There are two fundamental principles of learning that will make it possible for you to remember more information than anyone around you. And not just remember, but also stand out as a capable person and accomplish more than you would otherwise.

These are:

  • Connect every fact you know to every other fact you know.
  • And apply every fact you know.

As a kid, I learned fast and was curious about a lot of stuff. But I went to college at fifteen. And whether I was talented or not, that was a challenge that pushed me beyond what I knew how to do at the time. I was surrounded by people more educated than me, taking challenging classes and having professors who would push me. And I wanted to do well.

So I got obsessed with the subject of learning.

I didn’t just want to solve the problem of being able to pass the test. I wanted to know how to pass tests. I didn’t just want to solve the problem of doing well in a specific class. I wanted to know how to do well in any class.

And I still remember walking down the hallway of the humanities department on my way to get a snickers bar from the snack machine when this popped into my head:

Connect every fact you know to every other fact you know. And apply every fact you know.

This is how to turn your mind into a steel vault of information and a toolbox simultaneously.

The two problems of knowledge are generally retention and utility.

When you learn something, for it to be useful, you need to remember it and be able to use it for something. And when you take these two actions on a piece of information, you can do that.

There’s an old TV show called Macgyver, who “works for a clandestine organization within the U.S. government, relying on his unconventional problem-solving skills to save lives.”

And Macgyver was that character that could always get out of a rough situation or solve a problem with creative thinking. He would combine the cleaning supplies under the kitchen to make a smoke bomb that distracted his enemies. He could hotwire a car. And he always remembered and did the right thing at just the right moment to save the day.

And when another character would ask him how he knew what to do, he would casually mention that he’d taken grade school chemistry or learned some random fact at some unexpected moment and was just putting it to use.

In the movie Limitless, a useless, starving author takes a miracle drug that enables him to access more of his brain and becomes unstoppable in business and whatever else he sets his mind to. And the first time he takes the pill, he narrates the sensation of information coming to mind as he cleverly seduces his law school neighbor with his intelligence and banter, “It was all bubbling up in my frontal lobes, mixing itself together into a sparkling cocktail of useful information. She didn’t have a chance.”

I’m not going to pretend I can get you access to one hundred percent of your brain. But I’ve experienced some of the sensations the guy in Limitless described. I’ve experienced the natural flow of dealing with a situation and letting the information in my mind connect so that I could apply it to whatever problem I needed to solve. It’s a possible thing to do.

Part of it is learning to put yourself into a flow state. But to have access to everything you need while you’re there, you need to be able to apply these two principles. 

1. Connect every fact you know to every other fact you know.

Example A – History Exams 

Remember trying to memorize dates for a history exam and finding it difficult?

If you struggled with it, one of the likely reasons why is you were attempting to memorize each date as an independent data point.

Memorizing that “in 1643, this thing happened, and in 1645, that thing happened” is extremely difficult. Even to the point that you might have begun to zone out even looking at the phrase I just wrote.

But if you first remember the 1643 event and then understand that, because of that event, two years later, that other thing happened, the whole thing is much easier to memorize.

Example B – Bird Watching

Let’s say you’re an amateur bird watcher trying to remember the scientific name of ten different birds. Ten individual items are extremely difficult.

But let’s say three of them are Falconidae, which you already know means ‘falcon.’

​American kestrel – Falco sparverius 

Merlin – Falco columbarius 

Peregrine – Falco peregrinus

If you’re not a bird watcher, this isn’t very fun. But if you are. You already have a place in your mind for “Falconidae.” And these three are “just another one of those.” So you can commit them to memory much more quickly.

Example CThe Office

Let’s say you’re being introduced to a new group of people. If you try to remember “Mary, Bob, John, Jack, and Christine,” it’s pretty tricky.

But if you learn that Mary works in the corner office, handles the marketing, and probably would have gotten along great with Lisa from your last job. It’s much easier to remember her because you’re associating her with memories in your mind.

Example DThe Memory Palace

In the famous detective stories written by Arthur Conan Doyle, Sherlock Holmes creates an imaginary palace in his mind. In that palace, he places things he wants to remember.

So he could, for example, walk up to an imaginary vase where he’d written the number to a safe, read it, and recall it.

This is very real.

Just try putting your keys in your cereal bowl as a reminder to take out the trash when you wake up in the morning and you’ll quickly see the power of association.

2. Apply every fact you know.

You know how you forget the information you were tested on the day after your exam? It’s because it’s either knowledge that’s irrelevant to you (lacking in connection). Or it’s super important. And you’re just not applying it anywhere.

I haven’t played an instrument in three years, but if I sat down to play right now, I would remember how. Why? Because I practiced for hours. Sure, my physical training would need to be refreshed, but not my memory and understanding of how to do it because I cemented the capability over many years of application.

Connection, or association, as I talked about above, is extremely valuable. But it still only gets you partway to having an above-average grasp of the information in your mind.

The other piece that matters is application.

And the faster you can expose yourself to a new piece of information, connect it to old information, and then apply it, the quicker you will learn.

This is the idea of “doing the work.”

When you scroll onto a video that gives you actionable advice, you have to take action to retain it.

When someone shares an idea with you, take a moment to think about how it connects to everything else you know, and then at least imagine what it would be like to live with that idea in your life, or just go apply it somewhere.

Connect every fact you know to every other fact you know. And apply every fact you know.

This is the path to having the right information on recall when you need it because you’ll have been practicing the skill of having useful information and using it.

One additional note…

It’s also worth understanding how you naturally remember things. For example, to write this article, I had to do a google search to find out who wrote Sherlock Holmes, even though I’ve seen Arthur Conan Doyle’s name many times. I forget the name Frank Herbert, the author of one of my favorite books, Dune, all the time. And honestly, sometimes I still worry one day I’ll need to write down my social security number and I just won’t remember.

Because I’m not great at remembering facts and figures, equations, or detail-oriented information.

But I didn’t have to reference anything that wasn’t detail oriented to write this article because I have an excellent memory for concepts. I understood exactly how to communicate the ideas I wanted to write about.

I’m also quite good at remembering physical movements, sensations, or vibes. The first of which was an advantage in various athletics, and the last was very helpful in writing film scores.

I was quite terrible at remembering specific pieces of music.

But I could write a “sad” or “exciting” piece of music stream of consciousness.

Because I had the strength to remember that specific type of information (in that case, the emotional quality of a particular phrasing of music).

So, if you can, navigate the world by memorizing the things you’re naturally disposed to remember because it’s a huge advantage.

But no matter what you choose to remember, connecting every fact you know to every other fact you know, and applying every fact you know, will help you remember it better.

And it will transform your mind into a toolbox of useful information for whatever situation you find yourself in.

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