How to Become a 'Learning Machine'

Doc's note: Longtime readers know I've talked many times about the importance of keeping your brain healthy. One of the best ways to do that is to keep learning.

So today, I'm sharing an essay from Whitney Tilson. In it, he explains how to get the most out of your day and become a "learning machine."

There's a quote from legendary investor Charlie Munger that's stuck with me for years...

I constantly see people rise in life who are not the smartest, sometimes not even the most diligent, but they are learning machines. They go to bed every night a little wiser than they were when they got up, and boy, does that help, particularly when you have a long run ahead of you...

Develop into a lifelong self-learner through voracious reading. Cultivate curiosity and strive to become a little wiser every day.

Last week, I told you that if you can reduce your distractions and carve out 12 focused hours a day for work/study/learning, you'll be well on your way to success. But you can't do just anything with those hours. The real key is how you use them. You must become a learning machine...

To become one, ask yourself some questions:

Am I keeping up with the world? It's critical to develop the habit of reading a major newspaper every day like the New York Times, the Washington Post, or the Wall Street Journal.

Where in my life am I doing a deep dive? It's important to develop a broad range of knowledge, but equally important to go very deep in a few areas in which you want to become an expert. Such areas for me include investing, school reform and, more recently, criminal justice reform. To a lesser extent, I've also studied the Navy SEALs (including signing up for two grueling weekends with ex-SEALs), the opioid epidemic, political advocacy, all things related to Africa (where my parents and sister live), and extreme sports/adventures.

Am I reading more than my social media feed? If most of your reading is Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and/or Snapchat, you're in trouble. True learning comes from reading high-quality books and in-depth articles by top journalists.

I try to consistently make the most of my 12 focused hours, especially when it comes to reading.

I've always been a bookworm. For as long as I can remember, I've read books constantly – even curled up under a blanket with a flashlight in the back of the family car.

It's a great habit that stayed with me into adulthood – until the Internet came along, when my reading increasingly shifted to e-mails and articles on my various devices. It got so bad that I was lucky to read one book a month.

But then I discovered Audible...

It's made a huge, positive difference in my life to substitute listening to books rather than music when I was driving, biking, jogging, working out, making lunch, walking around town, etc. Basically, anytime I can't read, I'm listening to something: either a book, a YouTube video, or a podcast.

I've trained myself to listen to nearly everything at high speed – 2x on YouTube and 2.5x for most podcasts and Audible books. It has been absolutely transformative, allowing me to absorb vastly more information. A typical audiobook is 12 hours, so I'm cranking through more than a book a week, which is such an incredible gift that enriches my life.

I told my cousin about this trick recently and he went nuts: "I never knew this – you've changed my life!"

I won't lie and say that I can understand and retain as much information at such high speeds, but I'm so used to it now that I suspect there would only be a 5%-10% difference if you tested me on what I'd just listened to. I'll take that trade-off all day long.

Reading is critical to build a foundation in an area you want to master. But if you want to be a true learning machine, you need to train...

The Importance of Getting Training

If you're really smart and disciplined, you can make a lot of progress on your own, but to really master a subject area, profession, or other high-level skill, you're going to need training. In his book The Talent Code, Daniel Coyle says bringing true talent to light requires three ingredients: coaching, motivation, and practice.

Think about it...

How does someone become a top-notch surgeon, musician, teacher, or pilot? In each case, they go to school to learn the basics and spend a minimum (as bestselling author Malcolm Gladwell notes) of 10,000 hours practicing. A key part of learning is becoming an apprentice to one or more people who teach them the higher-level skills that can't be learned in the classroom.

No one becomes an expert investor on their own. The real ascension up the learning curve will only happen if someone with more experience to teaches you. Legendary investor Julian Robertson's Tiger Management is a great example of this: so many of his protégés have launched successful, multibillion-dollar hedge funds that there's a name for them: "Tiger Cubs."

The world is simply too competitive these days to only be a smart generalist. The best jobs (and highest incomes) are accruing to those who, yes, have a broad skill set, but also develop deep expertise in a particular area.

I've never been able to find the exact quote, but I vividly remember what Munger said about this at a long-ago Wesco annual meeting. He compared developing expertise to tennis: "When you're young, you should practice your forehand, backhand, serve, overheads, and net game. But at some point, if you have a particularly great forehand, you should structure your life so that all you do is pound forehands all day long."

Deep expertise doesn't come from the general knowledge and skills you acquire in elementary school, high school, or college – that's just the foundation. You need to figure out what you're truly interested in and passionate about and then do three things:

  1. Get a job at a great firm with a strong training program.
  1. Get a graduate degree in your field from a prestigious institution.
  1. Find multiple mentors to whom you can apprentice.

Get on a steep learning curve and never get off it. Every day, for the rest of your life, you should strive to not only keep abreast of the major events of the world, but also learn something new, to expand the boundaries of what you understand and are capable of doing.


Whitney Tilson

Editor's note: Whitney has been called "the most connected man in U.S. finance," and last week he shared his newest prediction with our readers: a strategy that he says could help you spot investments on the verge of rising 100%... 200%... or more.

For a brief time only, you can watch a free replay where you'll also learn the name and ticker symbol of "The No. 1 Retirement Stock in America."

If you're interested in hearing more from the man CNBC calls "The Prophet," watch the replay here before it goes offline.