Want to be a learning machine?

Want to be a learning machine?  Ask two questions!

Fourteen years ago, when I was a contributing editor for Success Digest magazine, Lagos, the publisher, Sunny Ojeabgasu graciously invited me to come and give a talk – a stage performance if you will – at the anniversary of the magazine (it was a monthly then).

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I bounced onto the stage (forgive me, I was still a young adult) and declared that I had memorized the entire contents of the latest issue of the magazine and anybody could ask me any question about any page.  Was I inundated with questions?  You bet!  “What’s on page 65?”  “Author X wrote Y.  What is it and on which page can one find it?”  So I told them.  At a point, I challenged the audience that they were not asking the difficult questions.  I was thoroughly enjoying myself.

Then I gave each participant a number and asked each to give me one item to memorize.  For example, if you’re number 13, you could give me computer to memorize.  Someone who is number 50 could give me a car, number 43 could ask me to memorize a pen.  Got it?  After that, I told them I could recite the entire list from the beginning to the end or backwards i.e. from the end to the beginning.  If there were 50 participants for example, and they gave me a list of 50 items, I would recite back the list after just hearing it once – forwards and backwards.  Or they could call any number and I would tell them the associated item or they tell me the object and I tell them the associated number.

This was all fun.  It was a game I enjoyed.  But even in those days, during each session, I usually forgot one or two items.  But instead of that discrediting my methods, it actually humanized me.  “This genius is human after all,” they thought.  It was also an opportunity for drama with the audience.  Whenever they realized I’d forgotten a number, they demand that I produce it.  “You must tell us number 13!”



Today, I will give you one of the tools I used.    I’ll also give you the name of a man who learns everything.  A breathing learning machine. I’ll attempt an explanation of his method, but since he’s accessible to you, you may ask him the system he uses, when next you meet him.

One of the techniques I used and which you or anyone can readily employ is to ask two questions of anything you want to learn or remember:  (1) how does this sound/appear/feel, and (2) what does it remind me of?

The first question gives you the opportunity to identify a sensory perception of what you’re learning and connect or associate that sense with the topic you’re learning.  Doing that forces you to pause and reflect on the task and allows the neurons to fire.  It might sound complicated but it may actually take you one or two seconds to do and nobody knows you’re doing it.  Plus if you can conjure up how it feels or makes you feel you can associate an emotion to what you’re learning – which is a powerful way to remember anything.

The second question, “what does it remind me of,” allows you to connect the new information with the old.  This is the best way to remember anything.  To some extent, we already do this. For example, if someone gives you a name and you exclaim: “That’s interesting!  You’ve the same name with my mother!” It is difficult to forget that person’s name in the future.  Well, don’t only use it for mother’s name,   you can employ this technique with a good number of things you want to learn.

To recap, if you want to remember anything, ask two questions.  What are those questions?  You may want to do a retrieval practice before moving forward.

The technique may not sound like much now, but if you put it to use, you would realize how powerful it is.  It has served me well; and I suspect, it is what my oga at the top uses.  Who is this oga?

It’s said that you shouldn’t meet your heroes, you would be disappointed if you do.  In the case of Mahmud Jega, you should meet him.  You wouldn’t be disappointed.  In fact, you are likely to discover that his ability is not a fluke.  Those references (to events that happened a zillion years ago) and citations in his columns are largely from his head.  That is, the library he dips into so often is upstairs.  The first time I went to the editorial board meeting of Daily Trust, I told one of the members, Monima Daminab (whom everyone calls the Director) that I enjoyed myself.  “Ah!” He replied.  “Wait until Jega comes back.  That guy is something else!”

I don’t know how Jega does it.  However, even though I believe that some people are naturals, I put more stock on effort and believe that people mostly come by their abilities through conscious choices they make.  Therefore, if I’m to hazard a guess from my observation of him thinking, you could see that he has made a habit of asking the question: what does this remind me of?  This is because during meetings he always says: “this reminds me of January 1994, when …” or “a similar thing happened 15 years ago in Sokoto when…” or “some dead statesman told me about…”

That is practically the way he thinks.  He takes an issue, unpacks the facts associated with it and tells a story of what that phenomenon reminds him of.  So the thinking process, how he processes information has become a habit with him and therefore it has made him, a natural.  But why am I giving you this theory, when I can simply ask him?  I think I should, when next we meet.

In the meantime, please make a habit of asking the two questions. They will serve you well toward your learning goals.

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56-Year old idiot

If Nigeria were a man, it would be an idiot.

Many years ago, I had just had dinner with a South African when she said: “I really enjoyed the enlightening conversation that we’ve had.  Thank you.”

“You’re welcome. But thank you,” I joked, “for having the aptitude to understand the insights of a Nigerian brain.”

She looked at me “one kain”, as we say in Nigeria, then she asked, “Seriously, why do Nigerians think they’re more intelligent than others?”

“Honestly,” I replied, “I don’t know!”  Because, I explained to her, there’s no evidence whatsoever whether founded on science or logic that we’re more intelligent than even fellow Africans, let alone smarter than everybody.  In fact, you’re more likely to find evidence to the contrary.

However intelligence is defined (and many theorists of recent, such as Howard Gardner, have been quite generous with their conception of intelligence), you will find that we are actually not at all smart.

There’s what is called the national intelligence.  Every country has one.  The last time I checked ours, I soon came to the realization that if Nigeria were a human being, it wouldn’t have been able to go to the bathroom without help.

Howard Gardner defines intelligence as the ability to solve problem or fashion useful products.  But we’ve not solved any problem in Nigeria for the last 30 years.   We don’t even have a national identity card, and it isn’t for lack of trying; it is just that we’re incapable of succeeding at something that technology has made ridiculously simple.  Starting from when Obasanjo was military head of state, until he became a civilian president, and the administrations in between, all tried to give Nigeria a unified form of identity, they all could not.  The last jab at it was by former President Goodluck Jonathan with his NimC and other related nonsense.

In all these decades, Nigeria achieved only one thing: they came together and elected change and then voted for the leader they thought would give them that change.  But even that had the makings of a divine intervention, not because we’re smart; because the same people who elected President Muhammadu Buhari were the same people who turned around and asked to be paid before they would elect their governors.

Indeed the entire leadership recruitment process of our dear nation is flawed.  And if the incumbent national leadership would do only one thing, it should be the removal of the kinks in the leadership selection process at the party level and the secondary elections.

Talking about intelligence necessitates that we start with the premise that reasoning or thinking is an important component; for,  you can’t create or solve without the ability to think.   However, when it comes to thinking, Nigerians are still in their diapers.

Here are some examples:

Economics of appointments

I receive messages on a daily basis requesting information on when the governor will appoint commissioners.  These messages are from unemployed youths who should be asking me the government’s plans for job creation and youth empowerment.  One politician once said to me during a phone conversation that people were experiencing hardship because the government had not appointed commissioners.  How so?  I asked, thinking that the reasoning would be that with a cabinet in place, the executive council would approve projects including public works which would generate jobs and therefore income for the people.  But I was wrong.  He said the appointment of commissioners means, they, the commissioners, would share money to the people and that money would go around!

For a thinking person, the moment top government functionaries start sharing cash and not jobs, is the moment he realizes that the government has lost its way and the people are in big trouble.

Education economics

Many attribute the un-employability of our graduates and lack of creative entrepreneurs to the quality of education our students receive.  This is in turn blamed on the dismal preparation and ignorance of their teachers.  Also, our universities are overcrowded.  Therefore, to solve these problems we need more universities and more PhDs to expand the capacity of our higher institutions and to train better teachers and other professionals.  This understanding is unanimous.  But even the National Universities Commission (NUC) does everything it could to block the solutions.  For example, among many things, to establish a university in Nigeria, you need to put it on a land measuring 100 hectares.  It completely escapes NUC that many universities in other countries planted on smaller land outrank the biggest universities in Nigeria.  In fact to measure the quality of a university, the size of its land does not count among the criteria – in Nigeria, it obviously does.

The universities also agree that they need more lecturers with graduate degrees, but they do everything to prevent their own staff from attaining such qualifications even when they get free money from TETFUND!

Election economics

It’s in Nigeria that we extract money from anyone seeking an elective office to the point of bankruptcy.  And when he wins election and start embezzling money to repay his debts, the people are puzzled and curious as to why he’s stealing from them.

These are just a few instances that show why we’re not as smart as we think we are.  Therefore, to think that we’re more intelligent than others, is to crap on intelligence itself.  But it is not too late.  There is hope still, even for 56-year old idiots.

Happy Independence!  No, scratch that.  There is nothing to celebrate!


Kemi-Adeosun, Nigeria's minister of finance

A primer on the “Trilemma”: Why CBN and  Adeosun differ

Choose two: mother, daughter, wife.  Which two would you choose and which one would you sacrifice? We shall return to this problem shortly.

In the past couple of weeks the CBN and the minister of finance have differed on macroeconomics (the economics of government, not the one involving you and your mai shayi).  The finance minister, Mrs. Kemi Adeosun, pleaded for the reduction of interest rate; because doing so would make borrowing cheaper, which would encourage businesses to borrow from the banks, which would in turn generate employment because when entrepreneurs start or expand existing businesses, they would need employees.  The Monetary Policy Committee (MPC) of the CBN met and said they would have none of the minister’s suggestions.  Obviously, there’s an economic theory upon which they based their decision?  Yes.

Yet, we understand none of it.  Try to read the published report of the MPC.  You might have more luck extracting meaning from a Japanese text than the unnecessarily inaccessible reports.

It would appear that our government functionaries, politicians and technocrats enjoy keeping us in the dark when they cloak their ideas in jargons.  Our newspapers (which are also complicit in the scheme) are filled with technical material that no one understands – including the writers.  Leaving us, the general population to ask: “What the heck are they talking about?”

And the only person who appeared to explain the problem, approached it not in the right attitude.  Mr. Atedo Peterside, a banker, wrote in THE NATION newspaper of September 27, “Monetary and exchange rate policy, based on a sound theoretical underpinning such as the Mundell-Fleming Trilemma, is a clearly not everyone’s forte,” before moving ahead to rant against the “challenged economic team.”

It’s my opinion that Mr. Peterside’s disposition was rather snobbish; especially seeing that the Trilemma theory with which he was doing shakara is quite simple to understand.

Usually, Dr. Sanusi Abubakar, an economist and the Tuesday back page columnist of Daily Trust comes to our rescue.  But I’m yet to see his exposition on this.  However, do not let discouragement prey upon your quest for knowledge.  As the nation hungers for explanation, let’s see the most pivotal point about which they disagree.  By the time you finish reading this column, you should have a beginner’s handle on the “trilemma”.


In 1962, Robert Mundell and Marcus Fleming established that nations can only have two of the following three:

One, to stabilize international trade, countries try to have a fixed exchange rate. Two, they want international capital mobility so that investors can freely move money in and out of the country.  Three, they want control of monetary policy so that they can change interest rate to combat inflation and unemployment.  For example, to tackle unemployment, as Charles Wheelan convincingly explained in his book, “Naked Economics”, the central bank would lower the interest rate so that banks and their customers would be encouraged to borrow.  If customers borrow to fund their businesses, employment would be generated because more workers would be needed.

And to tackle inflation, the interest would be raised.  By doing this, money in circulation would be mopped up because people would want to save their money in banks to earn high interest on savings.  The last time I checked, my bank said that interest on savings is 5%.

So, choose two: monetary control.  International capital mobility. Fixed exchange rate.  Because you can have only two, this is called “trilemma” or the “impossible trinity”.

To give a specific example of trilemma, Donald Marron in his book, “30-Second Economics”, wrote: “Imagine Mexico chooses a fixed exchange rate. It also has capital mobility, because today international finance moves freely across borders, whether Mexico likes it or not. But if it tries to take control of monetary policy—for example, by cutting interest rates to combat unemployment—it has a problem. If interest rates fall, investors will flee from the currency to find higher yields elsewhere. That means Mexico has to defend the currency—using up precious reserves—or admit defeat and raise interest rates again. In short, if Mexico wants a fixed exchange rate and capital mobility, it can’t run an independent monetary policy.  Governments are thus forced to make a choice: should they prioritize macroeconomic management—the ability to respond to inflation or recession—or stable international trade?”

So out of the three, which two did you think Nigeria chose?  Remember our central bank, some months ago, allowed the naira to float?  This means they foresweared the fixed exchange rate.  Therefore, it does appear that the CBN has chosen capital mobility (so that investors can move money in and out of Nigeria, even China has begun to implement this choice) and monetary control (so that it can control inflation and unemployment).

Now your question maybe: “Since the CBN is in control of the monetary policy, why can’t it lower the interest rate to improve the badly needed jobs as suggested by the finance minister?”  Well, that’s another debate.  The CBN thinks if it lowers the interest rate, foreign investors would not bring in their dollars and euros and go where they would find more yield on their investment.  If they do this, the value of the naira would not improve.

Which leaves but one question outstanding.  “Has the increase in interest rate brought in the investors and therefore improved the value of the naira?”  Recently, the CBN governor said that the decision has brought in a measly $1 billion. And the value of our naira keeps going south.  It’s for this reason that many have argued that some of these economic theories don’t work.  Why?  The same reason research in social sciences is more difficult than in the pure sciences: you’re dealing with human beings.

It’s for this reason that behavioural economics was created to answer the question that the regular economics can’t.  This field of study was created by psychologists led by Daniel Kahneman ( author of “Thinking, Fast and Slow”), Richard Thaler (the author of “Misbehaving”), the late Amos Tversky  and more recently Dan Ariely, whose books I enjoy reading.  These experts argue that humans are not econs or robots so can’t be expected to act “rationally” all the time.  Unfortunately, this is the underlying flaw in many of the economic theories.

Fortunately for us, unlike in macroeconomics, we don’t have to sacrifice any member of our family.

For more insights, other than the books cited above, also read, “The Little Book of Economics” by Greg Ip of The Economist newspaper.