Tag Archives: Learning

Creating a schedule for language learning that works

How can you learn a language effectively in the busy deadline driven world that we live in?

Learning a language takes work and often that means time we don’t have. It often leads us to try and “hack” the learning process in an effort to speak fluently without going through the teething stages that inevitably arise.

First, let’s tackle that idea of language “hacking”. The term “hacking” has become prominent over the years with a number of well known public figures using “hacks” to learn skills in record time. Tim Ferriss is probably the most popular proponent of hacking and he has carved out a niche in the skill-development field by focusing on these ideas.

In the language learning field, the Irish Polyglot Benny Lewis has used the term “language hacking” a lot and even produced a series of Teach Yourself language books with the hacking approach in mind.

Simply put, hacking is ruthless effectiveness. It is refining the content of a language down into usable chunks that can be systematically practised repeatedly.

So the first point in learning a language effectively with time pressure is this: Distill down the input you need to become fluent. Focus in on key structures, vocabulary and situations.

This distillation process is a skill in itself, which is why people who have learned multiple languages find subsequent languages relatively easy to acquire.

Materials/resources

Find a limited amount of quality material, preferably with audio, and focus on learning the language progressively every day.

The key here is every day. Find something that you can focus on often and work through the material progressively.

Good audio resources accompany many of the beginner language courses such as Teach Yourself, Routledge’s Colloquial Series and Assimil. The key is to process the lessons in a focused way. My personal approach is to spend a week on each chapter of a Teach Yourself book, listening and really getting inside each of the audio lessons. After the 19 or so weeks you’ll find yourself knowing the course inside out and more importantly, understanding the language contained within.

There is more you can do in order to really gain maximum benefits from audio lessons and I go deep into those ideas in my book Fluently Speaking. For example, shadowing the audio (speaking the language in sync with the speaker) is a great practice and one worth adding to your language toolkit.

Speak now

Begin speaking right away, even if it is to yourself at first. I like to acquire and organise the material I learn and package it in speaking challenges. Some of these speaking challenges, particularly early on, involve learning language for a specific situation and then videoing myself speaking it.

Speaking assignments like this are great at developing your internal language machine. Predominantly, however, you’ll want to speak with actual native speakers either live out in the world or with a tutor/speaker via Skype or similar. Italki is a popular service and I highly recommend going there for quality speaking partners and tutors.

Find topics or situational conversations you’d like to become proficient in and start engineering your learning around those areas. This is probably the most important key to “hacking” a language — learn that which is practical to you.

There you have it — language learning need not be complex. With a bit of thought you can begin learning a language immediately with a focus on progression and practicality.

The next post will cover language games and apps and how to integrate them into your language learning lifestyle.

My book Fluently Speaking — A Modern Guide to Mastering Any Language is available in the Amazon Kindle store and UK users can find it here in the Amazon UK Kindle store.

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How to order food and drink in the Czech Republic

Snímek 076Czech can be a daunting language to learn for some but, like the 1000 mile journey that starts with a single step, it can be learned by making the effort early on to speak it as much as possible.

A friend of mine recently departed New Zealand to live in the Czech Republic and has faced the task of starting afresh — new culture, new people, places, weather, food and of course, language.

As he recounted his story of how he successfully acquired a coffee using nothing but Czech it reminded me of how exhilarating it can be to speak a new language and be understood. It also reminded me about how learning languages by making “missions”.

Missions (thanks to Benny Lewis for this idea) is the idea that you prepare for a specific encounter in a new language then go out and test it. Not only does this give you confidence it also provides the feedback you need to progress faster.

So, recounting my own encounters with the Czech language, here is my primer for the beginner or traveler seeking to be able to use just enough Czech to get by.

Note: If you are learning Czech, I have provided some grammar points which give you the jumping off point to learn more grammar. Having learned a lot of Czech, I recommend learning just enough grammar to know what’s going on but not too much too early. Grammar fatigue is definitely a diagnosable condition for learners of Slavic languages! Use one of the common textbook/audio programmes in the initial stages and you’ll go well, such as: Colloquial Czech, Teach Yourself Czech.

Before you start, check out this Czech and Slovak pronunciation guide.

From the top: saying hello, goodbye and thank you

Dobré ráno   Good morning (before 9am)
Dobrý den   Good day 
Dobrý večer   Good evening (after 6pm)

Děkuji (vám)   Thank you
Děkuji mockrát   Many thanks
Děkuji vám pěkně   Thank you kindly (lit. ‘nicely’)
Na shledanou   Goodbye

Making requests

Now you’ve said hello, how do you actually order something? A common way to ask for something in Czech and other Slavic languages is to say “I will give myself…” We would never phrase it that way in English, which serves to show how direct translation between languages is many times not possible.

Dám si jednou kávu prosím   I will have a coffee please (lit. ‘I will give myself a coffee please).

The above example is very common and is constructed from the verb dát – to give.

Alternatively, you could use the verb vzít si – meaning “to take”:
Vezmu si jedno pivo prosím   I will take a beer please

Using the imperative form, you could say:
Dejte mi…   Give me…

Dejte mi jedno pivo prosím   Give me a beer please

This form can sound very direct so use please (prosím) either at the beginning or end of the sentence.

Plurals

Plurals can get quite complicated in grammar terms, but for the most part they just require slight modifications to the noun. For example:

Dám si dvě kávy a tři piva prosím   I will have two coffees and three beers please

For plurals of 2-4 items the nouns decline (change ending) in a predictable way depending on gender. There are some different noun endings in each of the genders but here are the main ones

Feminine: káva => kávy   coffee, coffees
Neuter: pivo => piva   beer, beers
Masculine: salát => saláty   salad, salads
čaj => čaji   tea, teas (masculine noun with soft ending)

Plurals can get a bit daunting for a beginner and for the most part the ones above will fit a number of common menu items. At 5 items and beyond you encounter the Genitive case and the noun endings are completely different. However, there’s no need to worry about this in the beginning stages.

If you know the nominative noun form then you’ll be able to ask for what you want and refine later as you learn more grammar and the modifications needed.

More complex constructions

If you feel like going a bit further and want to be a bit more expressive, try using different forms, such as the conditional.

In English we’re just as like to say “I would like” as much as “I want”. In Czech the conditional is made in a similar way — using the past tense of the verb with some conditional language:

Já bych si dal   I would like (note the past tense of the verb dát)
Chtěl bych ten zákusek   I would like that cake (from the verb chtít – to want)
Rád bych   I would like (using the rád – to like)
Raději bych   I would rather

There is a wrinkle here, and this is where Slavic languages can seem overly complicated. For female speakers you’ll need to add an ‘a’ on the end of the past tense stem.

Já bych si dala; Chtěla bych; Ráda bych

Sometimes you need to know if the place you’re at has something. For this situation use the verb mít – to have in this case:

Máte zmrzliny?   Do you have ice creams?
Máte nějaké zákusky?   Do you have any cakes?

To ask for “what kinds of” you could say:

Jaké máte vino?   What sort of wine do you have?

With or without?

Asking for something with something else we use the instrumental case (don’t panic — it’s a simple noun ending change that is predictable and common). Use the preposition “s” like the s in silence.

Vezmu si jeden čaj s citronem   I will take a tea with lemon (citron – lemon)
Dám si jednou kávu s mlékem   I will have a coffee with milk (mléko – milk)

Instrumental endings
The prefix -em is for masculine nouns (usually these end in consonant) and neuter nouns (usually ending in o).

For feminine nouns, use the prefix -ou (pronounced like the word ‘owe’).

Já bych si dal palačinky se slehačkou   I would like pancakes with whipped cream (from the feminine noun slehačka – whipped cream).

Without — the Genitive case
The genitive case is simple in many ways as the instrumental. Use it after the word bez – without.

Dám si dvě kávy bez cukru prosím   I will have two coffees without sugar (from the word cukr – sugar).

So much grammar in such simple phrases

One thing you can see from these examples is how grammar is woven into the sentences in a seamless way. This is why studying grammar in isolation of sentences is not the optimal way to learn Czech.

Instead, focus 80% of your energy on learning phrases and sentences. Having learned just enough grammar to understand the different cases and how they work, set out to learn language you can use in everyday situations and use it.

I hope, however, this primer into the Czech language can at least get you to use it on your travels. In the next post I will script out a whole bunch of useful travel phrases so stay tuned.

Glossika language learning — totally worth the investment

glossikaIn November I stumbled across the Glossika language learning method and decided to invest in the Czech course to finally get me to fluency in the language. Needless to say that 6 weeks on I am pleasantly surprised and enthused by the results.

For years I had struggled with learning Czech. It was my first language so this was not totally a surprise. It also can be a devilishly difficult language — not because it is inherently difficult but more because the grammar complexity is something native English speakers aren’t used to.

So I learned Czech in fits and starts — a lot while I was in the country and only superficially elsewhere.

Without speaking Czech I felt as though I was losing the language and besides, I had other languages I wanted to move on to.

Glossika to the rescue…

Utilising a Mass Sentence method in a predetermined schedule, Glossika’s audio programme reinforces the conversational grammar and vocabulary native speakers use everyday.

This makes a lot of sense to me now that I have discovered the “grammar first” approach to learning languages is not only backwards it can lead to frustration and ultimately quitting the language.

Glossika works because it crams in simple and then more complex structures in a workable order and in a way that mirrors natural language learning.

While my main language learning project at the moment is conversational fluency in French using more textual analysis and audio listening techniques, Glossika is providing me with a structured and manageable way of building my Czech, seemingly effortlessly (I’m not forcing it).

I just plug in an listen to the spaced repetition audios (organised by day number) and then listen and read the new block of mass sentences when the schedule calls for it. This is great!

In short, if I was starting to learn a new language tomorrow, I would grab a Teach Yourself book or Assimil programme and become acquainted with the audio, vocabulary and simple grammar while using Glossika to consistently introduce and reinforce new structures.

Get speaking right away

In my last post I spoke about the need for input and lots of it. Listening to audio and understanding it thoroughly before moving on to my complicated language is how we naturally learn languages.

For me, it’s like the sun rising and gradually illuminating the land below — the darkness of ignorance in a language gradually subsides and you’re able to see and understand more and more of the language.

Glossika compared to other popular methods

Glossika contains far more audio and sentences than most language learning programmes you’ll find. I’m a fan of Assimil, however Glossika has far more language audio for you to absorb and a method for practicing it.

In my opinion, Glossika is far less tedious than Pimsleur and again, contains much more language for your brain to absorb.

I like Assimil and the Michel Thomas method, but I’ve found Glossika better in that it focuses on language you would use most of the time when speaking with native speakers. In the Czech programme, the focus is on the informal form of the language. I think a grounding in the formal structures is good, most of the usual language programmes focus specifically on that style.

It took me a lot of experimentation to arrive at what really works in language learning. Glossika really does give that missing piece I had been searching for and I heartily recommend it!

Practical philosophy to overcome modern ills

“Men are disturbed, not by things, but by the principles and notions which they form concerning things.” – Epictetus

My wife is often the source of both inspiration and incisive comments. While this can be tough to handle sometimes (no one likes hearing the truth all the time!) my life is immeasurably better because of her honest appraisals of my conduct (a euphemism if ever there was one).

Anyhow, she made a comment a while ago that really rocked me. After reading a couple of articles on Tim Ferriss’ Four Hour Blog, I expressed an interest Stoic philosophy as guidance for how to live a better life. She laughed and said that I already had a philosophy of life — hedonism! In that moment I had keen insight into why I needed to pursue a philosophy of life. Hedonism, while not inherently a bad philosophy of life, is the default approach to life most of us in industrialised nations take.

Hedonism: The satisfaction of desires is the highest good and proper aim of human life.

Hedonism is, at least for many, leads to an unrewarding way of life. The ancients in many schools of thought observed that the pursuit of pleasures for their own sake was not only easy to do (no special character development needed) it also had a cost associated with it.

This explains the popularity today of Buddhist retreats, Zen Buddhism and mindfulness in the modern world. The way many of us live today — in large industrial cities — is a relatively new state of affairs for the human animal to be dealing with. Couple this with the need to fulfill the numerous roles in the many relationships we have and it really is a perfect storm for burn out.

What people need are practical approaches to decompress and deal with the world, other than mindless shopping/consuming in the vain hope at the end of it we feel fulfilled and content.

Ancient philosophy as an operating system for your life

“To be a philosopher is not merely to have subtle thoughts, nor even to found a school, but so to love wisdom as to live according to its dictates, a life of simplicity, independence, magnanimity and trust.”
– Henry David Thoreau

The phrase “what’s your philosophy of life” might not be the most common dinner party question. In fact it probably isn’t something many people consciously think about. We tend to take on the attitudes, beliefs and approaches of those around us without much questioning.

Philosophy is also a word with baggage. To most people, philosophy is a purely academic exercise, and the joy of learning the wisdom of the philosophers is lost sometime between assignment one and the end of term exam.

This is unfortunate — philosophy  in the ancient Greek and Roman sense was practical philosophy. A student of one of the many schools in Athens and Rome would have as there goal the attainment of certain virtues in life through philosophical contemplation and the practice of key tenets.

I like Tim Ferriss’ take on philosophy — that it should be an operating system for making better decisions.

Any philosophy of life must address a few key questions:

  • What is our true nature as humans?
  • What should we value?
  • How should we act given our values/nature?
  • How does one go about dealing with problems, obstacles and misfortune?
  • What is our role in society?

Stoicism, self-control and virtue

“Freedom is secured not by the fulfilling of men’s desires, but by the removal of desire.” – Epictetus

Any philosophy of life, other than hedonism, will require self-control. While maximising our opportunities for pleasure seems logical, pleasure for pleasure’s sake ultimately isn’t a rewarding way to live for many people, and requires little or no self-control at all.

Hollywood offers the best examples of this — people who seemingly have it all are constantly destroying themselves and the lives of others through sexual excess, drugs, alcohol, aggression and a host of other destructive practices. According to hedonism, these people should be maximally happy, but we know for a fact that many of them aren’t. Fame and riches own them, and sadly it costs lives.

Failing to put our circumstances into proper perspective is part of the problem. The Stoics, for example, advocated forgoing pleasure and in some cases advise us to actively seek out discomfort so that we may have the proper appreciation of our circumstances.

With appreciation for what we have now we can abandon the suffering that stem from our desires, making it possible to live a life of durable happiness — a life that remains on a positive path despite what is going on externally.

The happiness conundrum

The Stoics were principally concerned with Eudaimonia — the Greek word that roughly translates as ‘human flourishing’. Roman Stoic Lucius Annaeus Seneca stated that such a condition can only be achieved by one who has a tranquil mind. This, to me, seems a much more worthy goal in life than the vague and undefined ‘happiness’ which can mean different things to different people. Tranquility, on the other hand, is a state of mind and we can then reason backwards and find ways of achieving this state.

The Stoics devised many practical ways to achieve a tranquil mind and the attainment of virtue (in the classical sense). This is good news for the modern man or woman trying to deal with life’s stresses, temptations, problems and challenges.

Because of this, stoicism is undergoing a renaissance of sorts. After Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius, Stoicism withered on the vine for centuries, only to emerge at several times throughout the past 1000 years.

Zen Buddhism has many cross overs with Stoicism but have different approaches to the same end. Stoic practices tend to be more about reflection and analysis of our lives whereas Zen focuses on meditation and mindfulness. As mentioned earlier, these are increasingly popular as people find them useful for achieving some inner peace in a mad world.

Simple stoic exercises can help you:

  • Develop an operating system for better decision making
  • Deal with stress and eliminate needless suffering
  • Tame pleasures rather than be owned by pleasures
  • Put the value of the people and things in your life in proper perspective
  • Increase your joy in the life you have right now (without trying to fill the void by consuming or chasing ‘external things’).

**Check out the online resources below for specifics on Stoic exercises and practice.

Concluding thoughts

I have lived my entire life to this point taking the easy road. After all, if I didn’t have to exert myself, why should I? Why would I wake up earlier? Why shouldn’t I eat that chocolate bar? The only problem with this style of living is that I ended up coasting through life never really achieving much of anything and infuriating people when I didn’t follow through in my role, whatever that was (husband, co-worker, friend…)

The Stoics were very astute in their observation that relying on external events of objects to create within us the positive emotions is a losing battle.

One of the more profoundly life-changing aspects of stoic principles is in extinguishing stress and eliminating anger. Epictetus probably said it better than anyone:

“Some things are in our control and others not. Things in our control are opinion, pursuit, desire, aversion, and, in a word, whatever are our own actions. Things not in our control are body, property, reputation, command, and, in one word, whatever are not our own actions.”

This quote is a central tenet in Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT). The notion that between an event and our response is a judgment we make. Change the judgment, change the response.

At the end of the day, the philosophers of Ancient Greece and Rome had tremendous insights into human nature and how we can flourish, despite the travails of life. Can we gain from their works? Absolutely. Given that these philosophers lived in sophisticated societies at times of war, political turmoil and upheaval, their insights about how to live a good life are as relevant today as they ever were.

Philosophy of life and Stoicism online resources:

The real cost of the distraction epidemic

Every day we waste two of our most precious resources but most people won’t realise what it costs them until it’s too late.

In your typical day, how many distractions do you encounter? Chances are you probably don’t know the answer and you also probably don’t know how much it’s costing you. We tend not to notice how much time we waste in a typical day delighting our minds with minutiae and other trivialities but the cost of such distractions is more than just a unit of time. It’s also costing us quality of life.

On another level, a war is being raged to capture your attention and hold it. Modern culture is geared around consumption, to the point where governments regard us as consumers first and citizens second.

Western societies particularly have never been as unbalanced as they are now. Because consumption is king, everywhere around us are things screaming to grab our attention. Billboards, TV, mobile apps, news, the internet in general, everyone wants a piece of your two most precious resources: time and attention.

Time and attention

Distraction is just a way of life for most of us. We wake up and check our emails, Facebook, Twitter, maybe a cute YouTube vid of some cat somewhere doing something somewhat cute. We get to work and probably read something in transit that piqued our curiosity.

Throughout the day we’ll check sports results, news and other things that amount to attention leakage.

Why is attention important? We can never get time back, that we all know. What is sometimes forgotten is that what you do with your time is crucial to living a good life.

JOMO

The movement affectionately known as JOMO — the Joy of Missing Out — is the antisthesis of something that has become known as FOMO — the Fear of Missing Out. Think about that for a minute. Fear of missing out on what? Kim Kardashian’s latest belfie? (Yes, a picture of her ass). The latest fashion, what Rhianna is wearing, is she back with Chris Brown again? Why the fascination? Are famous people really worth looking up to when you look at many of the lives they lead and the fact they cannot get a moments peace from the paparazzi?

JOMO is the exact opposite of what marketers and the big businesses they represent want. They need you glued to social media, TV, the internet and following famous people on Twitter (as an example — I’m not picking on Twitter here!) In order to reclaim your life back from the obsession of checking our phones every 10 minutes we need to realise how a constant bombardment information is affecting us.

Stoic philosopher Lucius Seneca warns against such obsessions in his must-read letter, On the Shortness of Life:

“Vices beset us and surround us on every side, and they do not permit us to rise anew and lift up our eyes for the discernment of truth, but they keep us down when once they have overwhelmed us and we are chained to lust.

“Their victims are never allowed to return to their true selves; if ever they chance to find some release, like the waters of the deep sea which continue to heave even after the storm is past, they are tossed about, and no rest from their lusts abides.” – Lucius Seneca

*The full text of Seneca’s On the Shortness of Life can be found on Tim Ferriss’ Four Hour Work Week Blog.

Distracted from what?

In order to be distracted you have be distracted from something. Now, if the purpose of your life as defined by you consciously or unconsciously is to indulge your attention in everything that comes your way then distraction isn’t really distraction for you. For those who want more from life, better quality relationships, a healthy state of mind and body, a degree of security and options… Distraction is our enemy.

How you use your time determines the quality of your life. It also contributes to a regret-free way of living. No one wants to wake up 20 years in the future only to realise that they’ve wasted their lives going from link to link on trashy news websites the internet, reading gossip magazines, playing video games constantly or watching endless reruns on TV.

Now, if you like these doing these things it isn’t a judgement on my part to tell you what you can and can’t read, do or watch. My main point is a Socratic one: that the unexamined life is an impoverished one.

If you key in on what you really value in life and operate everyday in accordance with those values, distractions are the enemy. All becomes clear when you realise what is truly worth valuing in life.

As Seneca warns, vice is the enemy of the good life. Anything external that captures your attention regularly and distracts you from truly important things in life is vice. Modern society seems fixated on the next novel piece of news, but honestly, how is that working out for you?

Chances are it’s not working out for you because multitude of messages dangled in front of you everyday aren’t designed to benefit you — they are designed to make it easier for you to hand over your attention and therefore your behaviour to suit others’ needs and desires.

Feather in the wind or iron fortress?

The bottom line is thus: you can either go through your day blown around in different directions by the external stimuli bombarding your senses or you can take reasonable steps to wall yourself off from the mortar fire ‘out there’ designed to capture your attention.

With a solid understanding of your values, and a goal-oriented approach to life, you can take control back of your attention and intentionally direct it to that which creates real meaning for you.

With that criteria in place, you can then ask yourself throughout the day: “Is this for who I am and what I want from life or isn’t it?”

Create an inner fortress — know who you are and what is really important to you in life. Living purposefully like this guards against the hounds gnashing their teeth at your attention and provides the motivation to seek out more good stuff and less mind-deadening crap so common in our modern world.

Next post: A philosophical approach that cures many of the ills of modern life.

Get off the new year’s resolution merry-go-round

It’s 5 days into the new year and we’re already tempted to cave in on our newly formed, I’m really gonna do this resolutions. Before you get sucked back into the vortex of bad habits, I’ve got a few ideas that might help.

This year, I only have two resolutions — to adopt two very simple principles that will open up the world of possibility in everything else I want to achieve this year. Let’s call these meta-resolutions.

After much failure and frustration in my own life, I realised the problem is busy-ness. In other words, I was doing stuff but ultimately progressing very slowly. This was true in my career, playing the guitar and finances.

The meta-resolutions in a nutshell:

  • Cut your options down — focus on a few things
  • Quit looking for the magic bullet

Too many options

Realise that too many things — be they books, websites, audio and video material or whatever — is ultimately a distraction. To make progress, cut your options down to a few resources, and focus on reinforcing the fundamentals of what you’re trying to learn/achieve.

This is the root meaning of the word “decision” — literally to cut off. The more “stuff” the more time you’ll spend sifting through it rather than actually learning.

Psychological research has shown clearly that it is not always a good idea for a company to expand its product line. There comes a point too many options makes it hard for the consumer to make that snap decision in the store, therefore the decision can be delayed or even completely withdrawn.

Cut to the chase

  1. Find out what the fundamentals are: the 20% you can focus on critical content — those actions that will result in 80% of successful results. (This takes a bit of upfront research).
  2. Take everything you have on the subject you’re wanting to learn and choose the top 3. These resources will cover off all your critical content and action steps.
  3. Focus on these resources exclusively.

It may not be necessary to focus on everything a particular resource has to offer — in fact you can cull even further by finding the absolute essential chapters and action points that will contribute the most to your progress.

Then stop searching for more. If something good comes up, great, but once you’ve decided what is most important, make sure you focus most of your time on that. Stay on the path!

There is no magic bullet

It is human nature to look for the one thing that will change the game but this kind of thinking is illusory. The Next Big Thing (NBT) can at best give you a new idea or approach but the problem  remains: you still need to take action.

Ultimately, the search for the NBT is fruitless because (a) it doesn’t exist, and (b) all you’re really doing is delaying action (and most probably using the search as an excuse for why you’re not succeeding).

The neediness cycle
You see, another thing humans are great at is doing a bunch of stuff that makes us feel better but ultimately is not leading to our goals at all. Once in place, this self-fulfilling failure cycle doesn’t stop. As long as you continue to think there is something better, the more you’ll fall into trap of seeking. and reinforcing that failure cycle. This distracts from what you should be doing which is using what you have and extracting as much juice out of it as you can.Positive momentum
By focusing on the fundamentals right now (which you can usually find in one or two good resources) you create a foundation for success as well as the habits of success in your chosen area. Quit searching for more and start using what you have.

The perfect consumer
Marketers love people in the neediness cycle, in fact they actively try to amplify that neediness. It seems to work.

Central to the chase for the NBT is a scarcity mentality. People that exhibit this form of neediness are essentially saying “what I have isn’t good enough, I need something else”. As mentioned earlier, this insecurity is the symptom of something that “more stuff” cannot fix.

If you’ve seen the TV show Hoarders knows the last point too well, but we all do hoard to a certain extent.

The solution: Use what you have

Whatever you want to do, chances are there are tonnes of material and experience you can draw inspiration and knowledge from. The basics are always present and while approaches vary in scope and effectiveness, the next ebook, next course, next book, next new way is mostly a marketing gimmick and definitely a distraction from what you should be doing now.
So use what you have. It is (often) enough and when you’re in the position to say you’ve conquered your present resources, then you can expand your knowledge.

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