Anyone who has any familiarity with Russian schooling will tell you it is tough. Growing up in a family which was very academically-oriented was doubly tough. My high school subjects included astronomy, chemistry, physics, algebra, geometry, Russian history, law, world culture, Russian literature, English literature, biology, and a bunch of other stuff that clearly didn’t stick. I went to a so-called “school for the gifted”, went to music school in the afternoons (classical piano, of course), and got additional tutoring in French, law and history to prepare for entry exams into the St. Petersburg State University. I was labelled “brilliant” but secretly I always thought that I just had exceptional memory. I have always been good at tests and had to study very little.

Fast forward a few years. After moving countries and learning English in which I now feel native, 8 years of tertiary studies including medical school, you would think I have this “learning” thing pretty much figured out. Not so.

My study habits through the university years varied from obsessive-compulsive note-taking, multi-coloured pens, meticulous anatomy drawing, and flashcards to periods where I would just lazily listen to recorded lectures before bed and skip lab sessions for months at a time. I figured out that I just needed to get big concepts and be really focused during my hospital rotation to absorb the practical skills. Many of my med school friends resented the fact that I seemed to breeze through exams with minimal preparation. I wasn’t the top of the class but I graduated with distinction.

Every exam I expected to fail. There was a part of me that thought that one day I would get “found out”. My study habits were far from consistent and I was a serial Last Minute Larry. Unless an assignment was due tomorrow I would procrastinate. But every time I would still pass, and pass with a decent margin, and this would make me even more reckless for the next exam.

Here you would be forgiven for wondering:


In spite of the superficial bravado I put on before every test I always had a little voice in my head asking: can you have personal growth when you don’t make an effort? If it feels like you are just trading off your memory, or fast grasp of concepts, or a great test-taking strategy, do you ever develop your abilities? Sure, my mind was pretty good at operating in an environment of tests, rote learning, known rules, black-and-white concepts, in other words, everything that makes up the current education system. But how does it improve?

Things are a little different on the other side of formal schooling. There are no exams, no deadlines, no pre-recorded lectures. And increasingly I came to a realisation that being good at school made me pretty crap at Learning. Learning in the real world. I had no structure, no internal motivation, no skills and no confidence. After all, I have spent the last 20+ years trading on what I was lucky to be born with in order to succeed according to the predetermined rules of the game, rather than growing and developing my mind to see outside the box.

I am also lucky I have amazing friends. One of them, Craig Zielinski, on his recent visit to New Zealand to blow many minds with his exceptional presentation at the Ancestral Health Symposium, mentioned studying online. He did it in such a matter of fact way, as if it was the most natural thing in the world. “Just learn it” – in a Scottish accent. I appreciate that many of you would probably think it’s quite natural too but I was taken aback. Can I? Just learn anything? My mind feels sticky, full, and non-bendy. I have enough mental energy to just look stuff up on Google, or do a quick PubMed search, or read through a paper, read a book, skim an online blog post, most of them in the area that I already know something about. Can I really obtain a deep level of Knowledge in any subject I want? Not the quick Google-fu, superficial information which gives you Illusion of Competence but is quickly dismantled by a true expert in the subject. Not that. But True Mastery, the kind of deep Knowledge you obtain slowly, painstakingly, over years; the knowledge you have to interweave with your experience and thoughts, the kind of knowledge that is shaped by the outside information but is actually born within you.

So I ran with it. I joined Coursera, an amazing community and the hub of online learning. My first MOOC was Learning How to Learn, which is hands down the best course I have ever done. It should be taught in every school and tertiary education in the world. I tried a few more things. I have discovered some courses I liked and some that I didn’t. I finished some and gave up others. I started learning Spanish. I am not super consistent but since starting from zero 3 months ago I am now reading “Harry Potter y La Camara Secreta” (diving straight into serious literature, as you can see).

Another new adventure which probably deserves a whole post in itself is starting to learn Kung Fu. This is a long project for both myself and Jamie, one where we are aiming for slow progress towards Mastery (Black Belt would be nice cherry on top).

Opportunities are there, sometimes we just need a jolt that opens our eyes to see them. There is nothing more exciting than to realise you can squeeze more out of your life. So what are you learning? What are you mastering?