The Formula for Learning Is Almost Greater Than Learning Itself

formula for learning

It was in Geneva, Switzerland in 2011 when I discovered that the formula for learning is probably more important than learning itself.

The Missing Formula

The epiphany happened when I, a financial analyst with Procter & Gamble at the time, was meeting with a marketing manager named Karin to review pricing. We were in a small huddle room looking at an Excel spreadsheet on her computer. She had put together quite the impressive pricing analysis.

“This is awesome Karin. I’m jealous… and worried that if you keep this up us analysts will be out of our jobs!”

Karin grinned with the overblown confidence that only a middle manager in the bubble of a large corporation can have.


As I scrolled around the spreadsheet, I noticed something was missing.

“Hey Karin… how are you populating these tables?”

“What do you mean?”

“I mean, where do you get the data from, and how are you putting it in this sheet?”

“Oh I see. Let me show you quickly.”

She took the mouse and opened up a separate Excel sheet. It was a database of thousands of rows, with the names of different products in one column and their prices in another.

“I get the pricing data from here.”

“Ah. And you’re using formulas, right?”

“Of course I am. I use CTRL+F to find the product I need the price of, then CTRL+C and CTRL+V to copy-paste that price into my analysis.”

I almost choked on the water I was drinking.

The Game Changer

There were hundreds of prices in Karin’s analysis. It must take her forever to fill out her sheet. And she updated it every week!


“Not bad, huh?”

Instead of answering her question, I asked her one.

“Karin, do you mind if I try something?”


“You’ll see. Trust me.”

“Ok. But please make it quick.”

I pulled the computer towards me, opened an empty version of Karin’s analysis, typed something in the first empty cell, and copy-pasted it to all the other blank cells. The prices filled in automatically. In less than ten seconds I filled the whole sheet.

“What the…” stammered Karin, stupefied. She pulled the computer over to double-check the numbers were right. “How the hell did you do that!?”

I selected one of the cells and showed her.

“It’s called VLOOKUP. Basically, it searches the list of products in your database for the product you need the price for, then inputs the value from the column beside it.”

“This is amazing! Do you know how much time I used to spend filling these files?”

“I can imagine.” I replied politely.

“My gosh! This opens up all sorts of doors for other analyses I’ve wanted to do but would’ve taken to long!”

“Glad I could help.”

“Chris, let’s talk pricing later. Tell me. What other magic tricks do you have?”

A formula had changed the game for Karin.

And it changed the game for me too.

The Formula For Learning

Prior to my meeting with Karin, I spent considerable time reading books, listening to podcasts, watching YouTube videos, going to MeetUps, and whatever else. I thought I was learning, but at that meeting I realized I was wasting my time. I was copy-pasting data into my brain instead of using VLOOKUP.

There must be VLOOKUP-like formulas for learning too. Obviously they wouldn’t be that simple and straightforward—we’re not computers—but the concept still applies. As Abraham Lincoln is famed for saying,

“Give me six hours to chop down a tree and I will spend the first four sharpening the axe.”

If I took a bit time to look for the formulas for learning now, they could save me tons of time in the future. And those formulas might open up possibilities I couldn’t otherwise dream of.

Exponential Growth

Finding the formulas for learning is especially important because learning is exponential. Everything we learn builds on our existing base of knowledge and compounds without limit. The sooner we begin improving our own formulas for learning, the further we can go in life. And the opportunities are limitless.

From that moment on, I spent a lot more time improving my formula for learning instead of learning.

My life hasn’t been the same since.

Find Your Own Formula For Learning

Today, instead of reading that book or (god forbid) blog post on the topic you’re interested in, dig into a book like Deep Work that will help you discover your own formula for learning.

From there, continue fine-tuning it to see just how far you can really go.

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