If It’s Important, Learn It Repeatedly

October 16, 2019

A little more than a year ago, a friend took me for lunch in downtown Toronto, and we talked mostly about what we’d been reading. Immediately afterward she marched me to a nearby bookstore and insisted I buy Cal Newport’s Deep Work.

She was the second person that week to describe it to me as potentially life-changing, so I bought it with great enthusiasm. Later that day, I sat reading it in a tea shop for two hours, riveted by the possibilities of working in the uncompromising, undistracted way Newport described.

I’ve had that feeling many times while reading non-fiction books—the “hot lightbulb effect” of being aware you’re reading the right ideas at the right moment in your life. I’d stopped in Toronto on the way home from an inspiring chautauqua experience in Ecuador. The trip that had culminated in an unforgettably moving group discussion, during which each of us declared heartfelt resolutions about how we wanted to live the rest of our lives. I was determined to return to work with unprecedented focus and clarity, and now I’d found the perfect guide to doing exactly that.

The window to act on a timely idea is very small. The heat of inspiration only lasts a few days, or even hours, and if it runs out before you’ve formed and implemented a plan, you’re essentially back at the status quo. 

By the time I finished the book, the clarity was mostly gone. I still had a general sense how I wanted to change things, but the practical details were now cloudy and jumbled. I tried a few things but in the end I more or less carried on as before.

I’m sure the Germans or the Japanese have a word that means, precisely, “Life-changing ideas that do not change our lives because we only read about them once, agree enthusiastically, and then forget them before we act on them.”

If not, we could use one. How many times has your mind been set ablaze by a profound truth from a book, podcast, article, or a speech, only for the idea to fade before you could do anything with it? How many millions of people read Steven Covey’s 7 Habits of Highly Effective People eight or ten or twenty-five years ago, agreed with it wholeheartedly, and never became highly effective in any of those ways?

Alain de Botton, in another wonderful book I read and immediately forgot, identified the problem, or at least a major part of it: when we only learn something once, we don’t really learn it—at least not well enough for it to change us much. It may inspire momentarily, but then becomes quickly overrun by the decades of habits and conditioning that preceded it.

In his Religion For Atheists, he identifies a number of things religious institutions have always done very well, and which our secular education systems have consistently failed at. When it comes to teaching important ideas, religion makes extremely effective use of repetition. If an idea is important, they teach it again and again.

From his article based on this aspect of the book:

For them, it was absurd to imagine ever learning anything if you went through it only once. The whole basis of religious education rested upon repetition. Five times a day as a Muslim, one was to rehearse the central tenets of Islam; seven times a day as a Christian Benedictine monk, one was to revisit the lessons of scripture. As an orthodox Jew, 300 days a year were marked out for commemoration and ritual repetition of ideas in the Torah, while as a Zen priest, one would be inducted to sit cross-legged and meditate up to twelve times between daybreak and nightfall.

Setting aside any reservations about what they teach, religious systems have long emphasized what the secular world tends to overlook: if it’s important, it warrants learning repeatedly.

“By contrast,” de Botton writes, “modern education adheres to an implicitly bucket-like theory of the mind: one pours in the contents and, bar accidents, they’ll stay there pretty much across a lifetime. That’s why we’ll think nothing of earnestly declaring a book a favourite—and deigning to read it only once.”

Bringing a truth to mind repeatedly gives it an enduring, three-dimensional existence in your head, by reaching you in every mood and every context, in every season, both at times when you’re enthusiastic about it, and when you’re tired of hearing it.

If you’ve ever read a book a second time, you may have noticed that it’s an entirely different experience from the first time. It doesn’t feel redundant or repetitive. Instead, it feels like gaps are being filled in. Different details strike you as important. The points you do remember now have the benefit of context, and much of it seems entirely new.

I’m sure I’ve said to many people that Deep Work “had a major influence on me.” It did, but that influence didn’t quite extend to my behavior, just to my ideals. The ideas weren’t in my mind frequently enough.

It is extremely important to my ideals. The dense, undistracted, boundaries-first working style described in the book is exactly how I want to operate. So in my case it warrants a second read, and a third read, perhaps many more, as I implement its increasingly familiar ideas. This level of repetition wouldn’t cost much—if, say, every ten books, I reread this one instead of starting a new book—and it would undoubtedly change my life.

That’s just me though. For you, the “great idea that got away” might be in a different vein entirely. You may have taken a simple living course that felt perfect for you, but didn’t change your lifestyle. Maybe you loved Julia Cameron’s The Artists Way, but never made it past Week Two. Or perhaps it was a spiritual text after all—the Tao Te Ching, the Dhammapada, the Gospels.

Not every idea is truly important, but if it is, go back to it. Get to know it. Fill in the gaps. If it’s worth learning, it’s worth learning repeatedly.


By David Cain of Raptitude, a blog about getting better at being human. 

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