“I believe in the discipline of mastering the best that other people have ever figured out. I don’t believe in just sitting down and trying to dream it all up yourself. Nobody’s that smart…” - Charlie Munger
Charlie’s right. Learning from other people is how humans learn. When we grow up, we learn how to be “human” from our parents. We learn how to be good citizens from school. We learn how to be corporate drones at work.
There is a treasure trove in the stories of those who have come before us. All it takes is a bit of grit & focus to find timeless lessons that we can apply to our own lives. I feel that the knowledge stored in the stories of others might just be more valuable than all the knowledge you'll receive at any post-secondary institution.
Knowledge gets watered down in an academic setting. It’s designed to be presented and understood by the most amount of people with the least amount of effort. It's soulless.
However, I feel that the soul of useful knowledge is found in the lived experiences of the people who formulated it. Something we don't get much exposure to as we're growing up.
I believe that modern education is designed, with “good” intentions, to kill our most valuable tool: Curiosity.
We’ve evolved to hunt. To hunt for food. To hunt for a mate. To hunt for knowledge. School deviates from that logic in some major ways, namely, information is shoved down your throat with the expectation that you’ll care enough to remember it & use it.
Where is the thrill of using our curiosity like a spear to bring down a buffalo stuffed with the knowledge we seek? It’s kinda like we’re stationary cattle, eating grub from an unending supply of meh.
Learning from the stories of others is not this. It’s hunting in its purest fashion. We hear a story, it piques our curiosity, and we listen and consider all the implications of this information before finding ways to act on that information. Stories are memorable. Lectures are not.
History doesn’t repeat itself. Human nature does. Learn from people directly.
By learning from the stories of great people over hundreds of years, we get at the timeless principles that exist as a thread that connects humans spanning generations. Stories and first-hand accounts get us that. Not educational institutions.
The value of learning from others
I think learning from others is our gateway to freedom. Marc Andreessen puts it nicely:
"There are thousands of years of history in which lots and lots of very smart people worked very hard and ran all types of experiments on how to create new businesses, invent new technology, new ways to manage etc. They ran these experiments throughout their entire lives. At some point, somebody put these lessons down in a book. For very little money and a few hours of time, you can learn from someone’s accumulated experience. There is so much more to learn from the past than we often realize. You could productively spend your time reading experiences of great people who have come before and you learn every time."
Why make mistakes when we can just learn from other people's mistakes? Learn from their war stories? Not every experience will map onto our own, but it’s better than nothing. It's a place to start.
When talent & hard work stop being an edge, you can always monopolize knowing the most. And with the advent of the internet, there is no excuse NOT to know the most about any field you choose.
How to learn from others
To learn effectively, we need some way to apply the knowledge. Without application, there is no learning, just consumption. Let’s look at a foolproof way to apply this knowledge.
Using a modified version of the Kolbs Experiential Learning Cycle, we can capture the experiences other people have & quickly find ways to learn from them.
- A resource (like a book) that holds stories
- A place to take notes (physically or digitally work)
- No distractions for ~10-25 minutes
Go through each step of the cycle, one after the other, to gain maximum benefit. The output of step 1 is the input of step 2, and so on. Take 10-30 minutes to try it out.
Start with a positive or negative experience that the person you’re learning about has had. Briefly outline the experience & make a note of whether it was good or bad or in between.
Now, collect as much information about the experience as possible. What you write here will fuel the next step. Look to pack this section FULL with detail.
Consider these prompts to help you:
- How did they feel?
- When did they feel this way?
- If they struggled, at what points? Were there any triggers/prompts?
- How did they react?
- How did others react?
- Were there any factors that might have affected their experience BEFORE it happened?
- What did they do at each step? Draw out a step-by-step recount or chronology of events
- How did they respond to difficulty & struggle?
- How did they feel before, during, and after the event?
Now, we look back at our reflection and ask ourselves “why” this experience happened.
Focus on generalized, transferable, and abstracted reasons as to why they experienced all those things we just wrote about in the reflection.
- How do they tend to act in those types of situations?
- What about their approach or perspective or overall strategy makes them prone to making that type of error?
- Do they make similar mistakes in other areas as well?
- What habits do they seem to gave in certain types of situations that make them behave, react, or act in this way?
By the end of this step, we want to have learned a little about the type of person they are and the type of habits they have. Once we know this, we can directly attempt to experiment on them and integrate them into our lives.
Create a simple experiment, change, or challenge you can set yourself to help you consolidate the learnings you had in the prior step. Notice that the previous step has generalized principles for you to use. Try to apply them in your own life.
This is an experiment. So things might go as we expect or they may go wrong. Make sure you learn WHY things go wrong if they do.
Expect to fail & look forward to learning why. By learning how a principle doesn’t work, we get one step closer to seeing how it eventually does!
Being able to learn from other people is a secret edge that, in my experience, will 1000x your chances of success in whatever endeavour you choose. The cross to bear isn’t yours to bear alone – you’re simply picking it up from whoever dropped it last.