Chapter 1: Transformed
Graham knew that he wanted to be a musician and that was that. Even the mere thought of math and science made him uneasy.
But then something happened. Not an accident, or a death in the family, or a sudden shift of fortune. It was something much less dramatic, which made the change all the more profound.
I’ve become convinced that dramatic career changes and attitudes of lifelong learning—both inside and outside of university settings—are a vital creative force.
Motivating teachers matter. They not only make you feel good about the material—they make you feel good about yourself.
I remained convinced that math and science were outside my playbook. After all, I’d flunked my way through those subjects in elementary, middle, and high school.
But against all odds—and despite my early plans—I’m now a professor of engineering, firmly planted in the world of math and science.
I teach the most popular online course in the world—“Learning How to Learn”.
Educational outreach and impact like this is unprecedented—it is clear that people are hungry to learn, shift, and grow.
I discovered, more or less by accident, that there was more power within me to learn and change than I had ever dreamed.
A “mindshift” is a deep change in life that occurs thanks to learning. That’s what this book is about.
Now, as I watch millions of learners all over the world awakening to their potential to learn and change, I realize it’s time for something new. We need a manifesto about the importance of mindshifts in producing vibrant and creative societies and in helping people to live to their full potential.
Discovering Your Hidden Potential
the good news is that worldwide, we’re moving into a new era, in which training and perspectives that were once available only to the fortunate few are becoming available to many.
This is not to say that a mindshift is easy. But the barriers have been lowered.
Mindshift is so important that countries are even devising systems to foster its growth. So we’ll travel to Singapore, one of the most innovative of those countries.
the scope of your ability to learn and change is far broader than you might ever have imagined.
Playing music all day, every day, wasn’t fulfilling him as a person. Somehow, the thought of caring personally for patients when they were at their most vulnerable began to feel more meaningful to him than performing for people he might never talk to or see again.
Suddenly, something clicked. Something impossibly scary: Graham decided that he would become a doctor.
He signed up for a calculus class.
Several months before class began, he bought a precalculus e-book on his iPhone so he could run through the concepts while traveling to performances or commuting to school.
he was well aware that one of his strengths—one he had built through years of practice in music—was the simple skill of persisting at difficult tasks. If he could practice for all of those hours to get into Juilliard, well, there was no reason he couldn’t learn this new material. It would just take hard work and focus.
I remember losing sleep before almost every exam because I thought, “If I don’t get an A, I won’t get into medical school. I just threw away my music career, and if this doesn’t work, what will I have?”
One of the hardest parts was well-meaning friends and family who tried to discourage me. They knew how successful I had been in music and couldn’t see why I was doing what I was doing. Others suggested different careers that might not be as difficult. These friends planted seeds of doubt in my head that made it very hard to make it through the most difficult moments. I had to reaffirm why I was making the change by remembering specific moments of clarity that had steered me in this direction.
The science classes were hard. When I first started, I had to get over the nausea that I naturally felt from math and science. Once I got into it, the material was fun and interesting. I actually started to enjoy the process of drawing organic chemistry figures and puzzling over math problems. I would smile or chuckle to myself when I saw a particularly clever solution in a textbook.
I found that it wasn’t enough to understand something once. I had to practice, just like I had on the guitar. I met with professors and asked questions in class. In high school, I never went for extra help because I was in denial that I was struggling with the material. I thought only the “slow” kids went for extra help. I realized, though, that I had to put my pride aside. The goal was to do well on the test, not look like a genius all the time.
I was fortunate enough to have read Moonwalking with Einstein just before taking these classes. I used several memory techniques such as loci, memory palace, to commit information to memory. I know that some people have naturally good memories for numbers and abstract ideas, but I wasn’t one of them. It was important to figure out my limitations early on. Once I knew what I was working with, I could do what I needed to overcome them.
“I came out with an A. I had gotten a C+ in the easier high school version, but now that I had committed myself to learning the material, I had become a completely different student.”
Graham learned to listen to the musicians around him and not just immediately interject his own musical thoughts. In a similar way, he found that giving patients space to talk and not immediately talking over them can lead to a better diagnosis as well as a better patient-physician relationship.
In my first year of medical school, I still faced struggles studying. One of the reasons I started taking your course on Coursera was because I knew something about my studying was inefficient. I was spending so many more hours than most people but not necessarily learning the material any better. Your course helped me realize that it is important to make studying an active process. I would spend hours rereading slides, but half the time I would just space out and lose focus. By using the Pomodoro technique and frequently testing myself, I am already seeing improvements.
The Pomodoro Technique:
set a timer for twenty-five minutes, and then focus as hard as you can on what you’re working on for those twenty-five minutes. When you’re done (and this is equally important), allow your brain to relax for a few minutes. listen to a favorite song, walk about, chat with friends—anything to comfortably allow yourself to be distracted.
built-in periods of relaxation are equally critical for learning.
how many of us are like that, with whatever subjects, skills, or areas of special expertise we’ve never seriously tried to tackle?
How many of us, for whatever reason, go off track in our lives?
Learning something new sometimes means stepping back to novice level. But it can be a thrilling adventure!
Many ordinary and extraordinary people have made fantastic changes in their lives by keeping themselves open to learning.
Broaden Your Passion:
Have you unnecessarily limited yourself by heeding common advice to follow your passion?
Have you always done what you’re naturally good at?
Or have you challenged yourself with something that was really hard for you?
Surprisingly often, capturing your thoughts and putting them onto paper can help you discover what you really think.
Grab a piece of paper, jot a header of “Broaden your passion”
Chapter 2: Learning Isn’t Just Studying
IT ALL BEGAN to change when Claudia couldn’t pee.
There she was, in her sixties.
All of her life, she’d suffered from a major depressive disorder.
she was first diagnosed when she went off to college at age eighteen.
her father had also been severely depressed.
Abruptly, the car in front of Claudia’s bus skidded to a stop.
For no reason that Claudia was ever able to discover, the driver of the stopped vehicle opened his car door directly into Claudia’s lane of traffic and began stepping out.
she was ticketed for “unsafe following distance.”
Claudia was so stressed by the accident that she simply couldn’t urinate into the little plastic cup that the lab tech from the drug-testing company had put into her hand.
After the third try, the lab tech noted in the record that Claudia “refused to produce a urine sample.”
It was at this point she realized that if she wanted to escape the pain, she was going to have to change.
She was going to have to transform her brain, her body, her habits, and her beliefs.
She was going to experiment with whatever she could—self-help books, teachers, coaches, cognitive neuroscience, and sheer common sense.
She was going to go through a process of discovery, experimenting on herself and keeping at it until she could see faint glimmers of light where the end of the tunnel was supposed to be.
Exercise: A Powerful (But Not All-Powerful) Tool
Claudia had tried exercise before to ward off depression, and it hadn’t worked. What made her think it would work before—and why should this time be any different?
Neuroscientists used to think that you were born with all the neurons you’d ever have, and then, as you aged, neurons gradually died off.
Now, of course, we realize that this is just plain wrong. New neurons are born every day.
“Exercise is stronger than any medicine I could ever prescribe,” Claudia’s psychiatrist had told her.
Indeed, exercise seems to serve as an all-purpose restart button for the brain.
This effect is so powerful that it can reverse the decline of brain function in the elderly.
(Remember when Claudia found it so hard to get herself to move from the couch?) The simple improvement in blood flow that results from exercise may also have an effect on cognitive abilities as well as physical functioning.
As humans age, we naturally lose synapses—connecting points between neurons. It’s a bit like corroding pipes that spring leaks and eventually can’t bring water to where it’s needed. BDNF seems to slow and reverse that “corrosive” effect.
This, as it turns out, is a key aspect of the ability to learn. Thus, for aging brains in particular, exercise can perform the magic of a fairy godmother waving her wand.
If exercise were the only thing you needed to learn better and think more optimistically, then Olympic-level athletes should all be cheerful geniuses.
For older individuals, walking briskly for 75 minutes a week seems to have the same positive influence on cognition as walking for 225 minutes a week.
It seems that exercise can kick-start a cascade of neurotransmitters when you’re trying to learn something new.
This means, if you’re serious about making a mental shift in your life, it can be invaluable to incorporate exercise into the picture.
An Active Role in Changing Her Brain
The notion that medicine alone would do the trick in freeing us from depression is prevalent in both doctors and the depressed—giving a pill, after all, is just so darned easy.
she knew she couldn’t always trust her mind. She began keeping records of her experimentation.
Before doing something that was supposed to be fun, she would ask herself, On a scale of 1 to 10, how much fun do I think it will be?
Afterward, she would rate herself again.
In time, she began to figure out what worked for her—and she repeated what worked, whether she felt like it or not.
- It is much easier to imitate than initiate action. So seek advice and follow directions. Adapt it to your own circumstances. Until you can lead, follow the person in front of you. Do what they do.
- Pack your bag, purse, or gym bag the night before.
- Spend as much time outside in nature as possible. The light will do you good, and you will encounter beautiful things like plants that breathe and rocks that are proud to be rocks.
- Bring as much light to where you live as possible. Open the curtains. Use mirrors opposite windows. Use reflectors and colored glass. Be like a crow. Collect shiny objects.
- Keep going to exercise class. Eventually you will look and feel better.
- Surround yourself with lovely little things that you can afford and that make your environment beautiful. Environment counts.
- Make lists.
- Make and hang inspirational posters, sticky notes, and pictures of people you love on your wall, and cartoons and magnets on the fridge that remind you of good times.
- You never know who is going to be your friend, so act friendly to everyone.
- Stop complaining.
Three years post–bus accident, a vibrant Claudia, age sixty-six, noted:
A number of fortunate things came together for me after I quit my job: less stress without the bus driving; more time for sleep and taking care of myself; an opportunity for deep friendships, intellectual stimulation, and—probably most important and most difficult for me—vigorous exercise four days a week.
Three years after the bus accident, I’m pretty proud of myself. I could not have imagined how well I have become. I haven’t gotten rich, climbed any mountains, earned any degrees, or made any momentous discoveries. But now I can get out of bed on a regular basis. I no longer feel disabling depression; I have not had a serious episode of major depression for three years and counting. I can safely say that I have learned to live my life without serious chronic, recurrent depression.
I do believe that I have learned to change my way of perceiving the world to a less painful way, and that perspective has and does take continued learning and effort. I know it is not in vogue right now to emphasize the effort required to achieve what we want. Unfortunately for many of us, effort and focus is required.
Living a healthy lifestyle has become my hobby and my job. I live a healthy lifestyle, not because I want to live longer, but to feel better during the time I am alive. I do not want to hurt. How do I know that my deliberate actions have led to increased health? I don’t. Fun has become my spiritual path.
I think that what depression has taught me is that I need to listen to myself and take care of my own needs first. Today I choose me. Then out of my abundance I can care for other people, other living beings, and then things.
It would have been hard for the old me to believe this, but recently, a close friend told me that I am the most positive person she knows.
Claudia’s Lifelong Learning
Claudia notes that learning is key: “Teach yourself. Learn that getting beyond your current state is possible. Learn to change your brain and your experience of life.” Exercise underpinned Claudia’s ability to learn and change.
How could you use self-monitoring in your mindshift? What thoughts are keeping you stuck?
Do you tell yourself that you are too old to make a career change?
Are you inadvertently in a self-reinforcing cycle where it feels more comfortable to just continue as you are—though it leaves you dissatisfied?
What positive steps could you take and what self-testing could you do to move to a new self-reinforcing cycle that begins pushing your mind to where you want it to be?
What new behaviors could you immediately start to accomplish your mindshift?
Chapter 3: Changing Cultures
The Data Revolution
IMAGINE IT’S THE year 1704. Life moves in slow motion, but you don’t realize it because you’ve never understood there could be anything different.
But suddenly, one day, you see outsized, bizarre-looking creatures gallop up on four legs—they look like oversized antelopes with no horns. Odder yet, there are humans seated on them.
a horse. In an instant, you realize that there are creatures on this earth that can vastly speed up your life and everything in it.
Just that few extra feet of height from a horse’s back makes the whole world look bigger.
Eras and cultures change—change is the only consistency. We’re at yet another of the many turning points in human history.
The modern-day “horse” that ushers in civilization’s new world is the computer.
People funneling through the traditional academic degree system often don’t realize how important computers can be, not to mention the mathematical thinking that underlies their operation.
what many still don’t realize is that innovative new software and computers now allow for retraining at low cost or for free.
whatever you think you are, you are actually bigger than that. You can find a way to go beyond. And you can often get started—or even complete an entire career transition—by reinventing yourself through the constantly updated world of online materials.
Ali Naqvi and Math: “It’s Complicated”
Ali Naqvi grew up in Pakistan, where he was at the top of his class through most of elementary and middle school. He reveled in English literature, history, and social studies. But there was more—Ali’s father introduced him to golf at the age of seven.
He won Pakistan’s national amateur championship while in middle school and began representing Pakistan in international tournaments.
But there was a shadow over part of Ali’s learning. Math had always been his weakest subject—and he didn’t do much better in chemistry and physics.
His parents sent him to tutors in the evenings, but Ali found himself just imitating the solutions to the problems his tutor set out; he didn’t truly understand the underlying concepts.
he simply couldn’t see any connection between what he was learning in math and what he saw around him in “the real world.”
He fell further and further behind his class, and his self-image as a student became compartmentalized.
It was around this time that his father was transferred and the family moved to Singapore.
He notes: “I’m not proud of it, but I accepted that I was just one of those people who was never meant to be good at math. I consoled myself by telling myself I was ‘creative.’ I ended up failing math and barely passing physics and chemistry. I couldn’t graduate with my high school class.”
Insight from Neuroscience:
Becoming an expert in something new, whatever the subject, means building small chunks of knowledge using day-by-day practice and repetition. Gradually, these small chunks can then be knit together into mastery. It can seem natural to do this when learning a physical skill, say, how to play the guitar.
It may be less obvious that the same practice and repetition applies to learning in math and science. In these more cerebral “sports,” you also need to practice and repeat little mental chunks.
When we learn something and then go to sleep, new synapses—vital neural connections that help us grasp and master new subjects—begin to form.
Focusing your attention on learning something, followed by sleep, is a magic combination.
However, only so many connections can form in a single night of sleep. This is why it’s important to space learning out day by day.
Additional days of practice allow for more—and stronger—neural pathways to develop.
Golf: Ali’s Influential Side Dream
Since Ali’s office was at the driving range, he could practice his golf before and after work, as well as during lunch breaks.
Before long, he was one of the top players at his club, even competing in state championships.
But to make it to the highest levels in golf, you need to practice constantly and relentlessly. You can’t hold a full-time job, as Ali had to do.
Sadly, then, a career in golf didn’t work out. However, Ali was to discover that his knowledge of golf would come in surprisingly handy.
A Scary Career Shift Begins
It was time for another move. This time, Ali decided to go to the United Kingdom to start a new life and a career in digital marketing.
some cultures and subcultures, for better or for worse, cling more closely to past legacies.
As knowledgeable academics say, moving a university is like moving a cemetery—you can’t expect any help from the inhabitants.
In examining the strands of groundbreaking scientific breakthroughs—what he called “paradigm shifts”—Kuhn noticed a pattern. The most revolutionary breakthroughs, he found, were often made by one or two types of people.
The first group was young people—those who had yet to be indoctrinated into the standard way of viewing matters.
a second group of people—people who were older, but who were as innovative as young people—people who had switched disciplines or careers.
It was the change in focus—the career switch—that allowed this second, older group to see with fresh eyes.
Old or young, you may feel like you have a childlike incompetence when you are switching disciplines. This is typical. But keep in mind that the feelings of incompetence will gradually pass—and the power you possess by virtue of your willingness to change will be invaluable.
Heading for a New Horizon
Ali began to wonder: Why just them—why not me? He decided that he wasn’t going to die wondering; he officially became a part of the popular “learn to code” movement.
STEM subjects: Start with enthusiasm Make good early progress Hit a steep learning curve when things are moving too fast Compare himself to others who are progressing much faster Begin to feel deflated and find excuses to procrastinate Revisit after a while, only to find he had forgotten most of it and was back at square one.
But then he came across a book—A Mind for Numbers, by Barbara Oakley (yes, that’s me). Ali was struck not only by the insights about learning in the book, but also by my story.
As Ali read about my early struggles with math, he felt I might as well have been talking about him. Ali went on to complete the MOOC “Learning How to Learn” on Coursera and gained some perspective on learning with relation to his career.
Ali Naqvi’s Practical Pointers for Effective Retraining:
- Pomodoro app on my phone. This simple technique is incredibly effective in helping me focus on process rather than results. The feeling of achievement after having completed my planned daily number of Pomodoros is very gratifying. I’m not perfect, but looking at my Pomodoro app stats over many months, I’ve consistently been waging a successful war against procrastination.
- chunking: key mental techniques until I know them like a song. Learning a new concept and then closing my eyes and recalling what I have just learned leaves me with no hiding place.
- I feel like I am able to enjoy my favorite Netflix shows, playing the guitar, listening to music, etc., guilt-free as long as I have earned it with some focused learning beforehand. The best part about it is that I go into that leisure time knowing my brain is still working toward my goals thanks to the “magic” of the diffuse mode.
- I’ve always had quite a visual brain and a musical ear; coming up with colorful images with a fun soundtrack can even make quadratic equations fun!
- thinking about the new concepts I have learned just before going to sleep. teaching myself out loud; that is, explaining concepts to myself as if I were a complete novice. you quickly realize how well you do or don’t understand something when you have to teach it in a concise, simple manner.
Fast-forward a year. Ali has taken a number of MOOCs related to both programming and business development, and his life has made some fascinating leaps.
He has been promoted twice at his advertising agency—first to business director and now to business partner. He’s fallen in love with the woman of his dreams and gotten engaged.
A key theme in his life now is self-awareness. He says, “I’ll soon turn thirty-two. It’s clear that the best way for me to be successful is to focus on my strengths, while carefully choosing the weaknesses I want to work on.
Ali Naqvi’s Advice on Career Change:
There will always be somebody out there who is better than you at something you want to do. You must realize that you are on your own journey, on your own path, and you are being the “best version of you” rather than a bad version of somebody else.
That person who kicked your butt in that golf tournament? They might kill to have your ability to play guitar. That student on the MOOC forum who seems to be able to get the programming problems so easily while you struggle? They might look at your reasoning and creative writing skills with the same level of awe as you do their ability to program. If your focus is your truth, you will get where you want to go when the time is right.
Focusing on the Present
One of the most valuable lessons Ali’s golf coach taught him was about gaining control over his emotions and attitude.
In tournaments, when things didn’t go Ali’s way, he struggled to contain his frustration.
The best bit of advice his coach gave him was: “The past is the past. You can’t change that. What you can control is your attitude on the next shot. The only thing in the world that matters right now is the next shot.”
Online learning is an incredible privilege afforded to our generation.
Ali found that mastering chunks of knowledge—how to write a brief, readable module of code, for example—was an important missing piece in his ability to gain expertise in a new area.
What is a good tiny chunk for you to practice with over several days? Give it a try and notice how it grows easier to call to mind!