In the last two months, I spent my entire time – literally – studying and learning. Out of this intense experience, I believe there are many lessons that can be learned. My goal here is to lay down the principles for successful learning. Some are paramount, while others are more a matter of personal taste or minors tweaks to reach optimal performance.
First, we will focus on the most important aspect: the why. Why are we learning/studying? Willpower can get us only so far, and unsustainable activities are rarely carried out until the end. More than anything else, the sheer amount of hours is what separates the expert from the average practitioner. But obviously the expertise-hours relation is simply a correlation, what counts in the end is the amount of work that has been done. Physically, work is defined as the amount of Force () times velocity () during a given period ( to ); or equivalently, the amount of Force over a Curve ().
This equation forces us to face the fact that it is not only of how much time we spend, but also at which velocity we progress. This reminds of the saying:
Perfect practice makes perfect
In the physical work analogy, perfection is measured by how much we learn at each instant (the velocity).
In yet another sense, the path we take is critical because a movement that comes back to its original point has, in physics, done absolutely no work! Essentially, we want to go from to in a straight line – but how?
Focus on the why
Why are you learning whatever you set out to learn? What impact does it have on your life, on your relationships, on your wellbeing? Connecting our learning goals to a larger vision helps stay motivated when times get rough.
I do this, because [..]
This is what I was meant to do. This makes me a [..]
Once I have learned this, I will be able to [..]
Those are great sentences you can tell yourself to remember why what you do is important. It’s even easier to stay motivated when your goals have a strong social component: having one’s actions impact other human-beings we care about is perhaps the biggest reason why billions of people get out of bed everyday; be it a mother who cares for her childs, or a worker who fears the judgment of his colleagues if he arrives just a few minutes later than them at work. If those social incentives are not present, it’s really important to manifacture them: find partners who have similar goals, and who can hold you accountable. This holds for waking up early, as well as for how much work you put in and for pushing you to do things that you keep on putting off.
If you had to learn how to build a car in a week, how would you do it? Would you pick a book on physics, mechanical engineering, calculus, linear algebra and learn all the details of the craft? Or would you take a car and try to dissassemble it, taking it appart component by component – trying to understand how the pieces fit together, instead of trying to reinvent them from scratch? This is called reverse-engineering, and this is obviously much more efficient than the first option, which is not to say that there isn’t a lot to learn by starting from scratch – it’s just that, coming back to our physical work analogy, the first option is nothing like a straight line!
How does this apply to what we want to learn if we aren’t car mechanics? Here are the basic steps: * Find something that has the characteristics you are looking for * Reverse engineering the object of interest (how do the pieces fit together?) * Produce the cheapest and simplest copy of it you can think of * Test it, break it, improve it * Then iterate the process again and again with different objects.
I stayed intentionally vague by using the term “object” – it could be something abstract like a mathematical concept, an idea, a principle, a personality trait.
Focus on the end result, and follow the natural steps backwards in order to get there.
Standards: the limits of your horizon
Would I surprise you if I told you that your performance is bounded by your standards?
It reminds me of this story of a 100m runner: during the first trial, his coach sets the finishing line at 100m; the runner does an average performance. The coach then sets the finishing line at 105m and the runner obviously takes longer to finish the race: an even worse performance! His coach discretely sets the finishing line at 110m and after that the athlete gets an even worse time! ‘Keep going’, says the coach who subtly sets the finishing line back at 100m. The athlete feels humiliated that his performance only got worse, and decides to give it his best: ‘how can I perform so poorly? Pathetic!’, he tells to himself. The start is announced, he runs as fast as he can and… beats his all-time record! Why? Because without knowing it, he massively raised his standards for what an acceptable performance is! In fact, his first three runs were in the norm, but thanks to the coach they looked terrible, which gave the athlete leverage to push himself at whole new level.
Once you have reached a certain level of mastery at a given skill, it’s paramount to raise your standards of success in order to substantially improve.
Learn to teach, and teach to learn: social incentives
The easiest way to learn is to do it with the intention to teach others. Collaboration. Challenge each other. Teach to learn. Learn to teach. Learn to impress. Learn to compete. Learn to connect. Learn to help. White board. Group dynamics. Personality types. Introverts. Extroverts. Make it fun. X% play, 1-X% structured learning.
Truth is in the sparring: feedback and metrics
I remember spending hours trying to learn a mathematical concept, barely making any progress; I was trying to fully understand it just by thinking about it, in the same way you would think about philosophy. Only later did I realize the fact that, like Gauss said:
There is no royal way to Mathematics – the only way is to get our hands dirty with the mathematical objects, trying unknown paths and looking for a proof by all means. Mathematics should also be learned the way it was invented, not just the hyper structured way it is taught.
In order to become a mathematician, you need to have gone throught so many wrong paths that you can intuitively recognize which ones are right or wrong. The quality of the feedback we get while developping a skill is what limits how good we get at it. The faster, the more accurate and localized the feedback is, the better the learning.
The issue with abstract disciplines is that it might be difficult to differentiate the correct from the incorrect, so we tend not to get feedback often enough, or at least it’s not accurate enough. This is why it’s so critical to find great teachers and mentors. Also, we need to develop an accurate metrics for our performance;
Feedback: as frequent, as quick and as accurate as possible. Start (very) small, grow complex. Performance norms objective norms: *points (in an actual test/critical setting) *time Subjective norms: *feeling (how well I feel I understand)
Raising your standards: *“The cleaner” metaphor : how to clean everything. Anything less is unacceptable. *“The pragmatic” : what are the 20/80. What is essential/superficial. *“The idealist” : what matters is that I understood. Own judgment of performance more important than standardized results. Often delusional.
Measuring work. *pomodoro (ideally group-synchronized) ->separate work and breaks ->full focus/full relax *expected credits
Planning and organization. What needs to be done? Years, Months, Month, Week, Day. Think like an investor: you invest time to get knowledge/skills/revenues, etc. Expected outcome is always the first thing to consider: it’s not rational to study 4 hours for 0.5 credits if you can make 2 credits in 8 hours. Prioritize. *Have a daily/weekly/monthly metric. ->[Credits/hour] ->[Revenue (potential or actual)/hour] If you have 250 hours and 50 credits to do, that means 0.2 credit/hour - or 20 centicredit/hour. Good metrics help monitor learning, they become a major source of motivation; because the work-reward relationship becomes solid. Avoids frustration. Keep oneself focused.
Deadlines and Parkinson’s law. Once you have a clear goal, make yourself accountable. Social incentives. Mutual checking. Give yourself less time.
Not just a to do list, an item list. List every skill/object that you need to learn. To could be in a notebook. A page, a skill/concept. Tick it once you master it. Or give it a bar every time you go deeper: reward.
Truth is in the sparring. Most martial arts are utterly useless for self-defense. No grounding in reality: waste of time, fragile. Ju-jitsu. Muay thai. Mma - as realistic as you can make it. Anti fragile (if new technique, then people adapt). Free fight vs. “competition” (with points). Theory without practice is like a table with two feet: looks perfect until you shake it or look under it. Tests, exams, exercises. Correction. Feedback. Repeat.
Learn like you needed it today. Record your learning: cahier, photos (white board/sheets), videos. Set up things in such a way that if you needed this information in 10 years, you could find it and understand it in little to no time.
Rehearsal. Repetition. Variation. Then make it harder than it will be: less time, no help. Make it different - can you find your center of gravity in this novel situation? What if [this] instead of [that]?