Tell Me How You Confront The Learner's Dilemma, And I Will Tell You Your Future

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The Learner’s Dilemma is one of the most fundamental challenges that knowledge workers face. It goes like this...

  1. Learning is essential to career success and impact
  2. There are thousands of great books you'd love to read
  3. But, the time to read them is limited (balancing work, family, friends, and exercise)
  4. So, you have to make very tough choices about what to learn and NOT learn.

In other words, as a learner you have to siphon an ocean of knowledge through a pinhole of time.

If you've seen The Platform (movie), then you know what I'm talking about. In one scene, a starving character is given the best feast he's ever had. The catch? He only has a few minutes to consume it. This scene is the Learner's Dilemma applied to food.

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What, when, and how you choose to learn determines your life and career destiny. Therefore, it's worth asking yourself a critical question:

What is the optimal approach to the Learner's Dilemma?

If you don't have an answer, you will ravenously try to consume whatever information comes your way. If you have an answer, we'll be able to calmly select the food that is most nourishing and eat it slowly so you can fully digest it.

As someone who has spent years studying learning how to learn and taught thousands of others, I've found one simple technique that works without fail, and I learned it from Elon Musk...

What Elon Musk Can Teach Us About The Learner’s Dilemma

While most people think about knowledge just horizontally (ie — across fields), Elon Musk and other luminary learners also think about knowledge vertically in terms of depth. Musk explains deep knowledge in a Reddit AMA

“It is important to view knowledge as sort of a semantic tree — make sure you understand the fundamental principles (Musk calls these ‘first principles’), i.e. the trunk and big branches, before you get into the leaves/details or there is nothing for them to hang onto.”

In another interview, Musk gives an example…

“I tend to approach things from a physics framework. Physics teaches you to reason from first principles rather than by analogy.”

Here’s a visual way that shows the difference between thinking horizontally (1D) versus thinking horizontally and vertically (2D)…

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When you think vertically and horizontally, suddenly fields that seemed disconnected appear connected. Here’s an example…

In the 1D image below where the thinking is only horizontal, productivity, hiring, and exercising seem like completely unconnected fields.

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In the 2D image below, which is horizontal and vertical, these three fields are connected by a mental model — The 80/20 Rule:

  • 20% of exercises create 80% of the results.
  • 20% of employees create 80% of the value.
  • 20% of productivity hacks create 80% of the value.

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Since Musk has spent much time learning across fields and at a deeper level, his knowledge tree is huge…

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Thanks to the size and complexity of his tree, Elon Musk can see exactly how different “leaves” and “branches” interact with each other. This gives him major superpowers:

  • He can reuse fundamental knowledge over and over.
  • He can take insights from one side of the tree to another.
  • He can identify small, high leverage actions that can drastically improve the overall quality of everything he does.

Now, compare this to an average person who can only see one leaf at a time. This person:

  • Only uses their knowledge in the domain they learned it in.
  • Focuses on low leverage hacks and band-aid solutions.

Physicist David Deutsch explains deep knowledge a level further

“It’s in the nature of foundations, that the foundations in one field are also the foundations of other fields…The way that we reach many truths is by understanding things more deeply and therefore more broadly. That’s the nature of the concept of a foundation… just as in architecture, all buildings all literally stand on the same foundation; namely the earth. All buildings stand on the same theoretical base.”

By understanding depth, you can see how learning mental models connects things that were previously separate and disconnected. Just as every leaf on a tree is connected by twigs, which are connected by branches, which are connected by a tree trunk, so too are ideas connected by deeper and deeper ideas.

Now, you can also see a solution to the Learner's Dilemma

Rather than spending all of your time learning knowledge at a surface level that quickly becomes outdated (leaves), you can focus your learning on fundamental, long-lasting knowledge (trunk).

When you focus on the trunk, you get incredible leverage because you learn the fundamentals of dozens of fields simultaneously.

When you view humanity's knowledge as a tree, you realize that learning doesn't have to be overwhelming. Warren Buffett's long-time business partner shows us how to simplify the Learner's Dilemma...

You may say, ‘My God, this is already getting way too tough.’ But, fortunately, it isn’t that tough — because 80 or 90 important models will carry about 90% of the freight in making you a worldly-wise person. And, of those, only a mere handful really carry very heavy freight.

Bottom Line

To solve the Learner's Dilemma go deeper. Find the few fundamental mental models that carry the most weight that will last for the rest of your life. Then learn them slowly.