The 4 Stages of Learning Just About Anything

by Alyssa Oursler | February 24, 2014 9:58 am

Twenty months — that’s it.

I was brought on as an intern at InvestorPlace in the summer of 2012, not long after I had graduated college. The boss man was impressed early on by the fact that I could string coherent sentences together, worked hard and was eager to learn. Or something like that.

And so I was pulled on as a full-time employee just a few weeks after I started, marking the true beginning to my unexpected “career” in financial media.

Or something like that.

I admittedly was inexperienced in finance — but it at least wasn’t my first introduction to the world of stocks. My dad went through a trading phase when I was in elementary school, hanging stock charts around his home office and discussing his picks at the dinner table. I didn’t understand much, but I apparently knew enough to use his interest to my advantage.

I desperately wanted a dog and, after getting shot down on puppy after puppy that I claimed to love and need, I tried a new tack. “But we could name it Nasdaq!” I offered. “When he jumps on the couch, we’ll say, ‘Oh look, Nasdaq’s up!’ And when he gets off we’ll say, ‘Aww, Nasdaq’s back down.’”

That’s pretty damn clever for an 8-year-old, if you ask me.

My faux interest in anything finance-related ended once I got my dog, though (who, for the record, we named after a television character, not a stock index). I went through school thinking little about finance — both as a subject of study and on a personal level.

Then InvestorPlace hired me.

Suddenly I was downloading One Up on Wall Street to my Kindle. I was bringing How to Make Money in Stocks (which I learned had been my dad’s investment bible back when I was in second grade) along as my beach read. In between, I was trying to not just comprehend seemingly endless acronyms and numbers and charts, but to analyze and apply them.

I soaked up a lot in my 20 months on the job — and I owe eternal thank-yous to the smart people who helped along the way.

But my biggest breakthrough during that time wasn’t about finance at all.

Instead, I learned the most about learning — likely because my InvestorPlace education was the first time in a long time I wasn’t studying a subject for a specific assignment or test. Learning without a finish line can be an exhausting process — one I’ve boiled down to four pretty distinct stages.

Stage One is pretty simple: You know little. You continually ask yourself why you’re bothering to learn this and why you’re so stupid. And you continually ask others what the hell they are talking about.

“What do you mean one of the earnings figures doesn’t include ‘items’? Is this an express checkout lane?”

You are overwhelmed, confused and frustrated.

You actually smack yourself in the head. More than once.

Soon enough, though, you are on to Stage Two, as terms and metrics that once sounded foreign become your native tongue. You’re smart enough to know the basics. You can read a quarterly filing. You understand not only various valuation formulas, but when or why a certain one might be appropriate.

You can (and do) get in arguments with friends and family and co-workers about the sustainability of a business model or about a stock’s prospects. You sometimes win.

You follow the experts on Twitter. You open your brokerage account. You buy your first stock. And for a short sweet, glorious time, you think you have it all figured out.

But then Stage Three hits, and yes, you discover even more — but among other things, you learn how much you don’t know.

It’s like Socrates once said: “I know that I am intelligent, because I know that I know nothing.”

You begin to recognize the complexities behind the basics. The “if it was that simple, everyone would have figured it out” light bulb goes off. Now, every small thing you know comes with a batch of more complicated questions, and in a way, you feel like you’re going backward. And you get frustrated all over again

Stage Four is what I like to call the reality check of the reality check.

You realize that you will never understand it all … but somehow, that doesn’t stop you from trying. Heck, you even realize that you don’t have to crack every code or answer every outstanding question to make better financial choices in the short term, to make better financial investments for the long term, or to give better advice along the way.

You embrace the complexities and contradictions because … well, that’s life.

And just when you’ve become comfortable with that final stage, you find yourself starting the cycle all over again.

Alyssa Oursler is an Assistant Editor at InvestorPlace … until she starts a new job tomorrow.

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