Faster Learning Through Pokémon

Tristan knows MATH, FINITE ELEMENT ANALYSIS, EMPATHIC LISTENING, and TAIL SLAP.

Tristan took an online course. Tristan is trying to learn PYTHON.

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Like many people, I made some New Year’s resolutions, one of which was to start listening to more educational podcasts. I loaded a ton of them onto my phone, queued them up for my morning walk, and set out to face the world!

After a week of listening and about twelve hours of audio, I realized that I had learned nearly nothing and that most of these “educational” podcasts were a waste of time.

It’s not that the podcasts were badly made or untrue. They were full of facts. Facts like that this week scientists developed a new theoretical explanation for the existence of dark matter, which could learn to a new “Theory of Everything.” And that is indeed a fact.

But it is also a fact that the star of Grey’s Anatomy Kevin McKidd finalized his divorce with his wife Jane Parker this week. And for approaching any scientific, technological, commercial, personal, or emotional problem, those two facts are equally useless.

Everyone in life has things that they can do. Some of them are formal skills, some of them are talents, some of them are gained through experience, but I’m going to lump them all under one word: Moves. You know moves.

Anyone, literally anyone can go onto Wikipedia and memorize Bayes Theorem, but only some people know the move STATISTICAL ANALYSIS. That move is useful at work for solving problems, it’s useful in life for understanding risk and uncertainty, and if you gamble it has an entire sub-tree of related moves that can make serious money.

Moves are useful in multiple situations. When a friend starts crying because their girlfriend left them, EMPATHIC LISTENING is a great response to the situation. But that same move is incredibly useful if you’re a product manager, and is the basis of good customer research interviews.

Just like with Pokémon, what moves you know determines what challenges you can overcome. If a friend starts crying and you use FINITE ELEMENT ANALYSIS, you may find it’s not very effective. Unlike Pokémon however, humans can learn more than four moves.

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You can’t learn the MATH move if you don’t know a certain number of facts about math. Facts are an important part of the learning process (go figure). But just because something conveys a lot of information, doesn’t mean it’s actually educational.

For my podcasts, I have a new definition. Something is educational if it:

  • Teaches me a new move (like learning Python).
  • Makes a move I already know better (like getting better at Python coding).

  • Helps me apply I move I already know in more situations (like discovering that Python is good for more than making my Roomba dance).

It’s a simple definition, and one that gives a clear basis for evaluating how good a podcast is. I plan to keep using it in the future, and hopefully that will make my morning walks a little more productive.

(Also, Pokémon defeating challenges and earning XP is a metaphor for growing as a person. And items are tools that let you practice a skill. Really, Pokémon is a surprisingly robust metaphor for life.)

Tristan Morris