Tuesday, March 9, 2010

The Simplest Way to Master a Subject

I am surrounded by brilliant people at Chicago Booth. Most graduated at the top of their university classes. Their average student scores above the 90th percentile on the GMAT (business school's version of the SAT). These people born learners. They master subjects really, really quickly.

However, even within this group there are huge differences in talent. A few people are always ahead of the class. They just "get" things. In my first quarter of classes, these ultra-learners were visible. You could recognize who they were. In the second quarter, their identities were unmistakably clear. They were even further ahead of average than they were the quarter before.

How do they do it?

Sure, they're naturally gifted, but everybody at Booth is. The common thread between the best of the best learners is not superior intelligence. It is how they learn . . . and how they learn is surprisingly simple.

The top students have one thing in common: a deep and integrated understanding of the foundations.

They have complete a complete command of the most elementary and basic business concepts.

That's the secret.

Many of the students who fall behind want to immediately jump to the advanced material. They are anxious to learn. They impatiently push ahead.

Not the students at the top of the class - they're different. They spend time becoming scary-good at dealing with simple ideas, ideas that others consider obvious. They spend hours understanding the implications of small assumptions that other students take for granted. The time pays off. They know their stuff inside-out.

Then later when somebody asks them about an obscure rule in corporate cash flow analysis, they don't get scared because they forgot the specific rule. They calmly think back through their knowledge of journal entries in accounting - boring knowledge that a 16 year old could handle. Nine times out of ten, they can come up with the right answer without looking it up. They understand the reasoning behind the rule.

Later when thinking through a complicated marketing issue that a company is facing, they don't concern themselves with all of the details of the problem. They think about the customer - what would she want? They think about the company - what can it reasonably do? And they think about the competition - can we beat them? They can answer those three questions easily, and it leads them to logically consistent answers.

They know the simple boring stuff: math, statistics, basic consumer psychology, accounting rules and vocabulary, simple economic reasoning, and the rules of competition. They know these things better than everybody else . . . and it shows.

Want to master a subject? Learn the basics. Then learn them again . . . and again . . .