Category: Learning

The Art of Learning

Josh Waitzkin has mastered the game of Chess — winning his first National Championship at the age of nine — and the physical challenge of martial arts, becoming a World Champion of Tai Chi Chuan. One thing Josh is good at is learning to master new skills.

I want to highlight two passages from his book, The Art of Learning: An Inner Journey to Optimal Performance, for readers.

The first one speaks to why Josh could come into a new sport, Tai Chi Chuan, and advance faster than others who had been practicing for years longer than he had. He was willing to lose to win.

It seemed that many other students were frozen in place, repeating their errors over and over, unable to improve because of a fear of releasing old habits. When Chen (the master teaching the students) made suggestions, they would explain their thinking in an attempt to justify themselves. They were locked in a need to be correct.

Waitzkin’s philosophy was that if you could maximize the learning from your mistakes and avoid repeating them you would skyrocket to the top of any field. While it’s impossible to avoid repeating every mistake, Waitzkin tried to minimize repetition of them by not letting his ego get in the way.

The second passage I want to share with you is on learning. The theme is depth over breadth.

The learning principle is to plunge into the detailed mystery of the micro in order to understand what makes the macro tick. Our obstacle is that we live in an attention-deficit culture. We are bombarded with more and more information on television, radio, cell phones, video games, the Internet. The constant supply of stimulus has the potential to turn us into addicts, always hungering for something new and prefabricated to keep us entertained. When nothing exciting is going on, we might get bored, distracted, separated from the moment. So we look for new entertainment, surf channels, flip through magazines. If caught in these rhythms, we are like tiny current-bound surface fish, floating along a two-dimensional world without any sense for the gorgeous abyss below. When these societally induced tendencies translate into the learning process, they have devastating effect.

… Many “Kung Fu” schools fuel this problem by teaching numerous flowery forms, choreographed sets of movement, and students are rated by how many forms they know. Everyone races to learn more and more, but nothing is done deeply. Things look pretty but they are superficial, without a sound body mechanic or principled foundation. Nothing is learned at a high level and what results are form collectors with fancy kicks and twirls that have absolutely no martial value.

Still curious? Josh was the subject of the book and movie Searching for Bobby Fischer. Read The Art of Learning.

Stretching yourself to learn new things

Carol Dweck, Daniel Coyle, and Noel Tichy all point out that you need to stretch to learn new things.

First, this from Carol Dweck …

My colleagues and I have conducted interventions with adolescents in which they learn that their brains and intellect are malleable. They discover that when they stretch themselves to learn new things, their neurons form new connections and they can, over time, enhance their intellectual skills. Compared to a control group that learned only study skills, these students showed marked improvements in motivation, and their declining grades were sharply reversed. Researchers Catherine Good and Joshua Aronson have found similar effects. In studies led by David Yeager, high school students who were taught a malleable view of their intellectual and social skills showed positive changes in their grades, stress level, conduct (including aggression), and health that lasted over the course of the school year.

Second, this passage from The Little Book of Talent: 52 Tips for Improving Your Skills:

There is a place, right on the edge of your ability, where you learn best and fastest. It’s called the sweet spot. … the underlying pattern is the same: Seek out ways to stretch yourself. Play on the edges of your competence. As Albert Einstein said, “One must develop an instinct for what one can just barely achieve through one’s greatest efforts.”

The key word is “barely.”

Finally, this passage from Deliberate Practice:

Noel Tichy, professor at the University of Michigan business school and the former chief of General Electric’s famous management development center at Crotonville, puts the concept of practice into three zones: the comfort zone, the learning zone, and the panic zone.

Most of the time we’re practicing we’re really doing activities in our comfort zone. This doesn’t help us improve because we can already do these activities easily. On the other hand, operating in the panic zone leaves us paralyzed as the activities are too difficult and we don’t know where to start. The only way to make progress is to operate in the learning zone, which are those activities that are just out of reach.

Update: This passage from The Art of Learning fits as well:

Usually, growth comes at the expense of previous comfort or safety. The hermit crab is a colorful example of a creature that lives by this aspect of the growth process (albeit without our psychological baggage). As the crab gets bigger, it needs to find a more spacious shell. So the slow, lumbering creature goes on a quest for a new home. If an appropriate new shell is not found quickly, a terribly delicate moment of truth arises. A soft creature that is used to the protection of built-in armor must now go out into the world, exposed to predators in all its mushy vulnerability. That learning phase in between shells is where our growth can come from.

A Simple Tool to Help You Learn Better

Learning something new shouldn’t be easy. If it feels effortless, you’re probably not actually learning anything. In order to get better, you have to reach. It needs to be a little bit difficult.

From The Little Book of Talent: 52 Tips for Improving Your Skills:

Research shows that people who follow strategy B [read ten pages at once, then close the book and write a one page summary] remember 50 percent more material over the long term than people who follow strategy A [read ten pages four times in a row and try to memorize them]. This is because of one of deep practice’s most fundamental rules: Learning is reaching. Passively reading a book—a relatively effortless process, letting the words wash over you like a warm bath—doesn’t put you in the sweet spot. Less reaching equals less learning.

On the other hand, closing the book and writing a summary forces you to figure out the key points (one set of reaches), process and organize those ideas so they make sense (more reaches), and write them on the page (still more reaches, along with repetition). The equation is always the same: More reaching equals more learning.

You don’t have to write a summary in paragraph format either. You can simply write bullet points. And while you can use the author’s terminology, it’s much better to use your own.

This is part of the idea behind our blank sheet approach to instantly improve your ability to retain, connect, and use the information you’re reading.

Still curious? Discover how to practice; an effective way to learn new things and identify holes in your knowledge.

Why Can’t Someone Be Taught Until They’re Ready To Learn?

Clay Christensen is best known as the author of The Innovator’s Dilemma. He’s also the author of a new book, How Will You Measure Your Life?, which has some wonderful insights (see excerpts here and here).

The founder of 37Signals, Jason Fried, recently spent some time with Christensen and gained a key insight into why we can’t be taught until we’re ready to learn. Simply put, if you stop asking questions, you’ll stop learning.

Spending time with Clay leads to lots of interesting insights, but for me, there was one that stood out among all the others.

You’ve probably heard it said that someone can’t be taught until they’re ready to learn. I’ve heard it said that way too. It makes sense, and my experience tells me it’s mostly true. Why though? Why can’t someone be taught until they’re ready to learn?

Clay explained it in a way that I’ve never heard before and I’ll never forget again. Paraphrased slightly, he said: “Questions are places in your mind where answers fit. If you haven’t asked the question, the answer has nowhere to go. It hits your mind and bounces right off. You have to ask the question – you have to want to know – in order to open up the space for the answer to fit.”

What an insight.

An Algorithm for Solving Problems

“He (Richard Feynman) was always searching for patterns, for connections, for a new way of looking at something, but I suspect his motivation was not so much to understand the world as it was to find new ideas to explain. The act of discovery was not complete for him until he had taught it to someone else.”Daniel Hillis

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The Feynman Algorithm, which is a simplification of Richard Feynman’s technique to learn anything, is a good all purpose algorithm for solving problems. Cal Newport explains:

  1. Simplify the problem down to an “essential puzzle.” Here’s how Danny Hillis explained Feynman’s use of simplicity: “He always started by asking very basic questions like, ‘What is the simplest example?’ or ‘How can you tell if the answer is right?’ He asked questions until he reduced the problem to some essential puzzle that he thought he would be able to solve. Then he would set to work.”
  2. Continually master new techniques and then apply them to your library of unsolved puzzles to see if they help. As mathematician Gian Carlo-Rota explained when describing Feynman’s use of this strategy: “Every once in a while there will be a hit, and people will say: ‘How did he do it? He must be a genius!’”

Ten Commandments For Living From Philosopher Bertrand Russell

Philosopher Bertrad Russell:

The Ten Commandments that, as a teacher, I should wish to promulgate, might be set forth as follows:

1. Do not feel absolutely certain of anything.

2. Do not think it worthwhile to proceed by concealing evidence, for the evidence is sure to come to light.

3. Never try to discourage thinking for you are sure to succeed.

4. When you meet with opposition, even if it should be from your husband or your children, endeavor to overcome it by argument and not by authority, for a victory dependent upon authority is unreal and illusory.

5. Have no respect for the authority of others, for there are always contrary authorities to be found.

6. Do not use power to suppress opinions you think pernicious, for if you do the opinions will suppress you.

7. Do not fear to be eccentric in opinion, for every opinion now accepted was once eccentric.

8. Find more pleasure in intelligent dissent than in passive agreement, for, if you value intelligence as you should, the former implies a deeper agreement than the latter.

9. Be scrupulously truthful, even if the truth is inconvenient, for it is more inconvenient when you try to conceal it.

10. Do not feel envious of the happiness of those who live in a fool’s paradise, for only a fool will think that it is happiness.

Still curious? Russell is the author of many books including Why I Am Not a Christian, History of Western Philosophy, and The Problems of Philosophy.