Compounding effect of learning

Learning feels like a slow, progressive process. It feels like everyone is stuck in the same morass and will end up in the same place.

The reality is that small differences in the pace of learning can make huge differences down the line. Even more important than the pace is the daily quantity of learning. Two hours a day vs one hour a day of focused intense learning and practice over the course of years results in knowledge and skills many times higher, not just double.

Selection of what to learn is critically important. Many kids are pushed by their parents to develop very high levels of skills in areas that will not benefit them in life. Football, ballet, violin, and skills like that may have a place in life, but in my opinion are not nearly as important as skills to survive and thrive like entrepreneurship, farming, and using tools. Most superb football players without other skills spend most of their lives in low end jobs, often ending up careworn and unhealthy due to no free time. Most superb entrepreneurs spend most of their lives doing anything they wish after having some business success and are healthy and happy.

As a little kid, I was a decent learner, but nothing special. I remember kids who knew more than me and could pick up new skills and concepts faster than me. I was middle of the road early on until I developed a true love of reading. My parents didn’t have a TV, so I spent many hours every day reading all sorts of fiction… By the time high school came around, my reading comprehension was higher than my peers. I still had poor grades till my senior year because I did all my homework in class as I considered my home time sacred.

My friend Justin, son of a roofing entrepreneur, got me to start a landscaping business with him at 17. It only lasted three months, but it was a firehose of learning for me and I never forgot it. College was mostly a waste as I became a heavy alcoholic. I had a couple of good classes at UW though… Microeconomics, intro to law, intro to business accounting. And I learned a lot about people, first in the dorms then in a fraternity (basically a wolfpack).

My learning got back on track around the age of 24, a year before I started my own business. I signed up for a programming course, then worked through a couple of programming books. At this point, I was similar to many of my peers from a learning standpoint. A few, like Levi and maybe Nick, were far ahead of me.

When I started my own business, Coalition Technologies, I began learning at a very fast rate and at a very high volume. I spent 7 days a week, 12 hours a day either working or learning, often both. Most of my peers at this point were focused more on having fun or starting families (and families are more important than business success btw). I am not the smartest or quickest guy, but I am the most persistent. By 27 years old, learning at this pace had brought me neck and neck with my most knowledgeable and skilled peers like Levi.

I continued that pace until I was 32 when my wife became pregnant and we bought our first house and I joined a country club and became obsessed with golf for a year. Most of my peers had spent those years not as focused on learning as I had, whereas I had built up a massive advantage by reading probably a hundred business autobiographies and how tos, programming three massive business toolsets for my company, and spending thousands of hours learning and doing business skills like recruiting, training, HR management, accounting, finance, legal, etc.

Knowledge and skills deteriorate when not used. The last seven years since I was 32 have seen my business skills lose their brilliant cutting edge. I have worked 3-6 hours a day during this period (mostly emails so not nearly as intense or valuable) so the skills are there, but not growing like they did except in a couple areas like high finance and maybe a bit of senior leadership.

I still love to learn and have developed whole new skills in this period: golf (useless frustrating waste of time), construction, heavy equipment operation, mechanical things, finance programming.

The reason I share this story is to illustrate that learning has massively compounding returns if done in the right areas.

I now spend a significant portion of my time and effort trying to help my kids learn. Their learning time has a far higher payoff than my own time. I think they learn at least 100x faster than I do as they are so young. I am trying to help them have fun and gain as much of a life advantage as possible in this time of fast learning.

Here is a rough guess at learning speed by age:

My grandpa is 87… Let’s call him capable of learning 1 new unit a day. Of course he has 87 years of knowledge and experience, which is a massive advantage unto itself.

I am 39, I think my brain is capable of learning 10x the speed of my grandfather.

My learning at the age of 25 was probably 5x what I can do now, so 50x my 87 year old grandfather.

My brother Josh at 16 years old I think was a 4x faster learner than me at 25… So maybe 200x an 87 year old brain.

My 3 year olds learn maybe 10x faster than a 16 year old… But since they are starting from near zero knowledge it seems slow. So 2000x an 87 year old brain

And my 10 month old baby learns massive new amounts daily, but it is all super basic things like standing and toddling. He might be 10x beyond the 3 year olds, so 20,000x an 87 year old brain.

My kids are going to live their own lives and have their own interests, but my hope is to instill a lifelong love of learning and to make sure they learn skills for surviving and thriving before adulthood. I am leaning towards homeschooling so they can learn at their own pace, not the pace of the slowest and least advanced kid in the classroom. My concern here would be socialization, but I think this is overrated possibly. I will maybe send them for part days at school for recess and sports.

I want my kids to learn to love reading, to learn entrepreneurship, finance, legal, farming, tool usage, programming, and building things. They will also need to learn how to get along with others, and how to deal with bullies and bad actors.

Published by

Joel Gross

Joel Gross is the CEO of Coalition Technologies.

2 thoughts on “Compounding effect of learning”

  1. Effective learning in my opinion is about one’s readiness to accept a lesson. You never know when/where this lesson will occur and if in fact you have the maturity to accept it.

    I like this idea of the risk/reward of playing football. I enjoy watching football. I even tried playing football but being one of the smallest players on the team and after three days of “hell week,” getting pummeled by kids twice my size, I quit. I still reflect on what it means to quit something but the lesson I learned here was that there are limiting factors to the challenges we tackle in life (sure, that pun can be intended). The deck was stacked against me here so, with the idea that I am on this earth for a limited amount of time, I failed fast here, moved on, and sought out where redirect my energy. Sure there are loads of small-framed successful athletes who prove “if there is a will there is a way” but if my parents told me I couldn’t play football because it was improbable I would succeed, what lesson would I have taken from that?

    Now fast forward to becoming a parent, my son wants to become a pro “footballer” as he calls it and I am torn about how I may intervene. Taking from my own experience (and the alarming studies about concussions at an early age) I will not be encouraging and in fact discouraging the idea if it really comes down to it. But therein lies the rub, by imposing my learning from personal circumstances he may be denied a lesson that could be valuable to his own life and the dots he will later connect on his own.

    The arts, trades, vocational education, sports all seem to be the first on the chopping block when it comes to parental opinions and programming at schools (well maybe not $$$ making sports for schools). I agree that the act and openness to learning should be a primary focus but I don’t think that can be defined by subjects (one having more importance over another). Similarly, I spent most of my 4+ years in higher education getting very expensive lessons on socializing, living on my own, drinking too much and wondering what I should do with my life.

    The biggest learning curve I have had has been in the last 5 years of my life being a father, owning several businesses, and working in taxes. These have been the years when I have been open and receptive to the day’s lessons because they really matter not only to the clients I serve but for the people I
    care for including myself.

    So I ask what lesson or subject is there that we focus on that empowers our children to be more successful? I don’t think there is one or a specific set that equates to success. The path we choose and where we end up is really only discovered by reflecting on our past. This is what defines us, it is what makes us unique and an expert in our field wherever we may land.

    David Epstein’s book “Range” discusses how Roger Federer’s mother was a tennis coach but she never coached him and in fact he more preferred soccer growing up. Shrinky-dinks inspired a new smaller microchip design FFS!! These are outliers but demonstrate that the greatness of abilities and ideas comes from all places and that is why as parents we must serve our children as guides and not authoritarians. Put the foundational work in but allow them to wander, contemplate and play. While it is invaluable to establish a good foundation of learning I think it is imperative to allow our children to seek out whatever excites them.

    1. Excellent points, Scott! I do think there is a lot of value in trying a wide range of activities and testing skills and interests in each. Many great inventions and discoveries have come when someone is able to connect two seemingly separate fields in a novel way. We do have limited time on earth though and all activities are not equally able to contribute to a person’s quality of life. Using your example, your son is interested in football because he sees you are interested in it… what if you showed him more of your interest in another area, like entrepreneurship or something? My guess is he would also follow along with you into that new area. Or even better – you could take everything you know about him and his strengths and introduce him to an area you think he will love and that will also be profitable long term to him. Thoughts?

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