What makes you successful at learning

The longest night this year is December 21st. This is a good time to think about the way we passed and the way ahead of us.
This year I have definitely made my share of mistakes, yet I learned a couple of valuable lessons. It is probably impossible to tell what makes people successful in life, since each of us will probably define success differently. When we talk about learning, it is easier to define success in terms of how fast we learned, how profound our understanding is and how effective we are using the things we learned to achieve our goals. Below I will tell you some things that I think most successful learners share. Some of what I will write is based on research and some on personal observation. I think that reading speed or memory accuracy may improve and speed up the learning process, produce better grades and free up some time, but will not generate ultimate failure or success experiences.

Strong motivation

It looks like a no-brainer until we start to dig deeper. It is quite easy to learn the things we are passionate about, but this is not always the case. Someone successful at learning is capable of generating passion to anything that needs to be learned. How? We addressed the subject of asking questions and generating perspectives several times in this blog. We should know quite well or at least we should want to know

  1. Why do we learn the things that we learn and how we can use them?
  2.  What pushed and motivated the people who researched and developed this knowledge?
  3.  How can we measure or express our understanding?
  4. What other memories or activities in our lives are connected to what we learn?
  5. What is the most effective way to acquire and transfer the relevant knowledge?

With these or similar questions and some practice, you can generate true curiosity and wonder no matter what you learn.

Good intuition

Intuition is not something we are born with, but some aptitude we build for each subject we learn. As we see specific examples our brain can generate patterns. Similar effects occur in so- called neural networks learning algorithms. These patterns are not always right, they are very hard to explain and systematize, and it takes some practice to create them. A novice will get a false sense of confidence and should not trust his intuition. As we get more practice and see more examples, our intuition becomes more reliable. Any new ideas we learn are immediately compared to our intuition, and thus we have a point of reference.

Another aspect of intuition is a frame of reference. Most of us feel much better learning things we can see and touch, or at least draw and visualize. Intuition helps us draw and visualize the complex things that we learn. Moreover, it connects the new knowledge to the knowledge we already mastered. It takes some effort to build intuition by being focused on the examples we see, but most of the work is done by automatic mechanisms of our brain. So intuition is really effective.


If you learn something and do not use it, you will probably forget it. If you can build something using your knowledge, build it. If you cannot build, dream about it, or tell someone about it, or argue with someone. Personally, I find this aspect of learning success to be the simplest to understand and the hardest to implement. It is also the most time-consuming part of learning.


Many subjects need to be learned systematically, where each level of understanding builds the foundation for the new knowledge. Many people want to “cut the chase” or “get to the point” and miss the foundations completely or partially. This is the best way to hinder your success in the long run. Deep understanding of the subject allows simple organization of new information in reasonable and effective structures. Memorizing and recalling things without understanding them is hard, frustrating and not efficient.


Our understanding of things changes and this is a normal process. We should be open to changes, and relearn something that needs to be relearnt. If something used us in the past, it may be too outdated to serve us in the future. Occasionally after we learn something just enough to use it, we need to relearn it from scratch and this time properly. Sometimes a teacher learns from students, and this is perfectly OK. We all make mistakes and need to be open learning from them. We should welcome criticism, adversity and reality checks. Openness is a basic character trait, some people find it easy and others struggle with it… Openness in specific situations can be developed with practice.

Check yourself

What do you find most challenging in what you learn? Below are some general ideas that may or may not imply in your case.
If you get bored work on motivation. If you think the subject is complex and technical you lack intuition. If the subject is abstract you need hands-on activity. If you end up memorizing a lot, you should be more systematic. If you feel you know everything about the subject, your have an issue with openness.

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