Conversation Beats Connection

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Conversation Gives You Lots of Information, Connection Gives Little

Conversation is speaking to someone on the phone, on video or in person. It’s high-bandwidth, lots of information is conveyed to the other person, not just text. It’s all your gestures, expressions, tones, and rhythms.

Connection is Liking, Reacting, Commenting, Sharing, Texting and any other low-bandwidth media, where you don’t give much information in your actions.

If I just Liked what you said, you couldn’t glean much from that. There’s so little information in a Like. What did that Like even mean? There’s no nuance. Social Media gives the illusion of sharing your life with your friends and family or even strangers, but a Like is never going to be as meaningful as a deep conversation. Your mum will be much happier getting phone call on Mother’s day than a tribute Facebook post. Cardi B will never remember that Like you gave her latest post.

Talking is in the moment. You can see how your words affect the other person and adjust your speech accordingly or keep going because you’re getting the effect you want. There’s an immediate action-feedback loop. You tell a joke they laugh, you tell another joke, they laugh more, then another, they don’t laugh, you stop.

Coversation Expands, Connection Stops Immediately

Conversations are more serendipitous. You can jump suddenly to a completely different topic because something the other person said reminded you of something totally different, so a conversation about the weather leads to the systemic issues in our government and a million things in between.

Likes can’t create mental leaps, they don’t have enough meaning. They’re meaningless. Next time you have a conversation try to trace the last topic back to the first one. There may be 40 different jumps. I don’t think that will be the case with the last Like you gave.

Conversations Share More

If I have a hard day I want someone to listen to me and soothe me with comforting words or a hug. I don’t want 50 likes on my latest tweet. When something good happens to me, I want to jump and and down with with my friends, I don’t want Shares of a self-congratulatory post.

Loneliness triggers the same systems in your body as physical pain. It hurts. I’m sure if you think back to lockdown, you know what I mean. Likes and Shares don’t relieve loneliness. Only real conversation and touch can do that.

How To Have Conversations Over Connections

Phone-Call Office Hours

You’re busy. Your Mum’s busy. Your friends are busy. Time is scarce, therefore it’s the most valuable thing you can offer someone. You can make more money, you can’t unspend time.

Set a time when you are always free to a select group and stick to it. Make sure those select few know this time and know you mean it, they will feel appreciated and valued.

These are your “phone-call office hours”. The concept is taken from university lecturer office hours. Lecturers have schedules and research to do. They don’t want to see students all day everyday, but they do want to help their students when they have time. The solution is a fixed time every week where they welcome interruption and will help you learn. Instead you are ready to chat to anyone who might call.

A specific time works better than saying “call me anytime” because everyone knows you don’t mean any time. They may miss a few calls and get disheartened, or never call to begin with in case they bother you. This is a gradual process, but it’s how you end up thinking “Oh, I really should call Kate” 6 months after losing touch.

If you stick to times you are genuinely free, and keep telling people that time, your loved ones will realise you are reliable and call in these times more.

Reply to Texts in Blocks

If you’ve been replying to texts here and there all day, you might feel like you’ve been connected to your friends. But when you look back in a month, you will realise that connection isn’t as good as conversation. You may have never had a more meaningful connection than asking how their day was.

You can set your phone to Do Not Disturb and this will stop your phone buzzing for every text, breaking your concentration. You can also configure these settings to just let phone calls through or specific contacts, in case you still want to receive updates from people who need to get through at any time of the day.

Then once a day or as often as you like, you can check your texts and fire off all the replies in one go. This will help you feel like you’re not just answering texts all day in a constant haze of low-grade connection and then make time for real conversation.

Don’t “Like” or “Comment”

If your friend is important to you, call them or arrange to meet in person. If they’re not important to you, then drop them. You will get more meaning out of a few great friends than millions of followers.

Find out more here or read the book.

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Why Time Alone is Good for the Soul

Photo by Andrew Teoh on Unsplash

Constant connection to the internet is not good for your mental health. Phones need to recharge and so do our brains. The solution? Solitude.

What Solitude is

Solitude is a part of your day where you are free from anyone else’s thoughts. This means :

  • No Reading
  • No Talking in person or on the phone
  • No Screens (phones, TV, computers, tablets etc)
  • No Music
  • No Podcasts
  • No Radio

What Solitude Is Not

Solitude Does Not Need to be Drastic

Solitude does not mean cutting yourself off from reality, you could find solitude in a coffee shop, in your home, on a walk or on public transport.

Solitude Does Not Need to be Permanent

The idea is not to become a hermit and never speak to anyone ever again. You don’t need that much solitude, humans are social animals after all. It’s about getting some space to reflect on your life and emotions. Connection is not the enemy, 100% connection is.

The Benefits of Solitude

Now you know what solitude is and what it isn’t. But why should you care? There are many benefits to getting some solitude:

Be More Creative

Creative ideas come when we have time to think and let our minds wander. Ever notice how you seem to have your best ideas after the problem like in the shower or driving home? This is because time alone allows your mind to wander and make connections that have been brewing in your subconscious without you realising. If you had been distracting yourself with an audiobook, you would be too focused on the story to have your own thoughts flow.

Get to Know Yourself

Time alone can give you time to think about stuff. If you are really busy at work, then you come home, watch some TV, cook some dinner, scroll through Twitter, go to bed and rinse and repeat, you can go weeks on autopilot.

Taking time to think about your day, your dreams, your hopes, your fears, can help you understand what you want out of life.

It’s tempting to get out of your head when you’re stressed. The numbing distraction of a scroll through the newsfeed can stop you thinking about what’s bothering you. This doesn’t solve the problem. You will still have those feelings in the back of your mind. Dealing with them is the only way to grow.

Have Better Relationships

If you don’t have constant distractions, you can focus on what matters. You can listen to your partner or friend better when they need a sympathetic ear, you can be present rather than half-talking-half-scrolling but being a whole crappy conversationalist.

Switch Off

Before we had mini computers in our pockets interruptions weren’t that frequent, so we had plenty of time alone with our thoughts on walks to work, drives to the shops, queues to get coffee and so on. Yes Walkmans existed and such, but the constant presence of texts, music, notifications, pings, buzzes, bleeps and bloops is something that came in with the Smart phone.

Nowadays you have to make a conscious effort to get away from some form of communication or technology. The constant connectivity means your brain is always on. Your brain craves the rest it gets when it is not under constant stimulation.

Concentrate Harder and Longer

The quick glances we give our phones seem innocent enough, but you can take 20 minutes to regain your full concentration. That’s 20 minutes to get back on track with the hard problem you were trying to solve at work.

Check how many quick glances you give your phone next time you are at work or with a friend and make a quick tally. At the end of the day multiply the number by 20 and see how many minutes of lost concentration you had just to see if someone had a new photo uploaded in the last 5 minutes. You’ll realise how much of your own time you are stealing.

Improve Your Mental Health

Gen Z, the kids who grew up with fast internet and mobile tech, have the highest rates of anxiety and depression of any previous generation, this is true even when you account for the decreased mental health stigma meaning more people are willing to get diagnosed.

Experts say that the constant connectivity and ability to always be distracted means they have no mental downtime and have not learnt how to regulate their emotions, because anytime they get riled up, they can browse some dank memes and forget about it.

Now everyone with a smart phone has this problem.

How to Get some Juicy Solitude

You’re now fully convinced that solitude is a good thing, but don’t know how to get some. Luckily there are some tips:

Leave Your Phone Out of Reach

Leaving your phone in a separate room from the one you are in can be enough separation to cut the habit of a quick check or a 30 minute browse. Stopping yourself at the moment you feel the urge to do a habit, the cue, is the easiest time to break that habit. It requires much less willpower to just not walk over to your phone, than to drag yourself away mid-scroll.

If you’re chatting to a friend and you go to check your phone, then realise it’s not in your pocket, it’s all the way upstairs, you decide it’s not worth checking, you carry on chatting to your friend, the conversation is more meaningful because you’re engaged and you feel a little closer to Mark. Great result.

If you are worried you may miss an emergency, feel free to keep the phone in the same room but just out of sight, so you can hear it ring, maybe turn off social media notifications, so that not every buzz captures your attention.

Take Long Walks

Walks have helped great minds think for thousands of years. They clear your head and even get the brain more active than when you’re just sitting. The key is to leave all devices at home or to just not use them. Try leaving them in your pocket or your bag.

Scenic walks work best, nature has a wonderful calming effect on the human mind, if you’re stuck in a city like me, consider a park, it doesn’t have to be the Amazon to be nature.

Bring a pen and pad so you can write down the ideas you have. No point thinking up a solution then forgetting it. If you write the notes on your phone you may get distracted by some notification or give in to the urge to listen to something, ruining the effect.

Write To Solve Problems

Writing is thinking. So if you take the time to write down ideas, you can really crystallise those ideas and think more clearly than you can using just your mind.

You can write on anything a scrap of paper is fine, the act of the writing matters here more than keeping the notes for later. If you do want to read it later that’s fine too.

You could summarise your best ideas succinctly in a separate notebook, so anytime you need a good idea to solve a problem or write about, you just flip through your idea notebook and have a load of ideas ready to read.

Write To Clear Your Head

If you just need to get the thoughts out of your head, I find getting them on paper to be best. Once you have written down your worries, they leave your head. This is especially helpful if you’re prone to thoughts racing through your head late at night, stopping you sleep.

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Find out more

Stop Scrolling, Start Living

Photo by Malcolm Lightbody on Unsplash

Scrolling down an infinite page of updates passes time but it feels shit. You kill time rather than enjoying your time. This deflates you.

Doing something that takes effort feels better.

It’s easy to just scroll Facebook or Twitter for a bit, but it doesn’t feel good. Despite this, you can end up wasting hours a day doing it.

Big Tech companies spend millions of dollars researching how to make their apps as addictive as possible. Something you barely think about has been fine-tuned to be as manipulative as possible, that’s not a fair fight.

Take Facebook for example, it’s free, yet they make billions of dollars every year. They do this through advertising. Advertisers pay for you to look at their stuff and buy it. To Facebook, more time looking at the screen equals more money. If they can stop you ever looking away from their screens, they make more money. So their goals of making money, don’t align with your goal catching up with friends.

They don’t care if you enjoy the app, they care that you look at it.

Willpower alone will fail. Digital Minimalism by Cal Newport has the tools you need.

The 30 Day Digital Declutter

  1. Take a 30 day break from the optional technologies in your life (social media, streaming, gaming etc)
  2. Explore and rediscover activities and behaviours you find satisfying and meaningful (reading, sports, travel)
  3. After the break, reintroduce tech you find valuable and meaningful, slowly.

1. What’s Your Optional Technology

To have a successful declutter, you need a plan. Having a plan will give you a written record to refer to, when things get tough.

Critical Vs Convenient

Write out a list of the technologies you use, defining them as “convenient” or “critical”.

Convenient technology you use to entertain yourself, or for fun and nothing more.

Critical technology includes apps you actually need to live. This could be maps to get around or emails to answer clients.

Exceptions to the Rule

Some convenient tech could be used in specific situations only. You don’t want to be with a group of friends and have to leave the room, because they put a movie on. Socialising could be an exception to a “no Netflix” rule.

Total Bans

Decide which technologies need a total ban. This can and should (in my opinion) include Facebook, Instagram and any other social media that harvests your personal data for profit.

Note: I am on Twitter, more on that later.

Remind Yourself Daily

Write down your rules on a small note and put the note somewhere you will see it everyday. This helpful reminder, could prevent you giving in when the declutter gets tough.

2. The 30-Day Break

The time has come. This is the difficult part, but the most rewarding as well.

30 days, isn’t a hard rule, but 1 month is a clear time and long enough to create a new routine.

Every Journey Starts with a Single Step

The first few weeks are the most difficult, this is when your natural rhythms will urge you to reach for your phone when you’re in a queue or put on Netflix when you have an hour to kill. After these first few weeks, it gets easier and eventually the urges die off.

Rediscover and Explore

The easiest way to fall back into the habit of mindless scrolling and watching is to have nothing to do instead. The beauty of Cal’s ideas, are that you aren’t expected to just power through the process. Instead, you replace the old unsatisfying activities with new, fulfilling ones.

Now is the time to try hobbies you used to enjoy, dust off the that bike and go for a ride, try another model kit you built as a kid or draw something just for fun.

It is also a time to explore new hobbies. You may not know what you would rather do than mindless binge-watches of Netflix shows. Try something new and see if you like it. The key is to look for activities that actively engage you.

Effort is rewarding.

Scrolling and binge-watching are easy, but that’s why they’re so unsatisfying. To actually build something, achieve something or get somewhere, takes more effort and that’s why it feels so much better. You’re going from passively to floating through life, to living life the way you want to.

3. Reintroduce Technology

30 days have passed. You no longer feel the urge to scroll through Instagram, like photos, or catch up on the latest memes.

Now you choose what tech gets to come back, based on if :

  • It serves a deep value, not just some value.
  • It is the best way to serve that value.
  • You can decide how and when to use it.

Deep Value vs Some Value

You decide what matters to you. A deep value, could be YouTube, because you use it to learn new skills. Maybe the YouTube rabbit-holes were your issue, so you could get a plug-in that turns off the recommendation algorithm. Then use YouTube by searching for the lesson you want and leaving. No Browsing. You get the value you want and leave before you get sucked in.

Is the Technology the Best Tool for the Job?

If your goal is to keep in touch with your friends, maybe liking the occasional photo isn’t the best way. You build a much deeper connection by calling someone or having a video call or if you’re able, meeting in person. You will have a much more satisfying experience than just scrolling past their latest pics.

Have Rules for How and When to Use the Tech

You may come back from your 30 day break and realise you did actually get something from the information you get on Twitter. You may follow thought-leaders who post interesting content but don’t have a newsletter.

One way round this is to have a set time to go on Twitter, then you don’t go on anymore than that set time.

Adding friction to the processes can help too. Such as a rule to only use your PC for Twitter. The app is the most addictive version, because Big Tech know people always have their phones on them, so they pour the most additive functions into the app version. The added friction of having to turn on your computer just to go on Twitter may be enough to stop the addictive cue and you can go and do something better. This is strengthened if you log out of Twitter on your browser and delete the app on your phone.

30 days to reset your digital habits.

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Digital Minimalism: An Introduction

Technology isn’t bad, letting it rule our lives is.

Digital minimalism is about using our devices less, so we can live better, more intentional lives. If you’re anything like me, time spent on social media mainly consists of scrolling, liking and sharing. This is distracting and occasionally amusing, but it lacks something. You can feel worse than before you started browsing. How many of your favourite memories have you swiping on a screen?

Digital Minimalism isn’t anti technology, tin hat wearing madness. It’s finding ways to have technology serve you. Digital Minimalism gives you the tools to fight back against the digital Goliaths who make money off your attention, so you can focus on meaningful and satisfying activities instead. Ever heard someone complain they were too satisfied? Me neither, so maybe it’s worth a try.

Why Digital Minimalism?

Minimalism is about getting rid of clutter. You live a simpler, better life.

Minimalism is about optimisation. You make big, effective changes and forget about the small details.

Minimalism is about living your life you choose, not just letting life happen to you.

Apply all that to your devices and you get Digital Minimalism.

What is Digital Minimalism?

The Digital Declutter

You intentionally remove all the virtual messiness from your life for 30 days. That’s a long time. 30 days of no scrolling, no liking and no commenting (online, you can comment in person if you wish). Then you slowly reintroduce technology back to your life.

Once 30 days have passed, you leave your interrogate your digital habits that took so much of your time and decide which ones improve your life. You get rid of the rest.

For me that was Facebook, Instagram and Reddit. Somehow Twitter and Imgur have survived, no one’s perfect.

Optimisation

You’ve decided which apps get to stay and which ones to throw out. Now you must figure out how these apps, websites and widgets will serve you best.

How can you get the most value for the smallest amount of effort? You find the smallest changes that will have the biggest impact on your life.

Once you’ve made the big changes, stop optimising. You will just waste more and more time getting smaller and smaller results, this is the law of diminishing returns.

Satisfaction

Your spare time should always be yours.

The Digital Declutter may result in you having much more spare time than you used to have. To make sure you don’t slip back into old habits and to reap the biggest rewards, you replace that time with high-value activities. These look different for everyone, yours could be football or playing guitar, mine tend me to reading and learning something I’m curious about.

Apps are convenient, but self-direction feels better.

Learn more here:

https://www.hive.co.uk/Product/Cal-Newport/Digital-Minimalism–Choosing-a-Focused-Life-in-a-Noisy-World/24893628

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Lessons Learned From Range: How Generalists Triumph in a Specialised World – Part 3

Range : How Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World, Hardback Book

https://www.hive.co.uk/Product/David-Epstein/Range–How-Generalists-Triumph-in-a-Specialized-World/23483102

This book contains so much wisdom I have had to split the posts into separate parts.

In the first part I looked at what Epstein told us about abstraction and learning environments and in the second part Interleaving and analogies.

In this third part, I am going to summarise Epstein’s findings on why job-switching can be a good thing, when a generalist or specialist is best for solving problems and how being a generalist can make you better at prediction.

Job-Switching Can Lead to Greater Happiness

The traditional career path of our grandparents was to get a job, stick at that one company, learning the ropes and gradually climb the career ladder through hard work. Today, millenials change job more than any previous generation. Epstein’s research tells us that is not a bad thing. Phew! I’ve had 5 jobs 5 years out of university!

Successful job-switching does require some planning to be successful though.

The key is to try your hardest to get something out of the job before you move on. Learning what you do and don’t like requires dedication. Job-switchers, are more likely to find a satisfying career, than people who stick at their first job.

Epstein tells about how Van Gogh became one of the greatest painters of all time. He was the best switcher in the game, he tried a different art style every few weeks. Each time he would try a completely new style. Become obsessed with it and completely focus all his efforts on perfecting it. Then one day he would get bored, and drop it. The he’d move on to a new art style doing the same thing all over again.

A typical few months for Van Gogh could look like this:

  1. Learn oil paints
  2. Master oil paints
  3. Never oil paint again
  4. Learn charcoals
  5. Master charcoals

… You get the idea

Fear of Changing Career

Quitting a career path can feel like you have wasted too much time and effort getting to where you are. This is often called the sunk cost fallacy and is the wrong way to think about this problem. Epstein quotes Seth Godin, saying the time is already wasted. It’s actually braver to quit and start something new, than to keep on in a career you hate.

Little Bets Beat Grand Plans

When you leave school and often many years before, people will ask you “what do you want to do?”. For most of the western world, we start our first careers between the ages of 18-29. Between these ages, you tend to change more as a person, than at any other point in your working life. These personality changes make it almost impossible to plan your career. You’re planning for a stranger.

A better method to make effective career decisions is to make a short plan, test it, then reflect. Little bets.

Little bets allow you to try out lots of different ideas and learn from each one. You will learn more by making these little bets than you would from deep introspection. You can get real data about how you respond to certain jobs and environments. Analysing the data allows you make better decisions.

The analysis can be simple e.g. working as data analyst:

  • Did I like working behind the scenes or would I rather be on the front lines?
  • Did I like the intellectual challenge or do I want a different kind of challenge?
  • Did I like being at a compute all day or do I want to be outside more?

When Hyperspecialisation is Blinding

Hyper-specialisation has created experts who know very narrow topics at extreme depth. This has led to many fields having problems that their experts can’t solve. These experts think too narrowly, they can’t connect ideas outside of their expertise.

A new point-of-view can often help solve a problem. This is the logic behind sites like https://www.innocentive.com/. The site offers up problems to the public for anyone to solve. The problems have usually stumped experts for too long. The hope is someone not specialised in the field will see something no one else has. The reward for doing so, is a cash prize.

Depth Vs Breadth

Lateral thinking is being able to think broadly and make connections across multiple concepts and fields.

Vertical thinking is being able to think deeply and specialise in a topic.

Deep thinking doesn’t trump broad thinking and vice versa. But together they make great teams, when they are able to work as a team. Often a T-shaped person, someone who has both depth and breadth, can bridge the two types of thinker.

3M studied inventors and found :

If the question is unclear and the outcome you want is unknown, hire a broad thinker.

Do you have clear problem with specific limitations? You need a specialist.

Polymaths often have wider interests than generalists, but less depth than a specialist. These tend to be the most successful inventors of all.

Specialists Make Bad Predictions

Professor Tetlock, author of Superforecasters, has names for the two types of forecaster: Hedgehogs and Foxes.

Hedgehogs can do one thing very well and tend to do that thing often (specialists)

Foxes can do many things quite well but not as good as any hedgehog at each thing (generalists)

Foxy Thinking

Foxes make the best forecasters, not because they know more, but because of how they think.

Foxes view their ideas as hypotheses they can test. Foxes will update their ideas when new information disproves their original idea. They change their ideas to match evidence, not the other way round.

Foxes do everything they can to disprove their own ideas. They don’t aim to prove they’re right, they aim for the truth.

Foxes are open-minded and flexible. They don’t follow simple cause and effect models. It’s not if X then Y, but rather many small chunks of information combined. Each chunk having its own cause and effect. Foxes use statistics to find what is most likely, rather than attempting to find certainty.

Hedgehog-Style Thinking

Hedgehogs makes predictions based on a specialised theory. Once they gain new information they change their interpretation of the data to fit their original idea. Hedgehogs have low open-mindedness.

Hedgehogs tend to be stubborn. They believe that if they succeed, their theory was correct, if they fail, then it must have been a near miss.

Hedgehogs are so specialised they tend to think with blinkers on. They don’t have a super focus on ignoring new evidence that disagrees with their beliefs. They excel at finding evidence that supports their beliefs. A good example would be any conspiracy theorist.

Lessons Learned From “Range: How Generalists Triumph in a Specialised World” – Part 2

Range : How Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World, Hardback Book

https://www.hive.co.uk/Product/David-Epstein/Range–How-Generalists-Triumph-in-a-Specialized-World/23483102

The Slow Power of Interleaving

Interleaving is practising many skills in one session. Block learning is practising each skill one at a time. An example of a study plan for each, where the exam contains the 3 topics Shapes, Sums and Algebra is below:

DayTopics
1Shapes, Sums, Algebra
2Shapes, Sums, Algebra
3Shapes, Sums, Algebra
An interleaved study plan
DayTopics
1Shapes
2Sums
3Algebra
A block learning study plan

Block Learning

Block learning is easier and leads to quicker progress in the beginning. The quick progress feels good to students. Students who feel good in their learning, leave better reviews of their teachers. However, the surveys don’t mean everything, as the block-taught students often get worse exam results.

Block learning only teaches you how to do a skill, not when to use it. You can end up knowing lots of solutions to problems, but not be able to match solutions to the right problems. For example, if you were a software developer, you may know the perfect way to write an algorithm but have no idea when it’s useful. Making your development skills pretty poor.

Interleaving

Compared to block learning, interleaving feels like more of a struggle. Short-term progress is slower, but this discomfort is good, you learn more deeply.

When you interleave, you learn to look at a problem and figure out which method will fix that problem. In the working world, you will face many problems where the solution isn’t clear. Again, if you were a software developer, someone in the business might need you to get them all the sales from June. They don’t know how to do it, that’s why they asked you. So you need to know how to report sales in June and which of your tools will best solve the business person’s problem.

Interleaving Vs Block Learning

Block learning teaches you how.

Interleaving teaches how and what.

Block learning and interleaving give you the tools to solve problems. Only interleaving teaches you when to use which tool. This is why when studying for an exam, it can be better to study past papers. The different topics are all mixed up. You have to recognise the question and which tool will give you the answer.

Block learning can be useful to drill one topic, then you put it back in to the mix once you’re more comfortable with it.

Use Analogies to Understand

An analogy is finding a similarity between two things that aren’t obviously similar. For example in your science class at school, your teacher might have compared the heart to a pump. Your heart is an organ, a pump is a tool, but each one pushes liquids around.

Epstein mentions a study that tells us that the most effective labs have scientists from the wide-ranging fields. The scientists tend to be multidisciplinary. Having knowledge across 2 or more fields helps them find solutions not obvious in either one field. Specialists have extremely deep knowledge in one narrow field, so they can’t make these cross-boundary discoveries.

What Makes a Good Analogy?

A good analogy will be different on the surface but similar at a deeper level. Where a ‘good’ analogy is one that helps you understand something new.

Social distancing that everyone is talking about these days can be pretty confusing. It’s not a term we used before the COVID-19 pandemic. Why are we doing it? Does it help if I say that normal social conventions include mass gatherings and contact with multitudes of people on a daily rate, that can cause an exponential growth of the disease by multiplying infection rate?

Or does the below video that compares infections to ping pong balls make the concept clearer?

On the surface infections and ping pong balls have nothing in common, but at the deeper level, this analogy explains how social distancing helps using an analogy we can understand more easily.

Using Analogies to Learn

Making good analogies is hard. To deepen your learning, interrogate your analogies, where do they fit? Where do they fall down?

How are ping pong balls hitting mousetraps not the same as a population of people who may or may not have COVID-19?

Learn about abstraction, Kind and Wicked environments and more in part 1

Lessons Learned From “Range: How Generalists Triumph in a Specialised World” – Part 1

Growing up I would jump from interest to interest all the time. I thought this meant I gave things up too often, but perhaps I was a generalist. If, like me, you find that focusing on one path forever doesn’t suit you, then this book is for you. David Epstein teaches us why not wanting to specialise may be our biggest strengths.

The book had so many interesting ideas that I couldn’t summarise them all in one post. Instead, I will be splitting the summary into a mini-series, starting with this post.

Kind Environments and Wicked Environments

Careers are not made equal. You have Kind environments and Wicked environments.

Qualities of Kind environments:

  • Easy to define successes and failures
  • Clear feedback
  • Examples include games, music and sports

You can measure success in a game or sport by winning or losing. When playing music, you can hear if it is wrong. Sports have world champions, Orchestras have First Chair’s. In Kind environments specialising is better for success and outdoing the competition.

Wicked environments are the opposite:

  • No clear definitions of success
  • Feedback varies in usefulness and how often you get it
  • Examples include most knowledge work

You can’t win or lose at accountancy. How do you compare software developers? Who is the world champion at repairing cars? Where do you rank in your job?

Abstraction is a Skill

Abstraction is understanding connections and differences between things.

To give an example, you see a bike, a tricycle and a car. You can tell that the bike and tricycle are similar and the car is different. You pedal a bike and a tricycle, cars have engines.You can also tell what a car has in common with the bike and tricycle. They all have wheels and are all modes of transport.

You can access more information on your phone than your grandparents saw in their whole lives. You can categorise all this information. These categories allow you to say what is similar and what is different between billions of things. Your ability to do this would seem superhuman a few hundred years ago.

Epstein illustrates this with a tale of some remote villagers. They had lived in their small part of the world for generations, not having access to the outside world. They were the closest thing we have to humans before the modern world. Researchers asked the villagers questions, to see how they think.

The villagers were told “in cold, snowy weather, bears are always white, north of here it is cold and snowy” then they were asked “What colour are the bears?”

The villagers replied “I don’t know, I have never been there” – they decided they couldn’t know something that was outside of their direct experience. They couldn’t abstract information.

The villagers were asked to find the odd one out given the following items:

  • Bullet
  • Rifle
  • Dagger
  • Bird

The villagers said there is no odd one out, they are all connected. You put a bullet in a rifle, to shoot the bird, which you cut for meat with the dagger, it’s the only way – they didn’t see a difference between weapons and prey, but instead saw how each one connected to their daily experience.

Self-Taught Vs By-The-Book Teaching

If you want to learn an instrument, you may feel it’s best to get a teacher. It will be easier and at the beginning and quicker. But, if you are willing to struggle at first and take your time, you could become a better musician.

It is slow and difficult to learn to play music by ear, but it forces you figure it out for yourself.

You learn how to learn.

Musicians who learned by mimicking music they’ve heard, are often called “naturals”. They seem to have a way with the instrument. In truth, they have the hard won skill of learning how to learn effectively.

Many classically trained musicians, whilst being elite musicians, struggle to improvise. Classical training is very strict, there is a right way and a wrong way to play. Improvisation is more free flowing and it’s harder to define what’s “good”.

Classical musicians are specialists in their music, playing with discipline and precision. Improvisers are generalists, able to pick up any tune and make it their own.

Come back next time to see what Epstein can teach us about interleaving and analogies.

Principles of Ultralearning: 9) Experimentation

Photo by Sieuwert Otterloo on Unsplash

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.

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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.

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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.

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