An Introduction to Sensemaking: The Skill That Will Help You Learn Anything

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In this post, we cover:

  • What sensemaking is, and why it makes you a stronger thinker
  • How sensemaking changes (and improves!) your learning process
  • Why the modern world makes it so hard to learn
  • How to start integrating sensemaking into your thinking habits
“Self-education is, I firmly believe, the only kind of education there is.” – Isaac Asimov

One of the most famous self-educated individuals of the 19th century was Frederick Douglass.

Douglass was born into slavery in 1818. He was separated from his mother as a baby, and at 6 years old he was sent to work. 

He never received a formal education of any kind, and yet he became a famous orator, a writer (with three classic books still widely circulated today), a statesman, and a prominent abolitionist. He was a prominent public figure, and he was almost entirely self-taught.

Douglass’s education started at 12 years old, when he first learned to read. The wife of his slaveholder in Baltimore taught him the alphabet, and when her husband found out and stopped her, Douglass continued the studies himself. The books in the house had been hidden (for fear reading might lead him to desire freedom), so he learned from the children in his neighborhood, then later from books he acquired himself and studied in secret.

He read anything: books, pamphlets, newspapers, and political materials. As he read, he slowly began to develop views on freedom and slavery and human rights. 

While limited by circumstance, Douglass was already practicing the most important facet of learning: finding information, critically thinking about it, and slowly assembling your own opinions. He was sensemaking: engaging in the process of assembling information to derive conviction or meaning.

As we sensemake, we develop our understanding of the world around us – both in specific areas and as a whole. That understanding dictates the choices we make, the values we have, and the aspirations we pursue.

Many brilliant inventors and creators—from Einstein to Elon Musk—have credited self-directed learning and effective sensemaking for their success.

In Douglass’ case, his sensemaking journey led him to find his freedom, author books, become an orator, serve in government, and become a prominent (and effective) voice in the abolitionist movement.

His education was driven by curiosity, a desire to understand, and a hunger to grow – all key underpinning traits of any self-directed learner.

Why does the modern world make learning feel so difficult?

Education has been set up in a systematic way that actually has very little to do with learning.

Most of us experienced education in a classroom setting, most likely in the standardized school system. Those learning environments – even with the best of teachers – are set up poorly. We learn only during set hours, only within a classroom, and primarily via experts telling us what’s true.

We’re left with a lot of misconceptions about what learning is:

  • That it requires teachers
  • That it exists in a hierarchical structure
  • That it’s about right and wrong answers
  • That memorization supersedes creativity

But learning is extremely personal, and it’s also omnipresent. We’re constantly learning. 

  • When you read an interesting tweet, you learn.
  • When you work with a new team member, you learn. 
  • When someone shows you how to dice an onion in a new way, you learn.

Some learning only has a small impact (dicing onions will only ever affect a small part of your cooking process), but some learning has a very large impact. That interesting insight you read in a tweet might lead you to follow a new person, who might recommend you pick up a book, which might lead in turn to a prominent shift in the way you think about a large piece of the world. 

But because school taught us to only think about learning within formal constraints (e.g. learning happens within classrooms and not without), we aren’t aware of all this learning we’re constantly doing – because we’re not looking for it.

And because of this lack of awareness, most of us never built strong habits that enable effective learning. We’ve never optimized for it because we don’t think about it happening.

The optimization is really important, though. We’re always navigating large amounts of information and making quick decisions, consciously or subconsciously. The quality of that decision-making entirely depends on how well we’ve learned to assemble and make sense of information.

That’s why your ability to learn, or your ability to sensemake, is such an important skill.

How does effective sensemaking help you learn?

Sensemaking is exactly what it sounds like: the process of making sense of information. Or, more precisely: the application of a process to derive meaning or conviction.

You are always engaged in this process, but that does not mean it’s conscious, nor optimized.

When you sensemake, you critically engage with information. Often, you compare different sources. You contrast what you’re learning against your own lived experience. You ask questions of yourself that facilitate critical thought – and deepen your understanding.

The sensemaking process is never really finished – because everything we learn re-opens the cycle. But in each iteration, it brings us to a new meaning, conviction, or understanding around what we’ve just learned.

Effective sensemaking enables you to:

  • Develop holistic and well-informed perspectives on any topic, because you’re able to identify, understand, and empathize with a variety of opinions 
  • Feel confident in your ability to expand your knowledge efficiently and discern what’s true because you have built strong tooling to do so
  • Explain an idea in your own words, using your own terms, and with the feeling of knowing you’re well-informed
  • Learn anything

What does it mean to engage in effective sensemaking?

As Albert Einstein said, “Never memorize something you can look up” – and that was before the era of search engines.

What the brain does uniquely is think about information – and that’s what true learning is really about. It’s an integrative process – making sense of different sources and ideas, connecting them to each other and with your existing knowledge, answering questions and uncovering new ones.

The age of the internet has brought both a blessing and a curse. The blessing: all the information we could ever want is at our fingertips. The curse: that information is incredibly hard to sift through, let alone make sense of.

You’ve likely experienced this firsthand (we have). It goes something like this:

You start with a question – I want to learn about X.

You’re curious, so you open up your computer, pull up a search engine, and type your question into the search bar.

As you hit “enter,” what you hope to experience: understanding a complete and integrated answer to your question.

As you hit “enter,” what you actually experience: an overwhelm of information. You find a few relevant sources you click through one at a time, and walk away with a basic answer to your question – but it feels incomplete.

You’re vaguely frustrated, because you sense that there’s probably a better way to do this, but you have no idea what that is.

Does that resonate?

Here’s where the process of sensemaking might get you:

Again, you start with a question – I want to learn about X. For the sake of example, let’s make the question I want to learn about DAOs.

You keep seeing the term DAO come across your radar, and you have no idea what the term means, and you figure it’s time to understand what all the fuss is about.

So you start with a Google search, and open a few relevant sources. You find 3-4 articles right away that look promising, and you get a preliminary lay of the land. You start reading.

Your research, though, is an active process. You’re taking notes on what you’re reading, and you’re making note of questions. For example:

  • How are DAOs built?
  • How do DAOs grow?
  • What are some examples of successful DAOs?

Each of these questions mark both areas you aren’t clear on, and areas you can feel your curiosity deepening.

Simultaneously, you’re also noting your thoughts:

  • This is how DAOs relate to Discord communities I’ve been a part of
  • I find it interesting that DAOs are super prevalent in this internet community I’m a part of, but not prevalent at all in this other community.
  • I wonder what would happen if I built a DAO around X

Your reading is an active process, not a passive one. You’re comparing what you’re learning with knowledge you already possess, and you’re slowly building a fabric of understanding.

You’re also building webs of connection between the different sources you read. One article explains how a DAO was built; another is a skeptical review of the potential of the DAO. You see things in each you agree with, and things you don’t. You see how the ideas in the two articles play off of each other. Your own understanding grows.

You go down rabbit holes based on your previous questions. You develop more questions and take more notes.

It’s an active and ongoing process. There isn’t necessarily a clear “end” point – because each question leads to more questions, and often more ideas. That’s okay. The point isn’t to be “finished” – the point is to be continually engaging in a process that helps you make sense of the world.

How can I start effectively sensemaking?

Our ability to sensemake affects everything. It impacts:

  • our work (how well we’re able to solve new problems, seek solutions, and innovate)
  • our personal relationships (how well we can understand someone else’s perspective and find resolutions)
  • our thinking (how well we can intake new information, synthesize it, and use it on a day-to-day basis)

The better we can sensemake – and the more we make sensemaking a habit – the more effective we’ll be in all aspects of our lives.

There are a number of tools you can use to help you sensemake better. This is where we like to start:

  1. Whenever you’re learning about something, engage with multiple sources of information. Imagine that whatever you’re learning about is a complex three-dimensional object, and one source is only looking at it from one angle. The more angles you get, the more holistic a view you’ll have of the topic in question. And the more perspectives you see, the better you’ll be able to compare them and lend your own.
  2. Contrast what you’re learning against the ideas and assumptions you already have. Learning is a cumulative process that happens over time. The things you’ve learned in the past help you make sense of the things you’re learning now – each new learning isn’t a stand-alone silo. When you learn something new, you’re relating it to the other things you know to re-shape your understanding of the world.
  3. Apply mental models to help you understand information. Oftentimes information – especially complex topics – are hard to unpack. Mental models give you a framework to organize that information, disassemble it, and look at its disparate parts – or offer you a series of questions to ask to better shape your own opinions.
  4. Cross-reference ideas covered across your sources – or even better, across different topics. Sometimes the best insights come from unexpected places. Different topics have echoes of the same laws of nature – and sometimes, what you learned in one topic actually applies neatly to another.

Example of that last point: one of my favorite fun facts is that apples taste better when they grow in harsh climates. The trees release more chemicals over the course of the season as they react to complex stimuli, and in turn the harvested apples have a more complex flavor.

That’s an insight that ties back to other areas of life. What effect does life experience have on an individual’s personality (“hard times make strong men”)? What grit exists in company cultures where the founders had to fight to make it?

Those analogies and overlaps are reached through the process of sensemaking.

Sensemaking has the power to transform us, in the way it led Frederick Douglass on a journey from slave to orator on a national stage – or the way it led Elon Musk to build multi-billion dollar companies, Nikola Tesla to create a plethora of inventions, Helen Keller to become a prominent figure in spite of being both deaf and blind … and a multitude of other autodidacts and polymaths throughout history.

Sensemaking helps us take the plethora of information bombarding us and turn it into something useful.

That’s why we feel so strongly about helping each of us think well and take back control of how we sensemake. And that’s why we kept coming back to these processes again and again, realizing that technology can truly empower us to engage in these processes more efficiently. And that’s why we started building Edvo — to bring forth tools that enable each of us to think well.

Want to level up how you make sense of the world?

Become an Edvo Founding Tester!