How to learn anything

Ted Nelson is a computing genius. Although he denies it, he predicted and described the world wide web in the 1960s. He’s the guy who coined the term "hypertext" in 1963.

Incidentally, he’s also responsible for possibly the world’s longest software gestation. Project Xanadu was started in 1960. A prototype was demonstrated in 1972 and something finally shipped earlier on this year.

In his 1974 book Dream Machines there’s a section called "How to Learn Anything". It’s an interesting read [all typos are my own]:

A lot of people are afraid to ask questions because they’re afraid of looking dumb. But the dumb thing is not asking questions.

If I ever get my school, the one course will be


As far as I can tell, these are the techniques used by bright people who want to learn something other than by taking courses in it. It’s the way PhD’s pick up a second field; it’s the way journalists and "geniuses" operate; it brings the general understandings of a field that children of eminent people in that field get as a birthright; it’s the way anybody can learn anything, if he has the nerve.

1. DECIDE WHAT YOU WANT TO LEARN. But you can’t know *exactly*, because of course you don’t know exactly how any field is structured until you know all about it.

2. READ EVERYTHING YOU CAN ON IT, especially what you enjoy, since that way you can read more of it and faster.

3. GRAB FOR INSIGHTS. Regardless of points others are trying to make, when you recognize an insight that has meaning for you, make it your own. It may have to do with the shape of molecules, or the personality of a specific emperor, or the quirks of a Great Man in the Field. Its importance is not how central it is, but how clear and interesting and memorable to you. REMEMBER IT. Then go for another.

4. TIE INSIGHTS TOGETHER. Soon you will have your *own* string of insights in a field, like the string of lights around a Christmas tree.

5. CONCENTRATE ON MAGAZINES, NOT BOOKS. Magazines have far more insights per inch of text, and can be read much faster. But when a book really speaks to you, lavish attention on it.


7. GO TO CONVENTIONS. For some reason, conventions are a splendid concentrated way to learn things; talking to people helps. Don’t think you have to be anybody special to go to a convention; just plunk down your money. But you have to have a handle. Calling yourself a Consultant is good; "Student" is perfectly honorable.

8. "FIND YOUR MAN." Somewhere in the world is someone who will answer your questions extraordinarily well. If you find him, dog him. He may be a janitor or a teenage kid; no matter. Follow him with your begging bowl, if that’s what he wants, or take him to expensive restaurants, or whatever.

9. KEEP IMPROVING YOUR QUESTIONS. Probably in your head there are questions that don’t seem to line up what you’re hearing. Don’t assume that you don’t understand; keep adjusting the questions till you can get an answer that relates to what you wanted.

10. YOUR FIELD IS BOUNDED WHERE YOU WANT IT TO BE. Just because others group and stereotype things in conventional ways does not mean they are necessarily right. Intellectual subjects are connected every whichway; your field is what you think it is. (Again, this is one of the things that will give you insights and keep you motivated; but it will get you into trouble if you try to go for degrees.)


There are limitations. This doesn’t give you lab experience, and you will continually have to be making up for gaps. But for alertness and the ability to use his mind, give me the man who’s learned this way, rather than been blinkered and clich├ęd to death within the educational system.


Wilmar Shiras, Children of the Atom. Science-Fiction about what a school could be like where kids *really* used their minds. I’ve always been sure it was possible; the R.E.S.I.S.T.O.R.S. (see p. 47) made me surer.

(c) Ted Nelson, 1974

It’s a fantastic book. You should do whatever you can to get hold of a copy.

One response to “How to learn anything”

  1. My 80 great-grandmother told me points 1 & 2 when I was 8 tears old. I have never been the same since. I remember taking things apart which drove my mother insane. I have always been able to get people to show me things because I was willing to ask questions.