Compound and Simple Learning Mindset
4 min read

Compound and Simple Learning Mindset

Compound learning is like compound interest. Relate the new things you learn to what you already know and create a compound effect.
Compound and Simple Learning Mindset

Three developers

  • Amy: has a Computer Science major and has been working a couple of years in a software company.
  • Bob: is a self-taught developer that started building websites for local businesses at age sixteen.
  • Carol: learned to code in a bootcamp and worked in frontend development for the last few years.

Assume that a new technology starts getting trendy, let's call it Rockchain, and they all want to learn it. Who will learn it faster? And deeper?

Relatable knowledge

My first answer when I thought about it was Amy. The CS major learned the fundamentals of CS; therefore, she already knows a lot about the field. But why did I have this first reaction?

Most of us have this first answer because we understand that knowing a lot about the same field helps with the new stuff when we learn something. So, in short, having relatable knowledge helps us learn new things.

It's a mindset

Here is the key, in my opinion: relatable knowledge has nothing to do with where a person has studied. Bob and Carol might have learned in a deeper way than Amy even though they didn't go to college.

I have met CS majors who have no interest, don't remember, or just are not aware of the connections between the subjects they learned in college. Instead, they see each subject, project, or technology as being independent of the rest.

On the other hand, I see many bootcamp graduates learning new technologies in a gist, asking questions relating to topics that I never thought were similar.

How we approach learning, not where, is the main key in relatable knowledge.

Simple Learning Mindset

We can learn each technology separately. In this case, we start from scratch each time, never taking advantage of our current knowledge. Most courses do not know our current knowledge; they assume a blank page and teach based on it.

I see this type of learning as the Simple Interest: never investing what we gained previously. That's why I like to call it a Simple Learning Mindset.

Compound Learning Mindset

To relate what we are learning to something we already know takes effort because we need to actively search for what we know and create relationships between topics. We need to get out of our comfort zone and search for those relationships ourselves.

Unless the course is customized, there is no help to create synapses between what's already in our brain and what we are currently learning. We need to create those connections actively.

Reusing what we already know is similar to Compound Interest. It's like using the interest received from previous investments in a new one. Hence the name Compound Learning Mindset.

Exponential Growth Bias

Unfortunately, we are not good at appreciating and understanding Compound Interest, and therefore, Compound Learning. Plenty of studies have shown that we have what is known as Exponential Growth Bias.

We underestimate the value of compound interest and exponential growth in general. This is because our brains are not wired to appreciate how powerful exponential growth is.

Wheat and chessboard myth

One example of Exponential Growth Bias is the Wheat and chessboard myth.

A king in India was so pleased with the chess game that he offered the inventor anything he wished. The inventor of chess said that he wanted wheat.

He wanted the amount of wheat resulting from placing one grain on the first square, two on the second, four on the third, and so on, doubling the number for each successive square up to sixty-four. The ruler laughed at such a small request and accepted it.

Yet, when they made the calculations, they saw that there was not enough wheat in all the world to fulfill the request.

The ruler got so angry at having been tricked that he decided to kill the inventor. (This is not on the Wikipedia page, but I like this final twist.)

Even at the risk of being executed, I still want to show you the value of Compound Learning.

Simple versus Compound Learning

Imagine a scenario with two people, one with the simple learning mindset and another with the compound mindset.

The simple mindset always takes three months to learn any new technology. On the other hand, the compound mindset takes six months to learn the first new technology. Yet, learning every other technology takes ten percent less than the previous one because every technology creates more relatable knowledge.

The simple mindset learns four new technologies every year. So how long does it take for the compound mindset to catch up?

This question is similar to the ones they make when figuring out the Exponential Growth Bias. Everybody guesses wrong.

It takes less than two years for the Compound Mindset to learn faster than the simple mindset. And it takes a little more than four years to make up for the lost time. Yet, after these four years, the difference is greater and greater.

Following this progression, after eighteen technologies (or four years and a half), the Compound Learner needs only one month to learn one technology.

I know, I know, this situation is not realistic at all, but the thought experiment and the results teach us a great lesson. And that is the point I am trying to make.

In our world, where new technologies appear almost every week and keeping up-to-date gives us an advantage at work, it's worth playing the long game and having a Compound Mindset.

It doesn't matter whether you are Amy, Bob, or Carol.

If you are playing the long game, have a Compound Learning Mindset.

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