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Brute-force learning: making the most of your always-on brain

June 29, 2009

The title comes from this post. I love the term: brute-force learning. And it seems to describe my attitude toward constant information, so I’m adopting it.

We’re all learning, all the time. We may be learning nothing more than that we really like sleeping or that Brangelina’s kids are really cute — but we’re still learning. The idea of brute-force learning is to make to most of that process, to barrage yourself with information in a productive way.

A constant stream of information can be a lot to take in, and sometimes you’ll want to slow it down or take a short break. And that’s OK. There are both small ways and large ways to implement BFL, and in my experience, it’s well worth it.

A few small ways to learn more:

  • Keep up with the news. Read newspapers and magazines. Listen to NPR. Subscribe to a hundred RSS feeds. Get a basic grasp of what’s going on at the local, state, national and international levels, and then focus on what interests you most. But don’t be afraid read/watch/hear something you wouldn’t usually — if the goal is to expand your mind, boxing yourself in isn’t going to cut it.
  • Learn a new word every day. Use it.
  • Ask questions.
  • Google everything. (People make fun of me for this, but I can’t tell you how much it’s taught me.)
  • Talk to people about their interests, especially if they’re different from yours. Find out why they like what they do. Sometimes, if they get on a roll about their passion for whatever, you wonder why you’ve never tried whatever yourself or what you missed about it when you did. It’s an inspiring feeling.
  • Question yourself. Question your motives, your tactics, your preconceptions. You might be justified; you might not. But explaining it to yourself keeps your thinking skills sharp.
  • Teach someone else. Share the information you’ve learned. And if you find you’re unable to explain it — well, it’s time to learn some more.

Those are fun. And they’re helpful. But even more important, I think, are the big BFL installations: projects. Sometimes projects start out as projects; sometimes you realize they’re projects partway through. Sometimes they’re explicit; sometimes they’re implicit. But projects are what make you a true brute-force learner and not just a trivia hound.

It’s hard to define a project, but it’s one of the things that keeps you up at night. Here are some of the ones I’m working on now:

  1. Cultivating an online persona and “personal brand.” I’m building this blog, keeping up on my Twitter, developing my FriendFeed and experimenting with social bookmarking. I’m owning my Google results and connecting everything. I’m working on what to say and where to say it.
  2. Reading up on Internet culture and business. I’m reading about the value and uses of social networking, business models for the Web, search engine optimization and other related topics. It’s broad, but everything’s tangentially related, and one thing leads to another.
  3. Reading up on world religions. I’ve recently started doing this again, but religion is a topic that’s fascinated me since I was in high school. Maybe junior high.
  4. Exploring Greensboro. There are so many things I want to do and places I want to see. I’ve heard great things about the Edward McKay bookstore. I’m hoping to see an old movie at the Carolina Theatre. And I just want to do some more wandering.
  5. Becoming an effective and somewhat active Wikipedia editor. Some people don’t approve of Wikipedia, but I think it has a lot of potential, especially for background information and as a jumping-off point for research. (On a side note, in most of upper-level academia, tertiary sources like encyclopedias are already off-limits. Why do professors feel the need to single out Wikipedia?) I thought I’d give back a little to the “community,” and I’m starting off small. The culture and protocols of Wikipedia are more complex than you’d think. My goal, eventually, is to expand at least one stub into a real article.
  6. Writing a manifesto. I haven’t actually started the “writing” yet. But I’ve been thinking about it. Inspired by things like this and this, I’m preparing to write down in black and white the things I believe in. This one gives me goosebumps.

Wow, this post is of epic length, and half of it’s basically about me. How self-important of me. So for your feedback, feel free to talk about you: What are your BFL strategies? How do you deal with information overload? What are your projects?

2 Comments leave one →
  1. Olga permalink
    June 29, 2009 3:09 pm

    Love the learn-more list. Wish I had the patience for NPR though.

    As for thinking/learning/tech burnout, here’s my approach:

    I eventually lose the ability think when all I do is process new information, be it entertaining or not, so I’d recommend reconnecting with nature/shutting off your phone/being by yourself to actually get some use out of whatever you BFL’d and figure out how to apply it. I get my “Aha!” moments from reprocessing new info in a different, tech/people-free environment than that from which I picked it up. So that usually involves late night/early early (possibly post-all-nighter early) morning, a car ride, walk and/or a park. Basically, it involves not being home, where your thoughts typically go in circles. Cuz, well, if you’re always looking at a computer screen (like I often do…) it gets infinitely harder to differentiate between your own thoughts and others’.

    Last summer I took it to an extreme – a summer camp job to recover from Cramped Cubicle Syndrome. It helped only up to the point where I began freaking out over no internetz/news. So I’d strive for a balance, but let nature/solitude/mosquitoes in to enhance the mix.

  2. Natalie DeBruin permalink*
    June 29, 2009 9:34 pm

    Good points, Olga. Unplugging lets your brain synthesize or organize or whatever other -ize it needs to do to cement the information. I’ve been deficient in my outdoors-time lately, so my brain mostly works things out while I’m in the shower or when I’m trying to sleep. It’s probably not enough. New priority for Project Greensboro: Find a nearby park. Off to Google …

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