Skip to main content

Book Notes, Ultralearning

This post was first sent to my newsletter on December 7th, 2020.
You really ought to subscribe :)



The beginning is always today.
— Mary Shelley

The biggest obstacle to ultralearning is simply that most people don’t care enough about their own self-education to get started

Finding Time for Ultra learning

What matters is the intensity, initiative, and commitment to effective learning, not the particulars of your timetable

There are nine universal principles that underlie ultralearning projects. They are:

  • Metalearning: First Draw a Map
    Start by learning how to learn the subject or skill you want to tackle. Discover how to do good research and how to draw on your past competencies to learn new skills more easily.
  • Focus: Sharpen Your Knife
    Cultivate the ability to concentrate. Carve out chunks of time when you can focus on learning, and make it easy to just do it.
  • Directness: Go Straight Ahead
    Learn by doing the thing you want to become good at. Don’t trade it off for other tasks, just because those are more convenient or comfortable.
  • Drill: Attack Your Weakest Point
    Be ruthless in improving your weakest points. Break down complex skills into small parts; then master those parts and build them back together again.
  • Retrieval: Test to Learn
    Testing isn’t simply a way of assessing knowledge but a way of creating it. Test yourself before you feel confident, and push yourself to actively recall information “rather than passively review it.
  • Feedback: Don’t Dodge the Punches
    Feedback is harsh and uncomfortable. Know how to use it without letting your ego get in the way. Extract the signal from the noise, so you know what to pay attention to and what to ignore.
  • Retention: Don’t Fill a Leaky Bucket
    Understand what you forget and why. Learn to remember things not just for now but forever.
  • Intuition: Dig Deep Before Building Up
    Develop your intuition through play and exploration of concepts and skills. Understand how understanding works, and don’t recourse to cheap tricks of memorization to avoid deeply knowing things.
  • Experimentation: Explore Outside Your Comfort Zone
    All of these principles are only starting points. True mastery comes not just from following the path trodden by others but from exploring possibilities they haven’t yet imagined.

Principle 1 - Metalearning, First Draw a Map

If I have seen further it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.
— Isaac Newton

How to Draw Your Map

How can you apply this to get an edge in your own learning efforts? There are two main ways: over the short term and over the long term.”

  • Over the short term, you can do research to focus on improving your metalearning before and during a learning project. Ultralearning, owing to its intensity and self-directed nature, has the opportunity for a lot higher variance than normal schooling efforts do. A good ultralearning project, with excellent materials and an awareness of what needs to be learned, has the potential to be completed faster than formal schooling.
  • Over the long term, the more ultralearning projects you do, the larger your set of general metalearning skills will be. You’ll know what your capacity is for learning, how you can best schedule your time and manage your motivation, and you’ll have well-tested strategies for dealing with common problems. As you learn more things, you’ll acquire more and more confidence, which will allow you to enjoy the process of learning more with less frustration”

Break down metalearning research that you do for a specific project into three questions: “Why?,” “What?,” and “How?”

“Why?” refers to understanding your motivation to learn. If you know exactly why you want to learn a skill or subject, you can save a lot of time by focusing your project on exactly what matters most to you.

“What?” refers to the knowledge and abilities you’ll need to acquire in order to be successful. Breaking things down into concepts, facts, and procedures can enable you to map out what obstacles you’ll face and how best to overcome them.

“How?” refers to the resources, environment, and methods you’ll use when learning. Making careful choices here can make a big difference in your overall effectiveness.”

How Much Planning Should You Do?

The 10 Percent Rule
A good rule of thumb is that you should invest approximately 10 percent of your total expected learning time into research prior to starting. If you expect to spend six months learning, roughly four hours per week, that would be equal to roughly one hundred hours, which suggests that you should spend about ten hours, or two weeks, doing your research. This percentage will decrease a little bit as your project scales up, so if you plan to do five hundred or a thousand hours of learning, I don’t think it necessarily demands fifty or a hundred hours of research, but maybe closer to 5 percent of your time. The goal here isn’t to exhaust every learning possibility but simply to make sure you haven’t latched onto the first possible resource or method without thinking through alternatives.

A good idea is to be aware of the common methods of learning, popular resources, and tools along with their strengths and weaknesses before starting. Long projects provide more opportunities for getting derailed and delayed, so doing proper research in the beginning can easily save a much larger amount of time later on.”

Metalearning research isn’t a onetime activity you do only before starting your project. You should continue to do research as you learn more. Often obstacles and opportunities aren’t clear before you start, so reassessing is a necessary step of the learning process


Principle 2 - Focus

Sharpen Your Knife
Now I will have less distraction.
— Leonhard Euler, mathematician, upon losing the sight in his right eye

The struggles with focus that people have generally come in three broad varieties: starting, sustaining, and optimizing the quality of one’s focus.

Problem 1: Failing to Start Focusing (aka Procrastinating)

I had no problem sitting and watching the videos of MIT classes, but I always tackled the first problem sets with considerable trepidation. Had it not been for the intense schedule I was on, I might have found excuses to avoid doing so for much longer.

Why do we procrastinate? The simple answer is that at some level there’s a craving that drives you to do something else, there’s an aversion to doing the task itself, or both

Most motives to procrastinate are silly when you verbalize them, yet that doesn’t stop them from ruling your life. Which brings me to the first step to overcoming procrastination: recognize when you are procrastinating.

Most of what is unpleasant in a task (if you are averse to it) or what is pleasant about an alternative task (if you’re drawn to distraction) is an impulse that doesn’t actually last that long. If you actually start working or ignore a potent distractor, it usually only takes a couple minutes until the worry starts to dissolve, even for fairly unpleasant tasks. Therefore, a good first crutch is to convince yourself to get over just the few minutes of maximal unpleasantness before you take a break

Don’t ever feel bad if you have to back up a stage, either; you cannot control your aversions or tendency to distraction, but with practice you can lessen their impact.

Problem 2: Failing to Sustain Focus (aka Getting Distracted)

Researchers generally find that people retain more of what they learn when practice is broken into different studying periods than when it is crammed together.

What’s needed is a proper balance. To achieve it, fifty minutes to an hour is a good length of time for many learning tasks. If your schedule permits only more concentrated chunks of time, say once per week for several hours, you may want to take several minutes as a break at the end of each hour and split your time over different aspects of the subject you want to learn

There are three different sources that cause focus to break down and distraction to occur. If you’re struggling to concentrate, look at each of these three in turn:

  • Distraction Source 1: Your Environment
  • Distraction Source 2: Your Task
  • Distraction Source 3: Your Mind

If it ever feels as though continuing working is pointless because you’re so distracted by a negative emotion that you can’t possibly work, remember that the long-term strengthening of your ability to persist on this task will be useful, so the time is not wasted even if you don’t accomplish much in this particular learning session.

Problem 3: Failing to Create the Right Kind of Focus

Improving Your Ability to Focus

There is a procedure you can follow to get better at focusing.

My advice is this: recognize where you are, and start small. If you’re the kind of person who can’t sit still for a minute, try sitting still for half a minute. Half a minute soon becomes one minute, then two. Over time, the frustrations you feel learning a particular subject may become transmuted into genuine interest. The impulse to engage in distractions will weaken each time you resist it. With patience and persistence, your few minutes may become large enough to accomplish great things.


Principle 3 - Directness

Go Straight Ahead
He who can go to the fountain does not go to the water jar.
— Leonardo da Vinci

The Importance of Being Direct

Directness is the idea of learning being tied closely to the situation or context you want to use it in

We want to speak a language but try to learn mostly by playing on fun apps, rather than conversing with actual people. We want to work on collaborative, professional programs but mostly code scripts in isolation. We want to become great speakers, so we buy a book on communication, rather than practice presenting. In all these cases the problem is the same: directly learning the thing we want feels too uncomfortable, boring, or frustrating, so we settle for some book, lecture, or app, hoping it will eventually make us better at the real thing.

Learning activities are always done with a connection to the context in which the skills learned will eventually be used.

The easiest way to learn directly is to simply spend a lot of time doing the thing you want to become good at. If you want to learn a language, speak it, as Benny Lewis does. If you want to master making video games, then make them, as Eric Barone does. If you want to pass a test, practice solving the kinds of problems that are likely to appear on it, as I did in my own MIT Challenge. This style of learning by doing won’t work for all projects. The “real” situation may be infrequent, difficult, or even impossible to create, and thus learning in a different environment is unavoidable. Roger Craig couldn’t practice Jeopardy! by being on the show hundreds of times. He knew he had to learn in a different environment and prepare to transfer that knowledge to the show when it came time to do so. In such situations, directness isn’t an all-or-nothing feature but something you can gradually increase to improve your performance.

The simplest way to be direct is to learn by doing.
Whenever possible, if you can spend a good portion of your learning time just doing the thing you want to get better at, the problem of directness will likely go away. If this isn’t possible, you may need to create an artificial project or environment to test your skills. What matters most here is that the cognitive features of the skill you’re trying to master and the way you practice it be substantially similar.


Principle 4 - Drill

Attack Your Weakest Point
Take care of the bars and the piece will take care of itself.
—Philip Johnston, composer

Certain aspects of the learning problem form a bottleneck that control the speed at which you can become more proficient overall.

Consider learning mathematics. This is a complex skill that has many different parts: you need to be able to understand the fundamental concepts, you need to be able to remember the algorithm for solving a certain type of problem, and you need to know in what context it applies. Underlying this ability, however, is the ability to do arithmetic and algebra so as to be able to solve the problems in question. If your arithmetic is weak or your algebra sloppy, you’ll get the wrong answers even if you’ve mastered the other concepts.

This is the strategy behind doing drills. By identifying a rate-determining step in your learning reaction, you can isolate it and work on it specifically. Since it governs the overall competence you have with that skill, by improving at it you will improve faster than if you try to practice every aspect of the skill at once. That was Franklin’s insight that allowed him to rapidly improve his writing: by identifying components of the overall skill of writing, figuring out which mattered in his situation, and then coming up with clever ways to emphasize them in his practice, he could get better more quickly than if he had just spent a lot of time writing.

Tactics for Designing Drills

Drill 1: Time Slicing

The easiest way to create a drill is to isolate a slice in time of a longer sequence of actions. Musicians often do this kind of training when they identify the hardest parts of a piece of music and practice each one until it’s perfect before integrating it back into the context of the entire song or symphony.

Drill 2: Cognitive Components

You’ll want to practice a particular cognitive component.

The tactic here is to find a way to drill only one component when, in practice, others would be applied at the same time. When learning Mandarin Chinese, I would do tone drills that involved pronouncing pairs of words with different tones and recording myself speaking. That allowed me to practice producing different tones quickly, without the distraction of needing to remember what the words meant or how to form grammatically correct sentences.

Drill 3: The Copycat

It is often impossible to practice one aspect without also doing the work of the others.

By copying the parts of the skill you don’t want to drill (either from someone else or your past work), you can focus exclusively on the component you want to practice. Not only does this save a lot of time, because you need to repeat only the part you’re drilling, it also reduces your cognitive burden, meaning you can apply more focus to getting better at that one aspect.

Drill 4: The Magnifying Glass Method

Suppose you need to create something new and can’t edit or separate out the part you want to practice. How can you create a drill? The Magnifying Glass Method is to spend more time on one component of the skill than you would otherwise. This may reduce your overall performance or increase your input time, but it will allow you to spend a much higher proportion of your time and cognitive resources on the subskill you want to master. I applied this method when trying to improve my ability to do research when writing articles, by spending about ten times as long on research as I had previously.

Drill 5: Prerequisite Chaining

One strategy I’ve seen repeatedly from ultralearners is to start with a skill that they don’t have all the prerequisites for. Then, when they inevitably do poorly, they go back a step, learn one of the foundational topics, and repeat the exercise. This practice of starting too hard and learning prerequisites as they are needed can be frustrating, but it saves a lot of time learning subskills that don’t actually drive performance much.

Mindful Drilling

Drilling problems without context is mind-numbing. However, once you’ve identified that it’s the bottleneck preventing you from going further, they become instilled with new purpose. In ultralearning, which is directed by the student, not an external source, drills take on a new light. Instead of being forced to do them for unknown purposes, it is now up to you to find a way to enhance the learning process by accelerating learning on the specific things that you find most difficult


Principle 5 - Retrieval, Test to Learn

It pays better to wait and recollect by an effort from within, than to look at the book again.
— William James

The act of trying to summon up knowledge from memory is a powerful learning tool on its own, beyond its connection to direct practice or feedback.

The idea, therefore, is to find the right midpoint: far enough away to make whatever is retrieved remembered deeply, not so far away that you’ve forgotten everything.

The act of taking a test not only is a source of learning but results in more learning than a similar amount of time spent in review.

What Should Be Retrieved?

The research is clear: if you need to recall something later, you’re best off practicing retrieving it.
What kinds of things should you invest the time in to remember in the first place?

There will always be some things you choose to master and others you satisfy yourself with knowing you can look up if you need to.

How to Practice Retrieval

Tactic 1: Flash Cards

They work really well for a specific type of retrieval—when there’s a pairing between a specific cue and a particular response.

Tactic 2: Free Recall

A simple tactic for applying retrieval is, after reading a section from a book or sitting through a lecture, to try to write down everything you can remember on a blank piece of paper.

Tactic 3: The Question-Book Method

Another strategy for taking notes is to rephrase what you’ve recorded as questions to be answered later. Instead of writing that the Magna Carta was signed in 1215, you could instead write the question “When was the Magna Carta signed?” with a reference to where to find the answer in case you forget. By taking notes as questions instead of answers, you generate the material to practice retrieval on later.

Tactic 4: Self-Generated Challenges

Creating a list of such challenges can serve as a prompt for mastering that information later in practice and can expand your library of tools that you are able to actually apply.

Tactic 5: Closed-Book Learning

Any practice, whether direct or a drill, can be cut off from the ability to look things up. By preventing yourself from consulting the source, the information becomes knowledge stored inside your head instead of inside a reference manual.


Principle 6 - Feedback, Don’t Dodge the Punches

Everybody has a plan until they get punched in the mouth.
— Mike Tyson

The ability to gain immediate feedback on one’s performance is an essential ingredient in reaching expert levels of performance. No feedback, and the result is often stagnation—long periods of time when you continue to use a skill but don’t get any better at it.

More isn’t always better. Crucially what matters is the type of feedback being given.

Feedback works well when it provides useful information that can guide future learning. If feedback tells you what you’re doing wrong or how to fix it, it can be a potent tool.

Feedback that includes useful information needs to be correctly processed as a motivator and tool for learning.

Who is giving the feedback can matter, as feedback coming from a peer or teacher has important social dynamics beyond mere information on how to improve one’s abilities.

Be sensitive to what feedback is actually useful and tune out the rest.

Feedback-seeking efforts are often underused and thus remain a potent source of comparative advantage for ultralearners.

It is not so much negative feedback on its own that can impede progress but the fear of hearing criticism that causes us to shut down. Sometimes the best action is just to dive straight into the hardest environment, since even if the feedback is very negative initially, it can reduce your fears of getting started on a project and allow you to adjust later if it proves too harsh to be helpful.

These acts require self-confidence, resolve, and persistence

What Kind of Feedback Do You Need?

The opportunities for seeking better feedback will vary depending on what you’re trying to learn

Outcome Feedback: Are You Doing It Wrong?

This tells you something about how well you’re doing overall but offers no ideas as to what you’re doing better or worse.

Informational Feedback: What Are You Doing Wrong?

This feedback tells you what you’re doing wrong, but it doesn’t necessarily tell you how to fix it.

Corrective Feedback: How Can You Fix What You’re Doing Wrong?

This kind of feedback is often available only through a coach, mentor, or teacher. However, sometimes it can be provided automatically if you are using the right study materials.

The best feedback is informative and usable by the student(s) who receive it. Optimal feedback indicates the difference between the current state and the desired learning state and helps students to take a step to improve their learning.

Informational feedback can be worth the effort needed to find such people.

How Quick Should Feedback Be?

Faster feedback. This enables a quicker recognition of mistakes. However, there’s a possible risk that this recommendation might backslide into getting feedback before you’ve tried your best to answer the question or solve the problem at hand.

Feedback too soon may turn your retrieval practice effectively into passive review, which we already know is less effective for learning. For hard problems, I suggest setting yourself a timer to encourage you to think hard on difficult problems before giving up to look at the correct answer.

How to Improve Your Feedback

Tactic 1: Noise Cancellation

Noise is a real problem when trying to improve your craft because you need to do far more work to get the same information about how to write well. By modifying and selecting the streams of feedback you pay attention to, you can reduce the noise and get more of the signal.

Tactic 2: Hitting the Difficulty Sweet Spot

Ultralearners carefully adjust their environment so that they’re not able to predict whether they’ll succeed or fail. If they fail too often, they simplify the problem so they can start noticing when they’re doing things right. If they fail too little, they’ll make the task harder or their standards stricter so that they can distinguish the success of different approaches. Basically, you should try to avoid situations that always make you feel good (or bad) about your performance.

Tactic 3: Metafeedback

This kind of feedback isn’t about your performance but about evaluating the overall success of the strategy you’re using to learn.

One important type of metafeedback is your learning rate.

There are two ways you can use this tool. One is to decide when you should focus on the strategy you’re already using and when you should experiment with other methods. If your learning rate is slowing to a trickle, that might mean you’re hitting diminishing returns with your current approach and could benefit from different kinds of drills, difficulties, or environments. A second way you can apply metafeedback is by comparing two different study methods to see which works better.

Tactic 4: High-Intensity, Rapid Feedback

The easiest way to improve feedback is simply to get a lot more of it a lot more often.

High-intensity, rapid feedback offers informational advantages, but more often the advantage is emotional, too. Fear of receiving feedback can often hold you back more than anything. By throwing yourself into a high-intensity, rapid feedback situation, you may initially feel uncomfortable, but you’ll get over that initial aversion much faster than if you wait months or years before getting feedback.
Being in such a situation also provokes you to engage in learning more aggressively than you might otherwise. Knowing that your work will be evaluated is an incredible motivator to do your best. This motivational angle for committing to high-intensity feedback may end up outweighing the informational advantage it provides.

It’s better to get in and take the punches early so that they don’t put you down for the count. Though short-term feedback can be stressful, once you get into the habit of receiving it, it becomes easier to process without overreacting emotionally. Ultralearners use this to their advantage, exposing themselves to massive amounts of feedback so that the noise can be stripped away from the signal.


Principle 7 - Retention, Don’t Fill a Leaky Bucket

Memory is the residue of thought.
— Daniel Willingham

Memory is essential, even when it is wrapped up in bigger ideas such as understanding, intuition, or practical skill. Being able to understand how something works or how to perform a particular technique is useless if you cannot recall it. Retention depends on employing strategies so the things you learn don’t leak out of your mind.

How Can You Prevent Forgetting?

Forgetting is the default, not the exception.

How can you retain the things you learned the first week, so that you don’t need to relearn them by the last week?

You need to pick a mnemonic system, which will both accomplish your goals and be simple enough to stick to. Mostly they seem to work according to one of four mechanisms: spacing, proceduralization, overlearning, or mnemonics.

Memory Mechanism 1—Spacing: Repeat to Remember

If you care about long-term retention, don’t cram. Spreading learning sessions over more intervals over longer periods of time tends to cause somewhat lower performance in the short run (because there is a chance for forgetting between intervals) but much better performance in the long run.

If you have ten hours to learn something, therefore, it makes more sense to spend ten days studying one hour each than to spend ten hours studying in one burst.

Finding the exact trade-off point between too long and too short has been a minor obsession for some ultralearners. Space your study sessions too closely, and you lose efficiency; space them too far apart, and you forget what you’ve already learned.

When it comes to retention, don’t let perfect become the enemy of good enough.

Another strategy for applying spacing, which can work better for more elaborate skills that are harder to integrate into your daily habits, is to semiregularly do refresher projects.

Scheduling this kind of maintenance in advance can also be helpful, as it will remind you that learning isn’t something done once and then ignored but a process that continues for your entire life.

Memory Mechanism 2—Proceduralization: Automatic Will Endure

Why do people say it’s “like riding a bicycle” and not “like remembering trigonometry?”

There’s evidence that procedural skills, such as riding a bicycle, are stored in a different way from declarative knowledge, such as knowing the Pythagorean Theorem or the Sine Rule for triangles.

This difference between knowing how and knowing that may also have different implications for long-term memory. Procedural skills, such as the ever-remembered bicycling, are much less susceptible to being forgotten than knowledge that requires explicit recall to retrieve.
This finding can actually be used to our advantage. One dominant theory of learning suggests that most skills proceed through stages—starting declarative but ending up procedural as you practice more

Procedural knowledge is quite robust and tends to be retained much longer than declarative knowledge.

This may suggest a useful heuristic. Instead of learning a large volume of knowledge or skills evenly, you may emphasize a core set of information much more frequently, so that it becomes procedural and is stored far longer

One strategy for applying this concept might be to ensure that a certain amount of knowledge is completely proceduralized before practice concludes. Another approach might be to spend extra effort to proceduralize some skills, which will serve as cues or access points for other knowledge. You may aim to completely proceduralize the process you use to start working on a new programming project, for example, so that you can get over that hump in the process of writing a new program

Memory Mechanism 3—Overlearning: Practice Beyond Perfect

Additional practice, beyond what is required to perform adequately, can increase the length of time that memories are stored.

  • The first is core practice, continually practicing and refining the core elements of a skill. This approach often works well paired with some kind of immersion or working on extensive (as opposed to intensive) projects, after the initial ultralearning phase has been completed. The shift from learning to doing here may actually involve a deeper, subtler form of learning, which shouldn’t be discounted as simply applying previously learned knowledge.
  • The second strategy is advanced practice, going one level above a certain set of skills so that core parts of the lower-level skills are overlearned as one applies them in a more difficult domain.

Memory Mechanism 4—Mnemonics: A Picture Retains a Thousand Words

They usually involve translating abstract or arbitrary information into vivid pictures or spatial maps. When mnemonics work, the results can be almost difficult to believe.

One common, and useful, mnemonic is known as the keyword method. The method works by first taking a foreign-language word and converting it into something it sounds like in your native language.

Mnemonics can act as a bridge for difficult-to-remember information, but it’s usually not the final step in creating memories that will endure forever.

Paired with SRS, they can form an effective bridge from feeling as though there’s no way you can possibly remember everything to remembering it so deeply that you can’t possibly forget. Indeed, in a world before paper, computers, and other externalized memories, mnemonics were the main game in town.


Principle 8 - Intuition, Dig Deep Before Building Up

Do not ask whether a statement is true until you know what it means.
— Errett Bishop

Only by developing enough experience with problem solving can you build up a deep mental model of how other problems work. Intuition sounds magical, but the reality may be more banal—the product of a large volume of organized experience dealing with the problem.

How to Build Your Intuition

Rule 1: Don’t Give Up on Hard Problems Easily

One way you can introduce this into your own efforts is to give yourself a “struggle timer” as you work on problems. When you feel like giving up and that you can’t possibly figure out the solution to a difficult problem, try setting a timer for another ten minutes to push yourself a bit further. The first advantage of this struggle period is that very often you can solve the problem you are faced with if you simply apply enough thinking to it. The second advantage is that even if you fail, you’ll be much more likely to remember the way to arrive at the solution when you encounter it.

Rule 2: Prove Things to Understand Them

Feynman decided to read through the papers meticulously, finding that they weren’t actually so difficult but that he had simply been afraid to go through them.

Feynman didn’t master things by following along with other people’s results. Instead, it was by the process of mentally trying to re-create those results that he became so good at physics. His drive to understand things by virtue of working through the results himself assisted in building his capacity for deep intuition.

Rule 3: Always Start with a Concrete Example

Human beings don’t learn things very well in the abstract. As the research on transfer demonstrates, most people learn abstract, general rules only after being exposed to many concrete examples. It’s not possible to simply present a general principle and expect that you can apply it to concrete situations.

Rule 4: Don’t Fool Yourself

One way to avoid this problem of fooling yourself is simply to ask lots of questions

The Feynman Technique

The method is quite simple:

  1. Write down the concept or problem you want to understand at the top of a piece of paper.
  2. In the space below, explain the idea as if you had to teach it to someone else.
  3. If it’s a concept, ask yourself how you would convey the idea to someone who has never heard of it before.
  4. If it’s a problem, explain how to solve it and—crucially—why that solution procedure makes sense to you.
  5. When you get stuck, meaning your understanding fails to provide a clear answer, go back to your book, notes, teacher, or reference material to find the answer

The crux of this method is that it tries to dispel the illusion of explanatory depth. Since many of our understandings are never articulated, it’s easy to think you understand something you don’t. The Feynman Technique bypasses this problem by forcing you to articulate the idea you want to understand in detail.

Application 1: For Things You Don’t Understand at All

The first way to use this approach is when you don’t understand something at all. In this case, the easiest way is to do it with the book in hand and go back and forth between your explanation and the one in the book. This lacks the benefits of retrieval practice, but it can often be essential when the explanation you’ve been given baffles you

Application 2: For Problems You Can’t Seem to Solve

A second way to apply this is for solving a difficult problem or mastering a technique. In this instance, it’s very important to go through the problem step by step alongside the explanation you generate, rather than simply summarizing it. Summarizing may end up skipping over the core difficulties of the problem. Going deeper may take time, but it can help you get a strong grasp over a new method in one go, rather than needing numerous repetitions to memorize the steps.

Application 3: For Expanding Your Intuition

Instead of focusing on explaining every detail or going along with the source material, you should try to focus on generating illustrative examples, analogies, or visualizations that would make the idea comprehensible to someone who has learned far less than you have. Imagine that instead of trying to teach the idea, you are being paid to write a magazine article explaining the idea. What visual intuitions would you use to pin down the abstractions? Which examples would flesh out a general principle? How could you make something confusing feel obvious?


Principle 9 - Experimentation, Explore Outside Your Comfort Zone

Results? Why, I have gotten lots of results! I know several thousand things that won’t work.
— Thomas Edison

Experimentation Is the Key to Mastery

As your skill develops, it’s often no longer enough to simply follow the examples of others; you need to experiment and find your own path.

Part of the reason for this is that the early part of learning a skill tends to be the best trodden and supported, as everyone begins at the same place. As your skills develop, however, not only are there fewer people who can teach you and fewer students you could have as peers (thus lowering the total market for books, classes, and instructors), but you also start to diverge from those you’re learning from. Whereas two complete novices have quite similar knowledge and skills, two experts might have quite different sets of skills that they’ve already acquired, thus making improving those skills an increasingly personalized and idiosyncratic adventure.

A second reason for the value of experimentation as you approach mastery is that abilities are more likely to stagnate after you’ve mastered the basics. Learning in the early phases of a skill is an act of accumulation. You acquire new facts, knowledge, and skills to handle problems you didn’t know how to solve before. Getting better, however, increasingly becomes an act of unlearning; not only must you learn to solve problems you couldn’t before, you must unlearn stale and ineffective approaches for solving those problems. The difference between a novice programmer and a master isn’t usually that the novice cannot solve certain problems. Rather, it’s that the master knows the best way to solve a problem, which will be the most efficient and clean and cause the fewest headaches later on. As mastery becomes a process of unlearning over accumulation, experimentation becomes synonymous with learning as you force yourself to go outside your comfort zone and try new things.

A final reason for the increasing importance of experimentation as you approach mastery is that many skills reward not only proficiency but originality. A great mathematician is one who can solve problems others cannot, not merely a person who can solve previously solved problems easily. Successful business leaders are those who can spot opportunities others cannot, not merely those who can copy the style and strategy of those before them. In art, it was not only van Gogh’s skill but his originality that made him one of the most celebrated painters to have ever lived. As creativity becomes valuable, experimentation becomes essential.

The Mindset of Experimentation

The experimental mindset as an extension of the growth mindset: whereas the growth mindset encourages you to see opportunities and potential for improvement, experimentation enacts a plan to reach those improvements. The experimental mindset doesn’t just assume that growth is possible but creates an active strategy for exploring all the possible ways to reach it.

To get into the right mental space for experimenting, you need not only to see your abilities as something you can improve but understand that there is a huge number of potential avenues to do this. Exploration, not dogmatism, is the key to realizing that potential.

How to Experiment

A flurry of random activity doesn’t usually translate into mastery.

Tactic 1: Copy, Then Create

This strategy has an advantage, beyond simplifying the choices available to you. In attempting to emulate or copy an example you appreciate, you must deconstruct it to understand why it works. This can often highlight things that the other person does exceptionally well that weren’t obvious from the beginning. It may also dispel illusions you may have had about an aspect of the work you thought was important but upon emulating the other person’s work you realize was not.

Tactic 2: Compare Methods Side-by-Side

The scientific method works by carefully controlling conditions so that the difference between two situations is limited to the variable being studied. By applying two different approaches side by side, you can often quickly get information not only about what works best but about which methods are better suited to your personal style.

Tactic 3: Introduce New Constraints

The challenge of learning in the beginning is that you don’t know what to do. The challenge of learning in the end is that you think you already know what to do.

A powerful technique for pushing out of those grooves of routine is by introducing new constraints that make the old methods impossible to use.

Tactic 4: Find Your Superpower in the Hybrid of Unrelated Skills

For many areas of creative or professional skills, another, more accessible, path is to combine two skills that don’t necessarily overlap to bring about a distinct advantage that those who specialize in only one of those skills do not have.

Tactic 5: Explore the Extremes

Pushing out to an extreme in some aspect of the skill you’re cultivating, even if you eventually decide to pull it back to something more moderate, is often a good exploration strategy. This allows you to search the space of possibilities more effectively, while also giving you a broader range of experience.

Experimentation and Uncertainty

Learning is a process of experimenting in two ways. First, the act of learning itself is a kind of trial and error. Practicing directly, getting feedback, and trying to summon up the right answers to problems are all ways of adjusting the knowledge and skills you have in your head to the real world. Second, the act of experimenting also lies in the process of trying out your learning methods. Try out different approaches, and use the ones that work best for you.

Having a mindset of experimentation will also encourage you to explore beyond what you feel most comfortable doing. Many people stick to the same routines, the same narrow set of methods, they apply to learning everything. As a result, there are a lot of things they struggle to learn because they don’t know the best way to do so.



P.S. Subscribe to my mailing list!
Forward these posts and letters to your friends and get them to subscribe!
P.P.S. Feed my insatiable reading habit.