The Three Traits You Need To Be A Learning Machine

February 13, 2020
Estimated reading time:
6 minutes

"I constantly see people rise in life who are not the smartest, sometimes not even the most diligent, but they are learning machines. They go to bed every night a little wiser than they were when they got up, and boy, does that help, particularly when you have a long run ahead of you." -- Charlie Munger

You should become a learning machine.

Do you know people who peaked at school or university? Like they achieved the best version of themselves somewhere between the ages of 15 and 22, and then just sort of...stopped growing?

You should be the opposite of that.

You should get better with age, like a fine wine. You should go to bed every night a little bit smarter and wiser than when you woke up.

It’s not easy. I’ve dedicated a significant period of time to reading, thinking, writing and learning for over a decade, and only now am I really starting to see the returns. But that’s OK: if it was easy, everyone would do it and it wouldn’t be worth doing.  

You can do it. Anyone can. I did. It’s not easy, but it is simple.

The traits of a learning machine

If you want to become a learning machine, there are three key traits that you need.

  1. Patience
  2. Humility
  3. Curiosity

I’ve ordered these in order of importance. In combination, these traits will make you unstoppable.


As Charlie Munger said, being a learning machine helps, “particularly when you have a long run ahead of you.”

That’s easy for Munger to say, of course. The guy was born in 1924. He’s 96 years old. He’s had decade after decade of compounding knowledge. But as the saying goes: the best time to plant an oak tree was 20 years ago. The second best time is today.

Knowledge compounds -- and like any compounding process, all the big gains happen later on. Early on, you need to trust the process and invest the time. Good things will happen if you have the patience to continue, day after day.

A few years ago there was an MBA student at Columbia University who heard this advice from Warren Buffett. In response to a question about how to prepare for an investing career, Buffett told the students, “Read 500 pages like this every day,” while reaching toward a stack of manuals and papers. “That’s how knowledge works. It builds up, like compound interest. All of you can do it, but I guarantee not many of you will do it.”

This student resolved to follow Buffett’s advice -- and it worked. Todd Combs, former MBA student at Columbia University, joined Buffett’s company Berkshire Hathaway in 2011, now manages billions in investments, and is set to become CEO of GEICO, the insurance giant, at the end of 2020.

The key point here is that Combs heard Buffett’s advice in 2000. He eventually joined Berkshire Hathaway in 2011, more than a decade later. But he had the patience to keep learning, keep reading, and keep compounding his knowledge.

Have patience.


A professor went to visit a Zen master. When he arrived, the Zen master welcomed him and started pouring some tea. As the Zen master poured, the professor began talking about Zen, referencing everything he already knew, the books he’d read, and the people he’d spoken to.

While the professor talked, the Zen master continued to pour. Eventually the cup began to overflow.

The professor watched this until he couldn’t restrain himself. “Stop! The cup is full,” he said.

“Indeed,” replied the Zen master. “Much like the cup, you are so full of your own knowledge and opinions that nothing more can be added. Come back when you have emptied your cup.”

To become a learning machine, you have to be humble. You have to accept that there are many things you don’t know.

You have to accept that other people are smarter or more knowledgeable on a certain topic than you are.

You have to get used to not being the smartest person in the room -- in fact, you should actively seek out people smarter than you so you can learn from them.

That requires a huge dose of humility.

In fact, you should be prepared to learn not just from teachers you seek out, or people you hold up on a pedestal as being experts. Ryan Holiday over at Daily Stoic recently wrote about the importance of learning from everyone we meet:

It’s not enough to just learn from history or to be grateful to the explicit lessons we get from our teachers. We must keep our eyes open always, and actively look for opportunities to learn from everyone, including people we know are flawed or even evil.

Imagine the power of learning something from everyone you meet. Every interaction is a chance to learn something new: if you’re willing to first empty your cup.


If you’re able to read this post, then you have more knowledge available at your fingertips than any human being in history. What are you going to do with that opportunity?

I think you should cultivate curiosity. Cultivate an intense desire to learn.

In his tweetstorm and podcast on How to Get Rich, Naval Ravikant makes this point better than anyone:

The beauty of the internet is the entire library of Alexandria times 10 is at your fingertips at all times. It’s not the means of education or the means of learning are scarce, the means of learning are abundant. It’s the desire to learn that’s scarce. So, you really have to cultivate the desire.

Information is abundant. Desire to learn is scarce. It’s a basic tenet of economics that scarcity drives value. Therefore having an intense curiosity is hugely valuable.

That curiosity can be wide, or deep, or both. You can seek out new topics and make connections in areas that others can’t. You can dive deep into a particular topic and become an expert in that area. Or you can do both, and develop what Dilbert creator Scott Adams calls a Talent Stack, a combination of skills and areas of expertise that work well together (like humour, writing, drawing and business, which together make Dilbert).

As a child, you were probably naturally curious, always keen to know more, to understand, to ask questions. Cultivate that child-like sense of curiosity again.


I think you should develop patience, humility and curiosity, in order to become a learning machine. You’ll reap huge rewards in terms of career progression, fun, creativity, enjoyment, and ultimately self-actualisation, becoming the best version of yourself.

Why wouldn’t you want to do that?

I’ll leave you with one more Charlie Munger quote.

Develop into a lifelong self-learner through voracious reading; cultivate curiosity and strive to become a little wiser every day.

Solid advice. If you need me, I’ll be in my study.

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