The Mooc to take to a deserted island

In this blog post you will learn:

  • which Mooc should be first on your list.
  • a little bit about ‘diffuse’ and ‘focused’ modes of thinking.
  • a little bit about ‘illusions of competence’.

The last day I sat a final exam was a day to remember.

I was sitting at the last row of the lecture hall as the clock struck 15. It was time to hand the exam. I re-read my paper approvingly, put down my pen, and sighed. It was over. Four and a half years had gone by. I grabbed my jacket, stood up proudly  and walked down the lecture hall with a solemn, condescending stride. I delivered my paper to the examiner. I got out of the building. I was free.

I would finally have the time to  pursue my passions, intern at my dream company in Paris, and especially, educate myself outside academia. It was time to get into MOOCs.

That very night I enrolled in  “Learning How to Learn” by UC San Diego. It had excellent reviews.

I didn’t know it that day, but I was in for a beating.


I first learned about focused and diffuse modes of the mind. When you are paying your undivided attention to, say, a math problem, a project or a book, you are in a focused mode.

When you take a study break and go for a walk or make yourself a sandwich, your brain doesn’t just forget that you had been tackling a math problem for hours. It is still working on it subconsciously, but it loses the stronghold it had on your focus.  Your ideas take note that the master (your brain) is distracted and escape through the window.

They put their party pants on and go bounce freely in the immense dancehall of the mind called the diffuse mode;  a more relaxed kind of thought flow.  In this big party, your current ideas see other unrelated, older ideas sitting down, waiting to be asked for a dance. Often, new and old ideas hook up.

Every now and then, they really, really like each other.

When they do, you get an Eureka moment. You solve an engineering problem by comparing it to music scales. You come up with the most beautiful of metaphors. You remember a long forgotten problem that somehow applies to the marketing challenge you are working on.

This is the reason  why taking breaks from working and revising is crucial. It is only in moments of relative relaxation that your ideas escape the stronghold of the focused brain, go dance around, and luckily find a plan for the night.

This of course means that embarking in 5-hour study sessions while wearing  a sleeveless ‘rest is for the weak’ t-shirt is NOT the way to go.

Rest is for the weak.JPG

Don’t do this. Really.


The following week I learned about illusions of competence, the dangerous delusion of believing we understand a topic while we just feel more comfortable around it.

When you have been reading and re-reading a text, your eyes and your brain get used to it. Because of the familiarity, you feel more comfortable around the document. Then you confuse ‘feeling comfortable’ around a document with ‘understanding’ it.

I then remembered how confident I felt before an International Law test, and how confused and clueless I was during the actual exam.

I suddenly understood what was going on. I didn’t understand international law. I just felt comfortable around international law. It was an illusion of competence. This was probably true with most of my ‘knowledge’.


I might not understand you, but I feel comfortable around you. You must be an ‘illusion of competence ‘

The  mediocre grade I got that day  in Law was disappointing, but realizing I had deluded myself for half a decade actually hurt.

As weeks went by, I felt increasingly naked by the truths of learning being revealed to me… by a Mooc, no less…

It was hard for me, the quintessential clutch test taker, to accept it.

My career as a student was probably over, but my career as a learner, was just starting.

Learning How to Learn: Powerful mental tools to help you master tough subjects

University of California, San Diego@Coursera

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