An easy and extraordinary system to learn how to learn

learn how to learn

“I desperately wanted to be the smartest person in the room. That created an engine inside of me.”

You may know Keith Reynold Jennings from his contributions this blog but what you probably don’t know is that he has an almost encyclopedic memory of useful facts, histories, and philosophies.

How in the world did Keith accumulate this vast knowledge? Well, it turns out that he has a process that anybody can learn. In this video interview, Keith shares the story of how he created his own process to “learn how to learn.”

When I learned about how Keith developed this process, I just had to record this for everyone. Here is a short video describing this amazing skill …

If you can’t see this video on learning how to learn above, click here.

Here is an edited AI transcript of this video interview:

MARK SCHAEFER

Before I introduce Keith that we get into this discussion I want to give you some context. What is the genesis of our discussion today about learning how to learn?

There are two data points. First of all, I saw an article — I believe it was in The New York Times — that was documenting how people are so overwhelmed with information in this crisis that they’re having a hard time discerning what’s important and what they need to sort of capture to become part of their life and become part of their narrative.

Then, Keith and I were having a friendly phone call, not long ago. And as he is often known to do, he inspired me and the fireworks, and then neural connections start firing. And he was telling me about a process he has to internalize information.

Let me give you an example of how this manifests itself in a normal conversation with Keith. Keith was really kind and was reviewing chapters of my “Marketing Rebellion” book before they were published. This was a typical comment from Keith: “Oh, Mark, I like this part. It reminds me of a post that Theodore Levitt wrote for the Harvard Business Review in 1962.”

Where’d that come from? Today, we’re going to learn where that comes from. How does this guy become this like fount of information and Genius-osity.

So, Keith. First of all, there might be some people who don’t know you. You’ve been a writer on my blog for about a year now and you’re starting to really make a name for yourself on the speaker circuit as well. So just give people a little background about who you are and what you do.

KEITH JENNINGS

Sure I’m a social impact executive for a company in Atlanta, Georgia, called Jackson Healthcare and I serve as Vice President of community impact.

So a lot of my day to day is focusing on how to educate and activate our 1,700 associates to go beyond profit and tap into a greater purpose. Beyond the day job, and the second part of that is I work with over 200 nonprofits, mostly in Georgia but many outside of Georgia as well trying to help them help bring a lift to their organization and the business they’re serving.

My writing, as you’ve seen, is really centered on, How do you see the familiar in unfamiliar ways and how do you get past biases and blind spots that we all have, and really trying to get to breakthrough ideas and breakthrough thinking and odd connections so our discussion is very consistent with that — what are the neural frameworks that either unleash us or hold us back.

MARK SCHAEFER

So, what happened in your life —  give me a before and after picture. What made you realize, that you need to change the way that you internalize information and learn?

KEITH JENNINGS

So I think this goes back to being a kid in a small North Georgia town. You and I have parallel stories, different regions but parallel stories, growing up in a town where I was a country kid, and the cool kids were the city kids.  I honestly think that is where I got an inferiority complex. This view that because you know you grow up and as you move around and you kind of, you know, you have a funny accent and made fun of you start to feel like and, you must be dumb because of the way you talk.

I just think I from an early age I just always felt uncomfortable in a room of people, I always felt like I was not the smartest person in the room. But I desperately wanted to be as smart or smarter than everybody in the room so it just kind of created this engine in me that made me feel like I have to be prepared … like it’s my responsibility to prepare myself, and if I’m going into a meeting, I’m going to make sure I know what we’re going to be talking about.

I truly think that’s what stirred me early on, and then I had an old boss — he gave me my first job when I left his company for my next first promotion. He gave me an audio cassette … remember cassettes — Tom Peters, The Pursuit of Wow. And of course, I was a literature major. I love literature and poetry, and I didn’t want to be a sellout business person.

And so I was just kind of like, “Yeah, thanks.” And that audio cassette sat in apartments over about three states, and I found myself in the mid-90s in sales and traveling these states by car so I’d leave the house on Monday. Come home on Friday, and you’re in a hotel room.

So I had a lot of time where I ran out of radio shows and ran out of good music. And I thought, I’m just gonna listen that stupid. Tom Peters audio cassette. And I fell in love with it. It was the first time I thought this is what it means to be in business, what the thinking and narrative can be about like. I wanted more!

Fast forward a few years, I found myself in a meeting. And I could quote entire paragraphs, from that book, because I’ve heard it so many times. And it was this aha moment because I remember people wondering, “how are you remembering that?”

So I actually found that if I am driving or walking,  or I can be doing the dishes, while listening to something. The key piece does have an imprint in my memory, and that was the start of what I guess what’s become the process I have today.

MARK SCHAEFER

Was there some tutor or mentor or article that you saw and said, “Aha. Here is the process to help me learn how to internalize what I’m learning?

KEITH JENNINGS

It was total dumb luck discovery, I didn’t have anybody guide me in that and this is all pre-internet you know as I’m trying to figure this stuff out.
We haven’t heard in a while.

I think intuitively being a literature major I create narratives out of things so I turned everything into micro-stories. And then those micro-stories, as neurosciences is proving, They imprint, they stick in your brain. And when I see something that looks or sounds like that these little narratives, they just kind of pop out of my brain.

If you would have asked me what I could do anything coming out of college — if money didn’t matter — I would have wanted to be a poet. That was my love and passion. And all poetry is, is juxtaposition. It’s the comparison — you taking something, and something else that doesn’t seem to live together — and you’re creating an aha moment, kind of connecting the two things together.

MARK SCHAEFER

So the first step in your processes is, whenever you’re doing your normal business reading, and you see identify something that you want to know. is this random inspiration or do you seek these things out?

KEITH JENNINGS

I wouldn’t say I’m an active seeker but I have obsessive curiosity like I just can’t turn my brain off. That’s just the way I’m wired and when it’s on it’s a problem.

MARK SCHAEFER

That’s the way I am now working on a new book. I can’t even sleep at night. My brain is talking to me in my sleep. I’m a hyperactive creator. I’m an HC!

KEITH JENNINGS

We should create a club.

This process is more about a state of being open. It’s a pursuit of serendipity, let’s call it that.

I like to go through the day just completely excited about what might show up. And so it’s part of just who I am like I have just made I made that decision consciously years and years ago.

It felt like a much better way to spend the day than you know slogging through it. Every conversation, every meeting, everything I read, everything I watch or listen to … I am just kind of waiting for something to surprise me. As soon as I get that spark, that emotion, like, that’s when I go deep.

MARK SCHAEFER

learn how to learn walter isaacson

So for you, it’s about connecting some dots. And it’s funny because I just wrote an article about this last year. I got to meet Walter Isaacson, the amazing historian, and author, and we were talking about the nature of genius.

He said genius is 1) a constant curiosity and 2) an ability to see patterns. And, you know, I would never claim that for myself but I am always constantly curious and investigative about a wide range of things and I do seem to be able to connect the dots of different things in my life.

It sounds like you do the same thing as you stumble upon these random things and connect these dots. And how do you make this part of your being, because I can’t do it? I have a terrible memory so I really need to know this process. I’ll read a book, and two years later I can’t even remember what was in the darn thing. So tell us about this key idea of internalizing these important lessons that you learn.

KEITH JENNINGS

To internalize and idea, I disassemble it and re-assemble it. Imagine getting a box of Legos, and it’s a  starfighter from Star Wars. OK. It’s a starfighter but it’s in a bunch of pieces. In my mind, I take an idea completely apart like a box of Legos so when you open that box and you’ve got all the colors kind of separated in the shapes and little individual packages. I take the idea and start by looking at all the building blocks —  where did it come from, where did it originate, what’s the etymology if there’s an old word involved.

MARK SCHAEFER
So you don’t take in an idea on its surface.

KEITH JENNINGS

I assume it’s wrong, almost in a Malcolm Gladwell Revisionist History way.

I’ll think that something about this sounds true. And I’ll bet you the opposite of it is probably just as true. So let’s play with it, almost like it is truly mental Legos I want to take it apart. I want to look at it from all angles.

So once I find that idea, I will start with YouTube videos and podcasts, and I will, I will search iTunes and I will search YouTube for that phrase or whatever that thing is or if it was an author that said. I want to hear interviews with the author on that topic. And I watch every single YouTube video I can, and I listen to every single podcast I can find until I start to feel like I’m hearing the same thing over and over and I could recite it — I could teach it to someone at this point. Then I read the book and I read articles on it.

MARK SCHAEFER

An analogy that I’m thinking of here, Keith — this almost like someone who loves sports. If you have a favorite sports team or a favorite athlete. You’ll do a deep dive on that team you’ll know the history, the records, the stats, and you’ll be able to have a conversation really forever about that topic.

It is really quite fascinating to approach an academic topic the same way if you find a significant new idea in your life. You can’t help but remember it.

KEITH JENNINGS

Right. You’ve devoted a significant amount of bandwidth to it. No more than a week, I mean, rarely unless I go into books.

MARK SCHAEFER

I think some people listening to us might be thinking, Well, what kind of a job does this guy have where he could spend a week learning about one topic?

KEITH JENNINGS

Yeah, I have a full-time job and four kids!

MARK SCHAEFER

Let’s put this in context. How do you make this sort of a process in your life? Obviously, you can’t be doing this every single day or every single week, but how do you sort of codify the code. How do you work this into your life?

KEITH JENNINGS

A lot of this comes from drive time to and from the office or going to pick up kids, or sitting when I’m by myself waiting for a kid at karate or gymnastics. So it’s just those little micro-moments you may have 10 minutes here or five minutes there. It might be listening to something when I’m doing the dishes or home chores.

I’ll never prioritize this over time with the kids, so the kids are in the room, we’re not doing this but I’m usually I’m doing it late at night … I don’t sleep a lot. I just, I’ve never been a person that needs a lot of sleep. So it’s those quiet moments that I get that I do it.

MARK SCHAEFER

I kind of do that, too. I’ll get curious about something when I hear about a city or a country I didn’t really know about. And usually, my first place is like Wikipedia or some travel site or something like that. But you’ve kind of opened my eyes to apply that curiosity in a more disciplined way that can really help you in your life and in your career because it shows up with you in so many ways that is really impressive. It must make you a more valuable person to be around on the job.

KEITH JENNINGS

Well, I hope so. It’s selfish in a way. I feel joy when I can mention an idea and see people light up or hear them light up on the phone.

It’s like a perfect little seed that in the perfect little garden that sprouts. I’m just a junkie for that. I get most excited when somebody comes and tells me the idea that they had based on a conversation we had a long time ago! I just can’t get enough of it.

It’s a way of serving and that’s part of who we should be as human beings.

Keynote speaker Mark SchaeferMark Schaefer is the chief blogger for this site, executive director of Schaefer Marketing Solutions, and the author of several best-selling digital marketing books. He is an acclaimed keynote speaker, college educator, and business consultant.  The Marketing Companion podcast is among the top business podcasts in the world. Contact Mark to have him speak to your company event or conference soon.

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