The 4 Approaches Towards Direct Learning
After getting a degree in architecture in Canada, Indian-born Vatsal Jaiswal began to hunt for a job. This was just a few years after the 2007 market crash, so finding a job was a Herculean task. Even experienced architects were being laid off.
Discouraged, most of Vatsal‘s classmates took up jobs outside the field, went back for more education, or moved in with their parents until the economic chaos subsided. Vatsal stayed his course, sending his CV to as many companies as he could. But he heard nothing from them. So he paid unsolicited visits to dozens of offices and pleaded to have a word with the person in charge. Nothing. Nada.
Vatsal could sense that the problem was deeper than the fragile economy. From the limited feedback he got, he could put together the pieces to guess why companies were reluctant to hire him.
Vatsal’s knowledge in design and architecture was theoretic, as is the case with most things we learn at school. He didn’t know anything about the reality of construction costs, detailed technical documents, and tricky software that companies used. Hiring him would involve a lengthy training process, something few companies could afford.
Vatsal realized that he had to show he was not a burden, but a useful team member who could get to work from the first day. So he devised a plan.
First, Vatsal would need to know how architects actually drew plans for buildings – not just theories but also practical details. Like what codes they used to represent different materials, what the drawings showed and omitted, and more.
To learn this, he landed a job at a large-form print shop that did printing on large sheets of paper which were favored for architectural blueprints. This job didn’t just help him scrape through financially; it also exposed him to the blueprints such firms used, through which he absorbed how they assembled their drawings.
Alongside, Vatsal upgraded his technical skills. From his walk-in visits, he was aware that his target firms used a complex design software called Revit. At nights and on weekends, he took online courses and taught himself the software.
Finally, it was time to bring his plan to fruition. Vatsal combined his knowledge of architectural drawings with that of Revit to reconstruct his portfolio. Instead of highlighting his assorted university projects, he built his own design: a three-tower residential structure with modern aesthetics. The project further stretched his skills with the software, making him more proficient at it. He even learned new methods and ideas beyond the knowledge from the printing shop.
A few months later, he was ready. This time he submitted his portfolio to just two architectural firms. Both of them offered him a job immediately.
Vatsal stood out from the crowd by learning skills that were useful for the job profile he wanted. Meanwhile, his peers were competing with each other with portfolios that didn’t impress in the real world.
You can’t learn to swim by walking around the pool.
The above case study appeared in Scott H. Young’s book Ultralearning. In it, Young also discussed why traditional learning methods fail despite being widely prevalent.
We all want to progress in our careers or achieve certain personal goals. Yet, Young believes many of us build the wrong set of skills in this pursuit. We try to learn a language by playing on fun apps rather than conversing with actual people. We try to learn investing by pouring through books, articles, and courses rather than tracking stocks. We try to improve our communication by buying a book on the subject instead of giving presentations.
In Ultralearning, Young wrote:
“Directly learning the thing we want feels too uncomfortable, boring, or frustrating. So we settle for some book, lecture, or app hoping it will make us better at the real thing.”
Such a traditional learning approach fails to teach us how to apply our skills. The result isn’t just that people struggle to stand out in a crowd. It’s also that they collect an assortment of tools with no knowledge on how to use them.
In his book, The Unschooled Mind: How Children Think and How Teachers Should Teach, developmental psychologist Howard Gardner pointed to a body of evidence that emphasizes this point. He found that even “students who receive honors-level grades in college-level physics courses are frequently unable to solve basic problems and questions encountered in a form slightly different from that on which they have been formally instructed and tested.”
Traditional learning techniques make us comfortable, but they rarely help us achieve our goals. A better approach is the direct learning model Vatsal Jaiswal used. It involves tying your learning close to the situation or context you want to use it in, and it yields exceptional results.
Here are four approaches Young proposes to engage in direct learning:
#1. Project-based learning:
Many people learn best by working on projects instead of attending classes. The rationale is that pursuing such a goal guarantees that you’ll at least learn how to produce it. On the other hand, by only attending a lot of classes, you’ll collect plenty of notes but won’t know where to apply them.
Designing your own website or video game if you want to learn either of those skills is the best example. Writing is also best learned by publishing online.
#2. Immersive learning:
This involves placing yourself in the target environment in which the skill gets practiced. As a result, you get larger amounts of practice faster, and a range of situations where you can apply your skill.
For instance, if you want to learn how to program software, you could join open-source projects to expose yourself to new challenges. If you want to prepare for a marathon, you could join a group of runners who have competed in marathons before.
#3. The Flight Simulator Method:
The immersive model is not ideal for all skills. If pilots and surgeons learn hands-on, it could prove costly and fatal. That’s why they cut their teeth for extended durations on simulators before they enter a live environment.
You could use such a model if immersive learning is expensive or risky. For instance, you could learn Spanish by speaking to a tutor on Zoom instead of traveling to Barcelona to immerse yourself among people who speak the language (unless you want to watch La Liga games in the Camp Nou stadium as well). You can learn the basics of value investing or trading by playing simulation games instead of risking your savings upfront.
However, it’s important to not equate the simulator with the actual learning process. Such a model is only the beginning; real learning always occurs in the real world.
#4. The Overkill Approach:
This approach means putting yourself in an environment where the demands are extremely high. That’s why you’re unlikely to miss important lessons or feedback.
One way to go overkill is to sign up for a test, challenge, or performance above the skills you currently require. Take public speaking. At your local Toastmasters’ club, you’ll give short speeches and get encouragement from other participants. But if you volunteer to make a presentation to your boss’s boss, you’ll have to up the ante exponentially. If you want to learn a new language, your teacher will encourage you to learn slowly. But if you’re feeling adventurous, you could take a language exam.
This can feel frightening. You might feel like you’re “not ready.” But if you can overcome the initial discomfort, the rewards and quick and long-lasting.
“He who can go to the fountain does not go to the water jar.” – Leonardo da Vinci
Traditional classroom-style learning keeps you stuck in your comfort zone. You learn just for the sake of checking off boxes for facts learned. It’s like driving without a destination in mind. It’s fun sometimes, but do it often and you’ll waste fuel, time, and money.
Direct learning pushes your limits, expands your mind and skills, and offers exponential results. It’s like investing in high-quality stocks. For long periods of time, nothing happens. But when spikes occur, they’re rapid and sustainable.
Direct learning helped Vatsal Jaiswal stand out in a sea of recent graduates. It will help you achieve your goals too, regardless of how outrageous they may appear at the moment.
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