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

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.

Principles of Ultralearning: 6) Feedback

Would you drive a car if you were only allowed to touch the steering wheel once? This is what learning with no feedback is like.

Try driving here without touching the steering wheel
Photo by John Lockwood on Unsplash

You can’t improve without feedback.

Anyone who has worked with me, knows I am obsessed with feedback, it’s easily my favourite principle of Ultralearning.

This post is part of an ongoing series about Scott Young’s Principles of Ultralearning

What Does Feedback Mean?

Young offers 3 categories of feedback:

Outcome Feedback

This tells you, at best, if something was good or bad.

You don’t get specific advice.

Examples of outcome feedback include:

  • A Grade on an exam
  • A view count on a video
  • Claps from an audience

Informational Feedback

This is a direct reaction to what you’re attempting.

This is different to outcome feedback, as it happens immediately.

With Informational feedback, you can see straight away that something is wrong, but you will have no clues as to how to correct the problem.

Examples include:

  • A native speaker looking confused when you use a word incorrectly in their language
  • An error message telling you your code couldn’t run
  • Throwing a dart and missing the board

Corrective Feedback

This is advice given by a mentor, teacher or expert.

The most useful and sadly least common type of feedback. This is because it requires the most effort to give to you.

A teacher can see what you’ve done wrong and offer ways for you to improve.

Amateurs may offer you corrections, but their advice is less likely to be accurate or helpful.

Examples of corrective feedback include:

  • A driving instructor helping you correct a manoeuvre
  • Ideal solutions to a maths problem set
  • A Yogi correcting your posture

How to Improve Feedback

You can’t always get corrective feedback, but Young has some tactics to improve any feedback you can get.

Noise Cancellation

If you are writing a blog and one post happens to go viral, think to yourself

“Is this my best post?”

In situations such as these that can’t be easily measured for quality, try to not confuse luck with skill.

Try to pick measures of success that more accurately describe success, for the blog example, this could be people leaving relevant comments on the post, to show you they really engaged with the content.

Hitting the Difficulty Sweet Spot

Every practice session, ask yourself if you are finding it too difficult or too easy.

If it’s the former, find a way to make the task easier, if it’s the latter make it harder.

Making a task harder could be playing a song faster than usual, or adding accents to the notes.

Making a song easier to play, could be to play slower, or just focus on the rhythm until you have that part down.

Metafeedback

You can analyse your learning technique by collecting data as you go.

If you were doing maths, you could compare how many questions you get correct week on week.

If it was a language, how many mistakes you make in each conversation.

If you notice you are progressing slower than you were before, it would be a good time to consider making some improvements to your project.

High-Intensity, Rapid Feedback

This can be emotionally very difficult, at first.

Getting severe, critical feedback doesn’t feel nice, but getting used to that feeling and realising you can use it to progress is an excellent way to improve.

If you are learning to draw, expose your drawings to a teacher or a forum where people will criticise your work.

If you are doing a team sport or music, get out there and play in front of people

If you want to create a product, start selling it to people and give them a way to leave reviews, angry people are more likely to reply, but that gives you plenty of access to information on how to improve.

If this post was helpful or not please let me know below, try to offer corrective advice when you do ;).

You can learn about the other principles of Ultralearning or buy the book here.

Principles of Ultralearning: 5) Retrieval

Photo by Clay Banks on Unsplash
Finding the right memory at the right time can be like finding a particular book in a vast library

What did you have for breakfast yesterday? How do you find the area of a circle? Why do black surfaces get hotter than white ones?

If you tried to answer any of those questions, then you tried to retrieve a memory.

Retrieval is our ability to recall memories.

You can’t use a new skill if you can’t remember how to do it.

Classic studying advice involves highlighting key points and re-reading your notes. The former has been found to be next to useless, and re-reading notes isn’t much better.

The best way to remember something and have it stick, is to try to remember it without clues, just trying to summon up that memory.

Practice retrieval over longer periods of time each attempt

When Should You Test Yourself?

The sooner you test yourself the better.

After the first time, you should increase the amount of time from test to test.

If you have simple question and answer formats to what you want to memorise then you could try a spaced-repetition flashcard app like Anki, which is free on to download on your PC or Android.

What Is The Best Way To Test?

Increasing the difficulty of testing will make your learning more efficient.

If you have a choice between a quiz with no clues and a multiple-choice one, the multiple-choice will be more comfortable, but you will learn more from the quiz, even if you get more answers wrong.

Young tells of a study that shows that the very act of trying to retrieve an answer is enough to improve your memory.

This is because each time you try to retrieve a memory, your brain follows the same pathways, getting stronger each time.

It’s like walking the same path through a field over and over, eventually a permanent impression is made in the mud.

Young offers some tactics for retrieval, in addition to flashcards, which you saw a moment ago, there’s also:

Free Recall

If you’re learning from a book, try reading a whole passage, then write down every point you remember without looking at the book.

You can re-read the section after to see if you missed anything important.

Try again with as many passages as you like or the same passage if you want to memorise it.

Question-Book Method

As you are learning material, write down a question where the answer is something you will want to remember later, then only write where to find the answer, like a page number and the book it’s in.

You can quiz yourself later and you will be able to find the answer to check.

You can write the answer on another bit of paper, so you can re-use the question later.

Self-Generated Challenges

Sometimes what you want to learn can’t be tested as simple questions and answers.

You may have learnt a new technique you want to use in programming.

You can challenge yourself to use the new programming technique to solve a problem, such as using a new algorithm to calculate your weekly budget or to find pi.

Closed-Book Learning

You can work on your Drills or Direct Learning project without looking back at your notes or books, to make sure you have to retrieve the knowledge yourself.

Don’t give in to the temptation to read over your notes, until after you’ve done the test.

All these methods can feel uncomfortable, but they’re effective.

Think of it like working out for your brain, when you do a workout for your body, it’s usually the ones that are most difficult that give you the most improvement.

You can learn the rest of the principles here or buy the book here.