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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