Two ideas to improve your (meta) learning ability

Work smarter with these learning systems

Sometimes, I can't believe that I spent four years in university writing proofs for macroeconomic theories, building quantitative financial models, and learning about why people love Apple.

I can easily say that the knowledge required for my work today is vastly different from what I studied back then.

While the content was ...interesting, the real value I gained were the systems I developed:

Systems of learning to improve my meta-learning – my ability to learn new things.

Systems of organization to optimize how I prioritize my time and energy.

Systems of relationships to build a professional and personal network.

I used to ‘brute-force’ my learning — I’d maximize frequency and repetition on a given activity, and assume that the volume would result in accelerated learning. While this method works up to a certain level, it’s inevitable that you’ll hit a plateau.

While I strongly believe that there is no substitution for hard work, I also recognize that effective methods to learn more quickly (and deeply) exist.

In this article, I’ll be talking about two systems, developed by the high-performing polymaths: Josh Waitzkin and Richard Feynman.

Mastering Level One

Josh Waitzkin is a pretty incredible human. He’s a Chess International Master (IM), ranked at 2,480 ELO. A black belt Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu practitioner, under world champion Marcelo Garcia. And a Tai Chi World Cup champion.

He’s managed to place in the 99.9th percentile for three separate disciplines — in less than four decades. Most people don’t achieve a single one.

One of his meta-learning frameworks is what I like to call ‘Mastering Level One’. The intention is to exhaustively master the basics, or the ‘first’ level of a new concept, before moving on to the next stage.

This takes a ton of discipline. Does any of this sound familiar?

  • In the gym — wanting to lift more weight or try new, flashy exercises from TikTok – prior to learning compound movements, how to warm up, and good form.

  • Martial arts — learning the flowery, extravagant techniques prior to the basics: stance, rhythm, balance, and awareness.

  • Cooking — cooking a gourmet wild mushroom and truffle risotto as your first dish, prior to mastering key elements and techniques, like Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat

Or maybe it’s just me.

The idea is to start with the most simple scenarios to create an understanding of the principles without noise getting in the way. By placing yourself in situations with highly reduced complexity, you can deeply internalize the basic concepts of the skill.

“I fear not the man who has practiced 10,000 kicks once, but I fear the man who has practiced one kick 10,000 times”

— Bruce Lee

How to apply this:

Identify Level One of the skills you’re looking to learn. This will involve some research and reflection, but the more deeply you think about your learning, the more effective and intentional your progress will be.

Some examples:

  • Writing: mastering basic grammar and sentence structure vs. convoluted, lavish, and pompous lexicon that emits no meaning (see what I did there?)

  • Public speaking: working on general confidence, setting the stage, and being comfortable in your own skin vs. incorporating tactical elements, such as telling disconnected jokes and stories.

  • Data analytics: understanding general math and statistics vs. learning random Excel formulas.

This may seem intuitive at first. Of course, I’d start with the basics.

But, how much time and energy do you really spend on level one before excitement and impatience take over?

Slow down. Focus, and truly master the fundamentals. Then, proceed to the next stage.

If you’d like to learn more, I’d recommend his book “The Art of Learning”.

Using the Feynman Technique

Richard Feynman was a brilliant scientist who pioneered an entire field of quantum electrodynamics. In the 1940s, he invented the Feynman diagram which brought visual clarification to the enigmatic behavior of subatomic particles. He has also heavily influenced the fields of nanotechnology, quantum computing, and particle physics.

Honestly, I don’t know what any of that stuff is. But — he’s probably:

  1. Pretty damn smart

  2. Able to effectively explain complex ideas in simple, intuitive ways

He uses a specific technique (now coined the ‘Feynman technique’) to learn new concepts. 

Here’s how it works:

  1. Pick a concept to learn

  2. Attempt to teach the concept to a sixth-grader

  3. Identify your knowledge gaps

  4. Organize and simplify, then tell the story

How to apply this:

1) Pick a concept to learn

Choose a concept you want to learn and write down everything you know about the topic. This is best done handwritten, on a sheet of paper.

2) Attempt to teach the concept to a sixth-grader

Use simple language. By only using words that a sixth-grader can understand, you empower yourself to understand the concept on a deeper level and simplify connections between abstract ideas.

Be concise. A sixth grader’s attention span requires you to be structured in your explanation and essentially, to deliver an elevator pitch.

You can further challenge yourself by including an example to ensure you put the concept into action.

“If you can’t explain it simply, you don’t understand it well enough.”

— (apparently) Albert Einstein

3) Identify your knowledge gaps

Identify where you struggled in the previous step — this is where gaps in your knowledge exist. Identifying gaps in your knowledge — areas you can’t speak confidently about, topics you forgot, or concepts you can’t connect — is the important part of the process. Filling these gaps is where the real knowledge growth happens.

Hit the books and study the literature to have a more complete understanding of the concept.

4) Organize and simplify, then tell the story

Amalgamate all your notes and sort them in a logical order. Build a narrative that you can effectively tell from start to end. Start to tell your story and practice reading it out loud. Pretend you’re teaching this concept to a room full of sixth graders.

If you run into a blocker or if the story gets confusing, go back to the previous step. Continue to iterate until you have a concise story.

By experimenting with this framework, you're practicing self-awareness in your knowledge areas. You'll be exposing your gaps and may realize that you know less than you previously thought. It'll take vulnerability for you to put your ego aside, but ultimately, this is part of the learning journey.

Further reading:

I’ll stop here as I’ve hit my word limit. If you’d like to hear about more systems, please reply to this email saying "Interested”.

I have a few more to share and will do a pt. 2 if there is interest.

Appreciation & Support

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