Author: Farnam Street

Samuel Andrews: The Man With the Billion Dollar Ego

We can learn valuable lessons from the life of Samuel Andrews. Haven’t ever heard of him? There’s a reason. He was John D. Rockefeller’s right-hand man, and stood to become one of the world’s richest men. But then something got in the way. 

***

There is an important lesson to be learned from the story of Samuel Andrews, as told by biographer Ron Chernow in Titan: The Life of John D. Rockefeller.

John D. Rockefeller learned to clean oil from Sam Andrews. Andrews was the ideal partner for Rockefeller. While he lacked business sense, he had mechanical knowledge that Rockefeller didn’t. The quality of kerosene that Andrews was able to produce, and the efficiency of his process, rendered him indispensable—until something got into the way. But before we get to that, a bit of history.

It was Rockefeller himself who propositioned Andrews to go into business in the first place.

“Sam,” he said, “we are prospering. We have a future before us, a big future. But I don’t like Jim Clark and his habits. He is an immoral man in more ways than one. He gambles in oil. I don’t want this business to be associated with a gambler. Suppose I take them up the next time they threaten a dissolution. Suppose I succeed in buying them out. Will you come in with me?”

Andrews agreed and they shook hands on the deal.

Only a few weeks later Rockefeller quarreled with Clark. “If that’s the way you want to do business we’d better dissolve, and let you run your own affairs to suit yourself,” Clark warned.  Rockefeller moved swiftly.

Rockefeller met with his partners and stated publicly that he wished to dissolve the partnership. The two sides walked away after the meeting with contrasting feelings. The Clarks imagined they had cowed the young whippersnapper, while Rockefeller raced to the office of the Cleveland Leader to place a notice dissolving the partnership.

The next morning the Clarks were stunned to see the notice. The Clarks failed to realize that Rockefeller had Andrews on his side. As per the partnership agreement, the business went up for auction.

Ron Chernow describes the situation thus:

Even as a young man, Rockefeller was extremely composed in a crisis. In this respect, he was a natural leader: the more agitated others became, the calmer he grew. It was an index of his matchless confidence that when the auction occurred, the Clarks brought a lawyer while Rockefeller represented himself. “I thought that I could take care of so simple a transaction,” he boasted. With the Clarks’ lawyer acting as auctioneer, the bidding began at $500 and quickly rose to a few thousand dollars, then inched up slowly to about $50,000—already more than Rockefeller thought the refining business worth.

Since this was such a critical and defining moment in Rockefeller’s career, we can read his own words:

Finally it advanced to $60,000, and by slow stages to $70,000, and I almost feared for my ability to buy the business and have the money to pay for it. At last the other side bid $72,000. Without hesitation I said $72,500. Mr. Clark then said: “I’ll go no higher, John; the business is yours.” “Shall I give you a check for it now?” I suggested. “No,” Mr. Clark said, “I’m glad to trust you for it; settle at your convenience.”

At age 25 he and Sam Andrews controlled Cleveland’s largest refinery. No sooner had the ink dried than they took up a metagame strategy, one of rapid expansion, that he knew was diametrically opposed to how the Clarks would likely respond.

Refinery after refinery came under their control. From the start, Rockefeller used his business sense and relied on Sam Andrews for technical advice. Rockefeller held Andrews in esteem until Ambrose McGregor was named superintendent of the Standard Oil refineries in Cleveland. McGregor demonstrated superior ability. Andrews was shown to be less capable. His ego took a beating.

One day in 1878, Andrews snapped at Rockefeller, “I wish I was out of this business.”

Rockefeller remained calm and called his bluff, replying, “Sam, you don’t seem to have faith in the way this company is operating. What will you take for your holdings?”

“I will take one million dollars,” Andrews shot back.

“Let me have an option on it for twenty-four hours,” said Rockefeller, “and we will discuss it tomorrow.”

“Samuel Andrews was taken into the business as a poor workingman with little or nothing in the early stages when it was difficult to find men to cleanse the oil. … He had too much conceit, too much bull-headed English obstinacy and so little self-control. Was his own worst enemy.”

The next morning when Andrews arrived, Rockefeller had a check made out for one million dollars.

While he appeared confident, Rockefeller was petrified at the thought of Andrew’s holdings hitting the open market and depressing the stock. Andrews thought he had bested Rockefeller. However, when Rockefeller sold the shares to William H. Vanderbilt for a quick $300,000 profit, Andrews changed his mind, voicing his displeasure to Rockefeller.

Rockefeller, feeling some sense of loyalty to the man who had helped him build and empire and quickly fallen out of favor, offered back the stock for the same price at which he had sold it.

Feeling slighted, his ego bruised, Andrews spurned the offer. This decision kept him from becoming one of America’s richest men. The very same stock would have been worth $900 million by the early 1930s.

Later Rockefeller would say of Andrews, “He was ignorant, conceited, lost his head…governed by the same wicked sort of prejudice accompanying the egotism so characteristic of that type of ignorant Englishman.”

There is a little Sam Andrews in all of us. The lesson to walk away with is that temperament matters. A lot.

The ability to keep your head when others are losing theirs is a superpower. The world doesn’t always work the way you want to it. People will slight you. You’ll get fired. You’ll make mistakes. People who are smarter than you will compete for your job. And how you respond to all of this will make all the difference.

Rockefeller gained an advantage by keeping his head while others lost theirs. In fact, the higher the stakes, the cooler he was said to become. Andrews, on the other hand, couldn’t keep his head. As a result, a blow to his ego prevented him from being one of the richest men in the world.

Footnotes
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    Source: Chernow, Ron. Titan: The Life of John D. Rockefeller. New York: Knopf Doubleday, 2007

How to Do Great Things

Insight is rarely handed to you on a silver platter. Einstein argued that genius was 99% perspiration and 1% inspiration. While we can acknowledge that luck plays a role, we often use that as a crutch to avoid doing what we can do to intelligently prepare for opportunities.

We only get one life, “and it seems to be it is better to do significant things than to just get along through life to its end,” writes Richard Hamming in his book The Art of Doing Science and Engineering: Learning to Learn.

The book explores how we do great things. And wouldn’t we all like to do great things? But what are the methods we should employ in order to do great things? What are the mental disciplines that we should learn? Where do we start?

Hamming starts by arguing the way you live your life—the extent to which you intelligent prepare—makes a huge difference.

The major objection cited by people against striving to do great things is the belief it is all a matter of luck. I have repeatedly cited Pasteur’s remark, “Luck favors the prepared mind”. It both admits there is an element of luck, and yet claims to a great extent it is up to you. You prepare yourself to succeed, or not, as you choose, from moment to moment, by the way you live your life.

Hamming, Richard R.. Art of Doing Science and Engineering: Learning to Learn (Page 209)

In any great outcome, there is a component of luck. Yet if life were all about luck, the same people wouldn’t repeatedly do great things. Einstein did many great things. So did Newton. Elon Musk has been successful in multiple fields. The list goes on.

When someone repeatedly does great things it is because they prepared in advance to advance to recognize, work on, and fill in the blanks when necessary. This is the essence of intelligent preparation.

Intelligence comes in many forms and flavors. A lot of the time it’s not easily recognized — a lot of people who repeatedly do great things were poor students. IQ does not ensure academic success. Brains are nice to have but they are even better if you know how to use them.

How to Do Great Things

You need to believe that you are capable of doing important things. Your mindset determines how you experience things, what you work on, and the tactics and strategies you employ to accomplish those goals.

Among the important properties to have is the belief you can do important things. If you do not work on important problems how can you expect to do important work? Yet, direct observation, and direct questioning of people, shows most scientists spend most of their time working on things they believe are not important nor are they likely to lead to important things.

Hamming, Richard R.. Art of Doing Science and Engineering: Learning to Learn (Page 210).

If what you are working on is not important and aligned with your goals—and a lot of what you do and say isn’t—then why are you doing it? The question you need to ask yourself if “why are you not working on and thinking about the important problems in your area?” How can we expect to achieve great things if we are not working on the right problems?

You need to be willing to look like an idiot. Think of this as confidence meets courage.

[Claude] Shannon had courage. Who else but a man with almost infinite courage would ever think of averaging over all random codes and expect the average code would be good? He knew what he was doing was important and pursued it intensely. Courage, or confidence, is a property to develop in yourself. Look at your successes, and pay less attention to failures than you are usually advised to do in the expression, “Learn from your mistakes”. While playing chess Shannon would often advance his queen boldly into the fray and say, “I ain’t scaird of nothing”. I learned to repeat it to myself when stuck, and at times it has enabled me to go on to a success. I deliberately copied a part of the style of a great scientist. The courage to continue is essential since great research often has long periods with no success and many discouragements.

Hamming, Richard R.. Art of Doing Science and Engineering: Learning to Learn (Page 211)

You need to strive for excellence. This isn’t as easy as it sounds but it as an essential feature of doing great work.

Without such a goal you will tend to wander like a drunken sailor. The sailor takes one step in one direction and the next in some independent direction. As a result the steps tend to cancel each other, and the expected distance from the starting point is proportional to the square root of the number of steps taken. With a vision of excellence, and with the goal of doing significant work, there is tendency for the steps to go in the same direction and thus go a distance proportional to the number of steps taken, which in a lifetime is a large number indeed.

Hamming, Richard R.. Art of Doing Science and Engineering: Learning to Learn (Page 211)

The conditions you think you want are rarely the ones that help you produce your best work. You need the feedback of reality in order to keep your feet planted on the ground.

Age is a factor physicists and mathematicians worry about. It is easily observed the greatest work of a theoretical physicist, mathematician, or astrophysicist, is generally done very early. They may continue to do good work all their lives, but what society ends up valuing most is almost always their earliest great work. The exceptions are very, very few indeed. But in literature, music composition, and politics, age seems to be an asset. The best compositions of a composer are usually the late ones, as judged by popular opinion.

One reason for this is fame in Science is a curse to quality productivity, though it tends to supply all the tools and freedom you want to do great things. Another reason is most famous people, sooner or later, tend to think they can only work on important problems—hence they fail to plant the little acorns which grow into the mighty oak trees. I have seen it many times, from Brattain of transistor fame and a Nobel Prize to Shannon and his Information Theory. Not that you should merely work on random things—but on small things which seem to you to have the possibility of future growth. In my opinion the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton, N.J has ruined more great scientists than any other place has created—considering what they did before ore and what they did after going there. A few, like von Neumann, escaped the closed atmosphere of the place with all its physical comforts and prestige, and continued to contribute to the advancement of Science, but most remained there and continued to work on the same problems which got them there but which were generally no longer of great importance to society.

Hamming, Richard R.. Art of Doing Science and Engineering: Learning to Learn (Page 211)

Work with your door open.

Working with one’s door closed lets you get more work done per year than if you had an open door, but I have observed repeatedly later those with the closed doors, while working just as hard as others, seem to work on slightly the wrong problems, while those who have let their door stay open get less work done but tend to work on the right problems! I cannot prove the cause and effect relationship, I only observed the correlation. I suspect the open mind leads to the open door, and the open door tends to lead to the open mind; they reinforce each other.

Hamming, Richard R.. Art of Doing Science and Engineering: Learning to Learn (Page 211)

People who do great things typically have a great drive to do things.

I had worked with John Tukey for some years before I found he was essentially my age, so I went to our mutual boss and asked him, “How can anyone my age know as much as John Tukey does?” He leaned back, grinned, and said, “You would be surprised how much you would know if you had worked as hard as he has for as many years”. There was nothing for me to do but slink out of his office, which I did. I thought about the remark for some weeks and decided, while I could never work as hard as John did, I could do a lot better than I had been doing.

Hamming, Richard R.. Art of Doing Science and Engineering: Learning to Learn (Page 212)

Focused investment of only one hour a day can double your lifetime output. Intelligent preparation is like compound interest, the more you invest, the more situations you can handle, the more you learn how to do, so the more you can do, etc. The investment of one hour a day by Charlie Munger to learning new things is an overlooked gem hiding in plain sight.

This isn’t about who works the hardest but rather who focuses their limited energy on the right things. Learning things that (1) change slowly and (2) apply to a wide variety of situations could be a better use of time than learning something incredibly time-consuming, rapidly changing, and of limited application.

Hamming dedicated his Friday afternoons to “great thoughts.” Setting aside time to think is a common charasteristic of people that do great things. Not only does this help you live consciously it helps get your head out of the weeds. The rest of us are too busy with the details to ask if we’re going in the right direction.

People who do great things tolerate ambiguity — they can both believe and not believe at the same time.

You must be able to believe your organization and field of research is the best there is, but also there is much room for improvement! You can sort of see why this is a necessary trait If you believe too much you will not likely see the chances for significant improvements, you will see believe enough you will be filled with doubts and get very little chances for only the 2%, 5%, and 10% improvements; if you do not done. I have not the faintest idea of how to teach the tolerance of ambiguity, both belief and disbelief at the same time, but great people do it all the time. Most great people also have 10 to 20 problems they regard as basic and of great importance, and which they currently do not know how to solve. They keep them in their mind, hoping to get a clue as to how to solve them. When a clue does appear they generally drop other things and get to work immediately on the important problem. Therefore they tend to come in first, and the others who come in later are soon forgotten. I must warn you however, the importance of the result is not the measure of the importance of the problem. The three problems in Physics, antigravity, teleportation, and time travel are seldom worked on because we have so few clues as to how to start—a problem is important partly because there is a possible attack on it, and not because of its inherent importance.

Hamming, Richard R.. Art of Doing Science and Engineering: Learning to Learn (Page 213)

If you find yourself blaming your (mental) tools, do something about it. Learn the mental models, listen to great people talk in detail about their experiences, and more importantly take ownership. Moving foward requires change but change does not mean that you are moving foward. As Socrates said, “The unexamined life is not worth living.”

How Not to Be Stupid

After a four-hour conversation on The Knowledge Project (Part 1, Part 2), Adam Robinson (@IAmAdamRobinson) and I shared another 10-minutes that shouldn’t be missed on how not to be stupid.

Shane Parrish: Adam, you did a presentation once on how not to be stupid. Can you tell me about that? What is stupidity?

Adam Robinson: Right. It’s so funny you should ask that, because people think stupidity is the opposite of intelligence. In fact, stupidity is the cost of intelligence operating in a complex environment. It’s almost inevitable. And so I was asked by an organizer of an investment conference in the Bahamas of some elite global investors to do a talk on anything I wanted to do, except not about investing. It’s just, pick an interesting topic. So I thought for a second and I blurt out, “Okay. How about how not to be stupid?” He laughed and he said, “Okay. Great.” It took me a month of hard thinking, mind you, just to define stupidity. By the way, if you’re in any field and you want to find ways to innovate, focus on words that are commonly used and try to define them simply.

It took me about a month, and I defined stupidity as overlooking or dismissing conspicuously crucial information. Right? It’s crucial information, like you better pay attention to it. It’s conspicuous, like it’s right in front of your nose and yet you either overlook it or you dismiss it. How not to be stupid, what are the causes of human error—and it took me a couple of months of research just to come up with data points, because most stupidity is ignored or swept under the rug. I studied instances of scientific stupidity and literary stupidity and military stupidity and every other kind of stupidity, as well as two domains that engineer stupidity.

One is benign: magic. The magician misdirects your attention. The whole goal of the magician is to make you stupid, to not notice something you should have. The other is frauds and cons and hoaxes. That’s also—but that’s a malicious, malevolent kind of engineering of stupidity. The magician does so with our full consent, for entertainment purposes. The conman engineers stupidity for their own gain. I do historical research, everything, and I identify seven factors that lead to stupidity.

These seven factors are fascinating. In no particular order: one, being outside your normal environment or changing your routines. Two, being in the presence of a group. Three, being in the presence of an expert or if you, yourself, are an expert. Four, doing any task that requires intense focus. Five, information overload. Six, physical or emotional stress, fatigue. Seven—I’ll come back to seven. I forget it right now. It’s a few years. It’ll come back to me in a second.

All seven factors are present in U.S. hospitals. All seven factors. This will astonish you. This was recently written about, but I don’t think it’s really dawned on people. In the United States every year, there are roughly 30,000 fatalities from automobile accidents. That is a benchmark. How many deaths accidentally occur, accidentally, in hospitals every year? In other words, you go in with a broken arm and you don’t come out. Not, you died as a result of what you went in for. You died because of error, human error. I would tell you the current best estimate—this is deaths, mind you, not injuries—is 210 to 440 thousand people die every year in the United States from hospital error.

Stupidity is overlooking or dismissing conspicuously crucial information

(Editors note, that was not part of the conversation but will add context: When it comes to overloading our cognitive brains, the seven factors are: being outside of your circle of competence, stress, rushing or urgency, fixation on an outcome, information overload, being in a group where social cohesion comes into play, and being in the presence of an “authority.” Acting alone any of these are powerful enough, but together they dramatically increase the odds you are unaware that you’ve been cognitively compromised.)

We know what to do, we just don’t do it correctly. (Atul Gawande and I talk about this in our interview). 

It’s the third leading cause of death in the United States, right behind cancer and heart disease. If those seven factors—by the way, you don’t need all seven factors to be present. They’re additive. Oh, I remember what the final one was, and it’s so funny I should forget it because it’s the one that usually triggers stupidity. Rushing or a sense of urgency. So funny I would forget that one. It’s usually the first one I say. By the way, if you’re outside your normal environment and you are rushing, you are in big trouble, which is why often people are rushing on the way to the airport and they forget their passport or they do something. It has to do with information overload. All seven factors were present at the U.S. Challenger disaster. Remember back in 1986?

Didn’t have to happen. All seven factors were present. There was the musician Yo-Yo Ma, in 1998 I believe, was rushing to an appointment in New York City. He lives in Boston. He was outside his normal environment, rushing, and he was preoccupied because he was late for an appointment. Three of the seven factors. You don’t need all seven to create stupidity. In the back of the cab in which he’s being driven is his million-dollar cello in a big blue Plexiglas thing. It’s in the trunk. He gets out of the cab, he leaves it in the back of the trunk. All of a sudden, because Yo-Yo Ma is such a celebrity, the mayor is called, the police chief and all cars bulletin goes out, find this cello.

Cello?

They do. In the press conference, get this, he says, “I just did something stupid.” I’m using air quotes. That’s an exact phrase. “I just did something stupid. I was in a rush.” Sure enough, in my research, I found three other situations where world class musicians were in a different city, rushing, and they left their instruments. Each one of them. One a $3 million violin. He was on a national tour, left a $3 million violin in an Amtrak train. Imagine $3 million violin in the luggage compartment of an Amtrak train. Fortunately, they called ahead and they found it at the next station. He was lucky. Each of the musicians, in exactly the same—

Circumstance.

—circumstances led to stupidity. Now, Atul Gawande wrote a book called The Checklist Manifesto. Atul Gawande is brilliant. Brilliant, brilliant, brilliant. However, the problem with checklists is that the stupidity factors override them. The worst aviation disaster in history, Shane, occurred in 1977. Nearly 600 lives were lost when two planes collided during the day on the ground. Imagine, two planes collided in an airport on the ground. Six hundred lives were lost. You might say, how does that even happen? All seven factors were present. Something else. Do you know what the pilot that caused the crash was doing right before he took off and slammed into the plane? He was racing through a checklist.

Checklists don’t help you if you’re stupid about the checklist. You’re just not going to use it. A really important takeaway from that, and I’m so glad we got that final question in, is beware of rushing—and if these factors are present, don’t make any important decisions. It doesn’t take much. By the way, I mentioned fatigue and illness. If you’re tired or emotionally overwrought, if you have pulled an all-nighter, you have the motor control and the reflex speed of someone who is legally drunk. An all-nighter you think, I mean we’ve all pulled all-nighters, right? We all sometimes pull multiple all-nighters.

You gotta be aware. You may think that cognitively you’re okay, but your motor control skills and your reflexes are those of someone who’s legally drunk. You’ve really got to be careful. By the way, multitasking is information overload. That comes under the information overload thing, and if you’re talking on Bluetooth while you’re driving a car, you have exponentially increased the odds that you’re going to get into an accident.

This is why when you’re lost, the first thing you do is turn down the radio.

Oh, fascinating. You’re right.

When you’re in a car, when you get lost, you always…one of the first things you do is eliminate an input, which is the radio.

That’s so funny. You’re right.

Or if you’re talking with somebody you say, “Hold on a second,” because you intuitively know that that’s just—subconsciously, you know that’s distracting you.

By the way, that’s so funny you should mention that, because that’s why when I tell people that statistic about…talking on Bluetooth on the phone when you’re driving is incredibly dangerous. People say, “Yeah, but what about if someone’s in the front of the seat talking to you?” That in fact doubles your odds. If someone’s in the front seat with you, talking while you’re driving, you’ve doubled the chances of your getting into an accident. Just doubled. Just that, but the difference is that that person, when you are dealing with unusual traffic conditions, he or she will shut up.

Right, they can see it.

They can see it. The person on the phone who’s talking on Bluetooth doesn’t shut up. You’re still getting the input. That’s why it’s so dangerous.

That’s really interesting. I never thought of that.

Yeah. Well, I didn’t think about it until I researched it.

Still curious? Check out our full conversation on The Knowledge Project (Part 1, Part 2) and Hemingway, a Lost Suitcase, and the Recipe for Stupidity.

Members of the FS Learning Community can discuss this article on the learning community forum.

The Best of Farnam Street 2018

We read for the same reasons we have conversations — to enrich our lives.

Reading helps us to think, feel, and reflect — not only upon ourselves and others but upon our ideas, and our relationship with the world. Reading deepens our understanding and helps us live consciously.

Of the 46 articles we published on FS this year, here are the top ten as measured by a combination of page views, responses, and feeling.

  1. Smarter, Not Harder: How to Succeed at Work — We each have 96 energy blocks each day to spend however we’d like. Using this energy blocking system will ensure you’re spending each block wisely.
  2. Your First Thought Is Rarely Your Best Thought: Lessons on Thinking — Most people have no time to think. They schedule themselves like lawyers. They work in five- to eight-minute increments, scheduled back to back. They think only in first thoughts never in second thoughts.
  3. The Pygmalion Effect: Proving Them Right — The Pygmalion Effect is a powerful secret weapon. Without even realizing it, we can nudge others towards success. In this article, discover how expectations can influence performance for better or worse.
  4. First Principles: The Building Blocks of True Knowledge — First Principles tinking breaks down true understanding into building blocks we can reassemble. It turns out most of us don’t know as much as we think we do.
  5. Understanding Speed and Velocity: Saying “NO” to the Non-Essential — It’s tempting to think that in order to be a valuable team player, you should say “yes” to every request and task that is asked of you. People who say yes to everything have a lot of speed. They’re always doing stuff but never getting anything done. Why? Because they don’t think in terms of velocity. Understanding the difference between speed and velocity will change how you work.
  6. The Surprising Power of The Long Game — In everything we do, we play the long or the short game. The short game is easy, pleasurable, and offers visible and immediate benefits. But it almost never leads to success. Here’s how to play the long game.
  7. Double Loop Learning: Download New Skills and Information into Your Brain — We’re taught single loop learning from the time we are in grade school, but there’s a better way. Double loop learning is the quickest and most efficient way to learn anything that you want to “stick.”
  8. Complexity Bias: Why We Prefer Complicated to Simple — Complexity bias is a logical fallacy that leads us to give undue credence to complex concepts. Faced with two competing hypotheses, we are likely to choose the most complex one.
  9. Deductive vs Inductive Reasoning: Make Smarter Arguments, Better Decisions, and Stronger Conclusions — You can’t prove the truth, but using deductive and inductive reasoning, you can get close. Learn the difference between the two types of reasoning and how to use them when evaluating facts and arguments.
  10. The Decision Matrix: How to Prioritize What Matters — The decision matrix is a powerful tool to help you prioritize which decisions deserve your attention as a leader, and which should be delegated. Here’s how you can start using it today.

More interesting things, you might have missed

Thank you

As we touched on in the annual letter, it’s been a wonderful year at FS. While the frequency of our articles decreased in 2018, the words published actually increased. As longtime readers know, we are not bound to frequency or length constraints, our only mission is quality. Next year will see a more eclectic mix of content as we get back to our roots.

Thank you for an amazing 2018 and I’m looking forward to learning new things with you in 2019.

Still curious? You can find the top five podcast episodes in 2018 here.

The Top 5 Episodes of The Knowledge Project #ListenAndLearn

Through conversations, we are able to learn from others, reflect on ourselves, and better navigate a conscious life.

The goal of our podcast, The Knowledge Project, is to help you think, reflect, and better understand the complexities and interconnections in the world in which we live.

If done right, listeners should walk away from episodes with a deeper understanding and a renewed sense of curiosity. Of course, not all of the conversations or guests will appeal to everyone.  And that is the point. We consciously want to explore the thinking, ideas, and methods of thoughtful people to deepen our understanding, challenge our ideas, and gain a broader perspective.

Of the 21 interviews that we published this year, these are the top five (as measured by downloads in the first 30 days):

  • #27 The Art of Letting Other People Have Your Way — Negotiation expert Chris Voss, former lead international kidnapping negotiator for the FBI and author of the excellent book, Never Split the Difference, offers some hands-on negotiation training.
  • #37 Getting Better by Being Wrong — On this episode, best-selling author and professional poker player Annie Duke and I discuss how to disagree without being disagreeable, spotting biases that sabotage our success, how to find signal in noise, and reliable decision-making models for high stakes, high-pressure situations.
  • #32 Earning Your Stripes — On this episode of The Knowledge Project, Patrick Collison, CEO, and co-founder of Stripe shares wise insights on success, failure, management, decision making, learning and so much more. Grab a pen…
  • #39 Thinking About Thinking — On this episode, I chat with Tyler Cowen, economics professor, author, and creator of the wildly popular blog, Marginal Revolution. We tackle lots of interesting topics, including tech advances, the changing labor market, and upgrading your thinking process to accommodate the information age.
  • #43 The Mental Habits of Effective Leaders — In a world that changes at a dizzying rate, effective leaders need to develop the skills to keep up. Developmental coach and author Jennifer Garvey Berger shares 3 habits to ensure continual growth, accelerated learning and deepened relationships of trust.

One episode that just missed the cut but warrants your attention is #42 The Path to Perpetual Progress with Atul Gawande.

Thanks for listening, Because of people like you sharing our show with friends, family, and colleagues, we crossed 4 million downloads this year.

Subscribe on iTunes | Stitcher | Spotify | Android | Google Play

The Spacing Effect: How to Improve Learning and Maximize Retention

We are not taught how to learn in school, we are taught how to pass tests. The spacing effect is a far more effective way to learn and retain information that works with our brain instead of against it. Find out how to use it here.

“Every perception is to some degree an act of creation, and every act of memory is to some degree an act of imagination.”

— Gerald Edelman, Second Nature: Brain Science and Human Knowledge

The most important metaskill you can learn is how to learn. Learning allows you to adapt. As Darwin hinted, it’s not the strongest who survives. It’s the one who easily adapts to a changing environment. Learning how to learn is a part of a “work smarter, not harder” approach to life—one that probabilistically helps you avoid becoming irrelevant. Your time is precious, and you don’t want to waste it on something which will just be forgotten.

During the school years, most of us got used to spending hours at a time memorizing facts, equations, the names of the elements, French verbs, dates of key historical events. We found ourselves frantically cramming the night before a test. We probably read through our notes over and over, a gallon of coffee in hand, in the hope that the information would somehow lodge in our brains. Once the test was over, we doubtless forgot everything straight away.1

Even outside of formal education, we have to learn large amounts of new information on a regular basis: foreign languages, technical terms, sale scripts, speeches, the names of coworkers. Learning through rote memorization is tedious and—more important—ineffective. If we want to remember something, we need to work with our brains, not against them. To do that, we need to understand cognitive constraints and find intelligent ways to get around them or use them to our advantage.

This is where the spacing effect comes in. It’s a wildly useful phenomenon: we are better able to recall information and concepts if we learn them in multiple, spread-out sessions. We can leverage this effect by using spaced repetition to slowly learn almost anything.

It works for words, numbers, images, and skills. It works for anyone of any age, from babies to elderly people. It works for animals, even species as simple as sea slugs. The effect cuts across disciplines and can be used to learn anything from artistic styles to mathematical equations.

Spaced repetition might not have the immediacy of cramming or the adrenaline rush of a manic all-nighter. But the information we learn from it can last a lifetime and tends to be effectively retained. In some ways, the spacing effect is a cognitive limitation, yet a useful one—if we are aware of it.

In Fluent Forever: How to Learn Any Language and Never Forget It, Gabriel Wyner writes:

Spaced repetition…[is] extraordinarily efficient. In a four-month period, practising for 30 minutes a day, you can expect to learn and retain 3600 flashcards with 90 to 95 percent accuracy. These flashcards can teach you an alphabet, vocabulary, grammar, and even pronunciation. And they can do it without becoming tedious because they’re always challenging enough to remain interesting and fun.

In Mindhacker, Ron and Marty Hale-Evans explore further:

Our memory is simultaneously magnificent and pathetic. It is capable of incredible feats, yet it never works quite like we wish it would. Ideally, we would be able to remember everything instantly, but we are not computers. We hack our memory with tools like memory palaces, but such techniques required effort and dedication. Most of us give up, and outsource our memory to smartphones, cloud enabled computers, or plain old pen and paper. There is a compromise…a learning technique called spaced repetition which efficiently organizes information or memorization and retention can be used to achieve near perfect recall.

“If you wish to forget anything on the spot, make a note that this thing is to be remembered.”

— Edgar Allan Poe, Marginalia

The Discovery of The Spacing Effect

Hermann Ebbinghaus (1850-1909), a German psychologist and pioneer of quantitative memory research, first identified the spacing effect. After earning his PhD in Germany, he traveled to London. Like so many people, he found his life forever changed by a book.

The work in question was Elements of Psychophysics by the pioneering experimental psychologist Gustav Fechner. Inspired by this book, Ebbinghaus began the research into memory that would consume his career and impact all of us.

Ebbinghaus took up his new field of study with the unbridled zest of a newcomer. He didn’t believe strongly in the prevailing understanding of memory at the time. In his wish to avoid getting bogged down in theory, he made everything about experimentation. As researcher and the sole subject of his experiments, he faced an uphill battle.

His most important findings were in the areas of forgetting and learning curves. These are graphical representations of the process of learning and forgetting. The forgetting curve shows how a memory of new information decays in the brain,2 with the fastest drop occurring after 20 minutes and the curve leveling off after a day.

There is a way to slow down the process of forgetting. We need only to recall or revisit the information after we originally come across it. Going over the information later, at intervals, helps us remember a greater percentage of the material. Persistence will allow us to recall with 100% accuracy all that we want to remember.

The learning curve is the inverse. It illustrates the rate at which we learn new information. When we use spaced repetition, the forgetting curve changes:

Frequency matters. Under normal conditions, frequent repetitions aid memory. We know this intuitively. Just try to memorize this article on a single repetition. However much attention, focus, or individual ability you have, it won’t work.

Memory mastery comes from repeated exposure to the material. Ebbinghaus observes, “Left to itself every mental content gradually loses its capacity for being revived, or at least suffers loss in this regard under the influence of time.” Cramming is not an effective memorization strategy. Lacking the robustness developed in later sessions, crammed facts soon vanish. Even something as important and frequently used as language can decay if not put into use.

There are other ways to improve memory. Intensity of emotion matters, as does the intensity of attention. Ebbinghaus notes in his definitive work on the subject, Memory and Forgetting:

Very great is the dependence of retention and reproduction upon the intensity of the attention and interest which were attached to the mental states the first time they were present. The burnt child shuns the fire, and the dog which has been beaten runs from the whip, after a single vivid experience. People in whom we are interested we may see daily and yet not be able to recall the colour of their hair or of their eyes…Our information comes almost exclusively from the observation of extreme and especially striking cases.

Ebbinghaus also uncovered something extraordinary: even when we appear to have forgotten information, a certain quantity is stored in our subconscious minds. He referred to these memories as savings. While they cannot be consciously retrieved, they speed up the process of relearning the same information later on.

A poem is learned by heart and then not again repeated. We will suppose that after a half year it has been forgotten: no effort of recollection is able to call it back again into consciousness. At best only isolated fragments return. Suppose that the poem is again learned by heart. It then becomes evident that, although to all appearances totally forgotten, it still in a certain sense exists and in a way to be effective. The second learning requires noticeably less time or a noticeably smaller number of repetitions than the first. It also requires less time or repetitions than would now be necessary to learn a similar poem of the same length.

As the first researcher to undertake serious experimentation on memory and why we forget, Ebbinghaus transformed psychology as a new branch of science. His impact has been compared to that of Aristotle. Ongoing research into the spacing effect continues to support Ebbinghaus’s findings.

“There is no such thing as memorizing. We can think, we can repeat, we can recall and we can imagine, but we aren’t built to memorize. Rather our brains are designed to think and automatically hold onto what’s important. While running away from our friendly neighborhood tiger, we don’t think “You need to remember this! Tigers are bad! Don’t forget! They’re bad!” We simply run away, and our brain remembers for us.”

— Gabriel Wyner, Fluent Forever: How to Learn Any Language and Never Forget It

How the Spacing Effect Works

Let’s take a quick refresher on what we know about how memory in works, because it’s not what we think.

Memories are not located in any one part of the brain. Memories are formed in a process which involves the entire brain. If you think about your favorite book, different parts of your brain will have encoded the look of it, the storyline, the emotions it made you feel, the smell of the pages, and so on. Memories are constructed from disparate components which create a logical whole. As you think about that book, a web of neural patterns pieces together a previously encoded image. Our brains are not like computers – we can’t just ‘tell’ ourselves to remember something.

In Mastery, Robert Greene explains:

In the end, an entire network of neurons is developed to remember this single task, which accounts for the fact we can still ride a bicycle years after we first learned how to do so. If we were to take a look at the frontal cortex of those who have mastered something through repetition, it would be remarkable still and inactive as they performed the skill. All their brain activity is occurring in areas that are lower down and required much less conscious control…People who do not practice and learn new skills can never gain a proper sense of proportion or self-criticism. They think they can achieve anything without effort and have little contact with reality. Trying something over and over again grounds you in reality, making you deeply aware of your inadequacies and of what you can accomplish with more work and effort.

No definitive answer has been found to explain how the spacing effect works. However, a number of factors are believed to help:

Forgetting and learning are, in a counterintuitive twist, linked. When we review close to the point of nearly forgetting, our brains reinforce the memory as well as add new details. This is one reason practice papers and teaching other people are the most effective ways for students to revise—they highlight what has been forgotten.

Retrieving memories changes the way they are later encoded. In essence, the harder something is to remember now, the better we will recall it in the future. The more we strain, which is painful mental labor, the easier it will be in the future. There is no learning without pain. Recall is more important than recognition. This explains why practice tests are a better way to learn than opening your text and re-reading your highlights.

Our brains assign greater importance to repeated information. This makes sense; information we encounter on a regular basis does tend to be more important than that which we only come across once. Disregarding any forms of mental impairment, we don’t have trouble recalling the information we need on a daily basis. Our PIN, our own telephone number, the directions to work, and names of coworkers, for example. We might once have struggled to remember them, but after accessing those sorts of information hundreds or thousands of time, recall becomes effortless.

Some researchers also believe that semantic priming is a factor. This refers to the associations we form between words which make them easier to recall. So, the sentence ‘the doctor and the nurse walked through the hospital’ is easier to remember than ‘the doctor and the artist walked through the supermarket’ because the words ‘doctor’ ‘nurse’ and ‘hospital’ are linked. If you are asked to remember a logical sentence such as ‘mitochondria is the powerhouse of the cell’, it’s not too difficult. If those same words are scrambled and become ‘cell the house mitochondria power is of’ it’s a lot harder to remember. And if those words are broken up into nonsensical syllables – ‘th ell ce he ous hon mit odria fi of’ – retaining them would become arduous. But some researchers have theorised that repetition over time primes us to connect information. So, if you revised ‘th ell ce he ous hon mit odria fi of’ enough times, you would start to connect ‘th’ and ‘ell.’ We can demonstrate semantic priming by telling a friend to say ‘silk’ ten times, then asking them what a cow drinks. They will almost certainly say ‘milk.’ The answer is, of course, water.

Yet another theory is that of deficient processing. Some literature points to the possibility that spaced repetition is not in itself especially efficient, but that massed learning is just very inefficient. By comparison, spaced repetition seems special when it is, in fact, a reflection of our true capabilities. Researchers posit that massed learning is redundant because we lose interest as we study information and retain less and less over time. Closely spaced repetition sessions leverage our initial interest before our focus wanes.

With properly spaced repetition, you increase the intervals of time between learning attempts. Each learning attempt reinforces the neural connections. For example, we learn a list better if we repeatedly study it over a period of time than if we tackle it in one single burst. We’re actually more efficient this way. Spaced sessions allow us to invest less total time to memorize than one single session, whereas we might get bored while going over the same material again and again in a single session. Of course, when we’re bored we pay less and less attention.3

In Focused Determination, the authors explain why variety also contributes to deficient processing.

There is also minimal variation in the way the material is presented to the brain when it is repeatedly visited over a short time. This tends to decrease our learning. In contrast, when repetition learning takes place over a longer period, it is more likely that the materials are presented differently. We have to retrieve the previously learned information from memory and hence reinforce it. All of this leads us to become more interested in the content and therefore more receptive to learning it.

“How do you remember better? Repeated exposure to information in specifically timed intervals provides the most powerful way to fix memory into the brain. …Deliberately re-expose yourself to the information more elaborately, and in fixed, spaced intervals, if you want the retrieval to be the most vivid it can be. Learning occurs best when new information is incorporated gradually into the memory store rather than when it is jammed in all at once.”

— John Medina, Brain Rules

Taking Advantage of the Spacing Effect

We don’t learn about spaced repetition in school—something which baffles many researchers. Most classes teach a single topic per session, then don’t repeat it until the test.

Going over a topic once teaches very little—sometimes nothing at all, if the teacher is unengaging or the class is too long. Most teachers expect their students to take care of the memorizing part themselves. As a result, many of us develop bad learning habits like cramming to cope with the demands of our classes.

We need to break up with cramming and focus on what actually works: spaced repetition.

The difficulty of spaced repetition is not effort but that it requires forward planning and a small investment of time to set up a system. But in the long run, it saves us time as we retain information and spend less total time learning.

A typical spaced repetition system includes these key components:

  • A schedule for review of information. Typical systems involve going over information after an hour, then a day, then every other day, then weekly, then fortnightly, then monthly, then every six months, then yearly. Guess correctly and the information moves to the next level and is reviewed less often. Guess incorrectly and it moves down a level and is reviewed more often.
  • A means of storing and organizing information. Flashcards or spaced repetition software (such as Anki and SuperMemo) are the most common options. Software has the obvious advantage of requiring little effort to maintain, and of having an inbuilt repetition schedule. Anecdotal evidence suggests that writing information out on flashcards contributes to the learning process.
  • A metric for tracking progress. Spaced repetition systems work best if they include built-in positive reinforcement. This is why learning programs like Duolingo and Memrise incorporate a points system, daily goals, leaderboards and so on. Tracking progress gives us a sense of progression and improvement.
  • A set duration for review sessions. If we practice for too long, our attention wanes and we retain decreasing amounts of information. Likewise, a session needs to be long enough to ensure focused immersion. A typical recommendation is no more than 30 minutes, with a break before any other review sessions.

The spacing effect is a perfect example of how much more effective we can be if we understand how our minds work, and use them in an optimal way. All you need to learn something for life are flashcards and a schedule. Then, of course, you’re free to move on to actually applying and using what you’ve learned.

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Footnotes
  • 1

    When is the last time you used a2+ b2= c2 in real life?

  • 2

    This is different than the half-life of knowledge, the process by which information in memory becomes less valuable because your understanding of the world has changed.

  • 3

    You can test this by asking yourself what your last meeting yesterday was about.