Learning is not just something you do just in school or in a corporate training room. Learning is a way of life. It opens up the world to us. But how do we ensure that our time spent learning yields a high return on our investment? After all, if we spend all our lives learning and no time doing then we are left with nothing but the joy of learning itself. Sure, the joy of learning is valuable. But learning can and should give us more than joy. It should give us practical professional skills, life lessons, and deep meaning that we can share with those in our communities. To this end, I propose that we should all engage in high-margin learning.
What is High-Margin Learning?
High-margin learning is the practice of gaining knowledge that is meaningful, practical, relatable, and shareable with minimal expense of personal resources.
Let’s break this down.
As in life, we shouldn’t optimize our learning just to be happy. We should optimize it to give us meaning. This can mean that what we learn gives us a reason to make political, social, or even personal change. Meaningful learning can also answer one of the “big questions” that we’ve struggled answering—”Why are we here?” or “Why are some countries rich and others poor?”
Practical learning means that you gain a new skill. This skill can be everything from knowing how to manipulate a Microsoft Excel spreadsheet to how to how to empathize with those around you.
Relatable learning does not mean that you can relate to the subject matter that you are learning. Instead, relatable learning means that you can relate it to other concepts you have already learned. As William Cronon writes in “Only Connect,” “More than anything else, being an educated person means being able to see connections that allow one to make sense of the world and act within it in creative ways.” While Cronon says “educated person” we can apply it to our self-education, rather than just the liberal arts education he was writing about.
As the famed economist John Maynard Keynes wrote, “In the long run we are all dead.” If we keep all the great insights we have gained from a life spent learning, then we have missed an incredible opportunity to share these insights with others. Shareable learning is the practice of asking, “Who might benefit from learning about what I just had the pleasure of learning?” Further, shareable learning is also the practice of constantly asking, “How might I best explain this material to others?”
With Minimal Expense of Personal Resources
This is one of the most important parts of high-margin learning. So far, we’ve covered the elements of high-margin learning that provide us with tremendous benefit. Here, we cover how to learn with minimal expense of personal resources.
Our personal resources include our time, money, and energy. The cost of time is simple. It’s what economics call an “opportunity cost.” Inc. magazine defines opportunity cost as “the cost of a missed opportunity.” When you spend your Friday evening with a book, you don’t spend it with your friends (unless you have a book club, of course). Therefore, the cost of reading the book is not being able to spend that time with your friends. Money is also easily defined. Formal education, online classes, and books all cost money. Finally, energy is a worthy consideration. Waking up early or staying up late to learn more is a good reason to miss sleep. However, if it cuts into our physical energy and hurts our work or emotional energy and damages our relationships, we need to re-think how we learn.
Lastly, mental energy fatigue is real. You can only read so many books or listen to so many lectures before you need a break. One of the most successful authors of all time, Paul Coehlo, takes a walk every single day. Clear your head. Enjoy the sunshine. Learning improves leisure and leisure improves learning.
How to Practice High-Margin Learning
Now that you know about the elements that make up the practice of high-margin learning, you can start practicing it. But how do you start? This is perhaps the best part of high-margin learning—everyone can practice it in their own way. For some, they may find that spending their Saturdays at their local library, poring over hardcovers. For others, it may be engaging in volunteer work where they can learn the stories and perspectives of those in need. To learn a truly high-margin, you must do two simple things—maximize benefits and minimize costs.
Here are a few strategies that I find particularly useful in maximizing learning in your daily life:
- Learn by doing. Classes on everything from coding to foreign languages have the opportunity to teach you real, hard skills. However, sometimes you can learn far more quickly if you give yourself a forcing function to learn new skills. Assign yourself a project, like creating a Twitter bot. By assigning yourself this project, you will force yourself to learn the technical skills necessary to create the Twitter bot. Having trouble pushing through the monotony of learning a foreign language? Travel to a country where that language is spoken.
- Always have several books on your “what to read next” list. Sometimes your local library won’t have a book available or you aren’t in the mood to read what’s next on your list. Don’t put yourself in a situation where you don’t have a piece of reading in the pipeline.
- Volunteer in your community. As I’ve mentioned previously, volunteering is a great way to learn from the perspectives of others. If you’re serving a non-profit’s clients directly, you have the opportunity to see the world from their perspective.
- Explore the world. You don’t need to travel the world to learn new things. Plenty of people travel the world and learn little about the countries they visit. You can take a walk through your city or town and see your community in ways you previously have not. You just need to be observant.
- Share your learnings with others. We reach true mastery of a concept when we are able to teach it to others. When you finish a good book, ask yourself, “Who might benefit from learning about something in this book?” Even better, those in your social network can challenge what you’ve learned, giving you new perspectives.
I’ve boiled this down to a few simple rules:
- Time minimization: Stop reading bad books. Sure, we should give every book a chance. But if it keeps dragging on and taking a toll on how much we read, it’s time to move on to our next book.
- Financial cost minimization: Use public libraries as much as possible. They’re free. And, if you talk to the librarians, they probably have great recommendations for you. At most libraries, they can even teach you how to get books from libraries across the state or nation—and sometimes even the world—delivered to the library for free.
- Time minimization: Listen to podcasts while completing monotonous tasks. People get busy. Work, school, family, and other commitments shouldn’t keep us from learning. With podcasts, you can turn your commute into an opportunity to learn. The best part? Most podcasts are free, including all of those on the Apple Podcasts App.
- Energy minimization: Let go of technology, occasionally. You can learn a lot on the web. But it can also distract you with constant notifications and “breaking news” alerts. Every once in a while, shut off the smartphone and power down the laptop. Go outside or connect with a friend. Even the simple act of walking helps us think.
Resources for High-Margin Learning
To get you started with high-margin learning, I’ve assembled a list of resources in a small set of subject areas to get you started. View them here.