an interesting thought or make a breakthrough in how I understand something, I’ll tweet it or write about it here.
The public record of the internet serves as a strong accountability incentive: I identify as someone who freely shares what I’m consuming and thinking. Any slowdown of such activities becomes a powerful incentive to continue doing so. See James Clear re: identity-based habits.