Nearly every super smart billionaire out there has the same advice for those looking to get ahead in life: Read more. Committing to lifelong learning, everyone from Warren Buffett to Jeff Bezos (not to mention a boatload of research) insists, is essential for success.
But while reading is necessary, it's not sufficient. You not only have to read; to put it to use, you also have to remember what you read. Do all the icons who consistently urge strivers to spend more time with books have anything to say on how to make sure what you learn actually sticks?
In fact, they do. And handily, the smartest minds out there often suggest the same simple technique.
No pattern, no memory
How do students of whatever age remember what they're taught? It's a question Bill Gates addressed in a recent interview with Quartz editor-in-chief Kevin Delaney. Echoing the experience of many of us, Gates explains that knowledge is often given to kids in a piecemeal way, sort of as a list of random facts to memorize. Unsurprisingly, kids often struggle to understand why it all matters, and the information ends up going in one ear and out the other.
That makes the biggest challenge in education today not developing great materials - the internet is already chock full of engaging lessons on just about anything you want to learn- but getting kids to understand why they're learning what they're learning.
"Why am I reading about Rome? I'm reading about Queen Victoria? And then there are so many different sciences. There's this-ology and that-ology. Are there an infinite number of these things? Which ones really count? At first it is very daunting," Gates acknowledges.
The key to overcoming this challenge so that knowledge sticks, he insists, is to build a mental schematic of the big picture -- a sense of how all these bits of knowledge fit together. He uses the metaphor of a chess grandmaster to explain that a mental framework helps learners remember more and reach mastery faster.
"It's like if you take a chess board and randomly place the pieces and ask a chess person to memorize it, they can't do it because everything about chess positions is about the logic of how things developed. So if you show them a position that's illogical or incorrect or that you'd never get to, their encoding system isn't set up to absorb it," he says.
For knowledge to stick it has to have something -- some broad story or web of ideas -- to stick too. "If you have a broad framework then you have a place to put everything, so you have the timeline or you have the map, or the branches of science and what's known and what's not known," he insists.
And Gates isn't the only brilliant billionaire saying the exact same thing. Elon Musk, in response to a question on Reddit, offered essentially identical advice on how to speed learning. "It is important to view knowledge as sort of a semantic tree -- make sure you understand the fundamental principles, i.e. the trunk and big branches, before you get into the leaves/details or there is nothing for them to hang on to," he advised.
How to build a big picture
How do you get a sense of that map, or tree, or framework, or whatever you want to call it? Just persisting is reading a lot about a lot of different things is a great start, but Gates offers one more suggestion too: Read history.
If you want to learn science, for instance, he suggests you read up on the history of science, which will give you a sense of how certain branches of knowledge developed, how they're connected to one another, and why people bothered to study them in the first place. The same is true of history. If you start with a broad overview that gives you a basic timeline of how civilization unfolded, it's easier to delve into individual aspects of what happened and how they fit into the larger narrative.
Having a big picture is the secret to remembering what you study, learning faster, and enjoying the process. "Getting kids a sense of how it all fits in early on, will make it less, 'Hey, there's just a bunch of random stuff here that I don't know where to put it in my head,'" he concludes.
It's equally good advice for adults committed to lifelong learning.