Principles of Ultralearning: 9) Experimentation

As you master a skill, you will find there are fewer resources available and fewer people who’s skill level exceeds your own.

Once you reach the boundaries of human knowledge in a subject, there is no set path to improving.

You have to experiment and figure out what works for yourself.

3 Types of Experimentation for Learning

Experimenting in learning is about testing an idea, seeing if it works and doing more of what works.

Experimenting with Resources

To experiment with your resources plan a small project using a new medium or learning resource, dedicating a noticeable amount of time to it.

Then move on to the next if you don’t like it, if you do, then stick with it.

Experimenting with Technique

Once you have the basics of a skill down, its less about “how should I learn this?” and more about “what should I learn next?”.

If you were learning to draw, you may have got by doing perspective by eye, but you could try improving your perspective with vanishing points or a full perspective grid.

Experimenting with Style

There’s no one right way to do art or solve a problem.

Raphael, Picasso and Van Gogh all have completely different looking art, yet they are all considered masters.

Maybe you can’t draw with a pencil, but you create beautiful paintings or charcoals. Try each style aggressively before you move on.

Learn your strengths and weaknesses so you can cultivate your favourite styles or create your own.

Experimentation Mindset

This is a combination of a Growth Mindset (knowing that your knowledge and skills are not fixed, but can be improved at any time) and the knowing that you don’t know what you don’t know.

You can only find out by exploring for yourself.

How to Experiment

It’s all well and good, knowing that experimentation helps, but how do you do it?

Copy, then Create

Choose some work you admire, then copy it.

It’s that simple.

This will allow you to draw inspiration from others and help you to deconstruct what is and isn’t good practice in your chosen skill.

If you were a writer looking to explain things more clearly, you could read good explanations and break down what makes them good.

Is it their use of examples? Analogies? Or something else?

Spot the Difference

Remember the game from when you were a kid, where two similar pictures were next to each other and you had to spot where a character’s tail was missing in one or a window had a face in one but not the other?

Try this with your learning.

Take two approaches to learning a skill, then compare the results.

This could help you find a technique you prefer or it could show more than one solution to a problem.

You could, if you were a developer try solving a coding problem, use two different languages to see how they’re performance differs or if one requires less challenging syntax.

Introduce New Constraints

Sometimes being constrained actually forces you to be more creative.

One of Dr. Seuss’s most popular works “Green Eggs and Ham” came about because someone bet him he could not write a story only using 50 unique words.

Haiku’s are massively popular despite their rigid rules (five syllables, then seven, then five again) and many of Shakespeares greatest poems were confined to the rules of sonnets (rhyming as such: a-b-a-b c-d-c-d e-f-e-f g-g).

Find your unique combination of skills

You probably aren’t the best striker in the world, nor the best mathematician or best violinist.

You may just be the best mathematical-striker-violinist.

The author of Dilbert has said before that he is not the funniest person ever, nor the best at drawing or workplace satire, but he can combine all three to make a hugely popular web-comic series.

Explore the Extremes

Many great things happen at the boundaries.

Some of Van Gogh’s best works were using the brightest colours, the thickest paints, the fastest drafts.

Take something to the limit and see what you can achieve.

This is the final Principle of Ultralearning, to see the rest click here.

Please let me know below if you have any experiments you want to try.

Principles of Ultralearning: 8) Intuition

Split-second decisions take a strong intuition
Photo by chuttersnap on Unsplash

If you see the top athletes in the world performing, they aren’t spending hours agonising over every move they make.

They are reacting in real-time, making bold moves.

It’s like they’re on a different level.

Because they are.

They can intuitively see how things will play out due to years of experience giving them an edge that most people will never attain.

Think about the racing lines F1 drivers take, they aren’t the ones you would want to take, that’s because you haven’t driven cars like that at those speeds, but they are the best in the world at it.

How To Build Your Intuition

It’s all well and good me telling you that experts are great, but how can you develop it?

Don’t Give Up So Easily

The worst part of learning something new, is the very beginning when everything seems too difficult and too confusing.

You might think that this just isn’t for you and you would do better just giving up.

Don’t.

Once you get through the difficult beginning, you will see yourself improving and maybe even start enjoying yourself.

If you reach a point where you feel you really can’t go on. Your head hurts, the problem or technique just isn’t getting any easier, set a timer for 10 minutes.

Then keep working even if it’s just to satisfy the stupid timer.

This will either be the little bit of extra time you need to figure the problem out, if not, at least you made it that far. Try again another time with fresh eyes.

Prove Things To Yourself to Understand Them

You understand things much more deeply, if you can prove it to yourself.

Want to see that magnets attract North to South, put two magnets together and see the like ends repel and opposite ends attract.

Young gives an example, do you know how a bicycle works?

Great! So draw one.

It doesn’t have to be a perfect rendering, just get the general outline. Now compare your drawing to the picture below. Did you get the chain in the right place? Did you include it at all?

Drawing something out or explaining to someone shows us where our knowledge gaps are and it forces us to confront them.

It’s easy to think you understand something, but actually proving it in writing or drawing it out will show you how much you really get it.

Always Start with a Concrete Example

Deeper processing of thoughts makes the memory more strongly imprinted in your mind.

So if you can relate a concept to another via an analogy, you are more likely to remember it and understand more.

Finding a good analogy is difficult. That’s what makes it so effective.

If you can relate two seemingly unrelated ideas, you must have understand what makes them similar and where they differ.

If you find your analogy doesn’t fit, great! You can find a better one. The process of improving each time will deepen your understanding with each iteration.

Don’t Fool Yourself

Yourself is the easiest person to fool (Richard Feynman said this first, not me).

To make sure you aren’t just gaining the illusion of understanding, you can test yourself against an expert, prove it to yourself or create an analogy as above.

Richard Feynman was a master of this, he taught himself new subjects all the time by breaking the idea down, analogising and teaching it.

The way he did it is well documented, and has been called the Feynman Technique

How to Learn Anything with the Feynman Technique

  • Write what you want to understand at the top of a page
  • Write out the idea or problem as if you are teaching it to someone else, add diagrams where necessary and use analogies to make it easier to understand for your imaginary student
  • Now the most important step, check any areas you couldn’t easily explain, study it and try again from the beginning

Feynman used this to help him understand practically everything he wanted to learn and to explain it to others.

He went on to become one of the greatest minds of the 20th century.

Here are 3 ways to use the Feynman technique:

Understand Something New

Use the first two steps of the Feynman technique, but follow along with the book, video or wherever you are getting your information.

Constantly referring to the source, will make you less likely to remember it as you aren’t actively practicing recall, but in the beginning this is okay.

Understanding comes first, memorising comes later.

Problems You Can’t Solve

If you can’t figure something out, no matter how long you stare at it, it’s time to break down the problem and figure out where you’re getting stuck.

Try to understand every step of the problem.

You may just find something you didn’t see before and that will be the lightbulb moment that allows you to solve the problem.

If not, you will have a much clearer understanding, so if you do ask for help, you know where you’re struggling and can ask better questions.

Deepening Your Understanding

There is a famous saying that if you can’t explain something simply, you don’t understand it well enough.

Using the Feynman technique to fill in your knowledge gaps, analogise and teach others, you will be able to better understand any topic.

That’s actually why I started this blog. If I can share ideas I’ve read, so you can understand them, then I must have understood it myself.

What do you want to learn but are struggling with? Let me know in the comments below.

To learn about the other Principles of Ultralearning click here or get the book here.

Principles of Ultralearning: 7) Retention

Try to remember the faces of everyone you met the first day of school…
Photo by GoaShape on Unsplash

Remember, remember, the 5th of…Something.

Do you ever struggle to remember the Pythagoras’ theorem, even though it was drilled into your head in school?

Memory isn’t perfect.

We forget things.

Scott Young, who wrote Ultralearning, says there are 3 reasons we forget:

  • Decay
  • Interference
  • Forgotten Cues

Decay

Memories fade over time.

Try to remember your Reception teacher’s face. What colour was their hair? What about their eyes? Did they have a soft or harsh voice?

Now do the same for your boss at work.

Much easier, right?

Memories lose their potency over time, because our brain has retrieved them recently, so the pathways in your brain become less defined, they decay.

Interference

Your existing memories can actually make it harder to make new memories.

There are 2 forms of Interference:

  • Proactive
  • Retroactive

Proactive

Something you have already learned makes learning something new more difficult.

Think of all the connotations you have for the word “Negative”.

Bad? Moody? A downer?

Then it may confuse you, when I say that in Psychology Negative Reinforcement can be a good thing.

Negative Reinforcement means to take something away.

This is neutral, it can be good or bad, the thing being taken away could be pain, which would be good. Or you could take away pleasure, which would be bad.

For example, you could have horrible pains that go away the moment you press a button. Eventually, through Negative Reinforcement, you will learn to press that button to take away your pain every time you feel pain.

Retroactive

This is where a new memory pushes out an old memory.

To be honest, I don’t know the neuroscience on this one, but I can tell you what happens.

An example, would be if you started to learn spanish and you began to forget your french.

Forgotten Cues

This is the feeling when you are so close to remembering something, but you just can’t quite get the words out.

You know if you just hear the first letter or the start of the phrase, you could remember the name of the actor who played Professor X in X-Men.

The little jog you need to remember is your cue.

If you know your cue for remembering something, this can be very useful for triggering a memory when needed.

Like when people make L’s with their hands to remember left and right.

How To Remember

There are 3 main ways to retain memories long term

  • Spacing
  • Proceduralisation
  • Overlearning

Spacing

Spacing means learning your new skill over gradually increasing time-intervals, rather than all at once in one big cram session.

Spacing works best for things you can get right or wrong: facts, definitions, vocabulary ,etc.

Spacing needs to be done within reason, once a twice a week would be sensible, rather than once or twice every 10 years.

Too long a gap and you will have forgotten so much there won’t have been anything to retain.

I talked about Spacing in the post on retrieval.

Proceduralisation

Procedures, once learned, are easier to remember than concepts you have to describe.

You can test this right now.

Type the word “shunt” without looking at the keyboard.

You may make a typo but it was easy, right?

Now tell me the two letters either side of “u” on the keyboard… I guessed “i” and “w”.

If you look at your keyboard you will see I got one right and one very wrong.

Did you find typing the word or remembering the letters easier?

Automating skills makes them easier, this is why you can ride a bike your whole life, but describing how to do it to a newbie, so they can actually do it, is very difficult.

Overlearning

Overlearning is where you take your learning of a skill to the next level, to make sure you’ve really mastered it.

By learning something so tightly that you can do it without thinking, you make the pathways in your brain so strong, that even if they start to decay you will still remember most of it.

Fans of “Learning How to Learn” will already know about Overlearning.

There are 2 ways to Overlearn:

  1. You can keep practicing even once you have mastered the skill. You may be able to play a song end to end. Can you do it 5 times in a row with no mistakes and no hesitation? Can you play the song with no warm up? Just pick up the guitar and strum it out? If no, then you can still overlearn some more.
  2. Practice at a level that is more difficult than required. The famous cartoon threat of “I could beat you with one arm tied behind my back” may actually have some relevance here. If you can master a song at a faster tempo than is actually required and with added accents on notes, then the real thing will be easier. If you forget your own harder version, your memory may just decay to the actual level needed.

Retention is easy to confuse with retrieval, but they are different. Retrieval is about being able to recall a memory or learned skill when needed, retention is about maintaining the same level of skill or ability to remember over a long stretch of time.

To learn about the other Principles of Ultralearning, click here.