Lens vs. List Learning


Several years ago I wrote a piece called Algorithmic Learning, and then another one here.

This will be the third in the series, as evidently this is an idea I can’t get out of my mind.

The concept is this: There are two main ways we learn—passively and actively. Or as I put it before, via osmosis or via algorithm. Here’s another way to look at it.

Imagine you’re moving through life and you have two things to help you

  1. Magical glasses, and

  2. A magical notebook

Everything you hear, see, study, and otherwise learn from either 1) updates your glasses to see the world in a different way, or 2) updates your notebook from you taking notes.

So when you get ready to do a particular task—say, to create a new deck as part of a presentation—you have two ways of benefitting from your experience.

  1. You can simply think about the problem in a way that benefits from everything you’ve read, or

  2. You can turn your notebook to the page titled, “How to make a presentation” and look at your current best methodology

As an example for the lens-based approach, maybe you read a book about how presentations are all about telling stories, and that slides should just be background imagery that support that story. In that scenario you’re not thinking of any specific part of a book; it’s just that you no longer see—for whatever reason—that slides will be the center of your talks from now on. You just see deck-making in a different way now. That’s one way for your talk to improve.

I use Github for my notebook in this analogy.

In the second example you open your notebook, and look at your current deck-making recipe. You can see that three years ago you started by creating a deck, deciding on fonts, and moving from slide to slide working on the ideas. And now, looking at the updates that have been made to the methodology, you see that step number one is to start with a bulleted outline. No slides. Just text that tells the story.

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In both cases we’ve learned something that altered how we make decks, but in the case of the lens it’s a change in mindset and perspective about giving talks in general, whereas in the case of the list it’s a tangible alteration to an algorithm.

This is fascinating to me.

Practically, it means that Lens/Passive learning helps as it accumulates from many years of reading/studying. But you often can’t articulate what exactly changed, or why. You’re left with something of a faith-based feeling of, “I guess I see this differently now based on the study I’ve done.”

Alternatively, Notebook/Recipe-based learning lets you look specifically at how your approach to solving a problem has changed over time, and from what source. And if you do it right—which I’m trying to do with Github—you can actually annotate why you added or removed specific steps, e.g.:


  1. Eat oatmeal for breakfast. (How Not To Diet, Read in 2019)

  2. Brisk walk before lunch. (Some Book, Read in 2017)


  1. Skip Breakfast. (Lifespan, Read in 2021)

  2. Wake at 6:00am and do a walk outside in the sun. (Hubberman Podcast, Listened in 2021)

The takeaway here is that you don’t have to stress as you study. There are two different ways to learn.

Maybe you have the time and focus to capture specific steps in an algorithm, and that’s great if you do. But even if you don’t, you can still learn via small bits of—accrued knowledge accumulating over time—that change how you see the world.

Whether you’re upgrading your list or your lens, you’re still getting an upgrade. And if you use the Notebook/Algorithm model, you’re getting the benefits of both.