Active vs. Passive Learning
If I asked, which do you think will lead to a healthier, happier relationship:
An arranged marriage by someone who doesn’t know you.
Spending years meeting hundreds of people with different backgrounds, figuring out what you want and don’t want, and serendipitously meeting your partner only when you both happen to be ready to settle down.
The answer is obvious (to me, at least).
The first you could call active search. It’s managed on a timeline, has rules, and is done whether you’re ready or not.
The second, let’s call passive. You’re in control and you let it happen whenever it happens given what you want and where you are in life.
I think the same logic applies to what I’ve been thinking of as active vs. passive learning.
I’d define it like this:
Active learning: Someone tells you what to learn, how to learn it, on a set schedule, on pre-selected standardized topics.
Passive learning: You let your mind wander with no intended destination. You read and learn broadly, talk to people from various backgrounds, and stumble haphazardly across topics you had never considered but spark your curiosity, often because it’s the topic you happen to need at that specific time of your life.
I can’t be alone in realizing that most of what I’ve learned in life has come from passive learning.
Something I’ve learned as a writer is that writing for yourself is fun, and it shows, while writing for other people is work, and it shows. Doing something your way, on your own terms, because it fits your unique personality, is night and day compared with performing for someone else’s expectations.
Active learning – which you’ll recognize as school – not only has a wonderful place in life but has to be considered one of the greatest achievements of modern times.
The problem is assuming it’s the only, or even the best, form of learning. Or more dangerously: people who have only experienced active learning that isn’t right for their personality may become convinced that they hate learning, hate reading, hate being curious about the world … and then it spirals down from there.
What gets most people’s minds moving is stumbling across a niche topic that either fits their unique mind or is a missing puzzle piece for a specific problem they’re having in life. It’s hard to foster that with active learning. You need to let people’s minds wander aimlessly, waiting until they discover what’s right for them at the time they need it.
I like to keep two things in mind:
1. Don’t contain your learning to your own profession or major. Read and learn as broadly as possible.
A big part of passive learning is going out of your way to read and learn from the widest variety of topics you can, intentionally looking for similarities between different fields. When you do, you’ll be stunned at how easy and fun it is to stumble on a new idea that teaches you how the world works.
If you’re in business, you’ll be shocked at how much you can learn about moats and competitive advantages from biology. If you’re in biology, you’ll be shocked at how much you can learn about growth limits and evolution from business.
One problem with active learning is that it tends to be siloed, with math taught in one department, chemistry in another, English in a different building. It tends to keep topics boring, and lacking real-world context.
But if you study broadly enough you’ll see how interconnected every field is – many fields fall under an umbrella of “how the world deals with uncertainty and competition.” If you find something that is true in more than one field, you’ve probably uncovered something particularly important. The more fields it shows up in, the more likely it is to be a fundamental driver of how the world works.
It’s been like that forever. “The world is often wiser than any philosopher,” the journalist Walter Bagehot wrote in 1859. David Senra recently summarized Jeff Bezos’s mindset: “If you’re paying attention, the whole world is a classroom.” A classroom of passive learning.
Let me give you a strange example of how one topic teaches you about another.
Neil deGrasse Tyson once asked a group of college professors how much TV they watch. He explained:
About 15% of the audience actively watched any number of hours of TV per week. At the time the average person in America watched 30 hours of TV per week. I said to them: How could you possibly claim that you know and understand who you’re teaching? They have no idea about the influences going on in the mind of the person who you’re trying to teach.
Few college history professors think, “If I watch South Park I’ll better understand the minds of who I’m teaching, and I’ll become a better teacher.” And few people watching South Park realize they’re actually learning how a big part of society thinks. But that’s a quirky example of the kind of broad, multi-disciplinary learning that helps you make sense of how the world works.
Read broadly, watch broadly, discuss broadly, learn broadly.
2. Give employees time to think. Give yourself time to ponder.
If you, as a boss, expect that learning stops at graduation and employees are merely meant to produce work, you will get the kind of employees you deserve.
In 1870, 46% of jobs were in agriculture, and 35% were in crafts or manufacturing, according to economist Robert Gordon. Few professions relied on a worker’s brain. You didn’t think; you labored, without interruption, and your work was visible and tangible.
Today, that’s flipped.
Thirty-eight percent of jobs are now designated as “managers, officials, and professionals.” These are decision-making jobs. Another 41% are service jobs that often rely on your thoughts as much as your actions.
So many of these employees will do better work if they are given time to think, learn, ponder, discuss, and let their minds roam. But they often can’t, because so many bosses expect them to be at their desk, typing, moving a mouse, 40 hours a week until age 65.
Without time to passively think and learn, your education stalls between age 18 and 22, most of which likely consisted of active learning. It seems bizarre that as a boss you should give your employees idle time to do things that don’t look like productive work. But so many successful people found their key educational experiences during free time, passively, driven by their own curiosity and wandering minds.
The differences in outcomes among people with the same formal education are enormous, and a big reason why is that some people find the time to value passive learning, and others don’t.