How To Make a Life Lesson Stick

Sah Kilic

The 3 golden rules of learning, so you don’t forget. Kinga Cichewicz/Unsplash

How many times have you learned a lesson only to forget it the next day?

Maybe it’s a great quote you saw, a productivity tip you took note of, or a personal finance discovery that snapped you into a moment of clarity — something that would change everything.

These life-changing positive lessons we learn every single day get stored away in notebooks, highlighted, saved, and promptly forgotten.

And then we’re browsing our notes one day, wondering why all this gold is collecting dust.

Education is what survives when what has been learned has been forgotten — Burrhus Frederic Skinner

And B. F. Skinner is on point here.

99% of what you learned in school goes out the window, but the rest is what sets you up for life — this is the same for the lessons today.

You live these experiences continuously. They could be as simple as reading an article or as extravagant as a year-long stint as a freelancer.

You’re not actively learning most of the time; it’s not concrete.

Your learning is powerful but passive; it’s through experience, but it’s a fraction of your capabilities, and mine, and the next person.

In Sinatra’s echoing words:

That’s life.

You have groceries to do, work to chip away at, and a life to live.

But you can have your cake and eat it too. Because just like that 1% we call education, the good shit sticks — and that’s where we should start.

The Good Stuff

Cal Fussman, writer at large at Esquire, is probably one of the most talented storytellers on the planet. He recounts how he lost the notes to a story he’d been sitting on for ten years.

A story about learning everything there is about wine and becoming a sommelier for an evening.

And he did.

He served wine, laughed with the clientele, and made the mistakes a beginner would make but at a high-end restaurant, atop a building with a phenomenal view, overlooking city lights.

Unfortunately for him and everyone else involved, that building and its twin would come down the very next day in the tragedy that was 9/11.

He couldn’t even glance at the notes after the tragedy, not for a decade, and by then, they were destroyed in a basement flood.

But Cal knew from a lifetime of journalistic experience and learning that education was the gold that wasn’t dusty, the 1% that stays with you — he knew a fact: the good shit sticks.

So he finally mustered the courage, and on the tenth anniversary of the tragedy, he published a beautiful piece in Esquire to commemorate.

The good stuff had indeed stayed with him. But if the good stuff always sticks, why take notes? Why is it that we see so much gold sitting in our note apps and desk drawers?

Here’s one answer: There’s a lot of good stuff, and we suck at remembering.

We’ll always have the base learnings that we’ve gathered over a lifetime of painful mistakes, and we can take joy in knowing they’ll always be there.

But the chances are, you clicked on the story for a reason.

And that reason was to dust off all the gold that’s been sitting idle and using it to power up your endeavors — luckily, it’s very much attainable.

Creating a Rule Book

Ray Dalio, the billionaire hedge fund manager and founder of Bridgewater Associates, didn’t make his money by accident — he succeeded by learning from his mistakes and establishing a set of life and work principles.

His memory was his weakness, but this way, he could reach for his goals, fail, and learn instead of repeating.

The gold that he found from professionals, peers, and life, he didn’t haphazardly write in a notebook; he carefully and deliberately assessed the information, found the lesson, and made what is essentially a religious text.

It was a rulebook of principles that he would follow when he reencountered the same situation.

He later wrote a book on it aptly titled Principles: Life & Work.

And in it, he encourages borrowing, but more so, he promotes coming up with your own principles specific to your life.

A principle

If you want to apply a lesson, but you’re having trouble making it stick — this is where the principle comes into play.

Principles look like this: A → B, C, D, E.

A implies B, C, D, and E.

Meaning if I follow this principle, it’ll make all these other little things fall into place.

It’s the box you need to check before making a decision.

Weigh second- and third-order consequences.

It’s the bedrock action or rule you need to tuck away so that you can follow it when you need it.

Don’t worry about looking good — worry about achieving your goals.
Get over “blame” and “credit” and get on with “accurate” and “inaccurate.”

Something you can keep in your rulebook and revisit every day.

The effects of following your principles, following the all-governing laws in your rulebook — they’re compounding.

The principles will stack up, you’ll modify them, new learnings will come in every week, month, and year.

Until you go to write something in there and realize, “wow, I’ve learned a lot.”

These sets of principles are bespoke, tailored to your own learnings, experiences, and pain — it’ll be one of a kind, just like you.

The more you look back at the rule book, the more you’ll realize another fact about making lessons stick — something around from your school days.


It works, and studies prove that.

It works in marketing and advertising; it works in elementary and college; it works in the physical, the social, and the cultural realms of life.

We may recall, take action, or believe things in a binary way — yes or no, one or zero, true or false, do or don’t.

But we learn them through repetition.

Were your parents there for you? — For me, the answer is yes, but not because I remember every time we had dinner or went on trips; it's because we did those things many times; it’s repetition.

Do you associate positivity with Red Bull or Coca Cola? — I never drink them, yet I somehow do; what’s up with that? The constant marketing of adrenalin sports and happiness is what’s up; it’s repetition.

The way you categorize a person, a brand, a country, a restaurant — it all hinges on the compounding effect of prolonged exposure.

With principles, you might experience significant pain from a lesson and take note, so you remember.

With repetition, you’re stacking blocks wide and tall.

How to stack the blocks

Naval Ravikant says you should pick 100 valuable books to read and re-read them over and over again throughout your life. Hyperbole or a practical sense of repetition?

A bit of both?

When reading, go slow and take notes instead.

I re-read pages, write the quotes by hand, and reference my stack of notes daily.

I’ll never be able to read it all, but I can read enough notes in 5 minutes of page-flipping that it makes all the difference.

Learning comes in many forms, and this is why learning a language is so much effort — you need to exercise the information in many formats.

Treat learning anything like learning a language, and you’ll be applying pressure in all directions.

You hear it, you write it, you find examples, you say it in conversations, you apply it, rinse and repeat.

Find case studies, explanations in other mediums, other people’s personal experiences.

If you can picture the lesson being applicable in your life, again and again, it will indeed eventually become a part of it.

There’s too much information out there, and we won’t learn everything, that’s a fact.

But we can take comfort in knowing three things.

The good stuff will always stay with us — they’re the truths we know and the experiences that guide our actions.

There’s good stuff that we don’t need to remember; we only need to keep track of the umbrella action, the principle that will point us in the right direction — that’s our rulebook.

And everything else that’s worthwhile is worthwhile repeating — and if you can be bothered to, that’s what will make it important enough to stick.

Best of luck in your lifelong learning!

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