5 Things Smart Learners Do that Others Don’t

Being a learner is a must. But what kind of learner should we become? Fast learner? Being fast learner is good, but it’s not enough. Fast learners are just efficient (“do the things right”) but not effective (“do the right things”). What we need is becoming smart learners who are both efficient and effective.

I once wrote that the most important skill in this fast-changing world is “the ability to choose what to learn and to learn them quickly”. Smart learners master this skill well because they are able to both choose what to learn (which makes them effective) and to learn them quickly (which makes them efficient).

In this post I’d like to dig deeper to what smart learners do that others don’t. Smart learners:

  1. Sample broadly and learn selectively
    To be able to pick only the best stuff to learn, first of all smart learners figure out what all the available options are. They do so by sampling broadly. They look at a lot of different topics and get a glimpse of what those topics are about. After knowing what the available options are, they selectively choose a few topics to learn further.
  2. Have a sense of current and future trend
    How do they select the topics they are going to learn? This is where their anticipation engine comes into play. To be able to select the right topics to learn next, smart learners have a sense of current and future trends. They know how to anticipate the future. This ability helps them pick the right topics to learn.
  3. Know when to stop
    In learning something, smart learners know when to stop. They will learn something only as long as the return they get is higher than the value of time they invest. They understand that diminishing returns applies.
  4. Know how to use Pareto principle
    Pareto principle says that 80% of the results comes from 20% of the causes. This principle has actually been used in step 1 when smart learners sample broadly but learn selectively. Smart learners also use this principle to figure out the 20% part of the material which will give 80% of the knowledge. They will then concentrate their effort on that 20% part. This way they can achieve their purpose in the shortest possible time.
  5. Know how to use Parkinson’s law
    In The 4-Hour Work Week, Tim Ferris pointed out that Parkinson’s law can be used in conjunction with Pareto principle to increase our effectiveness. While using Pareto principle smart learners limit what they learn only to the most important things to save time, using Parkinson’s law they limit the time for learning to make sure that they learn only the most important things. They make sure that they allocate only enough time to grasp the most important parts of the topic without being distracted by the less important parts. One way to apply this is using timer to limit the learning time.


  1. Yes I agree with you on the whole, but the mentioned pareto principle is more about justice than the expressed measure of injustice.

    I think it just means that there is no better state, if someone is improving the very own situation by worthening the situation of someone else. This is how I understand the pareto principle.

    Thank you for sharing this story with me !

  2. Great points. I think some people get caught up in reading – thus learning – about things they think they should know but might not. Kind of like taking vitamins. If something doesn’t interest someone, it may not be worth learning since they’re not really going to learn it well anyway.

  3. @Lona:
    Interesting thought. From what I read in the Wikipedia entry, Pareto principle was originally used to describe the distribution of wealth in Italy. But it is now used in many new contexts like the one I use here. So I think it’s normal if different persons use it in different contexts.

    I fell into the same pitfall you mention. I got caught up in reading something I thought I should know while actually it wasn’t necessary. I ended up wasting much of my time. Now I try to be more selective with my readings.

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