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What Storytellers Can Teach You About How to Learn Faster

What Storytellers Can Teach You About How to Learn Faster
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    Storytelling is a demanding craft. Not only do you have to be able to write or perform the story accurately, you need to create vivid descriptions. Boring, complex or difficult to understand metaphors can turn an imaginative journey into a lifeless plot.

    You may not think of it deliberately, but learning is very similar to storytelling. You need to give yourself vivid, memorable and emotionally descriptions of the information. When you learn with compelling metaphors, information seems to stick easily. Without metaphors, ideas are dry and slip through your ears without a second thought.

    Metaphors and Holistic Learning

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    Awhile back I mentioned about how I use holistic learning to get good grades with little studying. My current GPA sits between an A and an A+, and I’ve aced many of my finals with no more than a fifteen minute scan before walking into the exam room.

    Holistic learning is based on the principle that learning works as a whole and not through rote memorization. When all of your ideas are connected together, it becomes far easier to remember them. When you have many different associations to the same idea, you can still retain the information even if you forget one association.

    The storyteller’s art of metaphor is crucial in holistic learning. Remembering mathematical concepts is easier when you have metaphors that relate them to real life events, not just symbols and equations. Becoming a storyteller with your subjects and using powerful metaphors can make even the driest subject stick.

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    How to Create Good Metaphors

    After writing extensively about holistic learning and metaphors previously, I’ve received comments from people asking how they can find metaphors for math, physics, biology, philosophy or some other subject. The problem with this approach is it believes that there is some universal metaphor for a subject. And that once you find that perfect metaphor you can use it to explain everything.

    Storytellers understand that there is no perfect metaphor. There are good, if incomplete, descriptions. I used the word “create” deliberately in this subheading. Attaching good metaphors to information you are learning is a creative act, just as it would be if you were describing a story.

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    That said, there are a few ways you can improve the quality of your metaphors and your ability to think of them. Coming up with metaphors isn’t as difficult as it sounds, but it requires that you drop your search for the perfect description and look for multiple, simplified images. Here are a few thoughts on becoming a storyteller with your studies:

    1. Isolate a Characteristic. Novelists often try to pick a single remarkable feature of a character to describe. Trying to give a complete image of an entire person would be incredibly difficult. Do the same thing with your studies. Pick apart only a small formula, concept or system that you want to create a metaphor with and build from there.
    2. Vivid is Better. Which creates a stronger image in your mind, “She was cold”–or–“She felt as if the wind was biting at her with small, icy teeth.” When looking for metaphors, visual impact is more important (at least early on) than perfect accuracy. You can fix up problems with false analogies later, focus on getting a good picture first.
    3. Quantity over Quality. Having ten metaphors to describe a topic puts you in a far better position than one really good metaphor. The more ways you can describe something, the more links you create to that idea inside your head. The more links, the more memorable your ideas are.
    4. Draw it Out. If finding a metaphor is difficult for you, pull up a piece of paper and start drawing concepts out. Forming rough diagrams make it easier to look for patterns or possible metaphors.
    5. The 10-Year Old Rule. Ask yourself if you could explain your metaphor to a ten-year old. If the answer is no, reformat it until you come up with a more vivid and easily understandable metaphor. Your goal with metaphors is to take an abstract or complex idea and anchor it down into something easy to understand.
    6. Processes Become Stories. If you need to learn a sequence of steps, or a process, use a story. Processes are mechanical, stories are human. What was once an abstract formula, computer algorithm or chemical transformation can become an interaction of different characters. Your brain was formatted to understand incredibly complex human interactions easily, apply that power towards non-human interactions.

    Taking Metaphors Further

    Who do you think could create a better story on the spot: you or Shakespeare? Ignoring the fact that good ol’ Bill has been dead for some time, in his life he had a lot of practice creating metaphors. All of that practice helps him as a storyteller.

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    Similarly, if you want to use metaphors to cut down your studying time, you have to practice. You have to make finding metaphors to lock in ideas a habit. If you are curious about building storytelling techniques into your studying I recommend taking on a short and simple 2-week challenge when you start hitting the books again:

    • Once a day, every day, for the next two weeks, pick at least one idea, formula or concept from your studies.
    • Write out that idea on paper and break it down until you can see it in front of you.
    • Then time yourself to come up with as many possible metaphors for describing the idea or part of it in the next 3 minutes.

    Repeating this metaphor exercise improves your ability to naturally see possible descriptions and images when you encounter new ideas. When metaphors happen automatically, any ideas you encounter become easy to remember.

    More by this author

    Scott H Young

    Scott is obsessed with personal development. For the last ten years, he's been experimenting to find out how to learn and think better.

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    Last Updated on July 10, 2020

    The Power of Ritual: Conquer Procrastination, Time Wasters and Laziness

    The Power of Ritual: Conquer Procrastination, Time Wasters and Laziness

    Life is wasted in the in-between times. The time between when your alarm first rings and when you finally decide to get out of bed. The time between when you sit at your desk and when productive work begins. The time between making a decision and doing something about it.

    Slowly, your day is whittled away from all the unused in-between moments. Eventually, time wasters, laziness, and procrastination get the better of you.

    The solution to reclaim these lost middle moments is by creating rituals. Every culture on earth uses rituals to transfer information and encode behaviors that are deemed important. Personal rituals can help you build a better pattern for handling everything from how you wake up to how you work.

    Unfortunately, when most people see rituals, they see pointless superstitions. Indeed, many rituals are based on a primitive understanding of the world. But by building personal rituals, you get to encode the behaviors you feel are important and cut out the wasted middle moments.

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    Program Your Own Algorithms

    Another way of viewing rituals is by seeing them as computer algorithms. An algorithm is a set of instructions that is repeated to get a result.

    Some algorithms are highly efficient, sorting or searching millions of pieces of data in a few seconds. Other algorithms are bulky and awkward, taking hours to do the same task.

    By forming rituals, you are building algorithms for your behavior. Take the delayed and painful pattern of waking up, debating whether to sleep in for another two minutes, hitting the snooze button, repeat until almost late for work. This could be reprogrammed to get out of bed immediately, without debating your decision.

    How to Form a Ritual

    I’ve set up personal rituals for myself for handling e-mail, waking up each morning, writing articles, and reading books. Far from making me inflexible, these rituals give me a useful default pattern that works best 99% of the time. Whenever my current ritual won’t work, I’m always free to stop using it.

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    Forming a ritual isn’t too difficult, and the same principles for changing habits apply:

    1. Write out your sequence of behavior. I suggest starting with a simple ritual of only 3-4 steps maximum. Wait until you’ve established a ritual before you try to add new steps.
    2. Commit to following your ritual for thirty days. This step will take the idea and condition it into your nervous system as a habit.
    3. Define a clear trigger. When does your ritual start? A ritual to wake up is easy—the sound of your alarm clock will work. As for what triggers you to go to the gym, read a book or answer e-mail—you’ll have to decide.
    4. Tweak the Pattern. Your algorithm probably won’t be perfectly efficient the first time. Making a few tweaks after the first 30-day trial can make your ritual more useful.

    Ways to Use a Ritual

    Based on the above ideas, here are some ways you could implement your own rituals:

    1. Waking Up

    Set up a morning ritual for when you wake up and the next few things you do immediately afterward. To combat the grogginess after immediately waking up, my solution is to do a few pushups right after getting out of bed. After that, I sneak in ninety minutes of reading before getting ready for morning classes.

    2. Web Usage

    How often do you answer e-mail, look at Google Reader, or check Facebook each day? I found by taking all my daily internet needs and compressing them into one, highly-efficient ritual, I was able to cut off 75% of my web time without losing any communication.

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    3. Reading

    How much time do you get to read books? If your library isn’t as large as you’d like, you might want to consider the rituals you use for reading. Programming a few steps to trigger yourself to read instead of watching television or during a break in your day can chew through dozens of books each year.

    4. Friendliness

    Rituals can also help with communication. Set up a ritual of starting a conversation when you have opportunities to meet people.

    5. Working

    One of the hardest barriers when overcoming procrastination is building up a concentrated flow. Building those steps into a ritual can allow you to quickly start working or continue working after an interruption.

    6. Going to the gym

    If exercising is a struggle, encoding a ritual can remove a lot of the difficulty. Set up a quick ritual for going to exercise right after work or when you wake up.

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    7. Exercise

    Even within your workouts, you can have rituals. Spacing the time between runs or reps with a certain number of breaths can remove the guesswork. Forming a ritual of doing certain exercises in a particular order can save time.

    8. Sleeping

    Form a calming ritual in the last 30-60 minutes of your day before you go to bed. This will help slow yourself down and make falling asleep much easier. Especially if you plan to get up full of energy in the morning, it will help if you remove insomnia.

    8. Weekly Reviews

    The weekly review is a big part of the GTD system. By making a simple ritual checklist for my weekly review, I can get the most out of this exercise in less time. Originally, I did holistic reviews where I wrote my thoughts on the week and progress as a whole. Now, I narrow my focus toward specific plans, ideas, and measurements.

    Final Thoughts

    We all want to be productive. But time wasters, procrastination, and laziness sometimes get the better of us. If you’re facing such difficulties, don’t be afraid to make use of these rituals to help you conquer them.

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    Featured photo credit: RODOLFO BARRETO via unsplash.com

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