Tag: Learning

The Ultimate Deliberate Practice Guide: How to Be the Best

Everything You Need to Know to Improve Your Performance at Anything—For Beginners and Experts

Deliberate practice is the best technique for achieving expert performance in every field—including writing, teaching, sports, programming, music, medicine, therapy, chess, and business. But there’s much more to deliberate practice than 10,000 hours. Read this to learn how to accelerate your learning, overcome the “OK” plateau, turn experience into expertise, and enhance your focus.

What is deliberate practice?

Engaged in the creative process we feel more alive than ever, because we are making something and not merely consuming, masters of the small reality we create. In doing this work, we are in fact creating ourselves.” —Robert Greene, Mastery

Deliberate practice is what turns amateurs into professionals. Across every field, deliberate practice is what creates top performers and what they use to stay at the top of their game. It’s absolutely essential for expert performance.

As a general concept, “practice” means preparing. It’s the act of repeatedly performing certain activities with the intention of improving a specific associated skill. We rehearse what to do in low-pressure situations so we’ll be better when we use a skill in situations where something is actually at stake, such as in a competition or in the workplace. Although this definition may seem obvious, it’s crucial to distinguish between doing something and practicing it, because they’re not always synonymous.

The key distinction between doing and practicing is that we’re only practicing something when we do it in a way that makes us better at it—or at least with that intention.

Deliberate practice means practicing with a clear awareness of the specific components of a skill we’re aiming to improve and exactly how to improve them. Unlike regular practice, in which we work on a skill by repeating it again and again until it becomes almost mindless, deliberate practice is a laser-focused activity. It requires us to pay unwavering attention to what we’re doing at any given moment and whether it’s an improvement or not.

Geoff Colvin summarizes deliberate practice as such in Talent Is Overrated:

Deliberate practice is characterized by several elements, each worth examining. It is activity designed specifically to improve performance, often with a teacher’s help; it can be repeated a lot; feedback on results is continuously available; it’s highly demanding mentally, whether the activity is purely intellectual, such as chess or business-related activities, or heavily physical, such as sports; and it isn’t much fun.

The extraordinary power of deliberate practice is that it aims at constant progress. Practitioners are not content with repeating a skill at the same level. They have metrics for measuring their performance. And they aspire to see those metrics get continuously better.

While engaging in deliberate practice, we are always looking for errors or areas of weakness. Once we identify one, we establish a plan for improving it. If one approach doesn’t work, we keep trying new ones until something does.

Using deliberate practice, we can overcome many limitations that we might view as fixed. We can go further than we might even think possible when we begin. Deliberate practice creates new physical and mental capabilities—it doesn’t just leverage existing ones.

The more we engage in deliberate practice, the greater our capabilities become. Our minds and bodies are far more malleable than we usually realize.

Deliberate practice is a universal technique, and you can employ it for whatever you’re trying to be the best (or just get a little bit better) at. It’s easiest to apply to competitive fields with clear measurements and standards, including music, dance, football/soccer, cricket, hockey, basketball, golf, horse riding, swimming, and chess.

But deliberate practice is also invaluable for improving performance in fields such as teaching, nursing, surgery, therapy, programming, trading, and investing. It can even accelerate your progress in widely applicable skills such as writing, decision-making, leadership, studying, and spoken communication.

The key in any area is to identify objective standards for performance, study top performers, and then design practice activities reflecting what they do. Recent decades have seen dramatic leaps in what people are capable of doing in many fields. The explanation for this is that we’re getting better at understanding and applying the principles of deliberate practice. As a field advances, people can learn from the best of what those who came before them figured out. The result is that now average high-schoolers achieve athletic feats and children advance to levels of musical prowess that would have seemed unthinkable a century earlier. And there’s little evidence to suggest we’ve reached the limits of our physical or mental abilities in any area whatsoever.

Many of us spend a lot of time each week practicing different skills in our lives and work. But we don’t automatically get better just because we repeat the same actions and behaviors, even if we spend hours per day doing it. Research suggests that in areas such as medicine, people with many years of experience are often no better than novices—and may even be worse.

If we want to improve a skill, we need to know what exactly has to change and what might get us there. Otherwise, we plateau.

Some people will tell you it’s only possible for anyone to improve at anything through deliberate practice, and any other sort of practice is a waste of time. This is an exaggeration. In reality, regular practice works for reinforcing and maintaining skills. It can also help us improve skills, particularly in the early stages of learning something. However, deliberate practice is the only way to:

  1. Reach expert-level performance and enjoy competitive success
  2. Overcome plateaus in our skill level
  3. Improve at a skill much faster than through regular practice

If you’re just doing something for fun and don’t care about constantly improving at it, you don’t need deliberate practice. For example, maybe you like to go for a walk around a local park in the afternoons to clear your head. Although you’re practicing that walk each time you go, you probably don’t care about increasing your walking speed day by day. It’s enough that the repetitions further ingrain the habit and help maintain a certain level of physical fitness. Not everything in life is a competition! But if you want to keep getting better at something as fast as possible or reach an expert level, deliberate practice is vital.

Another important point to note is that deliberate practice isn’t just a catchy name we came up with out of thin air. The term is largely attributed to Karl Anders Ericsson, one of the most influential figures of all time in the field of performance psychology. It’s something many scientists have studied for decades. Everything we say here is supported by substantial academic research, particularly Ericsson’s work.

We’ll also debunk the numerous myths swirling around deliberate practice as a concept and reveal some of its significant limitations. So if you’re looking for quick hacks for overnight success, you might want to look elsewhere. If you want a realistic roadmap for improving your performance, read on.

The elements of deliberate practice

Life is not always a matter of holding good cards, but sometimes, playing a poor hand well.” —Jack London

In this section, we’ll break down the fundamental elements of deliberate practice and exactly how to incorporate them into your practice sessions. As Ericsson wrote in Peak, “No matter what the field, the most effective approach to improving performance is to follow a single set of principles.” We’ll explain why each component is crucial and how they apply to different fields, and we’ll cover multiple ways to implement them depending on your goals.

Deliberate practice is structured and methodical

Everyone has talent. What’s rare is the courage to follow it to the dark places where it leads.” —Erica Jong

As humans, we’re wired to want to do the easiest thing at all times in order to conserve energy. Put more simply, it’s in our nature to be lazy. When we practice something a lot, we develop habits that become almost effortless to enact. While that’s beneficial in many areas of our lives (and helps us survive), it’s something we have to overcome in order to engage in deliberate practice. We can’t expect constant improvement if we keep repeating the elements of a skill we already know how to do with ease. That’s only enough if we’re just having fun or want to reinforce our habits.

Deliberate practice is structured to improve specific elements of a skill through defined techniques. Practitioners focus above all on what they can’t do. They seek out areas of weaknesses impacting their overall performance, then target those. At every stage, they set tailored, measurable goals in order to gauge whether their practice is effective at moving them forwards. Numbers are a deliberate practitioner’s best friend.

If you want to reach an expert level of performance, you need to begin practice sessions with a plan in mind. You need to know what you’re working on, why, and how you intend to improve it. You also need a way to tell if your improvement efforts aren’t working and if you need to try a new tactic. Once you reach your goal for that particular component of the skill, it’s time to identify a new area of weakness to work on next.

Having lots of little, realistic goals with a game plan for achieving them makes deliberate practice motivating. There’s a sense of ongoing movement, yet the next step is always a realistic stretch. Day by day, the gains from deliberate practice may feel modest. But when we look back over a longer period of time, small bits of progress compound into gigantic leaps.

How to implement this: Take the skill you’re aiming to improve and break it down into the smallest possible component parts. Make a plan for working through them in a logical order, beginning with the fundamentals, then building upon them. Decide which parts you’d like to master over the next month. Put your practice sessions in your calendar, then plan precisely which parts of the skill you’re going to work on during each session.

Don’t expect your plan to be perfect. You’ll likely need to keep modifying it as you discover new elements or unexpected weaknesses. The most important thing is to always go into practice with a plan for what you’re working on and how. Knowing what you’re doing next is the best way to stay on track and avoid aimless time-wasting. That means seeking to keep figuring out what separates you from the next level of performance so you can concentrate on that.

Deliberate practice is challenging and uncomfortable

One must develop an instinct for what one can just barely achieve through one’s greatest efforts.” —Albert Einstein (attributed)

Imagine the world from the perspective of a baby learning to walk for the first time. It’s not usually an easy process. They need to develop a lot of new skills and capabilities. They need to build enough muscular strength to stand upright without support. And they need to learn how to coordinate their limbs well enough to move around. Along the way, a baby needs to develop numerous sub-skills, such as how to grip supports to pull themselves up. It likely takes thousands of attempts to master walking—as well as numerous, falls, collisions, and other mishaps. We might not remember the process as adults, but a baby learning to walk needs to spend many hours challenging themselves and moving incrementally out of their comfort zone.

If we want to use deliberate practice, we could do with learning a thing or two from babies. Deliberate practice isn’t necessarily fun while we’re doing it. In fact, most of the time it’s a process of repeated frustration and failure. We have to fall down a dozen times for every step we take. That’s the whole point.

Seeing as deliberate practice requires us to keep targeting our weakest areas, it means spending time doing stuff we’re not good at. In the moment, that can feel pretty miserable. But the quickest route to improvement involves stepping outside of our comfort zones.

The reason why people who have spent decades doing something are not necessarily better than newbies is that they’re liable to get complacent and stop pushing themselves. We need to keep attempting to do things that feel out of reach at the moment.

In his studies of elite violinists, Ericsson asked them to rate different practice activities by how enjoyable they were and how much they contributed to improving performance. Invariably, there was an inverse correlation between the usefulness of an activity and its enjoyability. As Ericsson puts it in Peak:

The reason that most people don’t possess these extraordinary physical capabilities isn’t because they don’t have the capacity for them, but rather because they’re satisfied to live in the comfortable rut of homeostasis and never do the work that is required to get out of it. They live in the world of “good enough.” The same thing is true for all the mental activities we engage in.

Elsewhere in the book, he writes “This is a fundamental truth about any sort of practice: If you never push yourself beyond your comfort zone, you will never improve.” The interesting part is the more time you spend deliberately practicing, the more comfortable you’ll become with being uncomfortable.

Daniel Coyle writes in The Little Book of Talent:

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.’

A quick way to assess if you’re doing deliberate practice or just regular rote practice is to ask yourself if you ever feel bored or zone out during practice sessions. If the answer is yes, you’re probably not practicing deliberately.

Deliberate practice isn’t boring. Frustrating, yes. Maddening, yes. Annoying, even. But never boring. As soon as practicing a skill gets comfortable, it’s time to up the stakes. Challenging yourself is about more than trying to work harder—it means doing new things.

Pushing ourselves just beyond the limits of our abilities is uncomfortable, yet it’s how we do our best—and indeed, it can be the source of some of our greatest moments of satisfaction. According to psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, we often experience happiness as a result of entering a “flow” state, which occurs when we intensely focus on an activity that is challenging yet achievable. During moments of flow, we become so immersed in the activity that we lose any sense of time or of ourselves.

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 when 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 our reach.

Repetition inside the comfort zone does not equal deliberate practice. Deliberate practice requires that you operate in the learning zone and you repeat the activity a lot with feedback.

How to implement this: Each time you practice a component of a skill, aim to make it 10% harder than the level you find comfortable.

Once per month, have a practice session where you set yourself an incredibly ambitious stretch goal—not impossible, just well above your current level. Challenge yourself to see how close you can get to it. You might surprise yourself and find you perform far better than expected.

A common deliberate practice mistake is to plan a long practice session, then adjust the intensity of your practice to allow you to engage in a skill for the whole time. It’s far more effective to engage in “sprints.” Practice with the most intense focus you can manage for short periods of time, then take breaks. Seeing as you learn most when you stretch yourself beyond your current capabilities, shorter, more challenging practice periods are the way to go.

Deliberate practice requires rest and recovery time

There is a time for many words, and there is also a time for sleep.” —Homer, The Odyssey

Seeing as deliberate practice is so challenging, it’s impossible to do it all day long. Across fields, top practitioners rarely spend more than around three to five hours per day on deliberate practice, at the high end. They may work for more hours than that per day, but few can sustain the mental energy to engage in deliberate practice for eight hours a day. Additional hours often result in diminishing negative returns, meaning more practice makes performance worse because it results in burnout. Geoff Colvin writes:

The work is so great that it seems no one can sustain it for very long. A finding that is remarkably consistent across disciplines is that four or five hours a day seems to be the upper limit of deliberate practice, and this is frequently accomplished in sessions lasting no more than an hour to ninety minutes.

Ericsson’s studies of elite violinists found they often took afternoon naps and slept an average of eight hours per night, considerably more than the average person. They were highly aware of the importance of sleep.

Even fitting in a single hour per day of deliberate practice is ample time to make substantial improvements, especially when we’re consistent with committing to it over the long haul. Continuous investments in success compound. In the long run, commitment pays off.

Not only do most deliberate practitioners not spend all day at it, they also devote a lot of time to recuperation and recovery. They sleep as much as their bodies need. They nap if necessary. They take frequent, refreshing breaks. Most of us understand that rest is necessary after physical activity. But we can underestimate its importance after mental activity, too. Deliberate practice needs to be sustainable for the long term. How long a person keeps at a skill is often far more important than how many hours a day they spend on it.

When you’re practicing deliberately, truly practice. When you’re recuperating, truly relax. No one can spend every waking hour on deliberate practice.

Sleep is a vital part of deliberate practice. Being asleep doesn’t mean you’re not still improving your skill. We consolidate memories at night, moving them from short-term to long-term memory. And we can’t exactly benefit from deliberate practice sessions if we don’t remember what we learn each time. Not only that, but sleep deprivation also results in a plethora of negative cognitive effects that impact performance. If we skimp on sleep, we’re likely to forget far more of what we learn during deliberate practice sessions, rendering them less useful.

When you’re not engaging in deliberate practice, your brain is still at work. During deliberate practice, we’re in focused mode. When we let our minds wander freely while at rest, we’re in diffuse mode. Although that time feels less productive, it’s when we form connections and mull over problems. Both modes of thinking are equally valuable, but it’s the harmony between them that matters. We can’t maintain the effort of the focused mode for long. At some point, we need to relax and slip into the diffuse mode. Learning a complex skill—a language, a musical instrument, chess, a mental model—requires both modes to work together. We master the details in focused mode, then comprehend how everything fits together in diffuse mode. It’s about combining creativity with execution.

How to implement this: Make a list of activities you can engage in without too much conscious thought, letting yourself daydream while you do them. Common examples include going for a walk, washing the dishes, taking a shower, free-writing in a journal, playing with a toy like Lego, driving a familiar route, gardening, cooking, listening to music, or just gazing out the window. When you feel yourself getting tired or hitting a roadblock during deliberate practice, don’t keep pushing for too long. You want to be stretching yourself, not exhausting yourself. Instead, switch to one of those more relaxing activities for at least five minutes. You’ll likely come back to practice with new connections or at last feeling refreshed.

Deliberate practice involves constant feedback and measurement

Deliberate practice is hard. It hurts. But it works. More of it equals better performance and tons of it equals great performance.” —Geoff Colvin, Talent Is Overrated

Practicing something without knowing whether you are getting better is pointless. Yet that is what most of us do every day without thinking.

As we saw before, deliberate practice involves continuously stretching yourself to improve on weak areas of a skill. For that to work, practitioners require constant feedback about their current level of performance so they can identify what works for making it better.

What gets measured gets managed. To engage in deliberate practice, you need a way of measuring the most instructive metrics related to your performance. Seeing how those metrics change is the sole way to know if practice is working or not. Top performers across fields tend to spend time examining their past performance with care to identify areas for improvement. For example, a tennis player might film themselves playing a match so they can go through the footage frame by frame afterward. This provides valuable feedback, because they can figure out what might have held them back during weaker moments.

In fields such as sports and chess, measuring performance tends to be straightforward. In other areas such as business, measurements are harder to take, and there may be no established markers of success. The influence of random factors may also be stronger, making it less clear whether technique changes are actually having an influence or not. When you engage in deliberate practice, it’s always important to be aware of how strongly correlated your practice and your performance are likely to be.

When measuring your performance, beware of vanity metrics. These are numbers that are easy to calculate and feel good to boost. But they don’t actually move the needle towards the real improvements in performance that help you reach your goals. For example, let’s say you’re using deliberate practice to improve the skill of email marketing, as part of the wider goal of getting more customers for your business. The number of email subscribers is a vanity metric; the number of paying customers is a useful metric. It’s completely possible to increase the former without a corresponding increase in the latter.

How to implement this: Identify the most significant metrics related to performance in your chosen skill and keep a record of them each time you practice. It’s easy to fool yourself without a clear record of how you’re doing. You might want to break the skill down into a few different parts to measure it, but make sure you’re not fixating on vanity metrics.

Deliberate practice is most effective with the help of a coach or some kind of teacher

The best teacher is not the one who knows most but the one who is most capable of reducing knowledge to that simple compound of the obvious and wonderful.” —H.L. Mencken (attributed)

Deliberate practice is most effective when conducted with some kind of coach who can give feedback, point out errors, suggest techniques for improvement, and provide vital motivation. Although mastering any skill requires a lot of time engaging in solitary practice, working with a coach at least some of the time is incredibly valuable. In some fields such as sports and music, it’s common for a coach to be present all of the time. But most top performers benefit from a combination of coaching and solitary practice.

When we look at the lives of people who achieved great things, we often find that those who did so at a young age or in a shorter time than expected benefited from having fantastic teachers. For example, physicist Werner Heisenberg had the epiphany that led to the formulation of matrix mechanics a mere five years after commencing serious study of physics. But he no doubt benefited from the mentorship of Niels Bohr and Max Born, two of the foremost physicists at the time.

Even people at the most elite levels of performance across fields can benefit from specialist coaching. Engaging in something and teaching that thing are separate skills in themselves. The best practitioners are not always the best teachers because teaching is a skill in itself.

Ericsson explained that “the best way to get past any barrier is to come at it from a different direction, which is one reason it is useful to work with a teacher or coach.” We often make the same mistakes again and again because we simply don’t realize what we’re doing. Our performance falls into ruts and we can’t figure out why we’re running into the same problem yet again.

A coach can see your performance from the outside, without the influence of overconfidence and other biases. They can identify your blind spots. They can help you interpret key metrics and feedback.

Ericsson went on to say that “even the most motivated and intelligent student will advance more quickly under the tutelage of someone who knows the best order in which to learn things, who understands and can demonstrate the proper way to perform various skills, who can provide useful feedback, and who can devise practice activities designed to overcome particular weaknesses.” An experienced coach will have worked with many people on the same skill so they’ll be able to advise on the best ways to structure practice. They’ll know when you’re just repeating what you find easy, and they’ll be able to push you to the next level.

Teachers or coaches see what you miss and make you aware of where you’re falling short. Geoff Colvin writes:

In some fields, especially intellectual ones such as the arts, sciences, and business, people may eventually become skilled enough to design their own practice. But anyone who thinks they’ve outgrown the benefits of a teacher’s help should at least question that view. There’s a reason why the world’s best golfers still go to teachers.

But what if you don’t have access to a coach? What if you don’t have the means to hire one or one isn’t available for your particular skill? In that case, it’s still possible to apply the same principles that make a coach useful by yourself. Top performers across fields build the skill of metacognition, essentially making it possible for them to coach themselves. Colvin explains:

The best performers observe themselves closely. They are in effect able to step outside themselves, monitor what is happening in their own minds, and ask how it’s going. Researchers call this metacognition—knowledge about your own knowledge, thinking about your own thinking. Top performers do this much more systematically than others do; it’s an established part of their routine.

…A critical part of self-evaluation is deciding what caused those errors. Average performers believe their errors were caused by factors outside their control: my opponent got lucky; the task was too hard; I just don’t have the natural ability for this. Top performers, by contrast, believe they are responsible for their errors. Note that this is not just a difference of personality or attitude. Recall that the best performers have set highly specific, technique-based goals and strategies for themselves; they have thought through exactly how they intend to achieve what they want. So when something doesn’t work, they can relate the failure to specific elements of their performance that may have misfired.

How to implement this: Don’t expect the same teacher to suit you forever. We usually need different teachers as our skill level progresses because we outgrow them. One attribute of a good teacher is that they know when to tell a student to move on. As we reach expert levels of performance, we need teachers who are themselves experts. If they’re always a step ahead, we can learn from their mistakes instead of making our own.

You get the best results from working with a coach if you show yourself to be receptive to constructive criticism, even if it’s uncomfortable to hear. If you respond badly, you disincentivize them from telling you what’s most useful to know. Top performers know the goal is to get better, not just to hear you’re already great.

Deliberate practice requires intrinsic motivation

Persisting with deliberate practice despite its innate difficulty and discomfort requires a lot of motivation. But that motivation needs to be intrinsic, meaning that it comes from inside us because we find an activity enjoyable for its own sake. This is in contrast to extrinsic motivation, where we participate in an activity to gain an external reward or avoid a negative consequence. Yet another reason why rest is important for deliberate practice is because it helps sustain motivation.

Although deliberate practice can lead to external rewards for using a skill (such as winning a competition or getting a promotion), this should not be the sole reason for practicing it. Extrinsic motivation is unlikely to be enough to get us through the long period of struggle necessary to master a skill. Becoming proficient at anything means spending time failing repeatedly at it, during which there are few external rewards. But if we enjoy getting better for its own sake, we have more of a chance of persevering until our practice starts paying off. We can navigate obstacles because we want to see where the road might take us—the obstacles aren’t roadblocks.

If you want to use deliberate practice to master a skill, you need to be willing to keep practicing it no matter what. Although brute force and rewarding yourself can be effective in the short run, it won’t work forever. If you’re planning to engage in deliberate practice to reach expert-level performance, make sure it’s a prospect you feel excited about even if it won’t always be fun.

Extrinsic motivation isn’t always ineffective, however. People who engage in consistent, sustainable deliberate practice tend to be adept at knowing when and how they need to employ external incentives. It’s important to reward yourself when you make progress in your practice and reflect on how far you’ve come, not just how far is left to go.

The need for intrinsic motivation is one reason why children who are pushed to develop a skill from a young age by their parents don’t always end up reaching a high level of performance and often quit as soon as they can.

How to implement this: Make a list of the reasons you want to work on a skill and the benefits getting better at it might bring. Before you begin a deep practice session, reread the list to remind you of why you’re bringing your full focus to something difficult. You could also list some of the benefits you’ve experienced from it in the past or include quotes from top performers in your field you find inspiring. It might feel cheesy, but it can provide a powerful boost during particularly difficult practice moments. Try to focus on intrinsic reasons and benefits, such as feeling fulfilled.

Keep a “motivation diary” for one week (or longer if possible.) Try setting an alarm to go off every fifteen minutes during each practice session. When the alarm sounds, score your motivation level out of ten (or whichever scale you prefer.) At the end of the week, review your notes to look for any patterns. For example, you might find that you begin to feel demotivated once you’ve been practicing for more than an hour, or that you feel more motivated in the morning, or some other pattern. This information could be enlightening for planning future deliberate practice sessions, even if it may disrupt your focus at the time. Another method is to simply take notes each day, documenting your current level of motivation to work on your chosen skill. Pay attention to any recurring influences. For example, you might feel more motivated to improve your skill after speaking with a more proficient friend, but less motivated after a bad night’s sleep.

One potent option for sustaining motivation is to find someone who can be a reliable cheerleader for you. In an Ask Me Anything session for Farnam Street members, Tesla co-founder Marc Tarpenning explained that having a cofounder is vital for entrepreneurs because partnering with someone else helps sustain motivation. It’s rare that both founders feel demotivated on the same day. So if one is struggling, the other can provide the encouragement needed to stay resilient. Having someone to provide extrinsic motivation when you need it can help you persevere at deliberate practice. Your cheerleader doesn’t necessarily need to be working on the same skill themselves. They just need to understand your reasons and be willing to remind you of them when you start to doubt whether the hard work is worthwhile.

Deliberate practice takes time and can be a lifelong process

Although deliberate practice tends to result in much faster progress than normal practice, truly mastering a skill is a lifelong process. Reaching the top of a field can take years or even decades, depending on its competitiveness. As the bar for success in many areas keeps rising, more deliberate practice is required to stand out.

When we applaud the top people in any field, we often fail to appreciate that their success almost always came after many years of deliberate practice, which Robert Greene refers to in Mastery as “a largely self-directed apprenticeship that lasts some five to ten years [and] receives little attention because it does not contain stories of great achievement or discovery.” They may have ultimately benefited from a lucky break, but their extensive preparation meant they were ready for it. Great achievements tend to come later in life or even near the ends of careers. Those who succeeded young started very young.

Throughout Ericsson’s decades of research, he searched high and low for an example of a true prodigy: someone born with an innate, remarkable talent. He never found a single proven example. Instead, he discovered that people labeled as prodigies invariably put in enormous amounts of deliberate practice—they just often obscured it on purpose or started at a young age.

Although innate differences count when beginning to learn something (and people who begin with advantages may be more likely to persist), in the long run, deliberate practice always wins out.

David Shenk writes in The Genius in All of Us: “Short-term intensity cannot replace long-term commitment. Many crucial changes take place over long periods of time. Physiologically, it’s impossible to become great overnight.

According to psychologist John Hayes, creative genius tends to come after ten years of studying relevant knowledge and developing skills. Hayes referred to this as the “ten years of silence.” In a study of seventy-six composers with sufficient biographical data available listed in The Lives of the Great Composers, Hayes found they almost always created their first notable works (defined as being those for which at least five different recordings were available at the time) at least ten years after commencing a serious study of music. Just three of the five hundred works Hayes included in his sample were composed after less than a decade of preparation—and those were produced in years eight or nine. In additional studies, Hayes found similar patterns for painters and poets.

Later research reinforces Hayes’ findings, and any casual survey of the lives of people widely considered to be geniuses tends to show a similar pattern. Making a breakthrough takes time. When it seems like someone was an overnight success, there’s almost always a long period of silent deliberate practice preceding it. Innate talents are just a starting point. If we want to master a skill, we need to commit to working on it for a lengthy period of time, likely with few rewards. While there are no assurances that with struggle comes reward, without it the odds are lower.

Not only do world-class performers spend a long time getting good at their core skill, those in creative fields tend to produce an enormous quantity of work before gaining recognition. For every piece of work we’re familiar with, there are likely dozens or even hundreds of others few people remember or ever saw.

For example, British prime minister Winston Churchill was known for his masterful public speaking. One of his best-known speeches “We Shall Fight on the Beaches,” given in June 1940, displayed the extent of his command of oration and helped build morale at the time. But it’s hard to overstate how prolific Churchill was as a speaker, giving an estimated 3,000 speeches during his political career. For every speech—an average of one per week between 1900 and 1955—he used deliberate practice to prepare. He engaged in focused rehearsals in front of a mirror, taking notes as he went to inform modifications. Churchill also left nothing to chance, planning his pauses and movements in advance. As well as devising his own techniques for added impact, he memorized the works of some of history’s most inspiring orators.

Although he doubtless began with a degree of innate talent (his father, Randolph Churchill, was also an admired orator), Churchill clearly used extensive deliberate practice to build upon it. While this impressive resume and history solidified his place on the throne of oratorical excellence, it’s important to note that he wasn’t a “born speaker”—in fact, he made many mistakes. And he learned from them. If you want to produce a masterpiece, you need to accept that you’ll make a lot of less remarkable work first.

Deliberate practice requires intense focus

You seldom improve much without giving the task your full attention.” —Karl Anders Ericsson

The deeper we focus during deliberate practice sessions, the more we get out of them. Intense focus allows us to increase skills and break through plateaus. Developing your attention span can have a huge impact on your life. When asked about his success, Charlie Munger once said, “I succeeded because I have a long attention span.”

The authors of The Game Before the Game write, “If you can pay attention for only five minutes in practice, then take a break every five minutes. If you can pay attention for only twenty balls, don’t hit fifty. To be able to practice longer and maintain the quality of the practice, train yourself to pay attention for longer periods of time….Productive practice is about how present you can stay with your intention and is measured in the quality of the experience as opposed to the quantity of time used.

A benefit of getting constant feedback is that it shows you what moves the needle towards improved performance and what is just running in place. Certain practice activities can feel good without having any impact. Top performers prioritize knowing what to prioritize. They always start with the most important thing because anything else is a distraction.

Intense focus is a multiplier of everything else. Keeping an eye on key metrics enables top performers to identify and systematically remove distractions from their lives. To be the best, you need to focus on both the micro and macro level. You need to pay full attention to what you’re doing in the current practice sessions, and you need to know how it fits into the bigger picture of your desired trajectory. Deliberate practice is part of the exploit phase of selecting opportunities.

As the authors of the International Handbook of Research in Professional and Practice-Based Learning write, “Practicing the right things is at the core of the theory of deliberate practice.”

How to implement this: Put the big rocks in first. You can do anything, but you can’t do everything. Figure out which practice activities have the biggest influence on your performance and plan to engage in those first before you even consider activities that offer marginal gains.

Deliberate practice leverages the spacing effect

One reason why consistent deliberate practice sessions over the course of years are more effective than longer sessions for a shorter period of time relates to the spacing effect. We can’t approach learning a skill through deliberate practice in the same way we quite likely approached studying for tests in school. If we better understand how our minds work, we can use them in the optimal way for learning. By leveraging the spacing effect, we can encode valuable knowledge related to our particular skill for life during practice sessions.

Memory mastery comes from repeated exposure to the same material. The spacing effect refers to how we are better able to recall information and concepts if we learn them in multiple sessions with increasingly large intervals between them. The most effective way to learn new information is through spaced repetition. It works for learning almost anything, and research has provided robust evidence of its efficacy for people of all ages—and even for animals.

Spaced repetition is also satisfying because it keeps us on the edge of our abilities (which, as we saw earlier, is a core element of deliberate practice.) 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. The authors of Focused Determination put it this way:

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.

We simply cannot practice something once and expect it to stick.

By engaging in deliberate practice on a regular basis, even if each practice session is short, we leverage the power of the spacing effect. Once we learn something through spaced repetition, it actually sticks with us. After a certain point, we may only need to revisit it every few years to keep our knowledge fresh. Even if we seem to forget something between repetitions, it later proves easier to relearn.

How to implement this: Forget about cramming. Each time you’re learning a new component of a skill, make a schedule for when you’ll review it. 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.

The history of deliberate practice

Karl Anders Ericsson: The expert on expertise

Learning isn’t a way of reaching one’s potential but rather a way of developing it.” —Karl Anders Ericsson, Peak

The concept of deliberate practice is attributed to Florida State University psychologist Karl Anders Ericsson, who along with his collaborators performed pioneering research in the field of expert performance. Ericsson spent decades seeking to answer the question of what it takes to become really good at something difficult. His research often focused on medicine, music, and sports.

Ericsson’s interest in expert performance kicked off in the late 1970s, when he began working with psychologist Bill Chase at Carnegie Mellon University to study short-term memory. Together, they began a series of experiments to see how many random digits it’s possible to memorize after hearing them once. Ericsson and Chase used an undergrad named Steve Faloon as their guinea pig. For a few hours each week, they read out numbers and Faloon repeated as many as he could recall.

Although the experiment might sound dull, they uncovered something intriguing. In a 1982 paper entitled “Exceptional Memory,” Ericsson and Chase summarized their findings. Previously, researchers believed the average person could hold just seven random digits in their short-term memory. Yet with careful practice, Faloon began to remember more and more numbers. At his peak and after 200 hours of practice, he could recall 82 digits. To assess if this was a fluke, Ericsson tried the same with a friend, Dario Donatelli. Five years later, Donatelli could recall 113 digits. Both he and Faloon went far beyond what seemed to be an immovable ceiling on human performance and blew past existing world records.

The experience of seeing two people who started off with ordinary memories enhance their capabilities in such a drastic way inspired Ericsson to further study the effects of practice on skills. Could it be that extraordinary abilities came from extraordinary practice, not just innate ability?

Through his studies of expert performers in a range of fields, Ericsson concluded they practiced their skills in a fundamentally different way than amateur practitioners. Ericsson described this kind of practice as “deliberate” due to its methodicial, hyper-conscious nature. He argued that experts become experts largely as a result of the way they practice. They may benefit from innate advantages, but their talents themselves are not innate.

Ericsson also believed that the standards in many additional fields could be improved far beyond their current level if practitioners employed the principles of deliberate practice. Indeed, many fields have seen remarkable increases in their standards for high performance over time. Today, high-schoolers manage athletic feats that were once Olympic level and children play music once considered world-class. This is possible because of better training and knowledge of what it takes to be the best. The more we improve how we train, the more we expand our range of possible performance.

In 2016, Ericsson published Peak: Secrets from the New Science of Expertise, a popular science book condensing his learnings from thirty years of research. He also co-edited the 2006 Cambridge Handbook of Expertise and Expert Performance.

Malcolm Gladwell: The 10,000 hour rule

The widespread awareness of Ericsson’s work outside the scientific community is in part a result of Malcolm Gladwell’s 2008 book, Outliers: The Story of Success. In the book, Gladwell attributed unusual success in different fields to a mixture of lucky factors (such as when or where a person was born) and around 10,000 hours of practice. He based this figure on research, including Ericsson’s, that suggested top performers tended to have put in about that amount of time before reaching peak performance.

Gladwell showed how the success of Bill Gates, the Beatles, and other outstanding performers is not so much to do with what they are like but rather where they come from. “The people who stand before kings may look like they did it all by themselves,” Gladwell writes. “But in fact they are invariably the beneficiaries of hidden advantages and extraordinary opportunities and cultural legacies that allow them to learn and work hard and make sense of the world in ways others cannot.

The so-called “10,000 hours rule” caught on. It’s a catchy idea, and many people took it to mean that anyone can master anything if they just put the time in. Ericsson himself disputed Gladwell’s representations of his research, which led to the widespread belief that the time someone spends practicing predicts their success, without emphasizing the quality of their practice.

Although the backlash against Gladwell’s calculation has arguably been exaggerated, it’s important to stress that research into deliberate practice emphasizes quality of practice, not quantity. It’s all too possible to spend 10,000 hours engaging in a skill without serious improvements. For example, most of us spend hours per day typing, yet we don’t see continuous improvements in speed and quality because we’re not using deliberate practice.

The useful takeaway from the “10,000 hours rule” is simply that it takes a lot of work to become the best. There’s no magic number of practice sessions, and everyone’s path will look different. Just because successful people in a given field have spent around 10,000 hours practicing their key skill, that doesn’t mean every person who practices that skill for 10,000 hours will become successful.

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The limitations and downsides of deliberate practice

Part of us wants to believe expert performance is something innate and magical so we can recuse ourselves from hard work. The other part of us wants to believe that it’s something earned through blood, sweat, and tears—that we too could achieve amazing performance, if only we could devote ourselves to something.

Deliberate practice, in reality, is far more complex and nuanced than many people would have you believe. It’s not a panacea, and it won’t solve all of your work- and art-related problems. Let’s take a look at some of the limitations of deliberate practice.

First of all, deliberate practice is a necessary but insufficient part of becoming a world-class performer. You can’t rise to the top without it. But it’s not enough on its own to be the absolute best in any field. Once you reach higher echelons for any skill, everyone is engaging in a lot of deliberate practice.

If you’re aiming at expertise or just really good performance, deliberate practice will most likely get you there. But the higher you rise, the more luck and randomness end up mattering. However much you engage in deliberate practice, you can’t control the chance events (good or bad) that dictate a great deal of life.

When we look at the lives of top performers, they often benefited from specific backgrounds or opportunities, in addition to engaging in deliberate practice. For example, if you’re trying to become a champion chess player, it’s a big boost if your mother was a champion chess player. Not only will you have potential genetic advantages, you’ll have also likely grown up hearing about chess, been encouraged to practice it from a young age, and have someone to turn to for advice.

Seeing as it takes years of consistent deliberate practice to master a skill, people who begin early in life have an advantage over those who start later on. That doesn’t mean you can’t become exceptional at something you discover well into adulthood (just look at Julia Child or check out the book Guitar Zero). But it does mean that people who begin deliberate practice as kids are more likely to enjoy the success that makes it possible to keep committing to it. If you’re trying to master a skill while also having to work an unrelated job, care for your family, and deal with the other myriad responsibilities of adult life, you likely will have less room for it than a ten-year-old.

People who discover they want to master a skill or are encouraged to do so by others early in life have an advantage. Once the opportunity for practice is in place, the prospects of high achievement take off. And if practice is denied or diminished, no amount of talent is going to get you there.

In addition to lucky circumstances, high performers benefit from a combination of deliberate practice and innate talents or physical advantages. However much you practice, certain physical limitations are insurmountable. For example, if you’re 165 centimeters tall, you’re unlikely to become a professional basketball player. There are some physical abilities, such as particular kinds of flexibility, that can only be developed at a young age when a person’s skeletal structure is still forming. It’s important to be realistic about your starting point and be aware of any limitations. But that doesn’t mean you can’t develop workarounds or even use them to your advantage.

Another downside of deliberate practice is that the level of focus it requires can mean practitioners miss out on other parts of life. Top performers often devote almost every waking hour to practice, recuperation from practice, and support activities. For example, a professional dancer might spend several hours a day on deliberate practice with all of the remaining hours going toward sleep, low-impact exercise, stretching, preparing nutritious food, icing his feet, and so on. There is enormous satisfaction in the flow states produced by deliberate practice, but practitioners can absolutely miss out on other sources of happiness, such as spending time with friends.

Deliberate practice is part of the exploit phase of new opportunities. Yet sometimes we can end up having too much grit. We can keep persevering with the skill we’re practicing right now, remaining overly passionate, past the point where it serves us. We can wear ourselves out or get hurt or fail to realize when it’s no longer worth practicing a skill. For example, a new technology might mean our skill is no longer valuable. If we keep on deliberate practicing due to sunk costs, we’ll be unlikely to see many long-term benefits from it. A crucial skill in life is knowing when to pivot. Focusing too much on our goals can blind us to risks.

In some fields, expertise is hard to quantify or measure, which makes it less clear how to structure practice. There may be no single target to hit or universal rule for what improves performance.

A final limitation to keep in mind is that, as Ericsson explained, “the cognitive and physical changes caused by training require upkeep. Stop training and they go away.” If someone can’t practice for a period of time, such as due to an injury or having a child, they’re likely to see the skills they developed through deliberate practice deteriorate.

Summary

Deliberate practice isn’t everything, but if you want to keep improving at a skill or overcome a plateau, you’ll benefit from incorporating the principles mentioned in this article. To recap:

  • Deliberate practice means practicing with a clear awareness of the specific components of a skill we’re aiming to improve and exactly how to improve them.
  • The more we engage in deliberate practice, the greater our capabilities become.
  • Our minds and bodies are far more malleable than we usually realize.
  • Deliberate practice is structured and methodical.
  • Deliberate practice is challenging because it involves constantly pushing yourself out of your comfort zone.
  • Deliberate practice requires constant feedback and measurement of informative metrics—not vanity metrics.
  • Deliberate practice works best with the help of a teacher or coach.
  • Continuing deliberate practice requires a great deal of intrinsic motivation.
  • Deliberate practice requires constant, intense focus.
  • Deliberate practice leverages the spacing effect—meaning a consistent commitment over time is crucial.
  • If you’re content with your current level of skill or just doing something for fun, you don’t necessarily need to engage in deliberate practice
  • Deliberate practice is best suited to pursuits where you’re actively aiming for a high level of performance or to break beyond some kind of supposed limit.

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Books about deliberate practice (further reading)

A world in which deliberate practice is a normal part of life would be one in which people had more volition and satisfaction.” —Karl Anders Ericsson, Peak

If you’d like to learn more about the art and science of deliberate practice, check out any of these books:

The Feynman Learning Technique

If you’re after a way to supercharge your learning and become smarter, the Feynman Technique might just be the best way to learn absolutely anything. Devised by a Nobel Prize-winning physicist, it leverages the power of teaching for better learning.

The Feynman Learning Technique is a simple way of approaching anything new you want to learn.
Why use it? Because learning doesn’t happen from skimming through a book or remembering enough to pass a test. Information is learned when you can explain it and use it in a wide variety of situations. The Feynman Technique gets more mileage from the ideas you encounter instead of rendering anything new into isolated, useless factoids.

When you really learn something, you give yourself a tool to use for the rest of your life. The more you know, the fewer surprises you will encounter, because most new things will connect to something you already understand.

Ultimately, the point of learning is to understand the world. But most of us don’t bother to deliberately learn anything. We memorize what we need to as we move through school, then forget most of it. As we continue through life, we don’t extrapolate from our experiences to broaden the applicability of our knowledge. Consequently, life kicks us in the ass time and again.

To avoid the pain of being bewildered by the unexpected, the Feynman Technique helps you turn information into knowledge that you can access as easily as a shirt in your closet.

Let’s go.

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The Feynman Technique

“Any intelligent fool can make things bigger, more complex, and more violent. It takes a touch of genius—and a lot of courage—to move in the opposite direction.” —E.F. Schumacher

There are four steps to the Feynman Learning Technique, based on the method Richard Feynman originally used. We have adapted it slightly after reflecting on our own experiences using this process to learn. The steps are as follows:

  1. Pretend to teach a concept you want to learn about to a student in the sixth grade.
  2. Identify gaps in your explanation. Go back to the source material to better understand it.
  3. Organize and simplify.
  4. Transmit (optional).

Step 1: Pretend to teach it to a child or a rubber duck

Take out a blank sheet of paper. At the top, write the subject you want to learn. Now write out everything you know about the subject as if you were teaching it to a child or a rubber duck sitting on your desk. You are not teaching to your smart adult friend, but rather a child who has just enough vocabulary and attention span to understand basic concepts and relationships.

Or, for a different angle on the Feynman Technique, you could place a rubber duck on your desk and try explaining the concept to it. Software engineers sometimes tackle debugging by explaining their code, line by line, to a rubber duck. The idea is that explaining something to a silly-looking inanimate object will force you to be as simple as possible.

It turns out that one of the ways we mask our lack of understanding is by using complicated vocabulary and jargon. The truth is, if you can’t define the words and terms you are using, you don’t really know what you’re talking about. If you look at a painting and describe it as “abstract” because that’s what you heard in art class, you aren’t displaying any comprehension of the painting. You’re just mimicking what you’ve heard. And you haven’t learned anything. You need to make sure your explanation isn’t above, say, a sixth-grade reading level by using easily accessible words and phrases.

When you write out an idea from start to finish in simple language that a child can understand, you force yourself to understand the concept at a deeper level and simplify relationships and connections between ideas. You can better explain the why behind your description of the what.

Looking at that same painting again, you will be able to say that the painting doesn’t display buildings like the ones we look at every day. Instead it uses certain shapes and colors to depict a city landscape. You will be able to point out what these are. You will be able to engage in speculation about why the artist chose those shapes and those colors. You will be able to explain why artists sometimes do this, and you will be able to communicate what you think of the piece considering all of this. Chances are, after capturing a full explanation of the painting in the simplest possible terms that would be easily understood by a sixth-grader, you will have learned a lot about that painting and abstract art in general.

Some of capturing what you would teach will be easy. These are the places where you have a clear understanding of the subject. But you will find many places where things are much foggier.

Step 2: Identify gaps in your explanation

Areas where you struggle in Step 1 are the points where you have some gaps in your understanding.
Identifying gaps in your knowledge—where you forget something important, aren’t able to explain it, or simply have trouble thinking of how variables interact—is a critical part of the learning process. Filling those gaps is when you really make the learning stick.

Now that you know where you have gaps in your understanding, go back to the source material. Augment it with other sources. Look up definitions. Keep going until you can explain everything you need to in basic terms.

Only when you can explain your understanding without jargon and in simple terms can you demonstrate your understanding. Think about it this way. If you require complicated terminology to explain what you know, you have no flexibility. When someone asks you a question, you can only repeat what you’ve already said.

Simple terms can be rearranged and easily combined with other words to communicate your point. When you can say something in multiple ways using different words, you understand it really well.
Being able to explain something in a simple, accessible way shows you’ve done the work required to learn. Skipping it leads to the illusion of knowledge—an illusion that can be quickly shattered when challenged.

Identifying the boundaries of your understanding is also a way of defining your circle of competence. When you know what you know (and are honest about what you don’t know), you limit the mistakes you’re liable to make and increase your chance of success when applying knowledge.

Step 3. Organize and simplify

Now you have a set of hand-crafted notes containing a simple explanation. Organize them into a narrative that you can tell from beginning to end. Read it out loud. If the explanation sounds confusing at any point, go back to Step 2. Keep iterating until you have a story that you can tell to anyone who will listen.

If you follow this approach over and over, you will end up with a binder full of pages on different subjects. If you take some time twice a year to go through this binder, you will find just how much you retain.

Step 4: Transmit (optional)

This part is optional, but it’s the logical result of everything you’ve just done. If you really want to be sure of your understanding, run it past someone (ideally someone who knows little of the subject). The ultimate test of your knowledge is your capacity to convey it to another. You can read out directly what you’ve written. You can present the material like a lecture. You can ask your friends for a few minutes of their time while you’re buying them dinner. You can volunteer as a guest speaker in your child’s classroom or your parents’ retirement residence. All that really matters is that you attempt to transmit the material to at least one person who isn’t that familiar with it.

The questions you get and the feedback you receive are invaluable for further developing your understanding. Hearing what your audience is curious about will likely pique your own curiosity and set you on a path for further learning. After all, it’s only when you begin to learn a few things really well do you appreciate how much there is to know.

***

The Feynman Technique is not only a wonderful recipe for learning but also a window into a different way of thinking that allows you to tear ideas apart and reconstruct them from the ground up.
When you’re having a conversation with someone and they start using words or relationships that you don’t understand, ask them to explain it to you like you’re twelve.

Not only will you supercharge your own learning, but you’ll also supercharge theirs.

Feynman’s approach intuitively believes that intelligence is a process of growth, which dovetails nicely with the work of Carol Dweck, who describes the difference between a fixed and growth mindset.

“If you can’t reduce a difficult engineering problem to just one 8-1/2 x 11-inch sheet of paper, you will probably never understand it.” —Ralph Peck

What does it mean to “know?”

Richard Feynman believed that “the world is much more interesting than any one discipline.” He understood the difference between knowing something and knowing the name of something, as well as how, when you truly know something, you can use that knowledge broadly. When you only know what something is called, you have no real sense of what it is. You can’t take it apart and play with it or use it to make new connections and generate new insights. When you know something, the labels are unimportant, because it’s not necessary to keep it in the box it came in.

“The person who says he knows what he thinks but cannot express it usually does not know what he thinks.” —Mortimer Adler

Feynman’s explanations—on why questions, why trains stay on the tracks as they go around a curve, how we look for new laws of science, or how rubber bands work—are simple and powerful. Here he articulates the difference between knowing the name of something and understanding it.

“See that bird? It’s a brown-throated thrush, but in Germany it’s called a halzenfugel, and in Chinese they call it a chung ling, and even if you know all those names for it, you still know nothing about the bird. You only know something about people: what they call the bird. Now that thrush sings, and teaches its young to fly, and flies so many miles away during the summer across the country, and nobody knows how it finds its way.”

Knowing the name of something doesn’t mean you understand it. We talk in fact-deficient, obfuscating generalities to cover up our lack of understanding.

How then should we go about learning? On this Feynman echoes Albert Einstein and proposes that we take things apart. He describes a dismal first-grade science book that attempts to teach kids about energy by showing a series of pictures about a wind-up dog toy and asking, “What makes it move?” For Feynman, this was the wrong approach because it was too abstract. Saying that energy made the dog move was equal to saying “that ‘God makes it move,’ or ‘spirit makes it move,’ or ‘movability makes it move.’ (In fact, one could equally well say ‘energy makes it stop.’)”

Staying at the level of the abstract imparts no real understanding. Kids might subsequently get the question right on a test, if they have a decent memory. But they aren’t going to have any understanding of what energy actually is.

Feynman then goes on to describe a more useful approach:

“Perhaps I can make the difference a little clearer this way: if you ask a child what makes the toy dog move, you should think about what an ordinary human being would answer. The answer is that you wound up the spring; it tries to unwind and pushes the gear around.

What a good way to begin a science course! Take apart the toy; see how it works. See the cleverness of the gears; see the ratchets. Learn something about the toy, the way the toy is put together, the ingenuity of people devising the ratchets and other things. That’s good.”

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After the Feynman Technique

“We take other men’s knowledge and opinions upon trust; which is an idle and superficial learning. We must make them our own. We are just like a man who, needing fire, went to a neighbor’s house to fetch it, and finding a very good one there, sat down to warm himself without remembering to carry any back home. What good does it do us to have our belly full of meat if it is not digested, if it is not transformed into us, if it does not nourish and support us?” —Michel de Montaigne

The Feynman Technique helps you learn stuff. But learning doesn’t happen in isolation. We learn not only from the books we read but also the people we talk to and the various positions, ideas, and opinions we are exposed to. Richard Feynman also provided advice on how to sort through information so you can decide what is relevant and what you should bother learning.

In a series of non-technical lectures in 1963, memorialized in a short book called The Meaning of It All: Thoughts of a Citizen Scientist, Feynman talks through basic reasoning and some of the problems of his day. His method of evaluating information is another set of tools you can use along with the Feynman Learning Technique to refine what you learn.

Particularly useful are a series of “tricks of the trade” he gives in a section called “This Unscientific Age.” These tricks show Feynman taking the method of thought he learned in pure science and applying it to the more mundane topics most of us have to deal with every day.

Before we start, it’s worth noting that Feynman takes pains to mention that not everything needs to be considered with scientific accuracy. It’s up to you to determine where applying these tricks might be most beneficial in your life.

Regardless of what you are trying to gather information on, these tricks help you dive deeper into topics and ideas and not get waylaid by inaccuracies or misunderstandings on your journey to truly know something.

As we enter the realm of “knowable” things in a scientific sense, the first trick has to do with deciding whether someone else truly knows their stuff or is mimicking others:

“My trick that I use is very easy. If you ask him intelligent questions—that is, penetrating, interested, honest, frank, direct questions on the subject, and no trick questions—then he quickly gets stuck. It is like a child asking naive questions. If you ask naive but relevant questions, then almost immediately the person doesn’t know the answer, if he is an honest man. It is important to appreciate that.

And I think that I can illustrate one unscientific aspect of the world which would be probably very much better if it were more scientific. It has to do with politics. Suppose two politicians are running for president, and one goes through the farm section and is asked, “What are you going to do about the farm question?” And he knows right away—bang, bang, bang.

Now he goes to the next campaigner who comes through. “What are you going to do about the farm problem?” “Well, I don’t know. I used to be a general, and I don’t know anything about farming. But it seems to me it must be a very difficult problem, because for twelve, fifteen, twenty years people have been struggling with it, and people say that they know how to solve the farm problem. And it must be a hard problem. So the way that I intend to solve the farm problem is to gather around me a lot of people who know something about it, to look at all the experience that we have had with this problem before, to take a certain amount of time at it, and then to come to some conclusion in a reasonable way about it. Now, I can’t tell you ahead of time what conclusion, but I can give you some of the principles I’ll try to use—not to make things difficult for individual farmers, if there are any special problems we will have to have some way to take care of them, etc., etc., etc.””

If you learn something via the Feynman Technique, you will be able to answer questions on the subject. You can make educated analogies, extrapolate the principles to other situations, and easily admit what you do not know.

The second trick has to do with dealing with uncertainty. Very few ideas in life are absolutely true. What you want is to get as close to the truth as you can with the information available:

“I would like to mention a somewhat technical idea, but it’s the way, you see, we have to understand how to handle uncertainty. How does something move from being almost certainly false to being almost certainly true? How does experience change? How do you handle the changes of your certainty with experience? And it’s rather complicated, technically, but I’ll give a rather simple, idealized example.

You have, we suppose, two theories about the way something is going to happen, which I will call “Theory A” and “Theory B.” Now it gets complicated. Theory A and Theory B. Before you make any observations, for some reason or other, that is, your past experiences and other observations and intuition and so on, suppose that you are very much more certain of Theory A than of Theory B—much more sure. But suppose that the thing that you are going to observe is a test. According to Theory A, nothing should happen. According to Theory B, it should turn blue. Well, you make the observation, and it turns sort of a greenish. Then you look at Theory A, and you say, “It’s very unlikely,” and you turn to Theory B, and you say, “Well, it should have turned sort of blue, but it wasn’t impossible that it should turn sort of greenish color.”

So the result of this observation, then, is that Theory A is getting weaker, and Theory B is getting stronger. And if you continue to make more tests, then the odds on Theory B increase. Incidentally, it is not right to simply repeat the same test over and over and over and over, no matter how many times you look and it still looks greenish, you haven’t made up your mind yet. But if you find a whole lot of other things that distinguish Theory A from Theory B that are different, then by accumulating a large number of these, the odds on Theory B increase.”

Feynman is talking about grey thinking here, the ability to put things on a gradient from “probably true” to “probably false” and how we deal with that uncertainty. He isn’t proposing a method of figuring out absolute, doctrinaire truth.

Another term for what he’s proposing is Bayesian updating—starting with a priori odds, based on earlier understanding, and “updating” the odds of something based on what you learn thereafter. An extremely useful tool.

Feynman’s third trick is the realization that as we investigate whether something is true or not, new evidence and new methods of experimentation should show the effect of getting stronger and stronger, not weaker. Knowledge is not static, and we need to be open to continually evaluating what we think we know. Here he uses an excellent example of analyzing mental telepathy:

“A professor, I think somewhere in Virginia, has done a lot of experiments for a number of years on the subject of mental telepathy, the same kind of stuff as mind reading. In his early experiments the game was to have a set of cards with various designs on them (you probably know all this, because they sold the cards and people used to play this game), and you would guess whether it’s a circle or a triangle and so on while someone else was thinking about it. You would sit and not see the card, and he would see the card and think about the card and you’d guess what it was. And in the beginning of these researches, he found very remarkable effects. He found people who would guess ten to fifteen of the cards correctly, when it should be on the average only five. More even than that. There were some who would come very close to a hundred percent in going through all the cards. Excellent mind readers.

A number of people pointed out a set of criticisms. One thing, for example, is that he didn’t count all the cases that didn’t work. And he just took the few that did, and then you can’t do statistics anymore. And then there were a large number of apparent clues by which signals inadvertently, or advertently, were being transmitted from one to the other.

Various criticisms of the techniques and the statistical methods were made by people. The technique was therefore improved. The result was that, although five cards should be the average, it averaged about six and a half cards over a large number of tests. Never did he get anything like ten or fifteen or twenty-five cards. Therefore, the phenomenon is that the first experiments are wrong. The second experiments proved that the phenomenon observed in the first experiment was nonexistent. The fact that we have six and a half instead of five on the average now brings up a new possibility, that there is such a thing as mental telepathy, but at a much lower level. It’s a different idea, because, if the thing was really there before, having improved the methods of experiment, the phenomenon would still be there. It would still be fifteen cards. Why is it down to six and a half? Because the technique improved. Now it still is that the six and a half is a little bit higher than the average of statistics, and various people criticized it more subtly and noticed a couple of other slight effects which might account for the results.

It turned out that people would get tired during the tests, according to the professor. The evidence showed that they were getting a little bit lower on the average number of agreements. Well, if you take out the cases that are low, the laws of statistics don’t work, and the average is a little higher than the five, and so on. So if the man was tired, the last two or three were thrown away. Things of this nature were improved still further. The results were that mental telepathy still exists, but this time at 5.1 on the average, and therefore all the experiments which indicated 6.5 were false. Now what about the five? . . . Well, we can go on forever, but the point is that there are always errors in experiments that are subtle and unknown. But the reason that I do not believe that the researchers in mental telepathy have led to a demonstration of its existence is that as the techniques were improved, the phenomenon got weaker. In short, the later experiments in every case disproved all the results of the former experiments. If remembered that way, then you can appreciate the situation.”

We must refine our process for probing and experimenting if we’re to get at real truth, always watching out for little troubles. Otherwise, we torture the world so that our results fit our expectations. If we carefully refine and re-test and the effect gets weaker all the time, it’s likely to not be true, or at least not to the magnitude originally hoped for.

The fourth trick is to ask the right question, which is not “Could this be the case?” but “Is this actually the case?” Many get so caught up with the former that they forget to ask the latter:

“That brings me to the fourth kind of attitude toward ideas, and that is that the problem is not what is possible. That’s not the problem. The problem is what is probable, what is happening.

It does no good to demonstrate again and again that you can’t disprove that this could be a flying saucer. We have to guess ahead of time whether we have to worry about the Martian invasion. We have to make a judgment about whether it is a flying saucer, whether it’s reasonable, whether it’s likely. And we do that on the basis of a lot more experience than whether it’s just possible, because the number of things that are possible is not fully appreciated by the average individual. And it is also not clear, then, to them how many things that are possible must not be happening. That it’s impossible that everything that is possible is happening. And there is too much variety, so most likely anything that you think of that is possible isn’t true. In fact that’s a general principle in physics theories: no matter what a guy thinks of, it’s almost always false. So there have been five or ten theories that have been right in the history of physics, and those are the ones we want. But that doesn’t mean that everything’s false. We’ll find out.”

The fifth trick is a very, very common one, even 50 years after Feynman pointed it out. You cannot judge the probability of something happening after it’s already happened. That’s cherry-picking. You have to run the experiment forward for it to mean anything:

“A lot of scientists don’t even appreciate this. In fact, the first time I got into an argument over this was when I was a graduate student at Princeton, and there was a guy in the psychology department who was running rat races. I mean, he has a T-shaped thing, and the rats go, and they go to the right, and the left, and so on. And it’s a general principle of psychologists that in these tests they arrange so that the odds that the things that happen by chance is small, in fact, less than one in twenty. That means that one in twenty of their laws is probably wrong. But the statistical ways of calculating the odds, like coin flipping if the rats were to go randomly right and left, are easy to work out.

This man had designed an experiment which would show something which I do not remember, if the rats always went to the right, let’s say. He had to do a great number of tests, because, of course, they could go to the right accidentally, so to get it down to one in twenty by odds, he had to do a number of them. And it’s hard to do, and he did his number. Then he found that it didn’t work. They went to the right, and they went to the left, and so on. And then he noticed, most remarkably, that they alternated, first right, then left, then right, then left. And then he ran to me, and he said, “Calculate the probability for me that they should alternate, so that I can see if it is less than one in twenty.” I said, “It probably is less than one in twenty, but it doesn’t count.”

He said, “Why?” I said, “Because it doesn’t make any sense to calculate after the event. You see, you found the peculiarity, and so you selected the peculiar case.”

The fact that the rat directions alternate suggests the possibility that rats alternate. If he wants to test this hypothesis, one in twenty, he cannot do it from the same data that gave him the clue. He must do another experiment all over again and then see if they alternate. He did, and it didn’t work.”

The sixth trick is one that’s familiar to almost all of us, yet almost all of us forget about every day: the plural of anecdote is not data. We must use proper statistical sampling to know whether or not we know what we’re talking about:

“The next kind of technique that’s involved is statistical sampling. I referred to that idea when I said they tried to arrange things so that they had one in twenty odds. The whole subject of statistical sampling is somewhat mathematical, and I won’t go into the details. The general idea is kind of obvious. If you want to know how many people are taller than six feet tall, then you just pick people out at random, and you see that maybe forty of them are more than six feet so you guess that maybe everybody is. Sounds stupid.

Well, it is and it isn’t. If you pick the hundred out by seeing which ones come through a low door, you’re going to get it wrong. If you pick the hundred out by looking at your friends, you’ll get it wrong, because they’re all in one place in the country. But if you pick out a way that as far as anybody can figure out has no connection with their height at all, then if you find forty out of a hundred, then in a hundred million there will be more or less forty million. How much more or how much less can be worked out quite accurately. In fact, it turns out that to be more or less correct to 1 percent, you have to have 10,000 samples. People don’t realize how difficult it is to get the accuracy high. For only 1 or 2 percent you need 10,000 tries.”

The last trick is to realize that many errors people make simply come from lack of information. They don’t even know they’re missing the tools they need. This can be a very tough one to guard against—it’s hard to know when you’re missing information that would change your mind—but Feynman gives the simple case of astrology to prove the point:

“Now, looking at the troubles that we have with all the unscientific and peculiar things in the world, there are a number of them which cannot be associated with difficulties in how to think, I think, but are just due to some lack of information. In particular, there are believers in astrology, of which, no doubt, there are a number here. Astrologists say that there are days when it’s better to go to the dentist than other days. There are days when it’s better to fly in an airplane, for you, if you are born on such a day and such and such an hour. And it’s all calculated by very careful rules in terms of the position of the stars. If it were true it would be very interesting. Insurance people would be very interested to change the insurance rates on people if they follow the astrological rules, because they have a better chance when they are in the airplane. Tests to determine whether people who go on the day that they are not supposed to go are worse off or not have never been made by the astrologers. The question of whether it’s a good day for business or a bad day for business has never been established. Now what of it? Maybe it’s still true, yes.

On the other hand, there’s an awful lot of information that indicates that it isn’t true. Because we have a lot of knowledge about how things work, what people are, what the world is, what those stars are, what the planets are that you are looking at, what makes them go around more or less, where they’re going to be in the next 2,000 years is completely known. They don’t have to look up to find out where it is. And furthermore, if you look very carefully at the different astrologers they don’t agree with each other, so what are you going to do? Disbelieve it. There’s no evidence at all for it. It’s pure nonsense.

The only way you can believe it is to have a general lack of information about the stars and the world and what the rest of the things look like. If such a phenomenon existed it would be most remarkable, in the face of all the other phenomena that exist, and unless someone can demonstrate it to you with a real experiment, with a real test, took people who believe and people who didn’t believe and made a test, and so on, then there’s no point in listening to them.”

 

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Conclusion

Knowing something is valuable. The more you understand about how the world works, the more options you have for dealing with the unexpected and the better you can create and capitalize on opportunities. The Feynman Learning Technique is a great method to develop mastery over sets of information. Once you do, the knowledge becomes a powerful tool at your disposal.

But as Feynman himself showed, being willing and able to question your knowledge and the knowledge of others is how you keep improving. Learning is a journey.

If you want to learn more about Feynman’s ideas and teachings, we recommend:

Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman!: Adventures of a Curious Character

The Pleasure of Finding Things Out: The Best Short Works of Richard Feynman

What Do You Care What Other People Think?: Further Adventures of a Curious Character

Why You Should Practice Failure

We learn valuable lessons when we experience failure and setbacks. Most of us wait for those failures to happen to us, however, instead of seeking them out. But deliberately making mistakes can give us the knowledge we need to more easily overcome obstacles in the future.

We learn from our mistakes. When we screw up and fail, we learn how not to handle things. We learn what not to do.

Failing is a byproduct of trying to succeed. We do our research, make our plans, get the necessary ingredients, and try to put it all together. Often, things don’t go as we wish. If we’re smart, we reflect on what happened and make note of where we could do better next time.

But how many of us make deliberate mistakes? How often do we try to fail in order to learn from it?

If we want to avoid costly mistakes in the future when the stakes are high, then making some now might be excellent preparation.

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Practicing failure is a common practice for pilots. In 1932, at the dawn of the aviation age, Amelia Earhart described the value for all pilots of learning through deliberate mistakes. “The fundamental stunts taught to students are slips, stalls, and spins,” she says in her autobiography The Fun of It. “A knowledge of some stunts is judged necessary to good flying. Unless a pilot has actually recovered from a stall, has actually put his plane into a spin and brought it out, he cannot know accurately what those acts entail. He should be familiar enough with abnormal positions of his craft to recover without having to think how.

For a pilot, stunting is a skill attained through practice. You go up in a plane and, for example, you change the angle of the wings to deliberately stall the craft. You prepare beforehand by learning what a stall is, what the critical variables you have to pay attention to are, and how other pilots address stalls. You learn the optimal response. But then you go up in the air and actually apply your knowledge. What’s easy and obvious on the ground, when you’re under little pressure, isn’t guaranteed to come to you when your plane loses lift and function at 10,000 feet. Deliberately stalling your plane, making a conscientious mistake when you have prepared to deal with it, gives you the experience to react when a stall happens in a less controlled situation.

The first time your plane unexpectedly stops working in mid-flight is scary for any pilot. But those who have practiced in similar situations are far more likely to react appropriately. “An individual’s life on the ground or in the air may depend on a split second,” Earhart writes. “The slow response which results from seldom, if ever, having accomplished the combination of acts required in a given circumstance may be the deciding factor.” You don’t want the first stall to come at night in poor weather when you have your family in the cabin. Much better to practice stalling in a variety of situations ahead of time—that way, when one happens unexpectedly, your reactions can be guided by successful experience and not panic.

Earhart advises that in advance, the solution to many problems can be worked out on paper, “but only experience counts when there is no time to think a process through. The pilot who hasn’t stalled a plane is less likely to be able to judge correctly the time and space necessary for recovery than one who has.

If you practice failing every so often, you increase your flexibility and adaptability when life throws obstacles in your way. Of course, no amount of preparation will get you through all possible challenges, and Earhart’s own story is the best example of that. But making deliberate mistakes in order to learn from them is one way to give ourselves optionality when our metaphorical engine stops in midair.

If we don’t practice failing, we can only safely fly on sunny days.

We Are What We Remember

Memory is an intrinsic part of our life experience. It is critical for learning, and without memories we would have no sense of self. Understanding why some memories stick better than others, as well as accepting their fluidity, helps us reduce conflict and better appreciate just how much our memories impact our lives.

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“Which of our memories are true and which are not is something we may never know. It doesn’t change who we are.”

Memories can be so vivid. Let’s say you are spending time with your sibling and reflecting on your past when suddenly a memory pops up. Even though it’s about events that occurred twenty years ago, it seems like it happened yesterday. The sounds and smells pop into your mind. You remember what you were wearing, the color of the flowers on the table. You chuckle and share your memory with your sibling. But they stare at you and say, “That’s not how I remember it at all.” What?

Memory discrepancies happen all the time, but we have a hard time accepting that our memories are rarely accurate. Because we’ve been conditioned to think of our memories like video recordings or data stored in the cloud, we assert that our rememberings are the correct ones. Anyone who remembers the situation differently must be wrong.

Memories are never an exact representation of a moment in the past. They are not copied with perfect fidelity, and they change over time. Some of our memories may not even be ours, but rather something we saw in a film or a story someone else told to us. We mix and combine memories, especially older ones, all the time. It can be hard to accept the malleable nature of memories and the fact that they are not just sitting in our brains waiting to be retrieved. In Adventures in Memory, writer Hilde Østby and neuropsychologist Ylva Østby present a fascinating journey through all aspects of memory. Their stories and investigations provide great insight into how memory works; and how our capacity for memory is an integral part of the human condition, and how a better understanding of memory helps us avoid the conflicts we create when we insist that what we remember is right.

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Memory and learning

“One thing that aging doesn’t diminish is the wisdom we have accumulated over a lifetime.”

Our memories, dynamic and changing though they may be, are with us for the duration of our lives. Unless you’ve experienced brain trauma, you learn new things and store at least some of what you learn in memory.

Memory is an obvious component of learning, but we don’t often think of it that way. When we learn something new, it’s against the backdrop of what we already know. All knowledge that we pick up over the years is stored in memory. The authors suggest that “how much you know in a broad sense determines what you understand of the new things you learn.” Because it’s easier to remember something if it can hook into context you already have, then the more you know, the more a new memory can attach to. Thus, what we already know, what we remember, impacts what we learn.

The Østbys explain that the strongest memory networks are created “when we learn something truly meaningful and make an effort to understand it.” They describe someone who is passionate about diving and thus “will more easily learn new things about diving than about something she’s never been interested in before.” Because the diver already knows a lot about diving, and because she loves it and is motivated to learn more, new knowledge about diving will easily attach itself to the memory network she already has about the subject.

While studying people who seem to have amazing memories, as measured by the sheer amount they can recall with accuracy, one of the conclusions the Østbys reach is “that many people who rely on their memories don’t use mnemonic techniques, nor do they cram. They’re just passionate about what they do.” The more meaningful the topics and the more we are invested in truly learning, the higher the chances are that we will convert new information into lasting memory. Also, the more we learn, the more we will remember. There doesn’t seem to be a limit on how much we can put into memory.

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How we build our narratives

The experience of being a human is inseparable from our ability to remember. You can’t build relationships without memories. You can’t prepare for the future if you don’t remember the past.

The memories we hold on to early on have a huge impact on the ones we retain as we progress through life. “When memories enter our brain,” the Østbys explain, “they attach themselves to similar memories: ones from the same environment, or that involve the same feeling, the same music, or the same significant moment in history. Memories seldom swim around without connections.” Thus, a memory is significantly more likely to stick around if it can attach itself to something. A new experience that has very little in common with the narrative we’ve constructed of ourselves is harder to retain in memory.

As we get older, our new memories tend to reinforce what we already think of ourselves. “Memory is self-serving,” the Østbys write. “Memories are linked to what concerns you, what you feel, what you want.

Why is it so much easier to remember the details of a vacation or a fight we’ve had with our partner than the details of a physics lesson or the plot of a classic novel? “The fate of a memory is mostly determined by how much it means to us. Personal memories are important to us. They are tied to our hopes, our values, and our identities. Memories that contribute meaningfully to our personal autobiography prevail in our minds.” We need not beat ourselves up because we have a hard time remembering names or birthdays. Rather, we can accept that the triggers for the creation of a memory and its retention are related to how it speaks to the narrative we maintain about ourselves. This view of memory suggests that to better retain information, we can try to make knowing that information part of our identity. We don’t try to remember physics equations for the sake of it, but rather because in our personal narrative, we are someone who knows a lot about physics.

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Memory, imagination, and fluidity

Our ability to imagine is based, in part, on our ability to remember. The connection works on two levels.

The first, the Østbys write, is that “our memories are the fuel for our imagination.” What we remember about the past informs a lot of what we can imagine about the future. Whether it’s snippets from movies we’ve seen or activities we’ve done, it’s our ability to remember the experiences we’ve had that provide the foundation for our imagination.

Second, there is a physical connection between memory and imagination. “The process that gives us vivid memories is the same as the one that we use to imagine the future.” We use the same parts of the brain when we immerse ourselves in an event from our past as we do when we create a vision for our future. Thus, one of the conclusions of Adventures in Memory is that “as far as our brains are concerned, the past and future are almost the same.” In terms of how they can feel to us, memories and the products of imagination are not that different.

The interplay between past and future, between memory and imagination, impacts the formation of memories themselves. Memory “is a living organism,” the Østbys explain, “always absorbing images, and when new elements are added, they are sewn into the original memory as seamlessly as only our imagination can do.”

One of the most important lessons from the book is to change up the analogies we use to understand memory. Memories are not like movies, exactly the same no matter how many times you watch them. Nor are they like files stored in a computer, unchanging data saved for when we might want to retrieve it. Memories, like the rest of our biology, are fluid.

Memory is more like live theater, where there are constantly new productions of the same pieces,” the Østbys write. “Each and every one of our memories is a mix of fact and fiction. In most memories the central story is based on true events, but it’s still reconstructed every time we recall it. In these reconstructions, we fill in the gaps with probable facts. We subconsciously pick up details from a sort-of memory prop room.

Understanding our memory more like a theater production, where the version you see in London’s West End isn’t going to be exactly the same as the one you see on Broadway, helps us let go of attaching a judgment of accuracy to what we remember. It’s okay to find out when reminiscing with friends that you have different memories of the same day. It’s also acceptable that two people will have different memories of the events leading to their divorce, or that business partners will have different memories of the terms they agreed to at the start of the partnership. The more you get used to the fluidity of your memories, the more the differences in recollections become sources of understanding instead of points of contention. What people communicate about what they remember can give you insight into their attitudes, beliefs, and values.

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Conclusion

New memories build on the ones that are already there. The more we know, the easier it is to remember the new things we learn. But we have to be careful and recognize that our tendency is to reinforce the narrative we’ve already built. Brand new information is harder to retain, but sometimes we need to make the effort.

Finally, memories are important not only for learning and remembering but also because they form the basis of what we can imagine and create. In so many ways, we are what we remember. Accepting that our vivid memories can be very different from those who were in the same situation helps us reduce the conflict that comes with insisting that our memories must always be correct.

How Julia Child Used First Principles Thinking

There’s a big difference between knowing how to follow a recipe and knowing how to cook. If you can master the first principles within a domain, you can see much further than those who are just following recipes. That’s what Julia Child, “The French Chef”, did throughout her career.

Following a recipe might get you the results you want, but it doesn’t teach you anything about how cooking works at the foundational level. Or what to do when something goes wrong. Or how to come up with your own recipes when you open the fridge on a Wednesday night and realize you forgot to go grocery shopping. Or how to adapt recipes for your own dietary needs.

Adhering to recipes will only get you so far, and it certainly won’t result in you coming up with anything new or creative.

People who know how to cook understand the basic principles that make food taste, look, and smell good. They have confidence in troubleshooting and solving problems as they go—or adjusting to unexpected outcomes. They can glance at an almost barren kitchen and devise something delicious. They know how to adapt to a guest with a gluten allergy or a child who doesn’t like green food. Sure, they might consult a recipe when it makes sense to do so. But they’re not dependent on it, and they can change it up based on their particular circumstances.

There’s a reason many cooking competition shows feature a segment where contestants need to design their own recipe from a limited assortment of ingredients. Effective improvisation shows the judges that someone can actually cook, not just follow recipes.

We can draw a strong parallel from cooking to thinking. If you want to learn how to think for yourself, you can’t just follow what someone else came up with. You need to understand first principles if you want to be able to solve complex problems or think in a unique, creative fashion. First principles are the building blocks of knowledge, the foundational understanding acquired from breaking something down into its most essential concepts.

One person who exemplifies first principles thinking is Julia Child, an American educator who charmed audiences with her classes, books, and TV shows. First principles thinking enabled Julia to both master her own struggles with cooking and then teach the world to do the same. In Something from the Oven, Laura Shapiro tells the charming story of how she did it. Here’s what we can learn about better thinking from the “French Chef.”

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Gustave Flaubert wrote that “talent is a long patience, ” something which was all too true for Julia. She wasn’t born with an innate skill for or even love of cooking. Her starting point was falling in love with her future husband, Paul Child, in Ceylon in 1944 when both were working for the Office of Strategic Services. Paul adored food, and his delight in it inspired Julia. When they each returned to their separate homes after the war, she decided she would learn to cook. Things got off to a bad start, as Shapiro explains:

“At first she tried to teach herself at home, but it was frustrating to bushwhack her way through one dish after another. She never knew whether she would find success or failure when she opened the oven door, and worst of all, she didn’t know why this recipe worked and that one didn’t.”

Seeking expert guidance, Julia started taking cooking classes three times a week at a Beverly Hills cooking school. Even that didn’t help much, however, and after she married Paul a year later, her experiments in their Washington, DC kitchen continued to go awry. Only when the couple moved to Paris did an epiphany strike. Julia’s encounters with French cooking instilled in her an understanding of the need for first principles thinking. Trying to follow recipes without comprehending their logic wasn’t going to produce delicious results. She needed to learn how food actually worked.

In 1949, at the age of 37, she enrolled in classes at the famous Cordon Bleu school of cooking. It changed her forever:

“Learning to cook at the Cordon Bleu meant breaking down every dish into its smallest individual steps and doing each laborious and exhausting procedure by hand. In time Child could bone a duck while leaving the skin intact, extract the guts of a chicken through a hole she made in the neck, make a ham mousse by pounding the ham to a pulp with a mortar and pestle, and turn out a swath of elaborate dishes from choucroute garnie to vol-au-vent financière. None of this came effortlessly but she could do it. She had the brains, the considerable physical strength it demanded, and her vast determination. Most important, she could understand for the first time the principles governing how and why a recipe worked as it did.”

Julia had found her calling. After six months of Cordon Bleu classes, she continued studying independently for a year. She immersed herself in French cooking, filled her home with equipment, and befriended two women who shared her passion, Simone Beck and Louisette Bertholle. In the early 1950s, they opened a tiny school together, with a couple of students working out of Julia’s kitchen. She was “adamant that the recipes used in class be absolutely reliable, and she tested every one of them for what she called ‘scientific workability.’” By this, Julia meant that the recipes needed to make sense per her understanding of the science of cooking. If they didn’t agree with the first principles she knew, they were out.

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When Paul transferred to Marseille, Julia was sad to leave her school. But she and her friends continued their collaboration, working at a distance on a French cookery book aimed at Americans. For what would become Mastering the Art of French Cooking, Julia focused on teaching first principles in a logical order, not copying down mere recipes.

She’d grown frustrated at opening recipe books to see instructions she knew couldn’t work because they contradicted the science of cooking—for example, recipes calling for temperatures she knew would burn a particular ingredient, or omitting key ingredients like baking soda, without which a particular effect would be impossible. It was clear no one had bothered to test anything before they wrote it down, and she was determined not to make the same mistake.

Mastering the Art of French Cooking came out in 1961. Shapiro writes, “The reviews were excellent, there was a gratifying burst of publicity all across the country, and the professional food world acknowledged a new star in Julia Child. What nobody knew for sure was whether everyday homemakers in the nation that invented the TV dinner would buy the book.” Though the book was far from a flop, it was the TV show it inspired that catapulted Julia and her approach to cooking to stardom.

The French Chef first aired in 1963 and was an enormous success from the start. Viewers adored how Julia explained why she did what she did and how it worked. They also loved her spontaneous capacity to adapt to unanticipated outcomes. It was usually only possible to shoot one take so Julia needed to keep going no matter what happened.

Her show appealed to every kind of person because it could make anyone a better cook—or at least help them understand the process better. Not only was Julia “a striking image of unaffected good nature,” the way she taught really worked. Viewers and readers who followed her guidance discovered a way of cooking that made them feel in control.

Julia “believed anybody could cook with distinction from scratch and that’s what she was out to prove.” Many of the people who watched The French Chef were women who needed a new way to think about cooking. As gender roles were being redefined and more women entered the workforce, it no longer seemed like something they were obligated by birth to do. At the same time, treating it as an undesirable chore was no more pleasant than treating it as a duty. Julia taught them another way. Cooking could be an intellectual, creative, enjoyable activity. Once you understood how it actually worked, you could learn from mistakes instead of repeating them again and again.

Shapiro explains that “Child was certainly not the first TV chef. The genre was almost as old as TV itself. But she was the first to make it her own and have an enduring societal impact.”

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If you can master the first principles within a domain, you can see much further than those who are just following recipes. That’s what Julia managed to do, and it’s part of why she stood out from the other TV chefs of her time—and still stands out today. By mastering first principles, you can find better ways of doing things, instead of having to stick to conventions. If Julia thought a modern piece of equipment worked better than a traditional one or that part of a technique was a pointless custom, she didn’t hesitate to make changes as she saw fit. Once you know the why of something, it is easy to modify the how to achieve your desired result.

The lessons of first principles in cooking are the same for the first principles in any domain. Looking for first principles is just a way of thinking. It’s a commitment to understanding the foundation that something is built on and giving yourself the freedom to adapt, develop, and create. Once you know the first principles, you can keep learning more advanced concepts as well as innovating for yourself.

Learning Through Play

Play is an essential way of learning about the world. Doing things we enjoy without a goal in mind leads us to find new information, better understand our own capabilities, and find unexpected beauty around us. Arithmetic is one example of an area we can explore through play.

Every parent knows that children need space for unstructured play that helps them develop their creativity and problem-solving skills. Free-form experimentation leads to the rapid acquisition of information about the world. When children play together, they expand their social skills and strengthen the ability to regulate their emotions. Young animals, such as elephants, dogs, ravens, and crocodiles, also develop survival skills through play.

The benefits of play don’t disappear as soon as you become an adult. Even if we engage our curiosity in different ways as we grow up, a lot of learning and exploration still comes from analogous activities: things we do for the sheer fun of it.

When the pressure mounts to be productive every minute of the day, we have much to gain from doing all we can to carve out time to play. Take away prescriptions and obligations, and we gravitate towards whatever interests us the most. Just like children and baby elephants, we can learn important lessons through play. It can also give us a new perspective on topics we take for granted—such as the way we represent numbers.

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Playing with symbols

The book Arithmetic, in addition to being a clear and engaging history of the subject, is a demonstration of how insights and understanding can be combined with enjoyment and fun. The best place to start the book is at the afterword, where author and mathematics professor Paul Lockhart writes, “I especially hope that I have managed to get across the idea of viewing your mind as a playground—a place to create beautiful things for your own pleasure and amusement and to marvel at what you’ve made and at what you have yet to understand.

Arithmetic, the branch of math dealing with the manipulation and properties of numbers, can be very playful. After all, there are many ways to add and multiply numbers that in themselves can be represented in various ways. When we see six cows in a field, we represent that amount with the symbol 6. The Romans used VI. And there are many other ways that unfortunately can’t be typed on a standard English keyboard. If two more cows wander into the field, the usual method of counting them is to add 2 to 6 and conclude there are now 8 cows. But we could just as easily add 2 + 3 + 3. Or turn everything into fractions with a base of 2 and go from there.

One of the most intriguing parts of the book is when Lockhart encourages us to step away from how we commonly label numbers so we can have fun experimenting with them. He says, “The problem with familiarity is not so much that it breeds contempt, but that it breeds loss of perspective.” So we don’t get too hung up on our symbols such as 4 and 5, Lockhart shows us how any symbols can be used to complete some of the main arithmetic tasks such as comparing and grouping. He shows how completely random symbols can represent amounts and gives insight into how they can be manipulated.

When we start to play with the representations, we connect to the underlying reasoning behind what we are doing. We could be counting for the purposes of comparison, and we could also be interested in learning the patterns produced by our actions. Lockhart explains that “every number can be represented in a variety of ways, and we want to choose a form that is as useful and convenient as possible.” We can thus choose our representations of numbers based on curiosity versus what is conventional. It’s easy to extrapolate this thinking to broader life situations. How often do we assume certain parameters are fixed just because that is what has always been done? What else could we accomplish if we let go of convention and focused instead on function?

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Stepping away from requirements

We all use the Hindu-Arabic number system, which utilizes groups of tens. Ten singles are ten, ten tens are a hundred, and so on. It has a consistent logic to it, and it is a pervasive way of grouping numbers as they increase. But Lockhart explains that grouping numbers by ten is as arbitrary as the symbols we use to represent numbers. He explains how a society might group by fours or sevens. One of the most interesting ideas though, comes when he’s explaining the groupings:

“You might think there is no question about it; we chose four as our grouping size, so that’s that. Of course we will group our groups into fours—as opposed to what? Grouping things into fours and then grouping our groups into sixes? That would be insane! But it happens all the time. Inches are grouped into twelves to make feet, and then three feet make a yard. And the old British monetary system had twelve pence to the shilling and twenty shillings to the pound.”

By reminding us of the options available in such a simple, everyday activity as counting, Lockhart opens a mental door. What other ways might we go about our tasks and solve our problems? It’s a reminder that most of our so-called requirements are ones that we impose on ourselves.

If we think back to being children, we often played with things in ways that were different from what they were intended for. Pots became drums and tape strung around the house became lasers. A byproduct of this type of play is usually learning—we learn what things are normally used for by playing with them. But that’s not the intention behind a child’s play. The fun comes first, and thus they don’t restrain themselves to convention.

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Have fun with the unfamiliar

There are advantages and disadvantages to all counting systems. For Lockhart, the only way to discover what those are is to play around with them. And it is in the playing that we may learn more than arithmetic. For example, he says: “In fact, getting stuck (say on 7 +8 for instance) is one of the best things that can happen to you because it gives you an opportunity to reinvent and to appreciate exactly what it is that you are doing.” In the case of adding two numbers, we “are rearranging numerical information for comparison purposes.

The larger point is that getting stuck on anything can be incredibly useful. If forces you to stop and consider what it is you are really trying to achieve. Getting stuck can help you identify the first principles in your situation. In getting unstuck, we learn lessons that resonate and help us to grow.

Lockhart says of arithmetic that we need to “not let our familiarity with a particular system blind us to its arbitrariness.” We don’t have to use the symbol 2 to represent how many cows there are in a field, just as we don’t have to group sixty minutes into one hour. We may find those representations useful, but we also may not. There are some people in the world with so much money that the numbers that represent their wealth are almost nonsensical, and most people find the clock manipulation that is the annual flip to daylight savings time to be annoying and stressful.

Playing around with arithmetic can teach the broader lesson that we don’t have to keep using systems that no longer serve us well. Yet how many of us have a hard time letting go of the ineffective simply because it’s familiar?

Which brings us back to play. Play is often the exploration of the unfamiliar. After all, if you knew what the result would be, it likely wouldn’t be considered play. When we play we take chances, we experiment, and we try new combinations just to see what happens. We do all of this in the pursuit of fun because it is the novelty that brings us pleasure and makes play rewarding.

Lockhart makes a similar point about arithmetic:

“The point of studying arithmetic and its philosophy is not merely to get good at it but also to gain a larger perspective and to expand our worldview . . . Plus, it’s fun. Anyway, as connoisseurs of arithmetic, we should always be questioning and critiquing, examining and playing.”

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We suggest that playing need not be confined to arithmetic. If you happen to enjoy playing with numbers, then go for it. Lockhart’s book gives great inspiration on how to have fun with numbers. Playing is inherently valuable and doesn’t need to be productive. Children and animals have no purpose for play; they merely do what’s fun. It just so happens that unstructured, undirected play often has incredibly powerful byproducts.

Play can lead to new ideas and innovations. It can also lead to personal growth and development, not to mention a better understanding of the world. And, by its definition, play leads to fun. Which is the best part. Arithmetic is just one example of an unexpected area we can approach with the spirit of play.