In a world awash with information, where the possession of a broad range of skills and knowledge gives the investor and businessperson an edge in the marketplace, knowing how to learn is perhaps the most neglected of skills. This is your ultimate guide to learning hard skills and mastering knowledge quickly.
“If I had an hour to solve a problem I’d spend 55 minutes thinking about the problem and 5 minutes thinking about solutions.”
― Albert Einstein
In 1486, Pico della Mirandola, an Italian scholar and philosopher, composed the Oration on the Dignity of Man, the most forceful argument for the Renaissance worldview that humanity was “worthy of wonder” and that there was “nothing to be seen more wonderful than man”. In what has been called the “manifesto” of the Renaissance, he marveled at our capacity to learn and believed that it is our supreme vocation, possessing no fixed image and capable of immense change and growth, to pursue the limits of human capacity. Beginning with moral self-discipline, he believed in the pursuit of knowledge in a multidisciplinary manner that is staggering by modern standards, on the road to the realization of a near-divine level of perfection. The culmination of the Renaissance and his vision can be seen in the figure of Leonardo da Vinci, for whom all knowledge was fundamentally united and organized around a few natural laws. The Renaissance was not an era of specialization, it was the epoch of the generalist, a flowering of the synthesis of knowledge, and embodied what the biologist E.O. Wilson calls, “consilience”: “literally a ‘jumping together’ of knowledge by the linking of facts and fact-based theory across disciplines to create a common groundwork of explanation.” Wilson, in Consilience: The Unity of Knowledge discusses the ways in which sciences have been united and how they may again be united with the humanities. Charlie Munger has advocated for what he calls for the use of a “latticework of mental models” in the discipline of investing, and the best example of this approach to investing can be seen in Michael Mauboussin’s book More than You Know. Centuries after Pico della Mirandola’s manifesto, scientists have discovered the neuroplasticity of the brain: that property of the brain which allows it to undergo structural or physiological changes well into adulthood, in effect meaning that the human brain, regardless of age, is always capable of learning. What is often neglected though is the problem of learning itself. Just how are we to learn when there is so much to learn and so little time?
The MIT Challenge
Scott H. Young, disgruntled with a business degree that left him unprepared to be the entrepreneur he wanted to be, wanted to study computer science. He had two choices: return back to university and spend another four years studying, while adding to his student debt, or undertaking what he called, the “MIT Challenge”: a self-directed learning project in which he would use the OpenCourseWare MIT classes and other resources to teach himself the content of a four year MIT computer science degree in a year. After completing the MIT Challenge, Young went on to learn four languages in one year.
As he discusses in his book, Ultralearning, he was not the first to attempt such an audacious goal. When I first attempted to learn French, the whole experience was a nightmare, until, one day, I decided that there had to be a more efficient way to learn a language, an idea which seemed ludicrous at the time because “everybody knows” adults are bad at languages. Then I discovered the world of polyglots, people who knew to a high level, six or more languages. I discovered people such as Harold Williams, who spoke fifty-eight languages, George Campbell who knew at least forty-four languages, and Benny Lewis, who in his book, Fluent in 3 Months, describes how he learns a language. Young introduces us to Lewis as an example of an “ultralearner”, self-directed and intensely focused learners. Some of these ultralearners gave themselves completely to their learning project, others, constrained by time, managed their learning projects alongside their other obligations. Young discovered certain common themes among the eclectic group of ultralearners and his book is a distillation of those themes.
Nine Principles of Ultralearning
Young gives nine universal principles of ultralearning which are a great framework to talk about how to learn hard skills fast:
1. Metalearning. Essentially, this is “learning how to learn”, which is a process of discovering the skills you need to know to achieve your goal and developing your own “curriculum” or appropriating someone else’s. This is a mapping exercise, a time to ask “dumb questions” about what you need to learn to get to your goal. As Richard Feynman said, “Some people think in the beginning that I’m kind of slow and I don’t understand the problem, because I ask a lot of these ‘dumb’ questions.” An example of how this would work is in language learning: figuring out what you want to say and the most commonly used words in a language, can go a long way to accelerating your progress. If you want to learn French to read the annual reports of firms on the CAC 40, there is little point in trying to read Jean Racine’s tragedy, Phèdre. Furthermore, knowing that the 100 most commonly used words in any language typically account for 50-60% of usage –”the” is the most used word in English– tells you where to start, as Joshua Foer, founder of Memrise and author of Moonwalking with Einstein discovered when he learnt to speak basic Lingala in 22 hours.
2. Focus. Concentration is everything. Cal Newport’s book, Deep Work, goes more deeply into the subject. The best book I have read on concentration itself is The Attention Revolution by Alan Wallace. In an age of distraction, focus is a rare skill. As Young notes, there are different levels of focus needed for each task: according to the Yerkes–Dodson law, there is an optimal level of “arousal” for different tasks. LeBron James needs a higher level of arousal when he makes a free-throw than Magnus Carlsen does when he plots an attack in the middle game.
3. Directness. This is a simple principle which is often ignored: you learn by doing. A lot of learning is learning about not learning by doing. If your learning project is to be able to value a business through discounted cash flow analysis, and produce a formal valuation of it, then your time is best spent learning how to do everything involved in using discounted cash flows to value a business and writing out your analysis. This seems obvious but is usually ignored. Anyone who is learning a language knows that the majority of the time they are learning about the language without actually speaking, or writing in that language.
4. Drill. Ruthlessly attack your weak spots,break down complex skills into their smaller parts then bring it all back together again. If you want to learn to do the moonwalk, you have to see the moonwalk as more than just one flowing move, but as a series of discrete skills to learn. By breaking it down, it becomes easier to learn and zero in on those skills you are weak in. Josh Waitzkin, who has been a US junior chess champion then world Tai Chi champion, says in his superb book, The Art of Learning, “Over time expansiveness decreases while potency increases. I call this method ‘Making Smaller Circles’”. Drills are not just about breaking a skill up, but also about slowing down, because, as Waitzkin notes, “We have to be able to do something slowly before we can have any hope of doing it correctly with speed.”
5. Retrieval. Test! Test! Test! Young gives the example of Srinivasa Ramanujan, the Indian mathematician, as an example of the power of testing. Ramunjan lacked access to high quality math texts and so had to make do with books such as George Shoobridge Carr’s A Synopsis of Elementary Results in Pure and Applied Mathematics. Carr’s book included many theorems from pure and applied mathematics, often, without any proofs or explanations supplied. Ramanujan had to figure out how to derive all the theorems all on his own. Research shows that summoning knowledge from memory and testing in the absence of a text is the best way to achieve long-term mastery of a subject, even when you lack feedback to see what you are getting right or wrong. You can practice retrieval with flash cards; or spaced repetition systems like Anki, which are essentially automated flash cards that flash each card according to how well you recall its contents; using free recall after each section of a book; rephrase the main points as questions, rather than taking notes -Young gives this example: “Instead of writing that the Magna Carta was signed in 1215, you could instead write the question ‘When was the Magna Carta signed?’ with a reference to where to find the answer in case you forget. By taking notes as questions instead of answers, you generate the material to practice retrieval on later.”-; by giving yourself a challenge; and with closed-book concept mapping.
6. Feedback is the ship’s captain. Deliberate practice requires the constant availability of feedback to keep you on the right track. Feedback can come from doing practice problems for which you have the answers, or having a coach or language partner who will tell you when you go astray. As Anders Ericsson said in his famous article in the Psychological Review, “We argue that the differences between expert performers and normal adults reflect a life-long period of deliberate effort to improve performance in a specific domain.”
7. Retention. Memory is another underrated skill. Foer’s book, Moonwalking with Einstein, alongside Frances Yates’ The Art of Memory -a beautiful book that links mnemonics with the history of philosophy, science and literature-, are the best books on memory around from a philosophical and historical standpoint. Foer takes us through his journey to become the US Memory Champion -yes, there is such a thing- and looks at the history of mnemonics and it’s decline after the Renaissance and its rise in our times in extreme memory sports. Rajveer Meena holds the current record for most digits of Pi memorized, at 70,000 digits. Lkhagvadulam Enkhtuya memorized 1251 random digits in five minutes. The many exotic records of mnemonists are a reminder of the immense power the human mind has. Training without retention of what you are learning is like trying to fill a leaky bucket with water. Memory is, like learning itself, a skill which can be learnt. One can either go the route of mnemonics, for which Dominic O’Brien’s You Can Have an Amazing Memory is the best introduction, or, you can use a spaced repetition system like Anki. A key idea that is often neglected is that you cannot divorce memory from creativity. Creativity is the combination of unlikely things in novel ways and depends upon access to ideas long-memorized. When a chess player makes a move, or when Beyoncé choreographs a dance sequence, or when Jeff Bezos innovates Amazon’s business model, they are, consciously or not, recombining old ideas into something novel. A person with no memory cannot create, let alone learn. In reading Alice Schroeder’s biography of Warren Buffett, The Snowball, two qualities about Buffett stood out for being largely unremarked upon by the media and other investors: a prodigious memory and an ability to do math in his head -a skill one can pick up if one is so inclined, from the “mathemagician’s”bible, Secrets of Mental Math by Arthur Benjamin and Michael Shermer. Sönke Ahrens, in his book, How to Take Smart Notes, discusses a wonderful technique used by the great and ridiculously prolific sociologist Niklas Luhmann, to not merely note-take, but organize ideas into a workflow system for greater creativity, productivity and retention.
8. Intuition. Richard Feynman, the “Great Explainer” and physicist, used what is today known as the Feynman technique, a four-step method to building intuition: (1) write down the concept you are trying to understand, (2) explain it as if you were explaining it to a child, (3) when you get stuck, go back to source material, (4) simplify and create analogies. Blogger and math teacher, Kalid Azad has suggested a different framework, the ADEPT method: use an Analogy, Diagram, Example, Plain-English description, and then a Technical description. Anyone who has read Warren Buffett’s annual letters to the shareholders of Berkshire Hathaway will observe a highly attuned intuition which finds expression in Buffett’s folksy wisdom. Feynman did not believe a person knew what they were talking about if they could not explain it simply. He would like Buffett.
9. Experimentation. Mastery lies in being able to step outside your comfort zone, to test the limits of your ability, to get comfortable being uncomfortable. I could have said this about memory, but the point can be made here: the true goal of all learning is the ability to create; as Ben Evans has noted in his blog post, “Amazon as a boring retailer”,
“I sometimes think that if you could look in the safe behind Jeff Bezos’s desk, instead of the sports almanac from Back to the Future, you’d find an Encyclopedia of Retail, written in maybe 1985. There would be Post-It notes on every page, and every one of those notes has been turned into a team or maybe a product. Amazon is so new, and so dramatic in its speed and scale and aggression, that we can easily forget how many of the things it’s doing are actually very old. And, we can forget how many of the slightly dusty incumbent retailers we all grew up with were also once radical, daring, piratical new businesses that made people angry with their new ideas.”
Go forward and challenge yourself to search out the limits of your potential, knowing that your mind cannot be contained.