Want to learn something? Be around it.
The habits, ideas, processes, and perhaps most importantly, incentives of the environment you want to be a part of will teach you vastly more than consciously studied facts.
Julian Jaynes, in his seminal book on consciousness, cites a study where students were told to compliment any girl wearing read. Within a week, red outfits were everywhere in the school. The girls weren’t consciously responding to factual knowledge but internalizing the compliments and altering their behavior subconsciously. Jaynes argues that learning signals, skills, and even reasoning are not, in fact, conscious processes. In fact, after taking in the basic structure, being conscious of learning gets in the way and slows the process.
This means the subconscious queues and incentives of the environment are a more powerful force in determing what you learn than whatever conscious topic is presented. What you pickup on and get rewarded for and see others doing to succeed or fail shapes how your brain transforms and adapts to succeed.
This has some pretty interesting implications for schooling, from kindergarten through college.
The school setting, whatever subject is being taught consciously, is a single-file line-standing, speak-when-given-permission, the “expert” knows all right answers, zero-sum, obedience training program. The clear “winners” in the school setting are the authority figures and those who best please them. The academics and kids who do things that academics like.
In other words, school is a 16-year internship for being a professor.
You’re immersed in the daily habits, worldviews, problems solving methods, attitudes, and incentives of professors. What you learn from shadowing academics isn’t whatever topic they might be teaching as much as how to be like them.
This is, of course, the ideal program if you want to be an academic. I have many wonderful professor friends and I’ve met some young people who want to be professors. The system was built for them, and it’s a good fit. They should stick with it happily.
The problem is that most people have no idea that they are in an extended academic internship. Most don’t want to be professors or they simply have no idea whether they do or not because they’ve never been around anything else.
You can’t discover what you might enjoy or be good at from academic books and practictioners telling you about it. You need to experiment and experience it. You need to be around people doing those things. You need to apprentice with people other than just academics to learn what people other than academics do and how to succeed in that world.
Get out of the classroom and try real world stuff to find what you enjoy and are good at and immerse yourself in the subconscious learning of how to succeed in whatever environments you explore. A few courses or books or a major can’t give you that knowledge while your subconscious is fully occupied with learning how to be a professor.
You might not be learning much from the conscious process of schooling (hence forgetting everything after the test), but you’re definitely learning something in school. The question is, do you want to learn that something? Will it help you, or set you back in a dynamic marketplace that cares only for value creation, not academic process?