Learning faster as an entrepreneur

by Ivan Mir on Jan 18, 2018

As entrepreneurs, we always have too much to do but never enough time to sort it out. Our competitors often employ dedicated professionals to work full time on the problems that we have to tackle alone while multitasking like crazy. To keep up with them, we need to optimize our approach to how we learn.

The traditional way taught in schools and universities is focused on depth of knowledge: step-by-step information processing, with exercises to retain the information in memory and exams to validate its comprehension. It's quite effective for training a specialist in some field who can later be hired for a particular set of tasks that require profound understanding. But it doesn't work that well for entrepreneurs who need to be efficient generalists.

Your goal is to become just competent enough to make correct business decisions. Still, most learning materials are created for specialists and require deliberate studying over a long period of time. Here are some approaches that helped me build multidisciplinary knowledge without getting stuck in learning for too long.

Finding

There are lots of overcomplicated learning materials out there. There is no need to struggle for hours if you can find something better in the next browser tab. Go through the options as fast as possible until you find the "lesser evil" that resonates with you — usually it's something written in simple language and full of practical advice.

I have a confession: I avoid books as much as possible. Usually they are too slow to get to the point, and authors often make them even longer with anecdotes, personal opinions and repetition. Books about fast-moving fields like marketing are sometimes already outdated at the moment of publication. Finally, many books about business are just useless "entrepreneur porn." Nowadays it's easy to find summaries for everything and then spend the time saved practicing those ideas.

But I love blogs — many articles are pure professional knowledge condensed into a 10-minute read. For example, UX designers often recommend "The Design of Everyday Things," by Don Norman. But by the time I read the book, I had already read dozens of short actionable articles about UX design in his company's blog and found the book too slowly paced and with outdated examples that made it less relevant.

You can learn an awful lot just by going through articles from the top search results and subscribing to information-dense feeds (see some recommendations in my previous article). And don't forget to check the comment section, because commentators often point out when the author's arguments are questionable; this habit will save you many hours in the long run. If you stumbled on a topic with "spammy" search results, try searching for recommendations exclusively on Hacker News or Indie Hackers (but not Reddit or Quora, because they are crumbling under the number of self-promoters).

Skimming

Traditional learning is structured "bottom-up," under the assumption that you will follow the materials step by step to acquire profound understanding and have a detailed picture of the topic by the end. But there is also the "top-down" approach, where you create a simplified mental map of the topic, and you don’t zoom in to see the details until you actually need them.

It's not only a faster way to learn but often an easier one too. For example, I wasn't able to get into programming for years because I struggled to grasp the theory. But then I found a book with tutorials on how to make dozens of simple Flash games. It didn't talk about computer science at all but showed me how to hack things together. So I started building actual products first and learned the fundamentals and good practices later.

It's not always possible to find a perfect learning source like this, but you can achieve similar results by skimming through whatever is available. Skimming means scanning the page for particular words and phrases without reading into the actual text. With top-down learning, you are looking for short insights and practical advice that you can add to your notes.

Skimming also mitigates one of the most annoying factors of the modern internet — the huge amount of shallow content. Authors often water content down because they don't have much to say, or they want to split information to get more page views. Videos are usually the worst case — they should be avoided because you can't skim through them to see if they are worth your time in the first place.

Retaining

Recognition is easier than recall: it's hard to recollect the names of the books you've read, but seeing them in a list will instantly trigger your memory. This is why it is important to constantly take notes that will help you recover the learned material later. There is no need to copy whole paragraphs because the best way to remember is to practice. Notes should serve as short actionable checklists.

But plain text is an ineffective format for notes compared to concept maps, which act like virtual whiteboards. Probably it has something to do with our minds not storing ideas in a document-like form in the first place. So I make a map for each topic in Scapple (Windows, Mac); Ideament for iOS also looks decent. Traditional mind maps can work well too, but I find their tree-like structure a bit constraining.

If you don't have a chance to practice what you learned immediately, try to get back to your notes multiple times during the following month. Spaced repetition helps strengthen information in memory.

I also rehash freshly learned information to others — my wife, friends, in online discussions. If I can explain it in simple terms to somebody else — it means I have achieved a good level of understanding. Occasionally, it turns out that I can't explain something that well or the other person asks unexpected questions that force me to re-approach the subject in a new way. Even explaining to yourself enhances your learning.

Organizing

Don't aim to understand everything in one go because your mind needs time to integrate new concepts. Sometimes a short walk can help to divert attention and return with a fresh mind later. Also, even though entrepreneurs are always multitasking, it's necessary to give some space to the new material by avoiding learning multiple topics at once.

Watch out for lifestyle choices that decrease your brainpower. Lack of sleep damages attention, memory, and overall executive functioning. So does physical inactivity because our bodies weren't meant for sitting all day. Stress affects hippocampus that is responsible for learning and retaining memories. Comprehension of new information can be hard, so be sure to also set up a distraction-free environment.

Finally, is important to recognize when to stop. You don't have to go down the spiral of trying to fully understand all the aspects of the topic. As soon as you have learned enough to apply it to your business goals — you are good to go.

Illustrations by Irina Mir

Building your own thing?
Get tips about shortcuts and pitfalls on your roadmap.

Just 3-5 emails a year.


Ivan Mir

About the author:

Ivan Mir has been running small independent software companies since 2010. In this blog he writes about personal efficiency and business bootstrapping.