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10 tips to learn effectively in the digital economy

December 30, 2020

In my secondary role as the Learning and Development lead for Capgemini Insights and Data I’ve been thinking a lot about how to help our team get the most out of the many resources available to keep pace with the rapidly changing landscape and to have the right knowledge at the right time. I have some ideas on what the potential challenges could be and some tips and techniques that I use to maximize the return on my learning hours investment.

The best way to gain knowledge is through experience. However, gaining experience is a slow process. Luckily, we can get the next best thing by reading about the experiences of others. Supposedly the most successful people read a lot. Statistics are often quoted that CEOs read 3–4 books a month. Warren Buffet, one of the most successful investors of all time and fourth-richest person in the world, is known for reading 500 pages a day. Bill Gates is another voracious reader and reads 50 books a year. However, even at this amazing pace there are so many books and articles out there and the number is growing. According to Wikipedia, there are around 500,000 new books published every year in the UK and US alone. We have no hope of keeping up. So what do we do?

As Mark Twain purportedly said, “History does not repeat itself, but it does rhyme.” In Ray Dalio’s recent book, Principles, he attributes repeating the phrase, “Is this another one of those?” a lot, as one of the keys to his success. If you can identify what the previous pattern was, you can learn which mistakes to avoid and the ways to succeed.

Without an understanding of history, a library of mental models and an understanding of patterns that have happened in the past in similar areas, it is impossible to identify whether we can learn from someone else’s experience and take a short cut. This is especially true in IT, when we see very quick evolution of trends, markets, tools, and languages.

So, we often face the following potential challenges:

  • There is effectively a near-infinite amount of knowledge out there and even Bill Gates or Warren Buffet would take 10,000 years to read the books published in this year alone.
  • We have shorter attention spans thanks to social media, which is getting us used to instant gratification. According to the BBC, our attention span reduced from 12 seconds in 2000 to eight seconds in 2017.
  • Most of the time when we read something or watch a video, we do it in a passive way and forget most of what we learned.
  • We forget to apply what we learned.
  • Even if we do remember what we read, there is a great difference between knowledge and wisdom and knowing how to apply the learnings to new situations.

Here are my top-ten solutions that I have found to work well and have refined over the years. I hope you find them useful along with the other lessons and patterns I have to share:

  1. Choose carefully what to read. Spending several hours on a book or half an hour reading an article is a serious investment in time, so spend a bit of time upfront on selection and preparation. If you want to learn about a subject then find the best books on this area. Read reviews of the books, see if you can work out the central theme or big idea of the book. Read the chapter list. Is this the best book of the genre about this subject? Is the author respected? Use Twitter and LinkedIn to follow other like-minded people and get recommendations on what to read and learn.
  2. I favor books over articles and newspapers as more care and time has been spent in curating and editing the arguments and content, and they are usually more thought through. Think of the difference between a delicious, home-cooked meal vs a quick takeaway that leaves you feeling hungry.
  3. Focus on getting deep knowledge about an area when you need it and don’t just read for the sake of it. It is easier to focus if you need the knowledge. It is even easier to forget stuff if you don’t use it.
  4. Work out why you are reading. If you are reading for pleasure, then of course, savor every word and take your time. If you are reading for knowledge, don’t be afraid to skip pages. Take notes. Look for themes. Try to summarize. Try and think of counter arguments.
  5. Don’t obsess about reading new content. Classics are called classics for a reason. The best book on management I’ve ever read, High Output Management by former Intel Chairman and CEO, Andy Grove, is from 1995.
  6. Focus on reading as a skill and work on increasing your reading speed.
  7. Look for alternative views. A great example of this is the article I found to counter my view that CEOs read a lot. The basic ideas in the article are: CEOs read slightly more than the average person. Correlation does not equal causation. Rich people drive more Ferraris than poor people so to get rich do I need to drive a Ferrari? Likewise do successful people read more or do people who read more become successful? Books are important as a tool for social mobility, they open doors and are medicine for the brain.
  8. Try to summarize the article or book in 3–4 bullet points. When reading the above article, I first read it passively, then I tried picking out the key ideas I needed to focus on and read it more actively. Most books have a core idea.
  9. Use technology to maximize the time you can learn. Listen to audio books and podcasts on double speed. A few months ago I signed up for Blinkist which provides short summaries or blinks of books. You can read the summary in around 15–20 minutes and get a pretty good overview of the key ideas in a book. Use Kindle or similar e-readers and highlight the key sections. Look at other people’s highlights, think about why they were highlighted and go back over the highlights.
  10. Lastly, if you think you’ve got the message and have worked out what the book is telling you OR if it is falling short, don’t feel guilty about skipping a chapter or stopping reading.

For more info, reach out to the author, Giles Cuthbert, Head of Microsoft Data and Visualization Practice, Insights and Data UK.