How to Absorb Information Like a Prodigy

by Vlad Dolezal on February 23, 2011

If you read any of the more popular personal development blogs, you might have noticed that most comments on there are variations on “Great post!”, “So true.” and “You’re absolutely right.”

I have guest posted for a couple of blogs that have several times the readership of Fun Life Development, and I’ve noticed the same pattern.

At first I was assuming these might just be people trying to “get their name out there”, as one of the most common pieces of advice for aspiring bloggers is to comment widely and frequently to build connections. (I’ve never been a fan of commenting unless I have something to add to the discussion, but hey, don’t knock it till you’ve tried it. Which I probably won’t.)

But one of the fun things I like to play with is finding different explanations for the same phenomena. So I was considering this one – and I had a sudden Eureka moment!

(By that, I don’t mean I suddenly jumped out of a bath and ran around the town naked. I mean I had a startling realisation.)

So I ran to my computer to check some of the posts I’ve written for popular blogs, and sure enough, most of the comments weren’t just saying “great post!”. They were saying that, and then rephrasing the message of the post in their own words.

How exactly is this different?

Because it’s very similar to something I’ve noticed when talking to some of the smartest people I know.

When you talk to super-smart people about some concept, they don’t just nod their head without saying anything. They’re continually checking their understanding of what you’re saying, rephrasing it in their own words, and making connections to other related concepts they’re already familiar with.

This makes the difference between someone of average intelligence and a genius, because in the end, practical intelligence comes down to the number and quality of the connections in your brain. These allow you to quickly come up with creative ideas and solutions that are relevant to whatever you’re doing. And that’s what applied intelligence is all about!

While you could acquire encyclopedic knowledge (like memorising a phone book) without bothering much with interconnectedness – being able to apply information comes directly from the connections between different areas of your knowledge.

So, to absorb information like a genius, forget being like a passive receptacle. Don’t be like a bucket, passively waiting to have water poured into you.

Be like a pump, actively drawing it into yourself.

No, actually scratch that as well. Be a human. With a straw, to keep up the analogy.

Because as a human with a straw, you not only draw in water like a pump. You then mold the water, and distribute it around your body, and modify it, and use it as a part of every living cell in your body, until it’s nothing like what you absorbed in the first place.

And in the same way, you can suck in and modify information. Don’t leave it bland and unchanged. Make connections. Draw parallels. Apply your own experiences to what you learn. The information that comes out at the end will be very different from what came in, and that’s brilliant! That’s exactly how it should be. That’s when you’re at your best.

In short, when you learn about new stuff, just ask yourself:

  • “How does this relate to things I already know?”
  • “How can I put this in my own words?”

You already naturally know how to do this. But like a muscle that hasn’t been used for a while, if you’re not used to actively dissecting and reassembling everything you learn, it might take you a while to re-develop this skill. That’s okay.

Every little step makes a difference. Once you get in the habit of interconnecting incoming information, you’ll be amazed how much better you absorb and learn new concepts.

Plus it’s fun!

###

Quick news about this blog and Unleash Your Confidence:

You may have noticed I have slightly dropped off the face of Earth for the last two weeks. (Yes, I can slightly drop off something. Shut up.) I’ve had a bunch of personal stuff going on, but I’m back and better than ever. In the foreseeable future, I will be posting roughly once a week, but I’ve got some other exciting stuff lined up to add to that.

As you’re also probably aware if you read Fun Life Development regularly, I’ve been working on an e-book called Unleash Your Confidence for the last couple of months.

Well, it’s nearly finished!

The official launch will be on Wednesday 9th March, at 12:00 GMT. Exactly two weeks from now. Mark your calendar.

{ 4 comments… read them below or add one }

Leigha February 24, 2011 at 01:04

I’ve noticed that when my classes have overlapping information (like last semester I had sociology and cultural geography, which were basically different angles of the same ideas), I learn things MUCH better, because I’m learning different ways of looking at the same thing in different classes, which interlock and also force me to look at how they’re similar and different. I’ve also noticed that even completely unrelated classes (like health and philosophy) tend to have some overlapping ideas, so if I can make that connection, everything is strengthened.

I sort of made a game of it last semester, trying to find overlapping ideas in all my classes. Some weren’t so much related concepts as simply mentioning a topic (say, the professor of one class mentions Paradise Lost around the time I’m reading it in another class). It was fun (because that is my idea of fun…not sure what that says about me), and it really helped cement things in my mind.

The other thing that helps most for me is also directly related to what you mentioned at the beginning…you said the commenters here tend to restate things. I would tell my boyfriend what we’d learned in my classes, and just telling him that day did a great deal more than studying would. Most of the time, anything I’d mentioned to him, I would remember. I suppose it’s a combination of what you said and the idea of “teaching someone else is the best way to reinforce learning,” or however that goes.

And I write really long comments…hmm.

Reply

Vlad Dolezal February 24, 2011 at 10:05

You’re absolutely spot on that “teaching someone else is the best way to reinforce learning”. I know one guy who’s been the world champion in a board game called Othello. (If you don’t know much about board games, it’s a bit like chess. A two-player turn-based game of pure skill).

He told me that he went from being merely a good player to becoming world class and eventually winning the world championships precisely because he started teaching a lot of people. He would play a lot online, and he started taking on a bunch of “apprentices”, so to speak, and explaining various concepts to them that he noticed they could use more.

There’s just something about explaining a concept to another person that deepens your understanding immensely.

It’s one of the secret selfish reasons why I’ve started this blog ;)

Reply

simply stephen February 24, 2011 at 13:55

Vlad…message rephrasing the words of this post….okay I won’t go there but it is good to see you back.

These are a couple of difficult virtues for many people to master. Being humble and not interrupting in order to listen so one can repeat or rephrase what is said. A challenge but certainly a worthy one….at 43 I am still practicing and trying to master it.

It’s interesting about what you and Leigha mentioned about the connection of one conversation to another. It is actually one method used by Harry Lorraine (the Dale Carnegie of memory) but he used to mention it was worth adding vivid pictures to the mix. That way you would never forget the picture and it would connect the information.

Anyway, good to see you back. Hope your exams and book writing have gone well.

Reply

Vlad Dolezal February 28, 2011 at 17:24

I was wondering if someone was going to be all meta and rephrase the information in this post. Looks like you resisted :)

And yes, not interrupting is a tricky skill to master. So worth it, though! (I would have jumped in to interrupt you right here, but blog comments don’t lend themselves to that.)

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