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How The Internet Exploits A Bug In Your Brain To Keep You From Learning (And How To Patch It In 10 Minutes)

A while back, I had a problem with my car. The hubs wore out and needed to be replaced. I’d never done it before, and I’m not the handiest guy on Earth. But I know my way around a toolbox, and I’ve had success fixing other things, so I gave it a go.

Where’s the first place I turned to? The Internet, of course! But then a funny thing happened. I found too many tutorials. There were hundreds.  Some were simple. Others more complex.

“Which one do I follow?” I asked myself over and over. “Can I really do this? It seems more complicated now.”

I psyched myself out and spent a whole day just making sure I was “doing it right”—much longer than I’d planned.

Later, I realized this has happens all the time.

I started talking to friends who experience the same thing—simple problems that could be solved with intuition and a little trial and error become too complex once the Internet is invited to the problem-solving party.

To prove my point, I recorded the number or search results for a few different topics I find interesting:

  • How to be an entrepreneur: 254M results ( in .48 seconds!)
  • How to play golf: 775M
  • How to be a parent: 909M
  • How to change careers: 1.8B
  • How to overcome overwhelm: 2.4M (phew, just 2.4M…)

Goodness! How did we ever raise children before there were 909 million different web pages to tell us how to do it?

When you’re trying something new, your brain wants perfect information to be sure it’s done properly. But there are many ways to solve the same problem, and looking for help from a resource as vast as the Internet uncovers most of them.

Suddenly, fear, uncertainty, and doubt enter the picture.

For as amazing as it is, your brain isn’t great at dealing with a large amount of conflicting information. At least not naturally. You become overwhelmed.

This is a bug in the system. And the Internet—along with your endless searching for the perfect answer—is exploiting it.

The good news is a few changes to how you search for information can patch this bug and reclaim days, maybe even weeks, each year you’d otherwise spend second guessing yourself.

If you’ve ever struggled to get going on a new project or felt overwhelmed by how much you needed to learn, keep reading.

How We Actually Learn Things

In the 1960s, Malcolm Knowles—a doctor and education expert pioneered the research behind how adults learn things.

He uncovered some surprising things about what motivates us to learn but, perhaps unsurprisingly, he found the most effective teaching tool was a hands-on approach.

No matter what type of learner you consider yourself, you can probably agree that when you’re learning something new and trying to solve a difficult problem, things really click once you start moving your hands or applying the knowledge to your life.

Complex concepts make sense and difficult problems become easier to solve as you start to see how they fit into the way you already live.

How The Internet Short-Circuits The Learning Process

If I wanted to save myself a lot of time fixing my car, I probably could have avoided looking for a comprehensive guide from the beginning and just gotten started on the project. If I came to a point where I didn’t understand what I was doing, I could have then started looking for more expertise.

Instead, my brain wanted safety. It wanted to know I was going to succeed from the start; nevermind that a guarantee of success is elusive at best. I went on a hunt for the perfect solution. And the Internet provideth. Thousands of results! My hunt for the perfect solution led me to even more confusion.

This is how the Internet—home to the total knowledge of human experience—short-circuits the learning process and exploits a bug in your brain.

First, you go looking for the perfect solution because you’re unsure of your abilities and don’t want to expose yourself to risk. That search leads you to a frightening amount of information, and much of it conflicts with the rest. Finally, you’re paralyzed by indecision, and it keeps you from taking action—exactly what you needed in the first place to gain the hands on experience that would cement the knowledge you needed and build confidence in your abilities. It’s a vicious circle.

But this need not be the case! With just minor adjustments to how you look for information and solve problems, the Internet can become a valuable tool that actually speeds up the learning process.

Here’s what to do.

How To Patch The Learning Bug In Your Brain (In The Next 10 Minutes)

So now you know the two bugs you’re up against:

  1. The brain’s desire for perfect information.
  2. The brain’s lack of action when faced with overwhelming information.

Here’s what you can do to patch these bugs and actually speed up the learning process. And, of course, the best way to do it is with a hands on demonstration. So get ready to do a bit of work.

  1. Think of something you’re procrastinating on. Maybe you need to fix something but don’t know how. Maybe you want to start a new project or learn to play an instrument. Write down what you want to do.
  2. Figure out the first step to getting started. You might know what this is already, or it may be so new you need to search for it. If you do need to search for it, do not look past the first page of results, and don’t do more than 5 different searches to find the information you need. This should be more than enough information to give you a strong indication what your first step should be. Write this down.
  3. Now, shut your computer (but not before reading the rest of this!). Your next action is to step away from the computer and use your brain unaided by the Internet. Think about this first action you’ll take, and create a plan for how you can get started with it in less than 10 minutes. This will change depending on the goal you’re trying to accomplish. If you’re just trying to fix your smart phone, it could mean getting out a screwdriver and taking the faceplate off. But if you’re doing something more abstract like deciding where to go to college or how to start a business, it might be writing down what you want your major to be or who you’re going to sell to.
  4. Repeat steps 2 and 3 for each stage of the learning process. When you get to a point where you don’t know what to do next, search online again for an answer.

The point of this process is to give your brain a bias for action. By giving it just what it needs to get started, you’ll have that “perfect information” you need, but it will only pertain to the task that’s directly in front of you. And by taking action as soon as you have it, you’ll keep yourself from searching for too many answers ahead of time which will only lead you to confusion and doubt.

Remember: There may be 800 million results on your search, but how many of them do you really need to get started and get your hands dirty vs. how many you need to comfort an insecurity?

As you repeat these steps, you’ll build confidence in your ability to problem solve, which will help you avoid the murky jungle of confusion when something similar comes up in the future.

The Internet is one of the greatest tools ever invented to aid and improve our lives, but it still has some dangerous side effects that can exploit imperfections in your brain that keep you from learning and acting.

Thankfully, you’re now equipped to navigate around them. So go on and do so! And leave a comment below letting me know what it is you‘re working on and how you’re going to patch these bugs in your own brain.

Additional Sources:
Hands-On Is Minds-On
The Adult Learner: A Neglected Species [pdf]
Malcolm Knowles
How To Scale Yourself