Illustration by Rozalina Burkova

How To Acquire Knowledge

Emil Wallner
6 min readFeb 9, 2016


Note: I’ve moved all my writing to Substack, please follow me there.

We all acquire knowledge in a similar way. We don’t have different learning styles, right/left brain advantages, photographic memories; nor speed reading advantages, or brain development inappropriateness. If you are eight years old you could be programming organs in RNA. You just need to master the prerequisites. [1]

One of the most effective approaches to acquiring knowledge is teaching. This is how Richard Feynman acquired knowledge. He selected a concept then taught it to an imaginary person. He spoke, wrote, and drew the concept to his ‘student’. When he got stuck or felt that an explanation was too wordy, he went back to the reference material. He continued this process until he could recall everything using simple explanations and analogies. [2]

The key is to acquire small chunks of knowledge and then apply them in different ways. Input, process, output. Teach, solve problems, or build something. Retrieving information from memory is the process of learning. When you use information in a new setting, that’s when you start understanding it. [3]

To strengthen this process you can leverage five principles:

  • Take breaks
  • Plan and structure your learning
  • Hook your knowledge into multiple pieces of information
  • Create a system for identifying knowledge blind spots
  • Leverage your emotions

Breaks enable you to remember knowledge longer. When you first acquire a piece of knowledge it expires in a few seconds/hours. To increase the expiry time, retrieve the knowledge just as you are on the point of forgetting it. This will prolong your memory. In the beginning take minute-long breaks, then increase the knowledge-specific breaks to hours, days and months. [3]

Breaks also enable you to process a broader set of information. Focus narrows the activity to a small part of your brain. Some problems and concepts require that you use a broader set of information to understand them. This happens when you take breaks. [4]

Structuring your learning improves retention, motivation, and clarity.

Apple 1 on Christie’s online auction

Steve Wozniak did this. First he mapped out the prerequisites to build a proof of concept, the Apple 1. Then, for each new iteration of the Mac he could reuse that knowledge. This enabled him to deepen his knowledge. Since he had the trunk of the knowledge — the 80% that mattered — he could also attach the branches and the leaves. [5]

When you structure your learning, add the same lenses: Frequency, value, and prerequisites. Which concepts will you need 80% of the time? What is the quickest way to add genuine value? How can I map out the prerequisites that are specific to my challenge?

[6] Hook your knowledge into more information so that accessing it becomes easier. This refers back to a discovery in neuroscience: neurons wire together if they fire together.

[7] To use this facet, study in various differing environments, use multiple senses, and apply your knowledge in various ways. If you need to recall knowledge for a specific occasion — say a presentation — do the opposite; study in an environment similar to the one where the knowledge will be used. This will make it more accessible in that type of environment, but less retrievable otherwise.

Knowledge blind spots create failures. You run out of motivation and resources while learning things that you don’t need. They also decrease your knowledge acquisition.

Your ability to acquire knowledge depends on your working memory, which becomes overloaded when you have significant gaps in your knowledge. This reduces your capacity to transfer knowledge to your long-term memory — your ability to acquire knowledge. [8]

To avoid blind spots, take advantage of other’s learning journeys, have mentors, and gain feedback. This is not news for many. Still, we seldom notice our blind spots. That’s because we lack a prerequisite: Character. We are afraid of being vulnerable. [9]

The final tactic for knowledge acquisition is controlling your emotions. What you find emotionally engaging is what you will think about, talk about, and work on. That’s the knowledge you will retain.

Memory champions leverage this. They symbolize numbers in shocking mental images. Then they place the images in an imaginary house and create a story line. This skill allows them to remember long sequences of numbers. It’s a skill anyone can develop. [10]

From a macro perspective, Steve Jobs took advantage of the same principle. He grew an emotional engagement to computers. He day-dreamed about them, talked about them, and worked on them. That’s how he acquired and grew his knowledge of them.

Let’s sum it up:

  • Acquire chunks of knowledge and apply them in different settings.
  • Take breaks to improve your memory and your ability to solve problems.
  • Structure your learning. Map out prerequisites, and start with concepts that you need 80% of the time. Prioritize knowledge that adds genuine, direct value.
  • Learn in differing environments, work with knowledge in differing ways and use multiple senses.
  • Read other’s learning journeys, have mentors, and gain feedback. Work on your ability to be vulnerable in order to do all of this effectively.
  • Leverage your emotions by making information and problems more engaging.
Pattern by Gustav Karlsson


  1. a) Learning Styles (source) b) Right/Left Brain (source), c) Photographic memory (source), and d) Speed reading (source). e) Brain development disadvantages: “Content should not be kept from students because it is “developmentally inappropriate.” The term implies there is a biologically inevitable course of development, and that this course is predictable by age. To answer the question “is the student ready?” it’s best to consider “has the student mastered the prerequisites?” Source.
  2. The Feynman Technique Source. This is not a technique developed by Feynman, but a technique derived from how he worked.
  3. a) source b) source c) source
  4. Spaced Repetition Theory Source
  5. “Diffuse-mode thinking is also essential for learning math and science. It is what allows us to suddenly gain a new insight on a problem we’ve been struggling with, and is associated with “big picture” perspectives. Diffuse-mode thinking is what happens when you relax your attention and just let your mind wander. This relaxation can allow different areas of the brain to hook up and return valuable insights. Unlike the focused mode, the diffuse mode is not affiliated with any one area of the brain — you can think of it as being “diffused” throughout the brain.[v] Diffuse-mode insights often flow out of preliminary thinking that’s been done in the focused mode.” Source
  6. Elon Musk Source
  7. Siegrid Löwel’s summary: “neurons wire together if they fire together”, is a simplified and slightly inaccurate explanation of the theory. This is the original version by Donald Hebb: “Let us assume that the persistence or repetition of a reverberatory activity (or “trace”) tends to induce lasting cellular changes that add to its stability.… When an axon of cell A is near enough to excite a cell B and repeatedly or persistently takes part in firing it, some growth process or metabolic change takes place in one or both cells such that A’s efficiency, as one of the cells firing B, is increased.” Source
  8. Dual Coding Theory & Hebbian Theory.
  9. “To learn, students must transfer information from working memory (where it is consciously processed) to long-term memory (where it can be stored and later retrieved). Students have limited working memory capacities that can be overwhelmed by tasks that are cognitively too demanding. Understanding new ideas can be impeded if students are confronted with too much information at once.” Source
  10. Amanda Palmer & Brené Brown have developed various of resources to understand and develop vulnerability.
  11. Source



Emil Wallner

Internet-educated, indie researcher, and in residency at Google Arts & Culture. Maker of