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If It’s Important, Learn It Repeatedly

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A little more than a year ago, a friend took me for lunch in downtown Toronto, and we talked mostly about what we’d been reading. Immediately afterward she marched me to a nearby bookstore and insisted I buy Cal Newport’s Deep Work.

She was the second person that week to describe it to me as potentially life-changing, so I bought it with great enthusiasm. Later that day, I sat reading it in a tea shop for two hours, riveted by the possibilities of working in the uncompromising, undistracted way Newport described.

I’ve had that feeling many times while reading non-fiction books—the “hot lightbulb effect” of being aware you’re reading the right ideas at the right moment in your life. I’d stopped in Toronto on the way home from an inspiring chautauqua experience in Ecuador. The trip that had culminated in an unforgettably moving group discussion, during which each of us declared heartfelt resolutions about how we wanted to live the rest of our lives. I was determined to return to work with unprecedented focus and clarity, and now I’d found the perfect guide to doing exactly that.

The window to act on a timely idea is very small. The heat of inspiration only lasts a few days, or even hours, and if it runs out before you’ve formed and implemented a plan, you’re essentially back at the status quo. 

By the time I finished the book, the clarity was mostly gone. I still had a general sense how I wanted to change things, but the practical details were now cloudy and jumbled. I tried a few things but in the end I more or less carried on as before.

I’m sure the Germans or the Japanese have a word that means, precisely, “Life-changing ideas that do not change our lives because we only read about them once, agree enthusiastically, and then forget them before we act on them.”

If not, we could use one. How many times has your mind been set ablaze by a profound truth from a book, podcast, article, or a speech, only for the idea to fade before you could do anything with it? How many millions of people read Steven Covey’s 7 Habits of Highly Effective People eight or ten or twenty-five years ago, agreed with it wholeheartedly, and never became highly effective in any of those ways?

Alain de Botton, in another wonderful book I read and immediately forgot, identified the problem, or at least a major part of it: when we only learn something once, we don’t really learn it—at least not well enough for it to change us much. It may inspire momentarily, but then becomes quickly overrun by the decades of habits and conditioning that preceded it.

In his Religion For Atheists, he identifies a number of things religious institutions have always done very well, and which our secular education systems have consistently failed at. When it comes to teaching important ideas, religion makes extremely effective use of repetition. If an idea is important, they teach it again and again.

From his article based on this aspect of the book:

For them, it was absurd to imagine ever learning anything if you went through it only once. The whole basis of religious education rested upon repetition. Five times a day as a Muslim, one was to rehearse the central tenets of Islam; seven times a day as a Christian Benedictine monk, one was to revisit the lessons of scripture. As an orthodox Jew, 300 days a year were marked out for commemoration and ritual repetition of ideas in the Torah, while as a Zen priest, one would be inducted to sit cross-legged and meditate up to twelve times between daybreak and nightfall.

Setting aside any reservations about what they teach, religious systems have long emphasized what the secular world tends to overlook: if it’s important, it warrants learning repeatedly.

“By contrast,” de Botton writes, “modern education adheres to an implicitly bucket-like theory of the mind: one pours in the contents and, bar accidents, they’ll stay there pretty much across a lifetime. That’s why we’ll think nothing of earnestly declaring a book a favourite—and deigning to read it only once.”

Bringing a truth to mind repeatedly gives it an enduring, three-dimensional existence in your head, by reaching you in every mood and every context, in every season, both at times when you’re enthusiastic about it, and when you’re tired of hearing it.

If you’ve ever read a book a second time, you may have noticed that it’s an entirely different experience from the first time. It doesn’t feel redundant or repetitive. Instead, it feels like gaps are being filled in. Different details strike you as important. The points you do remember now have the benefit of context, and much of it seems entirely new.

I’m sure I’ve said to many people that Deep Work “had a major influence on me.” It did, but that influence didn’t quite extend to my behavior, just to my ideals. The ideas weren’t in my mind frequently enough.

It is extremely important to my ideals. The dense, undistracted, boundaries-first working style described in the book is exactly how I want to operate. So in my case it warrants a second read, and a third read, perhaps many more, as I implement its increasingly familiar ideas. This level of repetition wouldn’t cost much—if, say, every ten books, I reread this one instead of starting a new book—and it would undoubtedly change my life.

That’s just me though. For you, the “great idea that got away” might be in a different vein entirely. You may have taken a simple living course that felt perfect for you, but didn’t change your lifestyle. Maybe you loved Julia Cameron’s The Artists Way, but never made it past Week Two. Or perhaps it was a spiritual text after all—the Tao Te Ching, the Dhammapada, the Gospels.

Not every idea is truly important, but if it is, go back to it. Get to know it. Fill in the gaps. If it’s worth learning, it’s worth learning repeatedly.


Photograph by Ben White

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Pipsterate February 1, 2018 at 2:06 am

I entirely agree with this post, and furthermore, I will probably never read it again or implement any of it in my life.

Eric Keys February 2, 2018 at 9:38 am

When I have read books for a second or third time, I have discovered exactly what you said. Also, if enough time has passed, you can discover that who you are as a person has grown and changed slightly; the parts of the book that used to irk you now are not so irrititable anymore, and you understand different characters or ideas in a new light. Rereading books, especially books that impacted you the first read, is one of the many methods of introspective growth.

سمپاشی February 3, 2018 at 10:11 am

I agree with you

KG February 3, 2018 at 2:31 pm

Yes, repetition really works!!

Vanessa February 5, 2018 at 8:33 am

There IS this saying in German: “Einmal ist keinmal” meaning once is not at all. Not that I know German but a German friend explained that it means doing something just once doesn’t count. I heard this saying years ago and it has always struck me as being so hardcore!

On the other hand your article also reminded me of a Japanese saying “Ichi-go, ichi-e” (一期一会) which a Japanese friend explained as one time, one opportunity. He said that when you meet someone, this meeting will only happen once in your life, this time will not come again. It’s a once in a lifetime opportunity to connect so bring all your energy and commitment to it. Translated another way, this meeting is precious because it won’t happen again.

A bit off the subject maybe but they just came to mind. Thank you for another insightful and thought-provoking article. I do re-read them! And a lot of your wisdom has noticeably improved my life.

the bristol therapist February 9, 2018 at 7:31 am

This is certainly something I’ve had to (repeatedly!) discover in therapy, both as client and therapist. It’s not enough to make a breakthrough or have an insight once. Without the reinforcement of repetition, it doesn’t properly bed in.

Esther February 12, 2018 at 7:29 am

I wholeheartedly agree with you. As a former teacher, I know about the importance of repetition to form (study) habits, to actually learn something and act upon those things you’ve learnt.

On a more general level, every now then, it’s a good idea to revisit books, ideas, and to continue learning. The thing is that sometimes those ideas affect and influence us in ways we aren’t always aware of.

Thanks for the article, David. I loved it.

Bryan February 13, 2018 at 6:20 am

So true. I am impelled to start a book club because of that. Learn something, teach others and discuss it.

We can also start a book highlight on the webpage. #dereksiversstyle

Patrick Wagner February 13, 2018 at 8:35 am

Amazing article! I think many of us identify with the problem of reading something inspiring and then forgetting about it faster than we’d like to.

“How many times has your mind been set ablaze by a profound truth from a book, podcast, article, or a speech, only for the idea to fade before you could do anything with it?”

We created an app which exactly addresses this problem. Amongst many other features, it serves you to save the key takeaways of your favorite books and helps you repeating them in specific intervalls.

Check it out at https://mindzip.net/en

Abdulwahab February 14, 2018 at 11:38 pm

I totally agree with the concept of repletion , reinforcement is beneficial with no doubt
my only concern here is that , being able to overcome your boredom of repeating what you’ve already read is something need to be cured isn’t it ?

I remember one of the Islamic role that may help here is that, “spend more time with the people who sharing the same interest of the subject you want to reinforce” ….they might increase your level of interest to read the book again and again through keep chatting about it considering different perspective which bring joy rather than boredom

Thanks David , I relay admire your way of thinking bro.

Abhijit Biswas February 16, 2018 at 10:15 am

I completely agree with you David…!! People tend to forget quickly before they are able to learn…!! We learn and relearn…!! THat is so important..!! Repetition does work…!! Superb… Thank You. Abhijit

Esmaeel February 17, 2018 at 1:49 pm

There is a famous Persian proverb that says
“کار نیکو کردن از پر کردن است”, means that to do something perfectly you should do it more and more. In the other word; practice makes perfect filling.

Cathryn February 17, 2018 at 8:01 pm

This reminded me of math in middle school and high school. The teacher would usually assign a small subset of the problems at the end of each concept/section as homework. As a complete math nerd, I consistantly attempted all the problems. I found that the repetition and slight variations from one problem to the next helped fully reveal each concept. Not only did this repetition build a strong foundation for the more advanced concepts, it gave one the opportunity to see and appreciate the beauty of mathematics.

Tim February 19, 2018 at 8:04 am

A friend would say, “Repetition is the key to teaching the unwilling the unwanted truth.”

Thanks for the post.

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