Principles of Ultralearning: 4) Drills

Not this kind of drill…Photo by Theme Photos on Unsplash

Think about something you are learning. What’s the part you find hardest to improve? That’s the thing you work on.

Focusing on the parts you enjoy feels nicer, but it is not the best way to learn. To improve, to really improve, you need to focus on what you really struggle with and attack that problem ruthlessly.

Remove the Noise

Drills take away all the parts of what you want to learn, except the one aspect you want to improve.

If you’re playing guitar, you need rhythm, pick technique, finger placement etc. To drill, you would pick one of these and work at just that.

Direct-then-Drill Method

Last week, we looked at why Directness is the best way to learn a whole skill.

Drills are the opposite of Directness. They help you improve a small slice of a skill.

They remove all the real-world subtleties you can’t simulate, doing nothing but drills would mean you wouldn’t be able to Transfer your skills.

Drills are for improving weak spots, not replacing your whole project.

To overcome lack of Transfer, you work directly on the problem, then drill your weak point, then go back to directness and cycle through as needed. Keeping all that precious Transfer.

How Do You Drill?

Designing a good drill, requires that you know what to drill, how to do it and that you actually do it.

Time Slicing

Take a small piece of the main skill and work on it. Once you’ve mastered it, use the small piece as part of the whole again, for example:

Go over the few tricky bars in a song, then practice the whole song.

Take the same type of shot in football, then play a match.

Go over key phrases in a new language, then talk to someone in that language.

Cognitive Components

Skills are actually multiple smaller skills put together. Removing all the other parts you need to focus on, allows you to hone in on the one bit you want to drill.

Going back to the guitar example, if you wanted to work on rhythm, you could strum the beat of the song and mute the strings with your hand, so you don’t have to worry about the melody or your left hand at all.

The Copycat

Copying other work reduces the amount of thinking required to create the drill, so you can focus all your mental effort on the drill itself. You don’t have to work so hard to design a drill if it’s already been designed.

If you wanted to practice being more succinct in your writing, you could take someone’s essay and try to summarise it in fewer words. You could even do it with your own writing.

Magnifying Glass Method

If you can’t find a way to extract the specific sub-skill you want to improve, spend more time and effort on it instead.

If you want to do better research for projects, spend 10 times longer than you normally would.

Prerequisite Chaining

Start learning a skill without learning all the things you “should” learn first.

You can waste a lot of time and a lot of motivation learning all the basics you think you should learn first.

For example, when learning to draw, you can just start drawing, but you may realise that things at a distance don’t look right, so you learn perspective, you carry on drawing, suddenly things don’t look 3d enough, so you learn proper shading, rinse and repeat.

Whereas if you started off with perspective and shading, you might never have enjoyed drawing in the first place.

Drills aren’t fun, but they are an effective way to aggressively improve. Learn the rest of the principles here or buy the book here.

Let me know some ideas you’ve had for effective drills below.

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Principles of Ultralearning: 3) Directness

unsplash-logoMiguel Henriques

Have you ever attended a lecture, understood every word, then someone asks you what it was about, but you can’t explain it?

You are not alone. many people struggle to transfer what they have learnt in theory to real life. You may understand that you have to kick a football at a specific spot to make it go to the top left corner, but you still can’t bend it like Beckham. Can you tell I am not up to date with football?

Maybe you heard a colleague explain how to do a fancy formula on your spreadsheet, but then you go to do it on your computer and the numbers all come out wrong. This is because transferring knowledge to actual applications is really hard.

First off, there is nothing wrong with reading books. Books are the source of endless knowledge. The problem is that just reading is not enough to get good at something.

Try reading how do a triple somersault before the first time you get on a diving board and see what I mean.


Transfer is being able to apply knowledge or skills you have to other situations.

Transfer is why a plumber who has never been to your house can fix your sink, they have seen similar problems before. Not the exact same, yet they can transfer their existing skills and fix the new problem.

Explaining a concept using an analogy is also Transfer, you are using your knowledge of one thing to explain another.

Transfer is difficult.

Young cites studies where it has been found that university psychology students who learnt psychology at school level perform no better than students who started for the first time at university. Young says this is because the high school knowledge has not transferred well to university level.

Overcoming Transfer with Directness

Directness is Young’s solution to the difficulties of Transfer. Directness means learning in as similar a way as the one you will actually use the knowledge or skill in.

Directness works for 2 reasons:

  1. The closer your practice is to the real situation you will use the skill, the less Transferring needs to be done. Writing well-researched essays with citations is much more likely to prepare you for writing academic papers, than writing in a diary will.
  2. Learning by doing exposes you to subtle details that you can’t get from theory. When driving, you may understand that you need to find the biting point to move into first gear, but you can’t learn how the biting point feels by reading about it, you’ve got to get behind the wheel and drive!

Tips for Direct Learning

Project-Based Learning

Don’t just read about doing something, do something.

So if you want to program apps, build an app.

If you want to learn carpentry, build a chair.

If you want to climb a mountain, start climbing.

Immersive Learning

Get stuck into the situations you will use the skill for.

If you want to learn french, go to France and don’t speak English (Young did this, with 4 languages in one year) .

This method of learning is scary, but it forces you to get good fast.

It also helps you see where you’re going wrong through feedback (a principle we will look at later). A phrase book can tell you how to say specific phrases, one at a time, but knowing when to say each phrase is much more difficult.

Flight-Simulator Method

Some things you can’t practice in real life. Training fighter pilots in the most dangerous manoeuvres in real planes every time would result in a lot more dead pilots. So fighter pilots train in safe simulators that mimic real life.

The key to a good simulation is having the same level of challenge and the same cues to act, as the real thing. If you have those, then you can forgive slightly low-budget graphics or sound effects.

The skill itself is what really matters.

The Overkill Approach

Aim for a level of challenge you feel you aren’t ready for.

If you aren’t ready you will have to do your best just to be able to do it.

Testing gives you feedback, which helps you improve faster.

If you find the test easy, you need to try something harder. If you keep failing in the same way, you know what to drill later (another principle we will learn soon).

Take an exam you don’t feel you could pass yet.

Play a song you haven’t memorised yet, for an audience.

This is another scary method, but it is backed by research, pushing yourself to your absolute limits in practice has been shown to separate top-performers from the middle of the pack. You will get used to the discomfort.

To learn about the rest of the principles of Ultralearning see the rest of the series here or buy the book here.

Please let me know any projects you want to undertake in the comments below.

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Principles of Ultralearning: 2) Focus

The modern world is a carnival of distractions. Every person, every device, every surface is screaming for your attention.

How can anyone get any work done? With Focus.

When you’re focused, distractions melt away, your attention is like a laser and you get stuff done. You could even finish reading not just this sentence, but the whole post, without checking your phone.

What is Focus?

Focusing is maintaining concentration on one subject for a period of time.

Focus is becomingly increasingly rare in our distracting modern world.

Therefore, focus is a skill that can boost your effectiveness in any skill.

What Makes Focusing So Difficult?

Focusing is difficult at 3 different stages:

  • The Beginning
  • The Maintaining
  • The Optimising

Failing to Start – The Beginning

Procrastination is not a character flaw, it’s something even the most successful people struggle with. It’s human. Why do you think the George R. R. Martin hasn’t released a book in so long?

Beating procrastination is a 2-step process:

Step 1 – Recognise you are procrastinating.

Are you avoiding work because you don’t want to do that task, or because there is something you do want to do more?

There is no one plan to suit everyone.

We all have our own vices, my drug of choice is binge-watching TV. Streaming services are against me! They’re just so damn convenient.

If you are looking to do something more pleasurable and you have the time and energy to do so, do it. Then it’s no longer a distraction.

If you are avoiding something you don’t like doing, but know you should, move on to Step 2.

Step 2 – Manage to concentrate for 5 minutes.

Just 5.

For some reason, our brains resist work the most in the first 5 minutes. Then your brain realises you aren’t harming it, relaxes and lets you carry on.

Next thing you know an hour has passed and you have written a handy new blog post… Maybe that’s just me.

Failing to Carry on – The Maintaining

Now that you’ve started and passed those gruelling 5 minutes, you just need to keep it up.

There are 3 forces conspiring to pull you away from your work:

  • Your Environment
  • Your Task
  • Your own Mind!

Environment: The Stuff Around You

Why is the environment trying to distract you? Is it because you didn’t recycle last week? Probably not, but shame on you all the same.

Many people prefer to have the TV on or some music (myself included) to make sure they aren’t stuck in silence. But when it comes to learning, anything else taking your attention will actually reduce the amount you learn.

When learning, you’re better off removing anything else that takes your focus. Your brain can only hold 4 chunks of information at one time after all.

Task: Your Project Itself

Have you ever had to do something difficult, taken one look at it, and decided it’s not for you? This is the because difficult things make us uncomfortable which makes us want to quit. Remember Dumbledore drinking that (sadly fake) Horcrux?

Your ultralearning project shouldn’t taste as bad as fresh Horcrux

In this situation, you need to try to organise your resources you learnt about in Principle 1: Metalearning to better suit your style of learning. If you know you space out watching videos, try to find the transcript of the same material, for example.

If the topic is truly incomprehensible, you could end up just watching the video, but taking nothing in. You can avoid this by summarising each thing you learn. This will take longer, but you will learn much more.

Mind: Your Mind Has Betrayed You?!

You have finally started typing the essay to end all essays. Scholars will worship your beautiful prose, as your fingers dance across the keyboard, but wait, didn’t you forget to fold your socks?

If there is a genuinely solvable problem distracting you, just do it. Then get back to work with peace of mind.

The real struggle comes from problems you can’t solve.

What will happen with Brexit?! What if a super volcano erupts and blocks out the sun, starting a new ice age? Why did you make that lame joke to the person you liked all those years ago?

These kinds of thoughts are unhelpful and extremely distracting.

If you try to fight them, then they will win.

You will end up going over and over the problem in your head and not focusing on your project at all.

The best method is to take an idea from mindfulness. The wonder drug of the past few years.

If you observe the thoughts distracting you.

Notice them.

Let them go.

The nagging thoughts can leave you and you can focus again.

Admittedly, this is much easier said than done. Fortunately, mindfulness is actually a muscle, even if you fail to get it right first time, you strengthen your mindful maximus (not a real term) and it becomes easier next time.

Failing to Perfect – The Optimising

You have now figured out how to focus like a laser on one topic, but what if you wanted to connect completely disparate ideas?

There are two types of useful thinking when you are learning: Focused and Diffuse. These are a spectrum and can be optimised for each problem.

Focused Mode

Focused thinking is best for doing something that requires very narrow concentration like throwing a dart a specific point or understanding a new difficult concept.

Diffuse Mode

Diffuse thinking allows your mind to wander more and pull connections from different parts of your store of knowledge.

This is best for constructing a creative idea from multiple parts that don’t link in any obvious way.

The more you learn the more you will know which type of thinking is better for the situation.

Learn about the rest of the principles here or buy the book here.

Have any more tips on better focus? Please let me know in the comments below.

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The Principles of Ultralearning: 1) Metalearning

ULTRALEARNING: A strategy for acquiring skills and knowledge that is both self-directed and intense” – Young’s self-described imperfect definition.

Ultralearning is a tool used to teach yourself things extremely quickly and effectively. In the book, Young gives many examples of people he calls “ultralearners” who master things from languages, public speaking, scrabble and chess. He even has examples of his own achievements: completing the MIT Computer Science course in 1 year, learning 4 languages in a year and drawing very realistic portraits in 30 days.

The book draws on 9 principles of ultralearning:

  1. Metalearning: Learning how to learn
  2. Focus: Learning how to focus more deeply and for longer periods of time
  3. Directness: Learning by doing the skill or using the knowledge you wish to learn
  4. Drill: Ruthlessly attack your weakest points until you don’t block your learning anymore
  5. Retrieval: Using testing as a way to learn
  6. Feedback: Getting genuine critiques on your work to confirm if you are truly learning
  7. Retention: Making sure you remember what you learnt
  8. Intuition: Learning how to understand at a deeper level, not just memorising
  9. Experimentation: Learn how to keep learning even once you have reached mastery


Metalearning is learning how to learn.

An oversimplified example would be to say that you can memorise 2+2=4 but learning how to add the numbers allows you to figure out any addition, rather than memorise every possible sum.

Why, What and How?

Metalearning can be broken down into why you want to learn something, what will count as success for you and how you will achieve your goal.


Your reasons why can either be Instrumental or Intrinsic.

Instrumental: You are learning the skill or knowledge in order to achieve an outside result, such as a promotion or a new job.

Intrinsic: You are learning for the sake of learning and don’t necessarily care if there is an immediate use for the skill.


The what of your Ultralearning Project can be broken down into 3 main categories: Concepts, Facts and Procedures:

Concepts: Ideas you need to understand

Facts: Information you can just memorise

Procedures: Anything you can only learn through practice, such as pronunciation


You need to know all the resources you have available to you. These can be planned through Benchmarking and Emphasise/Exclude methods:

Benchmarking: Figuring out the common learning methods as a starting point for your project. This can be reading lists, internet searches, or advice from an expert.

Emphasise/Exclude: Go through all the resources you listed in your benchmark and if they are not relevant, Exclude them. If a resource is not only relevant but more effective than most, you can use it more, Emphasise it.

How Much Should You Plan?

Young says to aim for 10% of the total duration of the project, but he says this isn’t law.

If you are doing a particularly large project (thousands of hours +), then you may only want to spend 5% of your time planning.

Also, don’t feel your planning all has to be done at the beginning, you can do more research during the project, such as when your learning slows down.

The Law of Diminishing Returns

The longer you keep using a specific technique or working on a particular skill, the less improvement you will see.

At the beginning, there is so much you don’t know, that every time you progress, you progress a lot. Once you know more, the amount more you knew is much smaller.

Imagine you have no water, then you get a pint of water from the tap. You now have infinitely more water than you had. Get another pint, you have twice as much water, another pint, you have 1.5 times what you had, this keeps going on until one more pint is just a drop in the ocean.

Learning using the same method will eventually lead to you progressing in tiny drops at most.

This is a sign you need to try another technique for your Ultralearning project. If you don’t have an idea for one, it is time to do more research.

I will write a summary of each principle outlined in the book, but I highly recommend reading the full book for yourself. The stories Young tells and the depth of explanation are much greater.

Ultralearning, is a new book by Scott Young, who is most well know for his blog about learning and the impressive learning challenges he has completed. The book can be found at the follow address:

Success! You’re on the list.

What is in a Business Case? And Why Your Projects Need One

Is this a Business Case..? No, no it is not.

What are they and why should you care?

A Business Case is a document that the Project Manager can refer to see the project is still useful, still something the users would want and still doable.

This is the fourth post in my PRINCE2 series to learn more about Project Management. The Business Case is one of the Themes of PRINCE2.

Some Jargon For You:

Benefits: Any measurable improvement to the business. Does it make the business better? No? not a benefit. Can you specifically measure the impact of the goodness created? No? not a benefit.

PRINCE2 projects create PRODUCTS, using products creates a change in the business. These changes create OUTCOMES. These outcomes produce BENEFITS for the business.

For some weird reason negative outcomes are called DIS-BENEFITS. I think the creators of PRINCE2 wanted the least catchy name they could think of.

Want an Example with that Jargon?

Jargon is all well and good, but how can we really understand something? With some super sexy context of course.


New Sales System


Sales are processed quicker and more accurately than the crappy old system


10% cost reduction and 15% more sales

Boom. That is context.

Business Justification

Business Justification sounds very impressive. But what does it mean?

Some more jargon coming your way.

To keep a project being worth the trouble, you must justify the Business Case. The project must be Desirable, Viable and Achievable (DVA). What are these terms? Why do they rhyme?

Desirable: The project balances cost, benefits and risk (not the same kind of desirable as a chocolate lava cake, sadly)

Viable: The project will create benefits for the business

Achievable: The project can be done. It is not some impossible task.

What Makes A Business Case a Business Case?

It is vital that you, as Project Manager, create and maintain a Business Case on any PRINCE2 project.

You must review and update your Business Case after any events or decisions that affect the DVA.

Your Business Case must define how to manage the project so you get the benefits and outcomes the business needs.

You must record all the roles and responsibilities of the project team in your Business Case.

The key idea of a Business Case is why? Y0u must define why this project must be done.

Verifying and Maintaining Business Justification

AKA checking the project should be done and making sure it’s still worth the cost.

For a truly well-managed project you must check it it is still worth the cost at the following times:

  • The beginning of each step in the project
  • The end of each step in the project
  • Any time a new issue or risk is noticed!
  • When a backup plan is created
  • At the very end of the project

Remember, the customer is the ultimate judge of the whether or not the project was justified.

Ensuring and Confirming Benefits are Realised

AKA making sure the project is a success.

Sadly, many systems never get used. A system is not just for Christmas people! Here are some common reasons why a system may not get used:

  • If a project is part of a larger programme, it may not be able to produce all those juicy benefits on its own. You could create a damn good wheel, but the customer can’t drive home in a wheel.
  • The project team could make a fantastic product but not train the customers how to use. Remember the first time you drove a car? Imagine there were no driving instructors and you had to just get that bad boy home. Training matters.
  • People can just lose enthusiasm. Some projects take a long time, the customer doesn’t care anymore or some newer shinier, project comes along. You need to keep their precious attention or your project will crash and burn.

A truly successful project has the products used, not just created.

If you learned something or you want to try your own Business Case now, please let me know in the comments below.

The 7 Themes of PRINCE2

If you want to manage a PRINCE2 project successfully you must follow the 7 Principles of PRINCE2, follow the 7 Themes of PRINCE2 and use the 7 Processes of PRINCE2. In today’s post, we are looking at the 7 Themes of PRINCE2.

The themes of PRINCE2 describe the qualities that make up project management that you must address to have a successful project. All the themes can be tailored to suit the project (as we saw in the 7 themes of PRINCE2).

The 7 Themes of PRINCE2 are as follows:

  1. Business Case – Why?
  2. Organisation – Who?
  3. Quality – What?
  4. Plans – How? How much? When?
  5. Risk – What if?
  6. Change – What is the impact?
  7. Progress – Where are we now? Where are we going? Should we carry on?

1. Business Case

All projects start with an idea.

The idea should provide something useful to the business. The Business Case is a document that says what makes this project useful.

Wondering why you are doing this project? Check the Business Case.

Need to know if changing the direction of the project will still be useful? Check the Business Case.

Need to know what the end product should look like? Check the Business Case.

2. Organisation

All projects involve people.

Some people will benefit from the project. Some people will manage the project. Some people will create the products of the project.

The Organisation theme tells you all about all the people, who is doing what and who is getting what.

3. Quality

For Projects to have been worth it, they need to be high-quality.

The project manager (PM) must agree with the people benefiting from this project (the stakeholders) and the people making the products, how good the product will be. Then the PM makes sure that level of goodness is what the stakeholders get.

If the stakeholders need a lower cost, then the PM will have to get them to agree to lower quality and vice versa.

4. Plans

For a project to succeed, you must know how to do it and when to do it.

Plans go hand in hand with quality. Once you know what to make, you need to know how to do it well.

The plans are the matched to each person at each stage of the project. Everyone should know what to do and when to do it, regardless of their status.

The PM will also refer to the plans when they communicate updates on the project to the stakeholders. Things going according to plan, is good. Not going to plan and we have a problem.

5. Risk

Projects go wrong. But, you can make it less wrong.

Operations have likely been perfected over a long time of figuring out what works and what doesn’t.

A project is generally new. New is uncertain. Uncertainty leads to things going wrong. Some of these things can be predicted and maybe even prevented.

Managing risk is vital.

6. Change

Projects aren’t set in stone.

Situations in the business change so the projects change to keep up.

This theme deals with changes that can be managed in a project. This could be the PM responding to changes the stakeholders want or the products not suiting the Business Case.

7. Progress

Projects cause things to change, positive change is progress.

This theme explains how the project matches the plans for the project. Is the project performing going well? Does a problem need to be escalated? Is the project as far along as it should be?

Progress also tells you if the project should continue. Perhaps you have spent too much time and money and not got enough results. Ending a project that produces no results is valuable to the business too, in the resources it saves.

The book goes into each of these themes in detail in their own chapters, but now you have a high-level idea of what each theme is and how it’s important to project management.

If you have any questions, please let me know in the comments below.

The 7 Principles of PRINCE2

The principles of PRINCE2 are what make a project a PRINCE2 project. The principles are not designed to be ironclad rules, but rather a guide on the best way to approach projects.

The PRINCE2 principles are:

  • Universal – They can be applied to any project
  • Self-Validating – They have been proven to work by being used in many projects over a long time
  • Empowering – Knowing you are working with effective tools gives you confidence in your work.

What Are The 7 Principles?

The 7 principles I will describe in this blog post are:

  • Continued Business Justification
  • Learn from Experience
  • Define Roles and Responsibilities
  • Manage by Stages
  • Manage by Exception
  • Focus on Products
  • Tailor to Suit the Project

Continued Business Justification

The project manager must make sure the project is still going to provide a positive value and is still needed by the users at each stage of the project.

Cutting a project short that won’t be worth the time, money and effort is good, because it frees up that time, money and effort for projects that are worth it.

Learn from Experience

  • Beginning – Learn from similar previous projects
  • During – Learn from what has happened so far on the project
  • After – Learn from the project once it is finished

Defined Roles and Responsibilities

Everyone on the project needs to know what they should do and what they should not do. This stops people wasting time, money and effort doing the same work, or work someone else is better suited to.

Everyone also needs to know the best way to communicate with other people on the project. Got some remote workers? Best to know upfront, so you can arrange to speak virtually or on the phone.

Manage by Stages

A “management stage” is a single block of the project, like gathering requirements or developing the welcome screen.

Shorter management stages are easier to control, larger ones require less direct management, so can be reduce the workload on the Senior Manager (only really applies to huge projects).

PRINCE2 projects all have at least 2 management stages:

  • Initiation (the start)
  • Anything after that

The end of each management stage is when documents should be updated and the project should be checked to see if it is providing enough value to be worth continuing (Continuous Business Justification)

Manage by Exceptions

Set boundaries for the project, that if passed, mean it has failed and should end. Generally these have a little wiggle room.

The most common exceptions are:

  • Cost
  • Time
  • Quality
  • Scope
  • Benefits
  • Risk

Focus on Products

Projects that focus on producing something are more likely to be successful. You can justify to a client an application you have built much more easily that some generic improvements you made to worker productivity. A product is thing that has been made.

Agreeing on what the final product will look like with users make it less likely they will be unhappy with the final product as they told you that’s what they wanted. It also helps to stop users adding new features and ideas through the project, which can lead to the project never finishing because there’s always one more thing.

Tailor to Suit the Project

All projects are different, so make sure you adjust your project management accordingly. If the project is smaller and simpler you may be more hands on, if the project is large and complex you would likely need to delegate more and keep track of people rather than getting stuck in yourself.

Now you have a top-level definition of the 7 principles of PRINCE2, do any of these sound wrong to you? Do they sound right to you? Has it changed the way you will manage your projects? Let me know in the comments below.

How to Manage Projects: An Introduction

Projects are everywhere. You have to solve a problem for a client? That’s a project. You want to build chairs in your spare time? Each chair is a project. You want to write a series of blog posts? Those posts are a project. But how do you manage a project to make sure it’s a success? I don’t know. So I am going to learn about it from “Managing Successful Projects with PRINCE2” and share what I learn with you.

Time For Some Jargon

What is Prince2?

PRojects IN Controlled Environments. I realise that doesn’t tell you much, but the whole book is about PRINCE2, so we will have a better answer at the end of this series of posts.

What is a project?

PRINCE2 defines a project as: “A temporary organisation that is created for the purpose of delivering one or more business products according to an agreed business case”. Seems unnecessarily wordy to me.

A Project is something you (or a team) do in a limited amount of time to make something valuable. It’s that simple.

The Power Of 7

PRINCE2 loves the number 7. There are:

  • 7 Principles – What makes a project PRINCE2
  • 7 Themes – What must be managed to make a project successful
  • 7 Processes – What must be done at each stage of a project and when to do it

That is the exciting journey that lays ahead. Projects are the best way to create positive change, so learning how to make them a success seems like a worthy goal. Come back next time to read about the 7 Principles in detail.

An Experiment In Editing – 4: To Sell Is Human

The following is the fourth in a series of posts inspired by Jason Fried’s post on Signal V. Noise about a writing class he would like to teach. In the hypothetical class, he aimed to show that editing and compressing is truly valuable. That’s why the posts get shorter, not just varying in length, he aims to go from the fully explored idea to just the main point of the text. I am going to attempt to do this with several of my posts, as an experiment to see if it helps with my writing skills.

To see the original post, please click here.

One-Line Version

Selling is important, selling solves problems, selling can make lives better.

One-Paragraph Version

Every job involves persuading people, a good solution to a problem, needs people to believe in it, for it to be implemented. You need to understand people, keep going when things get tough and understand the problem you want to solve. To move people, you need you pitch your offer, be able to adapt to changing situations and you need to work for the customer. Not just yourself.

Three-Paragraph Version

Why Sales?

Every job today has an element of “non-sales selling” (persuading, influencing and convincing others in ways that don’t involve them making a purchase). These skills are critical in all jobs, so we are all sales people. In a world where everyone has access to the same information, moving people can be a way to help people solve a problem, not screw them over.

The ABCs of Selling

Attunement – Understanding your customer, so you can figure out the best solution for them, as an individual.

Buoyancy – Being able to keep going despite all the rejection you will face trying to move people.

Clarity – Understanding the situation as clearly as possible, so you can solve problems your customers didn’t know they had or didn’t know could be solved.

Skills You Need, To Be Good At Moving People

Pitch – Your customers can’t buy your offer if they don’t know it exists. If you never put the information into the world, it doesn’t exist. An effective pitch is crucial to moving people.

Improvise – Plans fail, situations change. You need to be able to think on your feet and adapt to the situation as required.

Serve – A good salesperson ultimately serves their customer. You can improve your service by making it personal (find a way to improve your customer’s situation). Or by making it purposeful (find a way to improve the world, even just a little bit).

One-Page Version

This book is about how Sales not only deserves a re-branding from being all about pushy con-artists, but that Sales is actually a necessary skill for workers everywhere today.  

We All Work in Sales

A Survey of western workers, found that 1 in 9 people work in traditional sales, but that the other 8 in 9 spend 40% of their time in “non-sales selling” (persuading, influencing and convincing people in such a way that doesn’t involve them making a purchase).  Pink refers to this as “moving people”

How We All came to be in Sales

One of the skills that seems to be universally useful, is the skill to move people. Teachers move their students when they get them to study hard and learn for their futures. Nurses move people when they work on building a treatment plan with their patients to create a plan that works and they will stick to outside of the hospital setting.

Does Sales Deserve Its Bad Reputation?

The success of a sales technique is determined by the amount of information on both sides of the transaction. If the seller has more information, he has more power, so he can use tricks and be pushy to get more sales. Today, every person has access to the same information as everyone else, this means the seller and buyer are equally powerful, so lies and tricks won’t work. So today, the best salespeople actually work to find the best solutions for their customers, not just to get the best deals for themselves.


Attunement, is all about understanding your customer. The better you understand the person and their needs, the better chance you have of being able to help them with their problems and therefore the better chance you have of making the sale.


Salespeople face a lot of rejection. No matter how persuasive you are, you can’t persuade everyone. If you give up at the first failure, you will never sell anything. Being able to bounce back and carry on is key to surviving in sales.


Clarity allows you and your customer to see the situation clearly and understand it. You can offer a solution to a problem your customer may not have known even existed or that they did not have know could be solved.


The pitch is how your customer learns about your offering. If you never make the offer, no one ever finds out about it and therefore never buys it. The stronger the pitch, the more likely you will move people.


Selling on a formula doesn’t work in a world where information is so readily available. Being able to react and adapt to situations is a key skills in moving people.


As a salesperson, you have the opportunity to improve the lives of others, your offer solves a problem. There are two ways to serve. Make it personal, find a way your offer benefits the person. Make it purposeful, find a way your offer makes the world a better place.

A Summary Of To “Sell Is Human – Daniel H. Pink”

When you think of a salesperson, what comes to mind? List the first three words you would use to describe a salesperson, are any of them positive? The main idea Dan Pink is trying to promote in this book, is that sales does not only not deserve its bad reputation (anymore) but is actually an incredibly useful skill that all of us can learn to become more successful.

We Are All Salespeople

Pink quotes a survey that says most workers in the west actually spend as much as 40% of their time in what he calls “non-sales selling”: persuading, influencing and convincing others in ways that don’t involve them making a purchase. The same survey also found that many businesses and successful people consider these soft skills to be essential to their success and provide much greater returns than the effort they put in.

The survey found that 1 in 9 people are in traditional sales, but the other 8 in 9 spend so much time to non-sales selling or “moving people” as Pink says, that we are all in sales too.

How We All Became Salespeople

What is your job title? How much do you do that specific thing? For example, if you are a software developer, how much time do you spend just coding? If you’re an engineer how much time do you spend just building things? If you’re an accountant, how much time do you spend just doing financial calculations? If you answered above 80% I am willing to bet you work in a large company and be in a highly specialised role.

Larger companies tend to have enough people that they can hire people who each have a narrow specialism, so if Janet the developer can’t manage projects for her clients, that’s fine, Emma the project manager can do that instead. In smaller companies though, each worker tends to be less specialised “designers analyse. Analysts design, marketers create. creators market.” (I changed the spelling of analyse to match UK English). Pink calls the ability to adapt to different roles like this, elasticity. He argues that the job market changes so quickly and so often nowadays that elasticity is becoming a critical skill for people who want career longevity.


What’s Ed-Med? I hear you cry? It’s not a weird spin-off of Ed, Edd and Eddy (90s Cartoon Network anyone?). It refers to Education and Medicine, the two fastest growing industries at the time “To Sell Is Human” came out (2012).

Moving people is a skill that can make a huge difference in any industry, but how could a teacher use sales? They don’t have any products to push, they do have students they need to encourage, though. They need to persuade children to learn now, to improve their prospects in the future. Teachers need to agitate their students.

Agitating students sounds like a bad idea. Why would you purposefully be annoying? Let me explain:

In moving people there’s irritation and there’s agitation.

Irritation – Getting people to do what you want them to do.

Agitation – Getting people to do what they want to do.

So agitation is actually giving people the push or the nudge in the right direction to do what is best for themselves.

There is a good example in the book. Pink meets a nurse, whose patients stick to their treatment plans at a rate significantly higher than the national average. When he interviews her, she tells him that she works out the treatment plan with her patients, by allowing them to be a part of the process. Rather than just telling them what she believes to be right, she gets their buy in, so they feel more compelled to keep up the treatments once they are at home and no longer being watched. Patients want to get better and because this nurse has asked for their opinion and their help to figure out the best plan, the patients feel listened to.

Does Sales Deserve Its Bad Reputation?

Earlier, I asked you what your first thoughts were when you think of a salesperson. Pink created a word cloud of the results he got when asking people the same question, the most common word…Pushy. Difficult, yuck and sleazy also featured heavily among the list. Only 5 of the 25 listed words were positive, including “necessary”, “challenging” and “fun”. Positive words were mentioned much less often than negative words, in general for this survey.

This doesn’t have to be the case. Pink explains how this may have been true in the past because traditionally the salesperson had more information than the buyer. Now that everyone has access to the same information the balance of power has been shifted to be more… balanced. In a world where the buyer and seller have the same information, dishonesty isn’t going to provide any benefit, the buyer will see through it. Instead a salesperson who wants to find the best results for their customer and does everything they can to get their customer the best solution will be most successful, like the nurse earlier. So the most successful sales people today actually work for their customers, not against them.

A New Kind of Sales

Famously, the ABCs of selling in Glengarry Glen Ross were “Always Be Closing”. This high pressure strategy may have worked well when sales was one-sided, the salesperson had all the power and all the knowledge. Now, Pink says the ABCs of selling are :




I’ll explain what each of these terms mean and share my favourite tips from the book.

Attunement – Understand Thy Customer

Attunement is the ability to take the perspective of others. It’s about empathising with the person you wish to move, so that you can understand their needs better and then find the best solutions for them. It is not just about getting some money off them and having no idea if you have helped them at all or worse, knowing you screwed them over.

There are 3 main principles of Attunement:

1) Increase Your Power By Reducing It

When was the last time you felt more powerful than the person sitting across from you? Did you know something, that they didn’t? Did you care more about the outcome for yourself or the other person?

Now imagine a situation where you are the one with less power, such as interviewing for a new job that you really want. You are probably much more conscious of what the other person is thinking, how they may react to your body language, the things you say and what you do. You’re trying to take their perspective. Become more attuned to them.

When we are in a position of lower power than the person we are talking to, it becomes easier to shift our mindset to assume the other person’s perspective and this makes it easier to move that person. So if you are the one with more power, but you want to better understand the other person, try reducing your power. Give them more knowledge or ask them about a topic they are already more knowledgeable than you, so they can feel more powerful. Having a better understanding of the other person gives you more power to move them.

2) Use Your Head as Much as Your Heart

Perspective taking involves thinking (head) and empathy involves feeling (heart). Using a healthy dose of both is much more effective than using one and not the other.

If you can successfully take someone else’s perspective, you have the best chance of ensuring the best outcome for both parties. You can figure out a solution that solves their problem, without giving away too many of your own resources, so both sides leave the table happy.

You also need to understand who has the most influence in a situation. I could spend all day every day proving to someone at the same level as me at my company that I am the greatest employee ever. But, someone at my level doesn’t decide my pay or whether or not I get a promotion, my boss does, if I use my head, I can figure out who best to impress.

3) Mimic Strategically

People tend to like people who they view as being similar to themselves. This goes back to ancient times, when we humans would stick together in small tribes and survival meant everything. If someone was from your tribe, they were likely similar to you and familiar. Someone unfamiliar could be from another tribe, a dangerous tribe. So today we still associate similarity to ourselves as being more trustworthy due to an outdated survival instinct.

That’s where mimicry comes in. You can copy the body language of people you wish to move and even use phrases they use to make yourself seem more like them and therefore more trustworthy. But, if you get caught copying them, you will irritate them and end up alienating that person, rather than convincing them you’re worthy of their trust.

Buoyancy – Just Keep Floating, Just Keep Floating

Sales people get rejected. A lot! Think how many sales calls you reject before even hearing what they have to say. I’m not judging, we get cold calls where I work all the time and I can’t stand it. It just wastes my time and theirs. However, I imagine it’s probably even worse being the cold caller and just getting person after person hanging up on you not wishing to speak to you or even being plain rude and hanging up (I don’t do this, unless dear reader, you are a cold caller, in which case I definitely do this, so don’t cold call me…)

Interrogate Yourself!

Me: Hey You!
Also Me: Who? Me?
Me: Yeah, You! Are you able to finish this blog post?!
Also Me: Yeah, I guess so. I mean I’ve finished blog posts before, so I should be able to do it again.
Me: Good, well done. Keep going.

You just witnessed a conversation between two very charming gentleman. The first character seemed a little aggressive at first and the second, a little timid for my liking. But, look closer, the first character, was actually convincing the second character to convince himself that he was capable of finishing this blog post. Why didn’t the first character just tell the second guy that he was capable? I’ll explain why.

Should You Really Question Yourself?

When you hear a statement, you don’t tend to process it very deeply. You just absorb the information passively. When saying something nice to yourself, you do get a small emotional boost because you have been positive to yourself, but this boost fades fast. For a longer, more effective self-boost, trying questioning yourself. There are 2 reason this works:

1 – When you hear a question, you are being engaged, so you respond to the question, even if it’s in your heads. As a result, you process the information more deeply. Asking yourself if you would succeed, actually prompts you to remember times you have succeeded before. Remember the conversation from earlier? This was me persuading myself I could do finish this blog post, so I felt compelled to carry on. You are reading the result now.

2 – When you ask yourself why you want to do something, you are more likely to think of ways to motivate yourself from within. Take the conversation I had with myself, it will feel good to complete this blog post, so I want to do it. Motivating yourself with inner feelings of goodness is much more effective than with outside rewards (material goods) like gummy bears or a new car or whatever things you like.

3-to-1 On All Positivity!

Moving people can feel like an “endless sea of rejection”, so you may turn to some positivity to make you feel better. Maybe, listing all your good points will help raise your spirits. Actually, no it won’t.

Studies have found that the ideal ratio of positive to negative comments, for keeping your spirits up, is 3 positive comments to every 1 negative comment. The 3-to-1 ratio of positivity to negativity, is best for your wellbeing and for staying resilient. Strangely, studies also found that if you surpass a ratio of 11-to-1 you actually do more harm than good, so be nice to yourself, just not too nice.

Nothing Lasts Forever, Not Even Rejection

I’m not going to pretend that failing at something isn’t a horrible feeling. But, it is a temporary one. If you can learn to see your failures as “temporary rather than permanent, specific rather than universal and external rather than personal” you can become much more resilient. You will can keep going longer and achieve more int he long run, than people who give up. No one wins every time, but it’s the people who get back up and try again that become truly successful. It’s not about blind optimism either, it’s about being to bounce back when you take a hit, its about staying buoyant.

Clarity – I Can Sell Clearly Now The Rain Has Gone

Clarity is being able to help others see their situation objectively and identify problems they weren’t aware they had or weren’t aware could be solved.

Framing It Right

Contrast is key to moving people. If I offered you 10 coins of an unknown currency in exchange for your phone you wouldn’t know if that was a fair deal. But if I offered you 10 pounds for your phone, you would know that’s a bad deal for you because you understand the difference in the value between 10 pounds and your phone. Changing the frame of reference for the person you are trying to move can help you to move them.

The Less Frame

I don’t know about you, but I get choice paralysis for the most minor of things. I will be at a vending machine struggling to decide which sweet is worth my 50p. There are just so many to choose from, what if the skittles aren’t as good as the wine gums?! Instead, if you offer someone fewer choices, they are actually more likely to make a decision and therefore a purchase. It’s easier to choose between two products than forty. So reduce the number choices your customer needs to make to make their decision easier.

The Experience Frame

Think back to the greatest holiday of your life, now think back to the greatest item of clothing you have ever bought, which evokes stronger feelings of joy? Most people get stronger, longer-lasting happiness from experiences than material goods.

You can frame you offer by the experience the customer will get from it, rather than the quality of the product itself. That’s all well and good for people trying to sell holidays, but what to do if you’re selling material goods? Find the experience. Kodak don’t sell cameras, they sell memories. When Apple came out with the iPod, they didn’t sell music players, they sold “1,000 songs in your pocket”.

The Potential Frame

Not all non-sales selling is about you giving to a customer, you may be convincing someone to give to you. Like getting an interviewer to give you a job. When you go to a job interview, if you focus on how much you can grow as much as you focus on your past experience, you actually paint a better picture of yourself. Talk about your potential to grow with in the role as well as your past experience in order to seem like a better candidate for the job.

Pitch, Please!

If you never make your offer, how will anyone get it? Making an offer, is called a “Pitch”. Below are some tips on crafting effective pitches.

The Subject-Line Pitch

When you’re at work, you are busy, you can’t reply to every email. You have things to do and you only want to use your attention on the most useful information brought to you. If this is true for you, it’s going to be true for the people you’re emailing, too. How then, do you get their attention?

Busy people answer useful sounding emails. If you can’t solve a problem at work, the person who solves that problem for you is going to feature pretty heavily in your good books. So, next time you need your boss to reply to your email, try to phrase the headline in a way that sounds most useful to them. Do they need to someone to cover this weekend and you want that overtime pay? Put “I can work this weekend” as your subject-line. Subject-lines are the email equivalents of headlines, they’re all you’ve got to grab the reader’s attention, make them count.

The Specific Ocean

Specificity is key in getting people’s attention. If you read the headline “How To Write Better Pitches”, that could be any number of tips, to anyone for any situation. Therefore, you don’t know if it will directly apply to you, so you don’t care that much. Instead the headline “5 Ways To Pitch Your Promotion To Your Boss, Today”, you now know there are 5 tips, for employees who want a raise and want it today. If those details apply to you, you’re much more likely to read the second post than the first one. When you try to get everyone, you get no one. Better to grab the attention of people who can benefit from your offer.

The One-Word Pitch

The world moves fast, attention moves faster. I don’t have long to draw you in. I need to get my message across, fast. Imagine I could get you to think of my brand every time you hear just one word. Seems impossible right? Lets try it with some other brands.



Did you think of Google, then Mastercard? If you can get to people in one word, then you have their attention in the shortest time possible. So figure out a way to associate one word with your brand and your brand with one word, to people’s attention instantly.

Tom Cruise And The Dalai Lama Are At A Starbucks…

THE classic improv scene. It turns out, improvisation is incredibly useful in moving people. You can’t prepare for every possible outcome, so being able to think on your feet becomes useful. There are 3 rules of improvisation that make it work.

1) Hear Offers

To really be able to move people, you should be able to really listen to them. Sales isn’t about being able to talk anyone into doing anything you want them to do. It’s about understanding their needs, so you know how you can help them. You have the best chance of understanding if you learn to listen well, with no agenda.

Even phrases that seem like objections can be offers if you learn to listen for them. “I couldn’t possibly pay £100” is the same as saying, I will pay, if you lower the offer. “I can’t make Wednesday”, what about Tuesday? It gets easy to hear offers, once you start listening.

2) Say “yes, and”

You’re trying to get your friends to all go on holiday. Tabitha keeps coming up with excuses. Tabitha is bad at improvisation and doesn’t help solve the problem. Here are Tabitha’s Yes, buts

“Yes, but we can’t afford it”
“Yes, but we can’t make the time”
“Yes, but we will never find a room for all of us”
“Yes, but” just leads to a never ending cycle of excuses where you never make progress.

Instead, try “yes, and”. This leads to positivity and progress towards solving the problem.

“Yes, it is expensive, and we can book ahead to make it cheaper”
“Yes, it’s a lot of time, and if we plan ahead, we can make it work”
“Yes, there are a lot of us, and there is a hotel with enough rooms for all us on this website here…”

Much better to say “yes, and”, right?

3) Make Your Partner Look Good

Negotiation isn’t a zero-sum game. If the other side wins, that doesn’t mean you lose, this isn’t football. In negotiations there can be win-win situations. You can find the best solution for your customer and get a rewards for your offer. Just like in improv scenes, where if you and your partner have a good scene, you both look good, win-win.

If you make your customer look good, they are more likely to feel good and depending on the industry they will become a repeat customer or be more likely to spread good word of mouth about you, so you get more customers, win-win. See the pattern?

Salesman, At Your Service

As a salesperson, you have the opportunity to improve the lives of others. You can solve problems and create joy. The two rules of service are:

  1. Make it personal
  2. Make it purposeful

Make It Personal

A study found that when radiologists were given scans to look at with photos of their patients attached, so they were looking at the person they were helping at the same time as seeing an abstract scan that could be doesn’t evoke any feeling, they were 80% more likely to spot issues not related to the original reason for their hospital visit. This means they were 80% more likely find a cyst when looking at a broken arm, that they wouldn’t have spotted otherwise, and end up saving a life or sparing someone some pain.

To personalise yourself to your customers you could add a picture of yourself to your website, you could write a bio about your story. Now you’re no longer just some faceless business, you’re a human, trying to help. Are you more likely to buy a pie from PieMart inc. or from aunt Deirdre who’s passion for baking pies lead her to quit her job, start up a bakery and make each and every pie with the same love and devotion she gives to the pies she bakes for her nieces and nephews.

Make It Purposeful

In a call centre where the staff were cold calling people to try and raise money for scholarships and other funds for university students, some employees were offered the opportunity to meet some of the scholarship students their calls had brought in donations for. When they heard about how the money they brought in had made university affordable for these students and allowed them to get an education they other wise couldn’t afford, the callers realised why they were doing their job. This resulted in a dramatic increase of donations made as the callers were dialling more and feeling more impassioned in their pitches, now they knew what a difference their job made.

Think about how you will improve the life your customers and you will feel much better than thinking about how much money you will make from the transaction. You will find it more motivating and more fulfilling than trying to make some money.

If you have a recommendation for my next read or have comments about this book summary, please let me know in the comments below.