How to Learn and Understand Anything

Jon Barney is an up-and-coming writer in the Orlando, Florida area (originally from Lafayette, LA, and has a lot of big ideas about a lot of things. Jon says he has an amazing wife and two kids, and he “loves the hotel restaurant industry and corny jokes,” which makes him a man after my own heart. Jon has an interesting process about he does a deep dive into any idea, process, or event that interests him.

We live in the information age. You can access the entire world from anywhere. Add in 24-hour news feeds, posts, tweets, snapchats, marketing and you are flooded with information.

The problem we face is overload. There is no way possible to download all the information thrown at us. Our brains are like sponges, absorbing information, but it reaches a saturation point. How much water can a full sponge soak up? None. Our brains operate in the same way — if we can’t fit new information into our brains, it gets swept away, and we move on to the next piece. Or we stop taking information in altogether.

Want to learn how an internal combustion engine works? Break down the process and redefine complex terms.

Want to learn how an internal combustion engine works? Break down the process and redefine complex terms.

To understand anything, turn on your childlike curiosity. When I was a kid, I was super annoying (some would say I still am) because I always asked “Why?” Every answer I received led to more and more questions.

After my mom said “Because I said so, that’s why” a thousand times, I realized my parents didn’t have the patience or knowledge to satisfy my curiosity. Instead, they sent me to school to let someone else deal with me for a while. I kept going off on tangents because the “broad overview” we were getting wasn’t enough. I wanted to dive into each subject, but knowing everything about American history doesn’t help you pass math. To satisfy my curiosity and keep my grades up, I had to learn to understand ideas at lightning speed.

I learned from that experience how important questions are. You have to ask the right questions to find the right answers. We all know that, but do we actually do it?

Think about these two questions “What is the meaning of life?” and “What is the meaning of my life?” Which one is easier to answer? The right question leads you to the key concept in the shortest amount of words. To find the right question start with the 5 basic ones: who, what, where, when and why. Answering those will help you create a more specific question and help you find your meaning.

Break Things Down to Their Smallest Digestible Parts

Let’s say I want to know how an engine works. I go through the 5 basic questions to form the right question. Who designs engines? What is an engine? Where do they make them? When was the first engine built? Why did someone invent the engine? The answers are difficult to understand because they are written by engineers for engineers.

I take all the research I’m doing and find any words or processes I don’t know and redefine them. (Good thing I have that Google Dictionary in my pocket.) Next, I remove technical jargon and insider slang from anything I’m reading and replace them with synonyms I already know. Using words you already know frees up your brainpower to search for meaning in the idea instead of being a dictionary.

You have all of this easy to understand information but not enough memory hold every detail in. Use the KISS formula — no, not painting your face — Keep It Simple Stupid.

How do you do that? Think of a deck of cards as your information, and break it down into groups. You know there are 52 cards, 26 of each color, 13 of each suit and 4 of each value. You have to do the same thing with information and go for the lowest common denominator.

It’s actually a complex process to understand and find meaning in things. You draw on all your life’s experiences, memories, emotions, opinions, life situations, and influences just to come up with something you can understand. That’s a lot of mental computing just to see if the story about increasing oil prices will affect you.

Making It Simple Makes It Stick

I mentioned breaking everything down in common language terms earlier for a reason: There is no point in having all the knowledge in the world if you can’t share it.

I had a sales job for a while, but not very long because I was terrible at it. I couldn’t sell water in the desert. One day my sales manager explained why I wasn’t selling anything.

“Jon, no one understands what the hell you are talking about. If you can’t explain it to a 5th grader don’t say it to your prospects!”

I quit eventually because I was tired of not eating, but I also learned two important lessons. Test your pitch on someone first. And big, fancy words are nice for term papers or to impress your snobby friends at the coffee shop, but they don’t help people understand complex ideas. Teaching someone else locks the information in your brain by building mental short cuts.

Understanding anything is simple if you can remember: to be annoying, ask smart questions, play cards and that no one cares if you know what sesquipedalian means.

Photo credit: Mj-bird (Wikimedia Commons, Creative Commons 3.0)

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    About Erik Deckers

    Erik Deckers is the President of Pro Blog Service, a content marketing and social media marketing agency He co-authored four social media books, including No Bullshit Social Media with Jason Falls (2011, Que Biz-Tech), and Branding Yourself with Kyle Lacy (3rd ed., 2017, Que Biz-Tech), and The Owned Media Doctrine (2013, Archway Publishing). Erik has written a weekly newspaper humor column for 10 papers around Indiana since 1995. He was also the Spring 2016 writer-in-residence at the Jack Kerouac House in Orlando, FL.