book reviews: how we learn (to be) smarter, faster, and better

I am a bookworm. I like to read across disciplines to improve my work and assist my clients. Two books I recommend are How We Learn by Benedict Carey and Smarter Faster Better by Charles Duhigg. When read together, they provide insight into ways we can learn to increase our productivity.

How We Learn: The Surprising Truth About When, Where, and Why It Happens

book cover How We Learn: The Surprising Truth About When, Where, and Why It Happens by Benedict Careyby Benedict Carey

I remember getting in trouble in fifth grade. I wasn’t writing an essay that afternoon, I was staring off into the unknown day dreaming about something. After my teacher’s admonishment I got to work writing and won that month’s writing contest for my grade level.

Are we supposed to always buckle down in monk-like focus and silence in order to learn? Carey explores and tests recent research, in this book he shows how our growing understanding of the brain has transformed both learning and teaching. Along the way he discovers that a singular approach is not practical for actual learning. For example, spacing study sessions will create improved long-term recall. I know that the subjects I crammed for were soon forgotten after exams. Repetition and rote learning cause a steep initial curve followed by a plateau. Interleaving materials and study process will help long-term. It’s tempting to devote hours to a particular problematic area, for example a section of a concerto. Interleaving that technical passage with scales and earlier studied works will help improve that sticky passage. One of the lessons that was difficult for me to grasp for years is that naps and sleep are beneficial to recall and comprehension.

Carey’s work is interesting as it turns much of what I was taught to be a good student on its head and inside out. While all the hours of learning matter, the way we break down the time and use it can be all the difference between comprehension and confusion.


Smarter Faster Better: The Transformative Power of Real Productivity

book cover - Smarter Faster Better: The Transformative Power of Real Productivity.by Charles Duhigg

It’s not the what we do but the how we do it that creates progress. In this book, Duhigg explores the science behind productivity. He summarizes the current work of neuroscientists, psychologists, behavioral economists. The work also explores specific transformative events that show how a difference in thinking can produce different outcomes, not limited to the growth mindset research of Carol Dweck.

I found two key take-aways from this book. First, the mental models we build are important. Can you apply the lessons you learned flying a small Cessna to a modern passenger jet that’s experiencing engine failure? NICU babies are special (I’m a NICU graduate) and their fragile lives can change in a moment. With a mental model of what a NICU baby should look like a nurse can make a split-second decision before data is available to confirm her thoughts and save a life.

Second, for years we’ve been hounded that our goals should be SMART. They should, however these narrow goals can create tunnel vision due to our need for closure. Stretch goals help us visualize a larger picture and with intermediate smart goals we can realize it. Blending SMART and stretch goals provide us the best of both and help to avoid the pitfalls.

Duhigg’s review of current research reiterates that an interdisciplinary approach and a blending of processes are what help make us productive, not one particular magic tool.

Disclosure: I first discovered both of books through eARC requests through NetGalley in exchange for a review. The review copies expired long before I wrote this post. Both titles were borrowed from my local public library for the purpose of reading and drafting of this review. The FTC wants you to know.