Monthly Archives: November 2012

Shortcutting the shortcut and learning how to learn

On the eve of the release of Tim Ferriss’ new book on effective learning — The 4 Hour Chef — I thought it timely to reflect on what I’ve learned about learning (usually by struggling) and from Tim’s example.

Experimentation is the key

Why has Tim Ferriss become the “guru” of learning, usually by unconventional methods? Two reasons I see: (1) he challenges assumed wisdom and, (2) he thinks like a scientist. In short, Tim is an experimenter.

Most people spend a lot of time Doing, Contemplating and Preparing but don’t go the extra step to Experimenting. It’s great learning a language in your bedroom or on the train but it’s all for nought if no experimenting is done.

Want to learn German? Go to Berlin and speak predominantly German. Keen to be a web designer? Start building websites (for free at first if you like). Become an accomplished chef? Start cooking and experimenting with new techniques, ingredients and cultural elements.

What stops you?

What I realised from (being myself) and watching others go about learning new skills and moving into new lines of work, is that there is this inherent security about stuffing up.

It is no doubt a type of perfectionist complex as well as this need to not fail. Not failing is a problematic place to be. While we’re trying hard not to fail we’re not prepared to experiment. No experimenting, no learning.

Doing, Contemplating, Preparing, Experimenting

You can spend a lifetime Doing things, Contemplating positive change, Preparing to do it and ending up miserable at the lack of progress.

“You can give someone the prescription but if they don’t take the pill the prescription doesn’t matter. So how do you get people to take the pill?” – Tim Ferriss

I’m keen but what to do I do now?

One thing Tim Ferriss is famous for is using the 80/20 rule to learn skills quickly. Known as Pareto’s Law — so named after the Italian economist that brought the idea to prominence — is simply that some activities are suboptimal (a waste of time) because the benefits gained from doing these activities contributes very little to the overall result.

In other words (as a rule of thumb) — 80% of your results will come from 20% of the activities. The key then is in deciding what to do more of and what to cull.

This will come down to data as often times our intuitions/assumptions about what is effective are flat wrong. That and there is a part in all of us that wants to feel like we’re doing something and getting ahead even when we aren’t (doing things but going nowhere).

Part of the data gathering can come from experts. Tim likes to look at the outliers — the people who are at the upper end of the bell curve who are getting insanely good results. How can exceptional people inform the learning process?

The second part of the data collection process is rigorous note taking and tracking of results? What did I do that worked? What didn’t?
Test assumptions and common “wisdom”. Ideas that are popular aren’t necessarily fact-based.

Finally, what does the science say? In experimenting and researching for the 4 Hour Body, Tim spent a lot of time finding researchers and scientists working on projects that hadn’t passed through the meat grinder of the scientific process but had shown promise.

This is a radical commitment to find cutting edge scientific approaches to body and performance enhancement. A particular goal may not require that kind of research, but the collective knowledge of humanity is vast, growing all the time and more accessible than it ever has been so use it!

Further resources

“That’s just what I believe” inadequacy

With the US Presidential Election just days away, I thought it timely to look at one of the most annoying statements politicians can make (indeed people generally).

Disclaimer: Though there was an emphasis on Republican politicians in this article, I by no means think the phenomenon described here within is confined to any one group (Democrats do this too). We all think our beliefs are right and wonder how others can’t see it. Politicians, however are in the best position to screw others over because of what they think is right.

Sitting in a hotel room in Berlin in September last year and flicking through the TV channels to find an English speaking channel, I happened upon Piers Morgan’s show on CNN. The guest that night — Rick Santorum — the uber-conservative Republican, who was then campaigning for the Republican Primaries.

Piers didn’t really test Santorum too much with his questioning but what did pique my curiosity was a statement Santorum made regarding the theory of evolution. At the time I didn’t realise that this would be the first time of many that I would hear Santorum say these words:

“That’s just what I believe”.

It was of course in reference to the fact that Santorum didn’t believe in evolution and that he believed the everything was created by God (in 6 days).

Think about that statement “That’s just what I believe”. As an interviewer, it would have been nice to hear Piers say “Okay, but you do understand that you can’t force that view on everyone else?” Of course, aligning himself with religious conservatives, Santorum did want to force public schools to teach creationist garbage as science, setting back science education 200-300 years.

I have since learned that when Santorum said it was “just what I believe” he means, “and if you disagree you will pay when I rule the land”.

That’s Just what you believe — so what?

Given that people can believe anything (as Santorum himself shows) we should put little stock in what people believe.

“Oh you believe that taking vitamin C intravenously will cure influenza?”
Or “That face on Mars is obviously a sign of intelligent life”.

People believe a great many things, which is interesting but simply not enough, especially if you’re going to represent a diverse populous as a political representative.

Which is my point really. What right does one have to legislate on the basis of what they believe when it is contrary to fact; marginalises and restricts the rights of others?

I’m picking on Santorum because he was the Republican candidate who was most over-confident of his own beliefs about the world, but the others all exhibited the same pattern.

When confronted with an issue where their statements/policy platform were not supported by evidence, politicians (at least in the Republican primaries) claimed “that’s just what I believe” in an effort to put a full stop on the conversation. No rational justification needed right?

Sorry — you really do have to provide factual justification for your statements

No idea is so great to be immune from criticism and justification. If you think evolution is sent from Satan then we’ll need to fact check that. Hell exists? We gonna need co-ordinates and a map thanks.

If you think the potential foetus from a “legitimate rape” (?!) will be terminated by the woman’s body automatically by some magic means, you are proving to us all that your grip on reality (Tod Akin) is tenuous and that you sir should not be in power.

Again, what you believe is really not that interesting (it is irrelevant) unless it correlates with reality.

It’s politics stupid

Yeah I get it… Politics is about value judgements, but what are value judgements decided on the basis of beliefs and outright fantasies of a political elite?

If we as a species are to evolve (yes evolve) beyond our innate stupidity and ignorance, facts and evidence are really, really important.

So, “that’s just what you believe?” is fine, believe whatever you want — Just don’t inflict your warped reality on the rest of us. Cheers.