Jan 22, 2022 3 min read

A Virtuous Cycle vs. Walled Gardens for Lifelong Learning

A Virtuous Cycle vs. Walled Gardens for Lifelong Learning
The Virtuous Cycle of Lifelong Learning by jasongilbertson.com.
Table of Contents

I shift away from top-down walled gardens (topics) towards a bottom-up virtuous cycle (ideas) which increases in value as the system grows.


This post focuses on my strategy for lifelong learning. I was fortunate to learn, while working from home, that I think and learn better through asynchronous, long-form writing. Before this revelation, I thought and communicated through curated bullet points based on detailed research. While I was good on a topic in isolation, I was bad at connecting topics and ideas across disciplines.

How was I bad at connecting topics across disciplines? I received good grades in school without trying as hard as I could have. I am smart enough to quickly understand new concepts. So, what was the problem? My issue — which I did not understand until my late-30’s — is that my top-down hierarchical system became more complex and confusing as it grew. Once I passed 20,000 well-organized notes in Evernote, I struggled to retain knowledge over time, and my motivation to learn new ideas waned.

The key to this failure is that I built a lifelong learning system that did not scale — I had built a collection of walled gardens.

The Walled Gardens of Lifelong Learning by jasongilbertson.com.

To build a lifelong learning system that scales, I shifted away from top-down walled gardens, organized by topics, towards a bottom-up virtuous cycle, focused on ideas, which increases in value as the number of ideas grows. A virtuous cycle is when chains of events reinforce themselves through a feedback loop. And each iteration of the cycle reinforces the prior cycle.

The Virtuous Cycle of Lifelong Learning by jasongilbertson.com.

This virtuous cycle scales beautifully for three reasons:

  1. Atomic ideas: Atomic refers to something that cannot be broken down into smaller parts. By distilling knowledge into its atomic ideas, it is easier to connect a single idea across multiple contexts.
  2. Metcalfe’s law: To paraphrase slightly, Metcalfe’s law states that the value of a system is proportional to the square of the number of connected ideas of the system (\(ideas^{2}\)).
  3. Compound: This is where the magic happens. And you may notice that “compound” is in the virtuous cycle, but not the walled garden. As you build a network of connected atomic ideas, it becomes easier and faster to add to your accumulated knowledge.

Up Next

In my next post, I will share a detailed look at my new system which uses atomic notes, Zettelkasten, spaced repetition, and automation.

Edit: The next post is up. See How to Build a System for Lifelong Learning.

Further Reading

There are three resources which were invaluable to help me “see the light”:

  • Atomic Habits by James Clear. This helped me think in more atomic terms and to better understand the power of how small actions, compounded over time, create great things. James’ book especially changed my outlook to reduce focus on long-term goals and instead increase focus on your systems for continuous improvement.
  • How to Take Smart Notes by Sönke Ahrens. This introduced me to the Zettelkasten method, which I will introduce in a future post.
  • Why You Should Write by David Perell. Inspiration for taking the risk to write and share these thoughts in public! David’s insight that public writing creates a positive feedback loop (i.e., virtuous cycle) was particularly helpful.
I would love to hear your feedback. Please do not hesitate to contact me at jason.gilbertson@gmail.com.
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