Repetition & Learning

Repetition is boring for most people. If we hear something over and over again, it gets annoying. Think of your least favorite television commercial and how you feel when it is repeated over and over again during a program or game you are watching. It can be like dripping water.

The same can be said for learning information. Once you have learned how to add 2 + 2, you are ready to move on to something more challenging. If your teacher began each lesson with how to add 2 + 2, it would become very tiring. Let’s move on to subtraction or multiplication.

For all we can say negatively about repetition, however, we have to admit it works. Advertisers know that even if you get annoyed at their ad that runs ten times during the game, chances are you will remember them when buying-time comes around. The guitar player knows that repeated practice hour after hour will lead to competence and fluidity in performance. The tennis player hits forehand after forehand after forehand. Why? Because repetition builds memory — in this case muscle-memory. Of course, it is important to repeat effective behaviors to avoid building bad habits. It is likewise important to learn accurate information in order to avoid believing what is false.

I have discovered that the more complicated a subject is, the more repetition I need in order to really get it. This is the reason medical school is not one semester long. It is the reason law school takes three years. It is the reason that becoming a master electrician is no walk in the park. Before I take a new medicine that my doctor has prescribed for me, I want to know that she really understands the anatomy of the human body, the chemistry of the drug, and why it is going to help me. I trust that she repetitively learned all she needed to learn to be competent to prescribe this medicine.

It takes patience and energy to learn via repetition. There is a biological function occurring as we learn. The brain is stashing information collected from our entire sensory system into various places for future access. The more complicated or unconventional the information, the more repetition is required. I have to give this biology time to work.

Two examples:

  • When I am learning how to effectively manage my personal finances I know that conventional wisdom will not help me. How do I know this? Most people are broke. What is “normal” is not working. To learn a more effective way of handling money requires repetition of some better way. This more effective way is not part of my cultural common sense, so I have to purposely and repetitiously learn this better way. If I stop listening to and learning the better way, I will fall back into the culture’s way, which I get through being part of the culture. As a matter of fact, the way I learned that cultural way of thinking and action about money came about through years and years of…repetition. I am only going to replace that way of doing things with something better if I use the same process — repetition. For me this means podcasts, blogs, books, and conversations with other weird people who are also repetitively learning a better way.
  • I am an American, and like many Americans I have struggled with my body weight. As with personal finances, what is normal in our culture is not what I desire. I desire to be healthy and thin. I desire to avoid the many negative health outcomes of being “normal.” How does a person break away from the cultural norm to begin eating in a different way and to get healthier? The answer is repetition. How many food messages does our culture (and agribusiness) repeat to us each day? That onslaught of information cannot be counteracted once and for all. It has to be counteracted continually and repetitively. Again, for me the repetition takes the form of books, blogs, podcasts, and conversations.

Whatever we want to learn is going to require energy. Our capacity to learn is rooted in language, which along with our large brains is our great advantage over the animal kingdom. We just have to be committed to learning the right things and be willing to put in the work required to make that knowledge an effective force in our lives. This is the reason that life-long learning should be an important part of your Forward Story and mine.

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

2 thoughts on “Repetition & Learning

  1. This is a very thought-provoking post, and I agree whole-heartedly. I would add, however, that humans to a certain extent can create the culture they live in. If every time that you became hungry, you drove to a fast food restaurant, your healthy choices would be fewer than if you made a habit of driving to a produce market. If you are getting a host of unproductive messages, you need to change your culture. You have obviously done this, Mark, as you mention books, podcasts, etc. Those whose culture consists entirely of commercial television, talk radio and viral videos are placing themselves in a toxic environment in which healthy thinking is not encouraged. It’s not possible to avoid all of the conventional wisdom and misinformation that pollutes our culture, but it is possible to avoid most of it and retrain the brain to evaluate the rest of it effectively.

    • Excellent points, Susan! In a free society we all have the tools we need to choose a different environment and to change our culture. When I see that the product of a certain culture or environment is not in alignment with the life I desire or the ambitions I have, I must make a conscious change. I may not always know what to do differently, but having the desire to make a change is the most important thing. I can begin with that basic desire to change and begin taking advantage of the best thinking in the world to help me go in a better direction.

      Michael Hyatt used a term recently on a conference call that really resonated with me. He said that sometimes you have to “lean into change.” It is similar to the experience of downhill skiers. Our natural tendency on a mountain is to lean back because of fear. That is the worst thing to do. To ski well you must lean down the hill. When we are ready to change our culture or environment, we need to trust that regardless of our fear, good things will happen when we lean into change.

Comments are closed.