More deliberate learners might be stronger at innovating and applying what they’ve learned to even more creative work
“I’m a fast learner.”
— Every candidate I ever interviewed for a job
It’s a statement that is so ubiquitous in resumes and job interviews that it has almost entirely lost any meaning.
Everyone seems to be a self-proclaimed “fast learner.”
But we know something is fishy when most people claim to be above average at something, just like in the often-cited example of 73% of US drivers thinking they are better than average drivers.
Part of the reason so many people are claiming to be fast learners might be a manifestation of the Dunning-Kruger effect, a genuine tendency to overestimate one’s own abilities (especially if in reality you fall on the opposite end of the skill spectrum).
But my guess is that at least as many people — whether they actually believe it or not — simply claim to be fast learners because they expect that’s what others want to hear.
Google “slow learner,” and you’ll find a list of “symptoms,” by which you can diagnose a slow learner, including social issues and visual-motor issues.
Culturally, we’ve clearly stigmatized a slow approach to learning.
Just like everyone thinks they have to portray themselves as a hard worker, a great team player, and an excellent problem solver, we also believe that the speed at which we learn is a one-dimensional metric — and the faster the better.
But I call bullshit on that.
I bought into the ideal of the fast learner myself for many years. I thought I had to be a fast learner in order to be successful (or at least to appear smart to others).
While doing my Ph.D., I felt like many of my peers were picking up new concepts in discussions or during talks much quicker than me, and I often felt slow and intellectually inferior during fast-paced sessions on the whiteboard.
Later when I left academia and joined the startup world I would regularly feel left behind when colleagues could seemingly develop new skills at a pace I couldn’t match.
But over time I noticed something.
My style and approach to learning is just different.
My brain needs some time and space for itself to assimilate new ideas.
It has taken me a while to come to terms with this, but I am not a fast learner. I’m actually pretty slow. And that’s okay. In fact, I’m happy about it and embrace it.
While I might not catch onto completely new ideas as quickly as others, and while I’m particularly bad at “real-time learning,” instead needing some time to think over ideas in quiet solitude, I started to realize that over the longer term my understanding was just as deep as that of my fast-learning peers, if not deeper. More than that, I seemed to be stronger at innovating around learned concepts and creatively connecting them to other ideas.
Over time, the speed advantage of my fast learning peers also seemed to disappear.
I’m still just as slow at picking up genuinely new ideas, but my approach of building my own thought patterns and generalizations, while making me fall behind in the short run, allows me to intuitively grasp new concepts that lie at the spaces in between my existing knowledge — spaces that many fast learners have to tackle from scratch every time they encounter them.
A few months ago, I wrote about my approach to ultra-marathon running.
At the beginning of a race, I would always fall back to dead last. But as the hours and miles dragged on, I would gradually reel in and overtake the competition who had misjudged their pace.
It seems like my approach to learning is similar to my approach to running. I’m very good at pacing myself.
When faced with something new, I do sometimes feel like I fall behind. Just like I fell behind at the beginning of many ultras. But that’s okay. And not only is it okay, but it can also be a deliberate strategy if it suits you and you use it to your advantage.
The key for me was to get comfortable with falling behind, and realizing that the fast approach of others — whether that’s superficial learning or running too fast — could come to bite them in the end.
Now, after getting a Ph.D. in quantum theory from one of the world’s top universities, having published a bestselling personal growth book (which talks about the value of taking a slower approach not just in learning), and several other unusual achievements I’m very proud of, I’m quite happy and confident with my approach to learning.
More than just being comfortable with it, I genuinely think many of my achievements were not accomplished in spite of being a slow learner, but because of it.
As the old military saying goes, “slow is smooth, and smooth is fast.”
And I’d argue more of us should accept that we are slow learners and take pride in it. It might just be the fastest way to mastery and success.
“The most effective learning looks inefficient; it looks like falling behind.”
— David Epstein
Everyone wants quick results.
Rather than putting in many hours of study and contemplation, we want fast and easy success, and ideally, we want it as visible to others as possible. But as David Epstein notes in his book Range: Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World,
“for learning that is both durable (it sticks) and flexible (it can be applied broadly), fast and easy is precisely the problem.”
This is not only true in business, but also in other areas, like sports.
Particularly in the martial arts, where “progress” is very visibly marked through grades and colored belts, many people want to learn as many fancy forms as fast as possible but are unwilling to put in the time and patience to learn the fundamentals, like correct body mechanics.
Josh Waitzkin, an international master in chess as well as a world champion martial artist, calls these people “form collectors.”
During my university days, I was the captain of my university’s Kendo club (essentially the Japanese version of fencing). At the beginning of every year, 50 to 70 new students would sign up for our club, because it looked cool and they wanted to wear armour and hit people with sticks.
However, that enthusiasm was quickly put to a test. Our sensei, in a very old-school Japanese manner, did not allow anyone to even touch a bamboo sword for the first several months. Instead, the focus was solely on footwork.
Every year we saw attendance dwindle from more than 50 people for the first one or two sessions, to less than 10 people just a few weeks in. But I’m grateful to our sensei for this. It stopped people from being form collectors and instead encouraged us to build a strong foundation before adding complexity. It also very effectively weeded out those who weren’t committed.
In his excellent book, The Art of Learning: An Inner Journey to Optimal Performance, Waitzkin presents an idea he calls “making smaller circles”: When studying a martial arts technique, start with very big and slow movements, and practice for weeks or even months until they feel natural and you are completely relaxed with it. The motion should be a feeling rather than a conscious effort.
This for me is one of the key differentiators between slow and fast learning. A lot of my most valuable knowledge is almost instinctive, something fast learners do not cultivate.
Once you have developed the right feeling and instincts through slow practice, then you can gradually start making the movement smaller and smaller, condensing it and speeding it up, without losing the feeling (or the potency).
“Depth beats breadth any day of the week, because it opens a channel for the intangible, unconscious, creative components of our hidden potential.”
— Josh Waitzkin
The right practice can help you speed this process up, but it can’t be rushed — there are no shortcuts. Empty form collection is quick, but true mastery requires time.
Form collectors are not unique to martial arts or physical activities. We find them in mental disciplines and business as well.
And in an industrial setting, or even for some knowledge workers, there is clearly a value in quick form collecting. But this value is rapidly decreasing.
Fast learning is, in many cases, good for exactly the same kind of rigid and rule-based learning that machines and algorithms are good at. If you want to compete with the machines in their game, good luck.
But what AI is notoriously bad at — and likely will remain bad at for a long time to come — is flexibility, creativity, and innovation.
Algorithms like GPT-3 might seem creative and to exhibit “understanding” due to their sheer complexity, but they really are just a (very flashy) form of statistical analysis — which is almost by definition inside-the-box thinking (if it can be called thinking at all).
On top of that, fast learning, just like machine learning, can be extremely brittle and narrow.
Rather than internalizing concepts and developing an intuitive feeling for them, you tend to memorize concrete facts and procedures and learn to apply fixed rules. If the situation changes ever so slightly, you are immediately out of your comfort zone and crumble.
On the other hand, someone with a more intuitive approach — built slowly and with a focus on the foundations before “making smaller circles” — has no trouble with the variation. In fact, an unexpected situation might even spark new heights of creativity and insight.
What looks like completely isolated islands of knowledge to a fast learner appears as an increasingly interconnected sea of ideas and possibilities to the slow learner. As we get more intuitively familiar with a discipline, we stop seeing individual pieces of it and instead see relations, connections, and opportunities.
Creativity and adaptability (which is very different from the pseudo-adaptability of rapidly acquiring brittle knowledge) will be two of the most valuable skills in the future of work where humans work alongside AI and automation technologies.
Being a slow learner is much more conducive to innovation, allowing not only deeper understanding but also the synthesis of your own ideas along the way.
Especially if you bring together existing expertise in a range of different domains, the slow approach to learning makes it much more likely for you to see connections between them (again, something AI is notoriously bad at), and learn in a way that’s more unique to you, rather than just memorizing rules and definitions.
In addition, taking time off between learning sessions not only helps consolidate what you learned — but also allows your subconscious mind plenty of space and time to play with the new ideas and integrate them into the bigger picture.
Thus, the slow approach to learning paves the way to innovation.
I’m not suggesting that there are no fast learners, nor am I saying that everyone should necessarily aspire to be a slow learner.
Just like with introversion and extroversion, there are benefits to being anywhere along the spectrum (and you might even fluctuate between the two depending on the domain or situation).
But you can only reap the benefits if you understand where you fall, and play to your strengths rather than what you think is expected.
Also just like with introversion and extroversion, our culture seems to put a higher value on one end of the slow-fast learner divide, urging us to be faster (more extroverted) if we are slow (introverted). But it’s time to change this and shed the feelings of guilt or inferiority.
David Epstein says it best when he writes:
“One sentence of advice: Don’t feel behind.”
It took me a while to accept that I’m a slow learner, but rather than trying to compete with fast learners (or machines) head-on, I’ve embraced my own slow style.
If you ever proclaimed yourself as a fast learner, I’d encourage you to pause for a moment and ask yourself if it’s really true. If the answer is no, don’t feel like you have to hide the fact. Use it as a strength.
Be proud of being a slow learner.