Learn More, Faster

Tristan de Montebello became a world-class public speaker in less than seven months.

De Montebello acted as a guinea pig for Scott H. Young's book Ultralearning. Young's thesis was that anyone can rapidly master a new skill given enough focus and intensity. Cringing at the very thought of public speaking, de Montebello decided to tackle it head-first. Seven months later, he made it in the top ten of the Toastmasters  World Championship of Public Speaking.

He was a blur from the moment he started. When he signed up, he had just ten days to complete the mandatory 6 speeches he would need to do in order to be eligible to compete in the World Championship.

For the next six months, De Montebello practiced obsessively and took his learning to the next level. He would do up to two original speeches per day and meticulously go over every aspect of his speaking.

He looked for feedback with friends working in Hollywood (for his delivery), theater (for his stage-presence), and even to a middle school where he presented to seventh graders. If you're capable of keeping 13 year olds interested while they're brimming with hormones and pent-up energy, you know you're becoming a decent public speaker.

All this practice paid off when he made it to the World Championship and became by his reckoning “the fastest competitor in history to make it this far.” Where he was terrified by public speaking seven months ago, he was now getting approached by authors and business leaders who commanded five-figure speaking fees for coaching. Sensing a potential career change, he started a speaking consultancy business called Ultraspeaking (as a nod to Young) and hasn't looked back since.

We can learn a lot faster than we think we do.

Your Approach To Learning Might Be Flawed

I believe that most people are not learning nearly as fast as they could be.

Want to become a programmer? Common knowledge says it should take you a couple of years, right? Not so. Want to become a photographer? That must require years of practice and studying of theory, right? Maybe. Maybe not.

You're probably still associating learning with going to school. And not just that, but also all the inefficiencies and habits you learned while in school.

Structured lessons, a laid-out curriculum to follow, regularly-spaced assignments. Everything's pretty much taken care of. You're used to the gentle pace, slowly but surely taking you to the final exam and ‘understanding’ - or so you hope.

Let's say you're taking a class in Algebra (if you do, I'm sorry). In most universities, you have 4 hours of class and a handful of hours for self-study and homework assignments. Call it 8 hours per week. Multiply by 15 weeks and you should expect to spend about 120 hours for the entire course. Here's the kicker - this number isn't sacrosanct. Just because it normally takes us this long to go through the entire course doesn't mean it actually has to take that long.

College courses are horribly inefficient for actual learning:

1. Lectures are slow

Have you ever sat in a lecture hall and almost dozed off? Remember that one professor who seemed to be stuck at 0.5x speed, droning on and on and on? You and me both! Lectures are slow and tedious. And they're hardly useful for learning! You're just passively digesting information. Very little will stick. Without your input or engagement, the information will be lodged into your short-term memory banks and be forgotten by the time the lecture is done and you're wondering what to get for lunch.

The best thing you can do is to watch recorded lectures. Put the track on 200% speed, press pause to write down notes or ponder a concept, and rewind to segments that eluded you. Engage with the presented material - don't just consume.

2. No direct feedback

You probably didn't get too much direct feedback in college. Other than some big red marks on your final exam and a couple of quick comments on your essay, you're mostly on your own. Sure, there's the good old Google - wellspring of human knowledge - but it's just not the same. You could try turning up for office hours. You're probably going to stuck in line for 45 minutes before being able to talk to your professor for a couple of minutes. And then you get shooed out by the next student in line.

Feedback - objective and often -, that's the recipe for faster learning. If we catch our errors right from the get-go, we can carry on. We don't get bogged down by gaps in our knowledge which'll slowly expand and make for an unstable base.

3. Classes are tailored to the lowest common denominator

There are slackers in every group. And they will drag you down. In college, classes have to be tailored in order to have a set percentage of students actually passing the course. If you're at the top of your class, you're held back by your peers, not your own rate of information processing. You could go a lot faster, but you're still forced to stick with a schedule that accommodates to all.

In the medical world, there's an expression: “C equals MD”. For every superstar doctor, there's also one who just barely eked by. The laggards and procrastinators who make it by the skin of their teeth could end up doing your surgery.

4. Context Switching

By having a handful of classes and lectures per week, you never get in the zone. Every class and every week, you have to dig up the material of the previous class, try to figure out where you're at, and start processing the new info. You need to switch back into your Algebra-mode which can take some time.

When classes are taken simultaneously, your attention is too spread out. You never fully master the material. You never go deep enough.

Focus & Intensity

Back to our Algebra class, what if you were to commit to studying algebra every day for an entire week? Just a couple of hours in the evening? You crack open your book, start on page 1, and get to work.

I'm willing to bet that you'd be halfway through the book by the end of the week (if you remain distraction-free while studying). Do that for another week and you'll be close to finishing up the entire damn course. What previously took ~120 hours was now done in something more like 40. Now you can go enjoy hours upon hours of complete freedom. All because you were focused and approached it with intensity.

Focus and intensity are force-multipliers. And they're accessible to each and every one of us.

Hundreds of high-performers and overachievers have managed to cram years worth or learning into a shorter period. Sometimes even as little as a couple of weeks.

Steps To 10x Learning

We can learn a lot about accelerated learning by seeing what De Montebello emphasized in his road to the Toastmasters finals. I don't believe he's some fluke, I actually believe his approach to faster learning is repeatable. With technology progressing at ever faster rates, we'll need to be life-long learners. And the traditional model isn't going to cut it. Now that we're no longer in school, there is a better way to learn.

Here’s the four-step process to ultra-fast learning:

(1) Choose Your Schedule

(2) Focus On Output

(3) Create Short Feedback Loops

(4) Test Yourself

Here’s how to do it yourself.

Step 1: Choose Your Schedule

We'll first need to figure out when and where we'll be  learning. Some might have the means to take seven months off to become a world-class speaker. I sure as hell don't. Luckily, even a couple of hours per day will do.

Fit your ultra-fast learning project into your busy daily life by choosing between a couple of different approaches. You can take a page out of De Montebello's playbook and dedicate a several weeks of months to pursue a goal. Or you can carve out several hours each day to focus fully and get on with the rest of your day.

  • Long, Uninterrupted Periods: Bill Gates famously conducts ‘Think Weeks’ a few times per year. He locks himself away into a cabin for a few weeks with several stacks of books. Some his biggest breakthroughs at Microsoft and his philanthropic activities came from the insights he gained during the weeks spent in full focus at this retreat. Deep focus makes for fast learning. But not everyone has the means to move to a cabin for a couple of weeks. Must be nice being a billionaire, huh?
    And yet thousands of people have managed to do this. Whether it's a few weeks of summer holiday, time spent in between jobs or a weekend where you wife is taking the kids to see grandma, two states over. The length of time does not matter as much as the guarantee of not being disturbed does. Build the prototype of a web app over the course of a weekend all by yourself or lock yourself away with two books on quantum mechanics if that's your thing.
  • Daily habits: Most of us mortals would be better off by creating a habit of creating a few hours of deep focus every day.
    Thousands of writers, entrepreneurs and artists wake up early to work for a few hours before their day job. Or they go to bed later. Hundreds of famous writers have woken up at 4 or 5AM to write for a few hours before the hustle and bustle of daily life commenced. And an equally large amount of people have kept working into the wee hours of the night. If you're really passionate about your calling, it might be necessary and it will be worth it. And if your schedule allows for a few hours of uninterrupted focus in the middle of the day, all the more power to you!
    Whichever approach you take, they're all looking for peace and quiet. However they can get it. And now that our daily lives are more busy than ever, we just might have to resort to more extreme measures.

Peace and quiet, whatever it takes. It'll be impossible to write the next Great American Novel if your phone is constantly buzzing with work emails or your partner telling you to take out the trash.

Step 2: Focus on output

According to some studies, creative genius is only one part of the formula when it comes to the world's most accomplished artists and creators. Adam Grant says that the number one differentiator is how prolific someone is. In his book, ‘Originals’, he states that creative geniuses aren’t qualitatively better in their fields than their peers. They simply produced a greater volume of work. This gave them more variation and a higher chance of stumbling upon a world-class original idea. In other words, we need to focus on output.

  • Picasso made over 50,000 pieces of art over the course of his long career. From simple doodles and fast paintings to true masterpieces, he produced an average of two works per day. Every. Single. Day. Sure, not everything was as monumental as ‘Guernica’. But Picasso wouldn't be nearly as famous today if he wasn't so prolific.
  • When James Clear (the author of Atomic Habits) learned photography, he took over 100,000 photos that first year. He didn't lose himself in the theory behind good photography. He just committed to relentless experimentation.
  • Scott H. Young himself wrote almost 100 blog posts in his first 6 months alone. He was able to quickly hop from one topic to another, to try his hand at different styles. He learned what made for good titles and what made for crappy ones. Now, he has over 2,000 posts online, each viewed by thousands of people. I myself might have to take a page out of his book with my infrequent posting schedule.
  • Isaac Asimov, the granddaddy of science-fiction writing, published over 500 books, novels, and short stories over the course of his career. While some of his work languished in obscurity, others like ‘Foundation’ and ‘The Last Question’ became world-famous.

Focus on output and you’ll quickly learn not to get discouraged at the first sign of discomfort and boredom. Since you're used to quickly but diligently creating something and starting on the next thing, you will develop less of an emotional attachment to it. You can look at it more objectively and spot its flaws and strengths.

better-prolific-than-perfect.png

With every piece of work you put out, every concept that baffles you or every speech that you bomb out of, you gain an extra data-point. What to do and what not to do. You internalize the good and discard the failed experiments. By the time you have to put your skills truly to the test, you will have a huge body of work to rely upon. The more you bleed in training, the less you bleed in war. And one of the best ways to bleed a tiny bit during training is to focus on doing more.

Every piece of work you put out there is a lottery ticket and an extra step on your journey. Every book you publish could be the one that helps your career take off, every video you produce could go viral, and every app you develop could be the one that lands you a job. With enough high-quality output, success is almost guaranteed.

Step 3: Create Short Feedback Loops

Feedback is hard and uncomfortable. Nothing sucks more than having your flaws pointed out. It humbles us and makes us realize we still have a long way to go. It's also invaluable if you want to become better. You know what often separates the good from the great? Feedback, early and often.

Do you know why the best athletes and public speakers have coaches? They're capable of pointing out the ingrained habits and behaviors that we've gotten used to.

We aren't even aware of them anymore. A writer uses too much flowery language or uses the same three adjectives all the time, a sprinter is slow off the blocks due to his stance or an entrepreneur needlessly focuses on non-productive tasks. The only way for top performers to get as good as they are is through feedback, as often as they can get it.

Don't go to your mom for feedback. Nor to your dog. They love you - hopefully. So they'll never tell you exactly what's wrong with your writing or singing. They're not objective enough. Feedback is almost worthless if it's clouded by emotional attachments and the desire to not make you feel bad. When you have to choose between a gentle soul and a stern, demanding person for feedback, always choose the latter. It might be painful and it might be lacking in nuance, but you're going to be learning a lot more than you would otherwise.

We internalize countless habits over the course of our journey, especially if we are mostly self-taught. Small mistakes & bad habits become part of our default behavior. We are unaware that they even exist - it's just normal. They compound over time and will start to pile up.

Your work is cumulative. Be more concerned with your trajectory than your current circumstances By  @Visualizevalue
Your work is cumulative. Be more concerned with your trajectory than your current circumstances
By @Visualizevalue

What used to be a small imbalance or minute flaw becomes an almost-insurmountable obstacle. It's become part of our toolkit and we don't know how to live without it. More often than not, you'll have to start from near-zero and relearn everything. If no one spots the small flaws, you could permanently hamstring your efforts further down the line.

Above all, feedback allows us to gauge our progress. Working on big projects or ambitious careers, it can be hard for us to measure where we're at and how far we have yet to go. Feedback gives us clarity. It shows us how far we've come and how far we have yet to go. It's a sanity-check.

Step 4: Test Yourself

Life's not like school. You're not learning to program in order to pass a test. You're not writing your novel in order to get an A+ on your finals. Learning just for the sake of passing a test is the height of stupidity. It's behavior that we actively have to unlearn as we move away from the traditional school-model of learning.

Cramming and late nights are the way to pass exams in college. Add in some pharmaceutical help - courtesy of Adderall or Modafinil - and you're good to go. Only downside is that most of the knowledge will be forgotten before the end of the week. You know that. And so do your teachers.

If we actually value learning and want to fully master a topic or skill, testing can be invaluable. Without regular check-ups, we don't know where we are on our journey and how far we have yet to go. We're aimless. If you're not testing your knowledge, you'll never know your blindspots and weaknesses.

We practice what we're good at. This is natural. In the gym, you'll probably want to practice your strongest lifts over and over again. If your squat is shit, you probably won't like squatting. Same with writing in a particular style, programming in a particular language or playing the same chess positions again and again. Testing ourselves gets us out of these habits and forces us to look at our skillset holistically.

Testing yourself can take many forms. De Montebello went into speeches without any preparation whatsoever to test his adaptability and creativity. Writers have long practiced emulating someone else's style - maybe try writing like Hemmingway for a bit? What can you do to throw yourself for a loop? Try a new programming language or only write in the first person? The options are endless. If it makes you uncomfortable, it's probably the right thing to do.

Finally, make sure to test yourself before you feel confident. You should fail at your self-imposed tests more often than not. The testing is done to make it clear that we still have gaps in our knowledge or skillset. Not to boost our egos. It should be a wake up call to address your weaknesses. Do this often enough and your weaknesses will disappear.

That's really all there is to it: block out periods of deep focus, focus on creating as much output as possible, get feedback early and often, and finally make sure to regularly test yourself.

The Average Pace Is For Chumps

Derek Sivers graduated from Berklee College of Music in two years instead of the usual four. Just before starting his first year he met Kimo Williams, an accomplished musician and ex-teacher at Berklee. Kimo was convinced that Derek could learn most of musical theory over the course of a couple of days. Derek jumped at the chance for one-on-one lessons and showed up at his door at nine AM.

In their first three-hour lesson, they covered a full semester of Berklee’s harmony courses. In the following lessons, he taught him the next four semesters of harmony and arranging classes. When Derek got to college, he immediately tested out of six semesters of requirements and eventually graduated in two years.

Kimo taught Derek that “the standard pace is for chumps” — that the system is designed so anyone can keep up. If you’re more driven than most people, you can do way more than anyone expects. School (and most of life) is tailored towards the lowest common denominator. It's not meant to help the top get better, it's meant to make sure the average person gets through alright.

Why Should You?

We live in a time of huge technological progress. Most recent graduates will change careers every couple of years. Don't expect to be doing the same thing twenty years down the line. Quickly mastering new skills and technologies will become more valuable than ever. And yet we're also more time-starved and easily distracted.

To keep up, you will need to learn how quickly master a new field or skill. You will need to go deep. (Yes, that's what she said.

I don't particularly care what field you're in. It doesn't matter. You can always learn faster and stay ahead of the competition. Talent and luck are mostly overrated. A rogue genius might pop up every once in a while but for us mere mortals we will need a better process if we want to stay on top of our field.

We can learn faster. We can do more. We just need the tools to speed up the process.

There's always demand for people who can learn anything quickly. This means there's always demand for premium, ultra-fast learning solutions. So if you were looking for a business idea, there you go.

Now go and learn faster.

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