Please enjoy this transcript of my podcast on the art and science of learning anything faster. Transcripts may contain a few typos—with some episodes lasting 2+ hours, it’s difficult to catch some minor errors. Enjoy!
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Tim Ferriss: Hello, ladies and germs. This is Tim Ferriss and welcome to another episode of The Tim Ferriss Show, where it is my job to deconstruct world-class performers of all types to tease out the habits, routines and so on that you can apply and test yourself in your own life. This episode is a little bit different. It’s special because it doesn’t focus on the lessons of one particular person. Instead, I’m going to explore the tips and tricks and really the framework that I’ve used all along the way to learn just about any skill. This is the meta-skill of meta-learning. Learning how to learn, in other words.
In particular, I’m going to share techniques that can help you – even if you’re sub-par at something or a rote beginner – to take the smartest first steps and also use 80/20 analysis and so on to accelerate your progress. I’ll share the story of how I became fascinated with all of this. We will dig into swimming, Michael Phelps and beyond.
And also about how learning any skill can be as simple as the acronym DISSS – D-I-S-S-S. We will get into that. This is adapted in audio from The 4-Hour Chef. Of course, which is a cookbook, but not really a cookbook. It is a book on accelerated learning disguised as a cookbook and it’s a big, honking doorstop. You can check it out if you look. So without further ado, as I always say, please enjoy this episode on meta-learning.
Meta or meta-learning. Meta is where you will learn to mimic the world’s fastest learners. It is possible to become world-class in just about anything in six months or less. That’s based on everything I’ve done, everything I’ve seen. Armed with the right framework, you can seemingly perform miracles, whether with Spanish, swimming, or anything in between. Smart Design became one of the top industrial design firms in the world by being – you guessed it – smart.
With locations in New York, San Francisco, and Barcelona, Smart Design represents clients ranging from Burton Snowboards to Starbucks. The company has also been strategic partners with Oxo International since 1989. That ubiquitous line of Good Grips kitchen ware with the comfy black handles? The ones that cover an entire wall at Bed, Bath & Beyond? Yeah, they made those. In the documentary, Objectified, Dan Formosa, Ph.D. then with Smart Design’s research department, explained one of the first steps in its innovation process:
“We have clients come to us and say, here’s our average consumer. For instance, female. She’s 34 years old, she has 2.3 kids, and we listen politely and say well, that’s great, but we don’t care about that person. What we really need to do to design is look at the extremes: the weakest or the person with arthritis or the athlete, the strongest, the fastest person. Because if we understand what the extremes are, the middle will take care of itself.”
In other words, the extremes inform the mean, but not vice versa. That “average user” can be deceptive or even meaningless, just as all averages can be. Here’s a statistician joke for your next hot date:
Person A: What happens when Bill Gates walks into a bar of 55 people?
Person B: I don’t know, what?
Person A: The average net worth jumps to more than a billion dollars.
Well, it’s not exactly Chris Rock, but the joke makes an important point. Sometimes it pays to model the outliers, not flatten them into averages. This isn’t limited to business. Take, for instance, the seemingly average, 132-pound girl who ended up anything but average. Note to listener: imagine average looking high school girl here. Her picture was sent to me by Barry Ross, a sprint coach or track-and-field coach, who creates world record-breaking athletes, to illustrate an ab exercise called the torture twist.
He nonchalantly added on the phone, “Oh, yeah. And she deadlifts more than 400 pounds for repetitions.” What? For those of you not familiar with the deadlift, Google “Mark Bell.” Even more impressive, she developed this otherworldly power the wrong way, at least according to all conventions. Rather than train the conventional full range of motion, she utilized only the weakest range of motion – lifting the bar to knee height and then lowering it. Total muscular tension, actual weightlifting, was limited to five minutes per week. This all makes our average looking high schooler extreme. But the real question is, was she an exception? In the outside world, absolutely. Even in track and field, she was a total freak. Had she been thrown into a study with 40 randomly selected female sprinters, she would’ve been a ridiculous exception. Must have been a measurement error! Then the baby would get thrown out with the bath water.
But WWWBS – that is, what would Warren Buffet say? I suspect the Oracle of Omaha would repeat what he said at Columbia University in 1984, when mocking proponents of the efficient market hypothesis. First, he pointed out that yes, value investors – that is, devotees of Benjamin Graham and David Dodd – who consistently beat the market are outliers. But then he posed a question which I’ve condensed here. “What if there were a nationwide competition in coin flipping? 225 million flippers total (then the population of the U.S.) each flipping once per morning and we found a select few (say 215 people) who flipped 20 straight, winning flips, flips where the result was guessed correctly on 20 mornings.”
Then he continued (emphasis mine), “Some business school professor will probably be rude enough to bring up the fact that if 225 million orangutans had engaged in a similar exercise, the results would be much the same. 215 egotistical orangutans with 20 straight, winning flips.”
There are some important differences in the examples of value investors I’m going to present. For one thing, if (a) you had taken 225 million orangutans distributed roughly as the U.S. population is, if (b) 215 winners were left after 20 days and (here’s Tim Ferriss emphasis) if (c) you found that 40 came from a particular zoo in Omaha, you would be pretty sure you were on to something (end emphasis). So you’d probably go out and ask the zookeeper about what he’s feeding them, whether they had special exercises, what books they read, and who knows what else?
(More Tim Ferriss emphasis) That is, if you found any really extraordinary concentrations of success, you might want to see if you could identify concentrations of unusual characteristics that might be causal factors. So back to our sprint coach, Barry Ross. He has a most unusual zoo. In fact, he can engineer mutants at will. His best female distance runner has deadlifted 415 pounds at a body weight of 132 pounds.
His youngest male lifter, 11 years old, has lifted 225 pounds at a body weight of 108 pounds. So our extreme high schooler is the standard in his gym. This naturally led me to ask, “Could I, a non-elite runner and an average, possibly replicate her results?” I tried and it worked flawlessly. In less than 12 weeks with no coach and following a printout from Barry, I went from a max deadlift of 300 pounds to more than 650 pounds. Just about everything you need to learn about meta-learning can be understood or at least observed by watching two videos on YouTube related to freestyle swimming, of all things.
The first is from Michael Phelps – you probably know that name. The second is from Shinji Takeuchi, a much lesser known name. Phelps makes sense but who the hell is Shinji Takeuchi?
Phelps learned to swim at the tender age of 7. Shinji, on the other hand, learned to swim at the well-ripened age of 37. More interesting to me, Shinji learned to swim by doing practically the opposite of Phelps. Shinji drives his lead arm forward, almost two feet beneath the water, rather than grabbing near the surface and pulling. Rather than focusing on kicking, Shinji appears to have eliminated it altogether. No paddle board workouts to be found. Shinji often trains freestyle stroke with closed fists or by pointing his index finger forward and keeping the arms entirely underwater.
Phelps, on the other hand, looks like he’s attached to an outboard motor. It’s a heroic output of horsepower. Shinji has been watched millions of times because he offers the flip side. Effortless propulsion. So who would you rather have as a teacher? Phelps or Shinji? Arthur Jones, founder of Nautilus, when asked how to gain muscular mass quickly, recommended the following (and I paraphrase): Approach the biggest body builder at your gym, ideally a ripped, 250 to 300-pound professional and politely ask him for detailed advice.
Then do precisely the opposite. If the T-Rex sized meathead recommends ten sets, do one set. If he recommends post-workout protein, consume pre-workout protein. So on and so forth. Jones tongue-in-cheek parable was used to highlight one of the dangers of hero worship. That is, the top 1 percent often succeed despite how they train, not because of it. Superior genetics or a luxurious, full-time schedule make up for a lot. This is not to say that Phelps isn’t technical. Everything needs to be flawless to win 18 gold medals, of course.
It’s the people a few rungs down, the best you realistically have access to, you need to be wary of. Then there’s the second danger of hero worship. Career specialists often can’t externalize what they’ve internalized. Second nature is very hard to teach. This is true across industries.
As Erik Cosselmon, Executive Chief of Kokkari, my favorite Greek restaurant in San Francisco, said to me amid my novice questioning, “The problem with me is I’ve always been a cook. I don’t ever remember wanting to be something else.” Daniel Burka, a designer at Google and the co-founder of a tech start-up called Milk, echoes the sentiment. “I don’t think I’d be particularly good at teaching the basics of CSS,” a language used for the look and formatting of web pages. “Now I do 12 things at once and they all make sense. I can’t remember which of those was confusing when I was just starting out.”
These top .01 percent who’ve spent a lifetime honing their craft, are invaluable in later stages, but they are not ideal if you want to rocket off the ground floor. The Shinji Takeuchis, on the other hand, the rare anomalies who’ve gone from zero to the global top 5 percent record time, despite mediocre raw materials, are worth their weight in gold. I’ve spent the last 15 years finding the Shinjis of the world and trying to model them.
Inhaling hormones. What could go wrong? My interest in accelerated learning stated at a biochemical level. In 1996, as a planned neuroscience major at Princeton University, I began experimenting with a panoply of smart drugs, otherwise known as “nootropics.” I’d imported to the U.S. under the FDA personal importation policy. Footnote: This is not something I recommend. One mistake and you’re illegally trafficking drugs, which the federales frown upon. Back to the text. After four weeks, I’d fine-tuned a routine for Mandarin Chinese character quizzes. 15 minutes prior to class, I would administer two hits of vaporized desmopressin in each nostril. Desmopressin is a synthetic version of vasopressin, a naturally occurring diuretic and peptide hormone. As a nasal spray, it’s often prescribed for children who bed wet past a certain age. (Not my problem). I was more interested in its off-label applications for short-term memory.
Putting theory into practice, it looked like this: Step No. 1 – two hits of desmopressin in each nostril. Step No. 2 – flip through characters in a book called Chinese Prima Character Text almost as quickly as I could turn the pages. Step No. 3 – score 100 percent on the quiz five to ten minutes later. Footnote: If you’d like the opposite effect, go binge-drinking, perhaps. Excessive alcohol inhibits vasopressin release, which explains the peeing every ten minutes followed by time travel, i.e., blacking out or forgetting everything.
Back to my quizzes. This method was fantastically reliable but, after a few months of testing hydro-t, and oxiracetam and combinations of dozens of other drugs, surprise, surprise, headaches set in and a thought occurred. Perhaps snorting anti-diuretic hormones isn’t the best long-term strategy. And my dorm bathroom had also started to resemble a meth lab, which was repelling girls (a very high priority at the time).
So I shifted my obsession from molecules to process. Was it possible to develop a sequence or a blueprint that would allow me to learn anything faster? Any subject, any sport, anything at all. I suspected so. I’d glimpsed once piece of the puzzle four years earlier in 1992. Material beats method. In 1992, I was 15 years old and had landed in Japan for my first extended trip abroad. I would be an exchange student at Seikei Gakuen High School for one year. For those interested, it’s in Kichijoji.
On the first day of classes, I reported to the faculty lounge in my required navy blue uniform, looking like a West Point cadet with the high collar, the whole nine yards. I nervously awaited my student chaperone, who would be taking me to my home class, a group of 40 or so students I’d be spending most of my time with. One of the faculty members noticed me sitting in a corner and approached. “Ah, Tim-Kun,” he said with a wave. “Kun” is kind of like “san,” but used to address male inferiors.
“Koreha” (this is), he said as he pointed at a mysterious piece of paper. I could barely manage greetings, so he hailed an English teacher to explain the document. The page, written entirely in characters I couldn’t read, detailed my daily schedule, as it turned out. Then the English teacher translated. Physics, mathematics, world history, [speaking foreign language], traditional Japanese, and on it went. That’s when panic set in. I’d only had a few months of rudimentary Japanese prior to arrival and my teachers in my US had reassured me with, “You’ll have plenty of Japanese classes.”
Now, irretrievably in Tokyo, I realized I was dealing with a major lost-in-translation screw-up. “Japanese classes” hadn’t meant language classes. For the entire year ahead, I was to attend normal, Japanese high school classes alongside 5,000 Japanese students prepping for university exams. And so this is when I pooped my Pampers.
I proceeded to flounder horribly, just as I’d failed with Spanish in junior high. Sadly, as a lot of people conclude, it seemed I was simply bad at languages. Six months into my exchange, I was ready to go home. Then Lady Luck smiled upon me. I stumbled upon a poster while looking for the Book of Five Rings, written by Miyamoto Musashi, in the Kinokuniya book store in Shinjuku. This poster, which I still have on my wall 20 years later, contains all 1,945 of the jōyō kanji, the characters designated for basic literacy by the Japanese Ministry of Education.
Most newspapers and magazines limit themselves to using the jōyō kanji. So, for all practical purposes, this means that if you know the meaning-rich characters on this one poster, you know Japanese, including all of the most important verbs. Japanese on one page! So, to me, holy shit! That was quite the discovery.
Language is infinitely expansive, much like cooking, and therefore horrible overwhelming if unfiltered. This poster was a revelation. It brought to light the most important lesson of language learning, and that is what you study is more important than how you study. Students are subordinate to materials, much like novice cooks are subordinate to recipes. If you select the wrong material, the wrong textbook, the wrong group of words, it doesn’t matter how much or how well you study. It doesn’t matter how good your teacher in. One must find the highest frequency material.
Material beats method. The authors of most Japanese language books appear to think that reading the Asahi Shimbun; that is, the Asahi newspaper, was the only litmus test for Japanese mastery. Where a high school student and even now for that matter, reading the Asahi Shimbun is about as interesting as watching paint dry. Fortunately, as long as you hit the highest frequency material, I learned that content matters very little.
My panacea, it turned out, was judo textbooks. Though the vocabulary (think ingredients) was highly specialized, I eclipsed the grammatical ability of four and five-year students of Japanese after two months of studying judo. Why? Because the grammar, (think cooking methods), were universal. The principles transferred to everything else. I came back to the US after Tokyo and scored higher on the Japanese SAT2 than a friend who was a native speaker. By high school graduation in 1995, I’d developed two simple lenses through which I viewed language learning methods and learning in general.
No. 1, is the method effective? Have you narrowed down your material to the highest frequency? Second, is the method sustainable? Have you chosen a schedule and subject matter that you can stick with, or at least put up with, until reaching fluency? Will you actually swallow the pill you’ve prescribed yourself, in other words?
Alas, there was still one missing piece: efficiency. If effectiveness is doing the right things, efficiency is doing things right. Martin Luther King, Jr. famously remarked that “Justice too long delayed is justice denied.” Learning is similar. Speed determines its value. Even with the best material, if your time to fluency is 20 years, your return on investment (ROI) is terrible. Though 1996 heralded itself with vasopressin and its cousins, taking me to the biochemical level for immediate payoff, it wasn’t until 1999 that I returned to the hardest part, the most slippery element of the puzzle: the method. Again, thinking of efficiency.
The catalyst came serendipitously one evening on Witherspoon Street in downtown Princeton. I was head down, working on my senior thesis, a sexy tome entitled, Acquisition of Japanese Kanji: Conventional Practice and Pneumonic Supplementation. I’d developed a phone friendship with Dr. Bernie Feria, then director of curriculum and development at the world headquarters of Berlitz International, conveniently located only miles from campus.
He’d invited me out to a jacket-and-tie dinner. I put on my fanciest corduroys, an ill-fitting sports coat, and a counterfeit Polo shirt. It was a glorious feast and Bernie was a gracious host. He knew his languages and the red wine flowed, which I couldn’t afford at the time, by the way. We shared war stories from the linguistic trenches. Lessons learned, comedic mistakes and cultural faux pas. Bernie shared his French adventures and I told him about the time I asked my Japanese host mother to rape me at 8:00 a.m. the next morning.
Just one vowel off, but [speaking foreign language] (to rape), was not [speaking foreign language] (to wake up). He roared and it went on and on. By the time dessert came around, Bernie paused and said, “You know, it’s a shame you’re not graduating earlier, as we have this project starting soon you’d be perfect for.” The project was helping redesign their introductory Japanese curriculum, which doubled as an opportunity to revisit their English curriculum, which then accounted for 70 percent of the roughly 5 million lessons a year, at 320 language centers around the globe.
Imagine wandering into your local guitar shop and approaching the high school intern behind the counter. “Hey kid, how would you like to tune the London Philharmonic Orchestra? They have a live gig in Central Park next week and it’ll be broadcast into 50 countries. You in?” I felt like that kid. So much to perhaps my parents’ chagrin, at least briefly, I left Princeton in the middle of my senior year, just months before graduation, to pursue this love of language. I worked for Berlitz then, itching to test new ideas immediately, traveled to Taiwan, where many of the pieces started to fall into place for DISSS, which I’ll explain shortly. Then I did something odd. I applied the same DISSS process to learning kickboxing and, less than two months later, won the Chinese national kickboxing championships at 165 pounds. Flash forward to 2005. I’d spent six years testing different approaches to natural languages.
Here’s what my language acquisition times looked like in order, using standardized testing for all by Chinese:
Japanese – 1 year
Mandarin Chinese – 6 months
German – 3 months
Spanish – 8 weeks
Now, you must recall that at age 15, I’d failed to learn enough Spanish to hold a basic conversation. Now people were lauding me for being good at languages or congratulating me on being “gifted.” It was pretty hysterical to me. I just had a better instruction manual. It had nothing to do with my raw attributes. In 2005, I traveled the world as a digital nomad, an experience that I later chronicled in The 4-Hour Workweek. I focused on language to conquer the loneliness.
This ranged from Irish Gaelic to Norwegian, to German, to Spanish (including Lunfardo, a dialect in Argentina), anything I came into contact with. The refinement continued through 2010 and to the present. I vetted the process on Turkish, Greek and other languages over shorter, one to two week periods.
The DISSS process I used was effective for acquiring declarative; that is, facts and figures knowledge. For instance, memorizing serial numbers, remembering where your car is parked. It also worked incredibly well for what’s known as procedural or action knowledge. For instance, practicing judo, riding a bike, driving a car. It even worked for hybrids such as writing Chinese characters. None of this is said to impress you. It’s said to impress upon you, however, that there is a repeatable process that hundreds of readers (that is, of my blog and other books) have used to replicate my results.
It is possible to become world-class into the top 5 percent of performers in the world in almost any subject within 6 to 12 months or even, in some cases, 6 to 12 weeks. There is a recipe, and the real recipe in this book, and that is DISSS, D-I-S-S-S. The recipe for learning any skill is encapsulated in this acronym.
How to remember it – the 1980s, cultural contribution to modern English. Diss – to diss someone. Just remember diss with an extra S, that is D-I-S-S-S. If you’re a gamer and know PS3 – that is, PlayStation 3 – just think of DS3. So here’s the sequence:
D stands for deconstruction. And in that step, you answer the question, what are the minimal learnable units? The Lego blocks I should be starting with?
The first S is selection. Which 20 percent of the blocks should I focus on for 80 percent or more of the outcomes I want? You may have noted that we ignored the I, so just use it remember the word, that’s it.
The second S is sequencing. In what order should I learn the blocks?
Then the last S is stakes. How do I set up stakes? S-T-A-K-E-S, that is, not steaks that you cook. How do I set up stakes to create real consequences and guarantee I follow the program?
CaFE. That’s uppercase C, lowercase a, uppercase F and E. There are several secondary principles, that while very helpful, I use all three constantly, are not required. Here, CaFE is the acronym. So you can think of it as a secondary framework for accelerated learning even further. For C, the only C I suppose, stands for compression. Can I encapsulate the most important 20 percent into an easily graspable one-pager? F for frequency. How frequently should I practice? Can I cram and what should my schedule look like? What growing pains can I predict? What is the minimum effective dose (otherwise known as the MED) for volume?
The E stands for encoding. How do I anchor the new material to what I already know for rapid recall? Acronyms like DISSS and CaFE are examples of encoding. Deconstruction is best thought of as exploration. This is where we throw a lot on the wall to see what sticks. Where we flip things upside down and look at what the outliers are doing differently and also what they’re not doing at all.
First and foremost is where we answer the question, how do I break this amorphous so-called skill into small, manageable pieces? Just as with literal deconstruction, taking a building apart, for instance, or demolishing something, breaking it apart, whatever it might be, dissecting something, you need the right tool for the job. In our case, one of the best tactics is interviewing. Here is a real world example of how I’ve used interviewing to learn just about any skill. I include the exact questions that I asked and still ask.
A while back, this is probably a few years ago, I was sharing drinks with start-up vet Babak Nivi, you may have met the guy, co-founder of Angel List, angel.co, you can check it out. We were discussing the deconstruction of various skills, when he randomly suggested if you ever want to deconstruct basketball, I have the DVD for you – Better Basketball. And that is how a lot got started.
Now, ever since seventh grade, when a PE teacher told me I dribbled like a caveman (which I did), I’d written basketball off. So I said thanks, but no thanks and that was my answer to Nivi. But lo and behold, three years later I found myself watching a Lakers game with my friend Kevin Rose and his wife, Daria, a Lakers fanatic. Their dog even had a Lakers jersey on. It was then that I had an epiphany. Even if I have zero interest in playing basketball, perhaps learning the fundamentals over a weekend would allow me to love watching it.
That’s when I asked Nivi to point me to the master: Rick Torbett, the founder of Better Basketball. Rick has coached entire teams to shoot better than 40 percent for three consecutive seasons. To put that into perspective, in the last decade, only one NBA team – the Phoenix Suns – came close to 40 percent from the three-point line. To dissect his unusual success and his process, I started by emailing a bunch of interview questions, the answers to which I’ll share with you shortly.
But let’s start with the general process. First, create a list of people to interview. Seems self-evident, I suppose. If you’re going to go for high-level athletics, for instance (1) use Wikipedia to find out who is the best (or second best is often ideal) in the world five to ten years ago or two to four Olympics ago, since those currently in the limelight are less likely to respond. No. 2, search Google for “[insert your city] [insert sport] [insert Olympian or world champion or world record]”. Hypothetically, I might look for San Francisco bobsled Olympian, which gets me to a team doctor, perfect for a first lead.
Next step, make first contact and provide context. “Dude, do me a favor” is not a compelling pitch, as much as I receive it myself. The proposed interview should somehow benefit your contact. The path of least resistance is to freelance write for a blog, newsletter or local newspaper and do a piece on this person and his or her methods or to quote him or her on a related topic as an expert.
For instance, “expert predictions for Winter Olympics” or something like that. Once you’re in the door, ask your expert all the questions that you’d like. Are you terrible at writing? No problem. Make it a Q&A format and simply print the relevant questions and answers. On the other hand, if they coach and do hourly consultations, you could also just pay for a telephone or Skype session. Last step, ask your questions. When I was looking into ultra-endurance for The 4-Hour Body, I sent different combinations of the following questions to people like the legendary Scott Jurek, who won the Western States 100, a mountainous 100-mile race, a record seven times.
Who is good at ultra-running, despite being poorly built for it? Who’s good at this who shouldn’t be? Who are the most controversial or unorthodox runners or trainers? Why? What do you think of them? Who are the most impressive, lesser-known teachers? What makes you different? Who trained you or influenced you?
Have you trained others to do this? Have they replicated your results? What are the biggest mistakes and myths that you see in ultra-running training? What are the biggest wastes of time? This is a really important one. What are your favorite instructional books or resources on the subject? If people had to teach themselves, what would you suggest they use? If you were to train me for four weeks for a [fill in the blank] competition and had a million dollars on the line, what would the training look like? What if I trained for eight weeks? In the case of basketball, I started by sending Rick four questions related to shooting. No. 1: first, what are the biggest mistakes novices make when shooting or practicing shooting? What are the biggest misuses of time? That should sound familiar. No. 2: even at the pro level, what mistakes are most common? No. 3: what are your key principles for better, more consistent shooting?
What are they for foul shots (free throws that is) versus three-pointers. What does the progression of exercises look like? That is the fourth and the final. I received his email responses and two days later, hit nine out of ten free throws for the first time in my life. Then, on Christmas Eve, I went bowling and realized that many of the same principles applied. Remember we talked about transfer. I scored 124 – my first time over 100 and an Everest above my usual 50 to 70 points. Embarrassing, yes. Upon returning home, I immediately went outside and sunk the first two three-pointers of my life. For Lakers games with the Roses, I now see a ballet of kinesthetic beauty that was completely invisible before. That is a hell of a lot of fun.
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