Patterns Of Knowledge Acquisition

Ryan James Spencer

Having written another yearly review of reading I have been collecting thoughts around how I think about learning in general. Although this list is horribly incomplete, I've identified a few core patterns I tend to fall into when learning.


In order to study something you need to know it exists. This stage of learning consists of putting yourself into positions where you will best pick up new and interesting ideas, words, and concepts without worrying about their finer details.

Exposure is partly social and partly personal. People attend schools, go to meetups, and join social media and forums. Other times they read blogs, magazines, and book, watch videos, and listen to podcasts. The world is teeming with sources of fresh content for us to discover and that is exactly the problem; you can and will collect more information than you could imaginably consume in your lifetime. This is why I won't spend too long discussing exposure and will straight onto the next idea.


Some quick back of the envelope calculations; The "average reader" reads at a rate of 250 words per minute. The "average page" is about 250 words which means the "average reader" ought to be able to consume about a page per minute, assuming constant rate of reading. If you were a perpetual motion machine and didn't need to eat or sleep, you could read 1440 pages in a day, which means 525,600 pages read in a year. The "average book" is roughly 300 pages, which means approximately 1,752 books is the theoretical upper limit for reading in a year at this non-stop, machine-like pace.

In reality we need to account for sleeping, eating, social activity, and general motivation and energy. If you are lucky enough to dedicate 1-2 hours a day to reading that means you could theoretically have an upper bound of 60 books (calculating conservatively) per year.

This doesn't even take into account other media. Most adults, even without kids, are lucky to have 1-2 hours in a work day to dedicate towards reading, watching videos, or working on side-projects. Admittedly some people are night-owls and may have higher-than-average time to dedicate to these endeavours, but skimping on sleep is probably not the best idea.

If your definition of "done" for books, videos, and audio is only "done" if every word is read, minute watched, and syllable heard then you are not reaching for your potential for what you can learn. All information is composed of a ratio of signal to noise. A one-hour video on fast fourier transforms with about thirty minutes of anectdotes about the speakers' cats has a half ratio of signal to noise. A book that has one message and spends the entirety repeating it to draw out 300 pages is predominantly fluff. A riveting retelling of someone's epic story of perseverance peppered with deep philosophical gems could largely be signal.

You filter by applying a predicate to the material in question. People tend to focus on what the predicate is but having processes for quickly trying things is its own form of filter. Consuming a lot of material has helped me better determine what I want to read and what I'd rather not spend my time on. If you've read several books on leadership from a variety of popular authors, you probably don't need to keep exploring every new title that comes out. If you are passionately devoted to the collatz conjecture you might read every imaginable piece of information you can find. Despite what passion you have, there is always some level of diminishing returns.

It also helps to consider priorities. If you weren't going to wake up tomorrow, what would you prefer to do? For me, studying, practice, and side projects go down the ladder dramatically. I focus a lot more on being a better husband and father. That said, it's just not possible for me to be in that mode all of the time; my kids go to bed and my partner has things she wants to focus on so I find myself with time to spend on the things that came lower in priority after this practice.


Our brains are accustomed to freeing up space whenever possible so this is why we must test ourselves on new knowledge until it finds it's way into the more long-term storage we possess. You've opened up a lot of opportunities and narrowed that list right back down to the things you want to spend time with or know will truly help for you to work through. For myself, the best way to help reinforce knowledge is through having multiple formats or even variants on a concept or idea available for my perusal. If I've an interest I will naturally keep picking things up, re-exploring particular articles, reading certain things.

Going over material in multiple passes is a way to combine exposure, filtration, and redundancy all in one go. The first few passes will store away the top-level details, provide coarse definitions, and also help eliminate whole sections that don't need examination. I will also own various formats for a single title or groups of titles. Having an ebook is great when you're on the go. Having a physical book is great for pacing and absorption when you're relaxing at home. Having videos or audio can be played while working, or even when reading is a bit too taxing (say after a very long day or week of work).

In my experience this last year my own framework consists of usually picking books up as audiobooks first. If the top level view of the book is worth it, I'll pick up the kindle and physical copies. With those I'll peruse various specific chunks. When I noted that reading word-for-word is a barrier to your learning potential, linearity is another such barrier, and redundancy helps fight that all while providing retention. One of the reasons why testing ourselves on knowledge works so well for retention is because it helps identify the areas you are still unclear on.

Applying This Framework

Hopefully this has helped provide some insight into some principles that might help with your own learning adventures or given some insight into how I look at the problem of cramming knowledge into my head. I find I get a lot of value out of making the exposure and filtration stages as fast as possible that by the time I get to the redundancy stage it's much more high-signal-to-noise. It's far more invigorating to work through material that is high signal for you.