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Retaining Over Relearning

Updated 1/15/2021

I was born not knowing and have had only a little time to change that here and there.

Richard Feynman
Short on time?
Gotcha Matcha, here’s that trendy TL;DR Version.

I’ve been itching to write an article like this for quite some time.

In this interesting post-pandemic lockdown blues, the feeling of uselessness is strong and relatable on a global scale.

I’ve seen young buds and old guards alike, the degreed and the non-degreed, let go from companies on the basis that their position “was no longer needed”, or no longer available. I was blessedโ€”and I do mean straight-up blessed by God Himselfโ€”to have remained employed for 5 months with my last employer after the first lockdown… working in an aerospace environment, no less! I somehow lasted longer than a 16 year veteran (albeit a contractor) of the company, and he had a B.S., while I was still sitting my college dropout butt in a cubicle of a huge building once bustling with engineers, now reduced to a few shuffling feet.
It seemed as random as a shotgun blast.

But at last, here I am! And maybe here you are too, wondering how this is all going to pan out. When we’re going to work again. It’s a bit depressing, for sure, but wouldn’t it suck if it was just that?

Let me tell you that it ain’t.
It’s a new dawn to kick ass.

JonOfOz Splash
Mood. ๐ŸŒ…

Hey reader:

๐Ÿ‘‰Get Smarterer, Fasterer.๐Ÿ‘ˆ

You want fastererer? Can do, Xanadu. Here’s my

TL;DR Versionionionionion:

  • If you’re unemployed, now is a great time to learn new skills!
  • Even if you’re not, it’s as good a time as any other, and there’s still valuable information here.
  • We don’t have a lot of time, so let’s use what we’ve got to learn well.
  • I demonstrate methods I use (often simultaneously) to learn efficiently:
    • The Feynman Technique, to simplify and summarize large topics for yourself and for others. Rounds out your understanding and frames a topic well.
    • Spaced Repetition, where the review period for a given concept increases exponentially-ish as you begin to master it. Illegal to mention without also mentioning…
    • Flashcards, for quizzing yourself on things you learned and don’t want to forget! It’s synapse superfood, baby.
    • The Pomodoro Technique, where periods of intense focus on a topic are followed by breaks to allow for mental diffuse. I usually go 45 minutes on and then 15 minutes off. This technique does not require a tomato. ๐Ÿ…
    • The Pareto Principle, where learning the crucial 20% of a topic gets 80% of the topic figured out. A helluva great start if you choose to master the topic later.
    • Chunking, where dividing and conquering a large topic into manageable subsections, or “chunks”, helps us create little frames of knowledge within the larger topic.
  • Finally, we need to shift our mindset from the atomic goal of learning a subject to the broader goal of learning anything in a way that will turn you into an unstoppable learning machine.


I’m not here just to make you feel sparkly, but I hope you do!

There’s a silver living to be found in unemployment: there’s never been a better time, or perhaps more time, to get learning so we can come back into the workforce swinging: a little less like me when I was an average 2nd baseman in the 3rd grade, a little more like Babe Ruth.

“Wait a minute,” you say, “who are you to tell me about getting smart?”

Well, that’s the thing: I’m no one special. I’m no savant, learning wizard, or some superhuman: I’m just a guy who is really interested in the science of learning, and I’ve been fortunate enough to have picked up a bunch of tools for learning efficiently. And I absolutely want to share anything that can benefit others.

If it helps my case, allow me to admit that I still have my bouts of Imposter Syndrome to get over. I know it’s a bunch of self-imposed BS, but it’s still 100% whole, real, pasteurized BS, and I’ve got it. Maybe it’s because I’m ironically a Taurus. ๐Ÿ‚โ™‰

Whether or not you share in such a malady or another, and whether or not you are employed at this time, one thing holds true: it always feels good to feel useful, or to at least feel like you’re doing something when you can.

For me, nothing beats the feeling of uselessness to a pulp like learning, and learning a lot. Bulldozing the biggest obstacle of all: self-doubt. Being able to look at a previously imposing topic, and changing your attitude from “I can’t do that”, to “I can’t do that yet“, and finally to “I’ve got this.” Learning a lot offers huge thrills.

Of course, to learn a lot, we need to relearn less. I wish I knew this earlier in life, but taking notes is a very good thing.

So, sound good?
Awesome. Get ready to learn about learning: now’s never been a better time time to get started.

Here’s the plan.

Since this time won’t last forever, we’d better learn well.
That can mean a number of things, but let’s start here:

  • Be able to summarize a topic.
  • Relearn less; best case scenario, learn once.
  • Master the basics; maybe spank yourself if you skip them.
  • Try to answer questions on your own before Googling them.
  • Stay on topic.
  • Cut out distractions.
  • Take necessary breaks.

Well that sounds great and all, but it’s not going to do anyone any good I just tell you this stuff without ever putting into practice, showing you how I go about it. So let’s dive in.

Today, I’m Learning TensorFlow.

As I write this, I currently have no idea how to use TensorFlow; that will have changed by the time I finish this article. In fact, I’m going to outright state my goals that I want to achieve by the end of my learning adventure:

  • I want to be able to summarize TensorFlow.
  • I want to begin dabbling in machine learning.
  • I want to master the basics of TensorFlow, using Python.

Also, I’m going to assume by now you’re staying for the rest of the article. Awesome! ๐ŸŽ‰

I encourage you to pick a topic now, if you haven’t, and to state your goals. Write them down, because you and I are gonna meet them.

Got your subject? Good!

…I’m serious, have a subject. Don’t waste your time with passive learning.

Alright, good. ๐Ÿ˜

Let’s get to the tools! And boy, do I have some I want to share with you. ๐Ÿ˜‰ As we go along, we’ll be implementing them in the learning process.

Now, we can pick and choose these, but we need to understand that these individual tools are not entire systems in and of themselves. We can’t really use just one of them, for the same reason we can’t fix everything our car with just a single wrench. These all make up a system whose design is simple and straightforward: to promote efficient learning.

Alrighty!
The tools I will be using are, simultaneously,

  • The Feynman Technique
  • Spaced Repetition
  • Flashcards
  • The Pomodoro Technique
  • The Pareto Principle
  • Chunking

Here’s How I Go About This:

Flashcards.

These are not just brainwashing devices you remember from the bowels of the deeply-flawed public body of education: these puppies will completely, totally supercharge your learning.

Make flashcards your best friend. They can be paper or digital, written or typed. If you have a stylus and a tablet, consider using them, as there are benefits to writing over typing. ๐Ÿ˜‰ You could just use paper + pencil or pen, if that’s all you’ve got, but keeping a lot of notes organized and centralized can get pretty messy. Whatever works best for you: the most important thing is that you start making flashcards at all.

For this venture I’m going digital.

If you decided to do the same, you could use Anki, which is a great, free flashcard app for PCs that utilizes spaced repetition to help you remember things more efficiently and effectively. I do use Anki, but my problem with it is that it’s sort of cumbersome and has a bit of a learning curve. That said, it is very powerful in the right hands.

But damn, do I love using Quizlet. It’s simple, effective, and allows for creating flashcards without hassle. It has a free and paid-for plan; I’m using free for now.

Either app means typing instead of writing, but personally, it’s a trade off I’m willing to make for prolificity. (And again, this system is so much easier to keep track of than, say, an unruly stack of German verbs written on sticky notes. ๐Ÿค”)

Got your flashcards ready to be made? Good!

Now, Ask the Mandatory First Question.

When you’re learning any subjectโ€”at allโ€”you should start with this question first, the first one a child would ask:

“What is [your subject]?”

In my case, I ask: “What is TensorFlow?”

(Probably.)

Well, this is a dull start.

“C’mon, I want to use TensorFlow, not describe it!” quoth my brain. “Why must this always be the first question???”

But it makes perfect sense, doesn’t it? This single question encapsulates everything we’re going to be learning about. It’s the summary.

We almost invariably “click” with a subject when we can see it in terms of the bigger picture, not just the isolated components. It’s why we would rather experience contiguous media from the beginning: to understand. One cannot simply watch the Lord of the Rings trilogy for the first time, knowing nothing about it, starting right in the middle. Awaiting them would be some grey creature-freak who eats fish and is obsessed with a shiny ring; there’s no way they’d infer this character played a part in the epic tale of heroism and peril witnessed by nigh all Middle Earth in the Fellowship’s quest to destroy said shiny ring and make New Zealand bank in tourist bucks.
More applicably speaking, it’s why we understand React better once we know JavaScript, pandas once we understand Python, etc.
That’s why we always ask this dull question first. ๐Ÿ˜ƒ

Okay okay, let’s continue.

Having asked the question, “What is TensorFlow?”, I visit the TensorFlow website, where I am greeted to shades of orange that are very complementary to the constant chroma of my very blue website, and words.

(I was close.)

And I write it down accordingly.

Again, I know it’s pretty dull and maybe a little pedantic, but if someone asks you the same question, you need to be able to answer it.
Hey, that sounds like

The Feynman Technique!

“The what?”

The Feynman (like “fine men”) Technique, named after Nobel Prize-winning physicist Richard Feynman, is one of the most effective methods known for learning absolutely anything.

I didn’t quote Feynman at the beginning just to write an article in a trite but effective format! (Although I totally did, in part.) Feynman was able to explain nearly anything to anyone, from first graders to the most scholarly of individuals.

And that’s something you need to do for yourself.

Teaching anything to others is among the most effective ways of solidifying facts and concepts in your mind: it’s even more effective if you can simplify it for both others and yourself.

As it turns out, TensorFlow is a very large topic with a lot of stuff to learn about. To be honest, I’m a little overwhelmed.

But I’m going to learn it, the most crucial stuff first.
Any half-way decent tutorial on anything utilizes the Pareto principle implicitly. So that’s where I’ll start.
That’s where Chunking comes in.