Lessons Learned From Range: How Generalists Triumph in a Specialised World – Part 4

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

Shake Things Up Occasionally

The older a company gets, the more rigid the culture gets. Employees have new ideas less often and things get done the same way. Certain ideas, become the “company way” of doing things. There is no perfect company culture, so change is necessary for growth.

People Don’t Like Change

Epstein tells us about a study about wildfire firefighters. In wildfires, the fire can spread fast. The firefighters need to sprint to escape and even then they can be too slow. Dropping their tools would increase their running speed, but many don’t. It may not be a conscious decision, but to them, dropping their tools is dropping being a firefighter. Even though, it could save their lives. This instinct not to change, is hard to overcome.

Simple Changes Can Make a Big Difference

Your company may be brilliant at improvising solutions, but a bit slapdash. Hiring someone by-the-book, who knows industry standards could give your company some needed structure. This new structure could help stop sloppy mistakes.

The opposite is true if your team can maintain consistent, high-quality work. They may be stuck in their ways, unable to handle a sudden change, say a global pandemic. Someone who can adapt to the unexpected may make your team more flexible.

Good Ideas Can be Found Everywhere

David Epstein tells the story of Frances Hesselbein, the most successful CEO of the Girl Scouts to date. Hesselbein joined the Girl Scouts never having been a C-suite employee, nor did she have formal business training. Hesselbein knew that the higher up a company you are, the less you know about the day-to-day. She wanted to make changes with real benefits. She couldn’t work every job to get the knowledge of the company at every step of the ladder. Hesselbein had a radical idea, she would take ideas from all levels of the Girl Scouts. No-one was too junior to give their opinion and good ideas got rewards. The higher-ups were still the decision makers, but idea generation was company wide. This method led her to her being the most respected CEO of the Girl Scouts of all time.

How Specialisation Ruined Science

Science is currently facing a “replication crisis”, scientists can’t recreate each other’s results in experiment. Getting the same results each time is key to proving something is true. So no replication = no truth.

David Epstein argues that a cause of this crisis is that scientists hyper-specialise so fast, they don’t learnt to think. Scientists have limited time, they can learn deep and narrow to progress, or they can learn broadly and risk falling behind in their career. This deep, narrow specialisation leads to silos of knowledge. Each expert understand their narrow field but nothing that falls outside that boundary.

Imagine you asked mathematicians to judge the gymnastics at the Olympics. The scores would be nonsense. They don’t have the expertise to judge one gymnast from another. This is what it’s like trying to get hyper-specialised scientists to peer-review each other’s work.

Peer-review is the process of scientists judging each other’s work. The idea, is that if scientists can find flaws in each other’s methods, the work being reviewed can be improved. If you don’t understand someone’s work, you can’t be an accurate judge. So flawed science passes review without anyone realising. Later, millions of studies can’t be replicated, leading to the crisis!

Connect Ideas to Make New Discoveries

Epstein says that most ground-breaking discoveries happen when two fields overlap. The issue with hyper-specialisation, is there is no overlap. No overlap, means no discoveries from combining fields.

The grants process discourages research into overlapping fields. Scientists review grants. More scientists than ever are specialists. Specialists see value in specialised work, so they grant specialist research. So specialised work continues to grow and broad work doesn’t.

Specialisation isn’t the Enemy, Speed is

Epstein doesn’t hate specialists, but there’s no rush. He says we will all specialise to some extent in the end. You need to specialise to gain depth in any subject. His main lesson is don’t worry about that you’re progressing too slow.

Late-starters take longer to progress, but they often end up with greater success and longer careers. Cross-boundary science papers don’t get lots of citations immediately. They’re not overnight successes. But often, they get cited for longer and overtake the specialised papers.

Most “smash-hit” science papers overlapped topics.

Neils Bohr didn’t go straight into quantum physics. He ended up becoming the greatest quantum physicist of the 20th century. Bohr continued to learn subjects outside of science all his life. Einstein started as a patent clerk whilst he developed his ideas of relativity. Both late starters, both great successes.

Experimentation for the win!

Wicked environments don’t compare to sports well. In Wicked environments you achieve big wins through slow experimentation. This will feel alien to fast-moving specialists. But the wins can be huge. A home-run in baseball gets you 4 runs. A huge win in a wicked environment could be worth 1,000 runs.

Experimenters don’t fail less than anyone else but they are less hurt by it. Experimentation is uncertain and difficult, but the results can be huge. Andre Geim was messing around when he discovered the miracle material graphene. He couldn’t have predicted the outcome, but he did mess around on purpose. He calls his process Friday Night Experiments, times when he works on strange ideas to see where they lead. He purposefully introduced inefficient experimentation into his work and eventually got a huge win.

See part 3 to learn why job switching can make you happier and how generalists make great predictions. See part 2 to see why interleaving and analogies are so useful for learning. See part 1 to find out if you work in a Kind or Wicked environment and how abstraction helps you understand seemingly disconnected ideas.

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: 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.

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

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.

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

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.

Why?

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.

What?

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

How?

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: https://www.scotthyoung.com/blog/ultralearning/

4 Simple Steps to Stop Procrastinating

This post will teach you why you procrastinate and how to stop procrastinating. It is part of my series of posts detailing what I learned on the Learning How To Learn course on Coursera.

Why We Form Habits

Habits save you energy. Your brain is only a tiny part of your total weight, yet it manages to use 20% of your energy. Sadly, this doesn’t mean that thinking really hard will help you lose weight. However, it does mean that your brain does whatever it can to save energy, like automating tasks it knows how to do. A habit is this automation.

The 4 Stages of a Habit

Habits have 4 stages, if you can understand them, you can learn to use them to your advantage, rather than letting them use you. Want to start a habit of exercising? Learn the 4 stages. Want to stop your habit of eating twenty chocolates a day? Learn the 4 stages. You have been kept in suspense long enough, these are the 4 stages:

  1. The Cue
  2. The Routine
  3. The Reward
  4. The Belief

The Cue

The cue is the thing you see, hear, smell or whatever that sends you into the automatic trance known as a habit. The Cue is the only stage where you need to exercise willpower. That’s great news, my whole life I thought people who conquered bad habits just had an iron will. Instead, they had better systems than me.

Common Cues include:

Your phone vibrating – makes you check for notifications

Seeing your to-do list – makes you watch TV instead of doing work

The smell of your favourite bakery – makes you go in and buy those pastries you love, but know you definitely can’t have

Resisting a Cue causes an actual pain response in your brain, but if you can overcome it, the pain fades very quickly. This is the time to start a better Routine.

The Routine

The Routine is very powerful. The Routine is you actually acting out a habit, it’s browsing YouTube for ten seconds, only to find out that mermaids do exist!! And that 4 hours have passed and you still haven’t done your assignment!!

Next time you see an unpleasant thing you need to do, but really don’t want to. Just work on it for the smallest amount of time you can handle. Since the pain fades so fast, you may find you actually end up doing more work than you thought you would.

The Reward

Now celebrate.

Celebrating helps you convince your brain that you did a good thing, but don’t be too hard on yourself if you fail. Habit changing can take time, it gets easier with each victory though.

The Reward is the immediate feeling of pleasure you get when you start your habit. It’s the warm gooey centre of your favourite chocolate cake, or that endorphin rush after a workout. Creating a good reward is key to avoiding procrastination.

Good Rewards can be a tasty treaty, some tantalising TV or telling yourself “well done, pal”.

The fun thing you do when you procrastinate is it’s own Reward, so you’re fighting a master of it’s craft. Your own brain!

If you’re struggling with rewarding yourself, try having the reward at the same time or same point in progress. This creates an expectation in your mind of reward, like you are training your brain to expect it.

The Belief

This is how you feel about a habit, if you don’t believe you can change a habit, then you can’t. If you do believe you can change a habit, then you can.

If you’re struggling with this part, then don’t worry. Beliefs can be changed. The first 3 steps will help you.

Once you have been trying to build a new habit for a while but it hasn’t become automatic yet, it can start to feel difficult and the allure of giving up becomes stronger. This is when you need to remind yourself that your system works and you are doing better with this new habit.

Process Beats Product

The Product is the thing you hope to achieve by starting a session of work, such as an item on your to-do list, a piece of homework, an assignment at work, the list goes on.

The Process is you actually doing the thing, it’s you lifting some weights, writing some words or cleaning some plates.

If you focus on the Process like “I will write for the next 20 minutes”, you never mentioned the finished Product you want to get out of it and you are less likely to produce the pain response in your brain so you have less of a Cue to procrastinate.

Let me know in the comments below if any of these ideas worked for you, or if they were total crap.

Overlearning, Deliberate Practice, The Einstellung Effect and Interleaving

This is the third post on the Learning How To Learn course available free on Coursera. In this post I will describe the 4 things I learnt in the second part of week 2.

Overlearning

Have you ever been driving down a familiar route, only to realise you weren’t concentrating, but still drove safely? It was almost like you were on autopilot? This is possible because you have overlearned how to drive.

Overlearning is the process of continuing to learn a concept or skill you have already grasped. It takes you from competence to mastery.

The best times to overlearn are when you want to be able to do something without thinking. Overlearning is also useful for a skill you want to perform in a stressful environment, for example playing music in front of people. If you have overlearnt the song, you will make fewer mistakes and feel more confident.

You should avoid overlearning one skill when you are studying for an exam with multiple topics. In a maths exam if you can find the longest side of a triangle perfectly every time, but can’t multiply two numbers together, solve quadratics, find the area of circle… you get it. If you can do only the one thing well, you will fail the exam.

Deliberate Practice

You know when you’re studying for an exam and you see those horrible questions you know you can’t answer? Do you tend to avoid them and focus on something easier to get a little motivation boost, or do you target those big hairy questions? If you choose to attack the big hairy ones, you’re doing the right thing.

Deliberate Practice is where you purposely practice the hardest parts of what you want to learn. We have all heard the 10,000 hours rule (it takes 10,000 hours to become an expert in anything), but just practising isn’t enough. You need to practice the right way.

If your practice is uncomfortably difficult you are doing it right. You want to be just past the level you can comfortably do. I won’t lie to you, it doesn’t feel nice at the time, but it’s the ONLY way to improve.

The Einstellung Effect

Sometimes when I am trying to debug some code, there are times where it feels like I am just slamming my head against the problem. My whole body goes tense and I KNOW if just think harder, I can figure this out. Turns out, I’m wrong.

This is the Einstellung effect, you keep trying to solve a problem the same way, despite it not working. You feel like if you just stick with the problem long enough, the solution will come to you, but it never does. You are blocked.

When you are stuck by the Einstellung effect, it’s time to walk away. Talk to a colleague about something completely unrelated, take a walk. Basically, take your mind off the problem for a bit. Let the diffuse mode takeover and make connections you can’t make when you’re too focused.

Interleaving

The logical way to study, is to do each topic, one after the other. As humans, we like order, so this makes sense to us.

Interleaving is the practice of mixing up the order of what you learn, in one session. Remember earlier I talked about how context is as important as the chunks themselves. Interleaving teaches you context.

If you want to know when to apply each skill, interleaving is the best way to do it. This could mean, instead of studying triangles for an hour, then taking a break, then doing an hour on circles, taking a break and so on. You would do 10 or 20 minutes of each topic for each hour. Jumping from topic to topic forces you to change the way you are thinking, each time you switch topic, preventing you from getting stuck in the Einstellung effect. Your exams are most likely to have the topics in a scattered order too, so it’s good practice for the real thing.

Please let me know what you think in the comments below

A Simple Trick To Learn Anything Faster

Week 2 of Learning How To Learn is all about Chunking. This is a method of learning, where you break down the huge amounts of information you want to learn, into smaller more manageable pieces, called Chunks. Breaking down your learning into chunks makes learning on the larger scale, much easier. It’s like eating a meal, you don’t swallow the whole thing in one, you take many small bites.

What Is a Chunk?

A single piece of a concept or skill formed from many scattered pieces of information that share a similar use or meaning. If you can perform a skill automatically or you just “get” a concept, it has been chunked.

Chunks are like puzzle pieces. They can be joined together to create a bigger picture. For example when playing a song on the guitar, one Chunk will be strumming the strings in a certain pattern, another Chunk is forming the hand shapes to play the chords, another Chunk is the rhythm and together you can use these Chunks to play a complete song.

Once you know how to play the whole song, that song becomes a Chunk, rather than the individual parts of playing the song. In other words, Chunks can become more complex and larger. This allows you to perform more complicated tasks, solve more complex problems or come up with deeper ideas.

When you are stressed or scared, it can become harder for your brain to access Chunks, this is why some people perform much worse under stress, such as a public performance or an exam. They know the material when they are relaxed, but once their brain starts producing adrenaline, they can no longer retrieve the knowledge they need.

How to Form a Chunk

All disciplines are different, but Chunks are universal in learning. There are 4 steps to forming any Chunk:

Focus on the thing you want to Chunk ONLY

No multitasking allowed. If you want to learn how a new mathematical trick, you focus on just that one trick.

Aim to understand

It becomes much easier to remember something you understand, than something you have just memorised. Make sure you figure it out for yourself to really understand.

Review the Chunk soon

You need to refresh your memory to strengthen the connections in your brain. Remember spaced repetition.

Gain Context

Knowing how to do a skill or understanding a concept is only half of the battle. Knowing when to use a skill is equally important. There is no point in having a particular skill if you never know when to use it and there’s no point knowing when to use a skill you don’t have.

The Value of a Library of Chunks

The more chunks you collect, the more skills and ideas you can use as you learn to piece together different Chunks in different combinations.

There are two types of thinking when it comes to problem-solving: Sequential thinking and Holistic thinking. Neither is better than the other, they just each have separate uses.

Sequential Thinking

This way of thinking, allows you follow a train of thoughts one after the other, like a sequence. Sequential thinking uses the focused mode and is good for following a logical process to it’s conclusion, such as in a maths problem, understanding a series of events or cause and effect.

Holistic Thinking

Holistic Thinking allows you to make intuitive links between multiple disciplines, ideas and concepts. In the diffuse mode, you can join up seemingly unrelated Chunks to come up with more creative solutions to problems. This is great for brainstorming, solving complex problems, where logic isn’t enough and creating something new.

Illusions of Competence

An illusion of competence is when you feel like you understand something, but you actually don’t. You may go to a class and think “that really made sense” then you go to explain it to someone else and you can’t quite explain it right, the words just don’t fit together as well as they did when the teacher said it. Sound familiar?

How Illusions of Competence Form

Illusions of competence form when you don’t use the best methods to learn. Re-reading feels good, because you feel like you are putting in the effort and you are understanding it better, but this is actually an Illusion of Competence. You aren’t trying strengthening the neural pathways in your brain, you are tricking yourself into thinking you are learning better.

Highlighting is even worse. Just don’t do it.

Re-reading can be good, if a significant amount of time has passed since your first reading, so your memories of the material have faded.

What are the Best Ways to Avoid Illusions of Competence?

Trying to recall the material is best.

Try quizzing yourself or having someone else quiz you. This causes your brain to actively retrace the neural pathways of that Chunk and therefore strengthens your abilities to remember and understand said Chunk.

Test yourself.

You need to answer practice questions, solve problems or teach the Chunk to another person, to see if you really understand what you’re trying to learn. If you can’t solve the problem, or explain the concept easily, you don’t understand the material well enough. Simple.