CHAPTER 2: THE ONLY SKILL THAT MATTERS
“The illiterate of the twenty-first century will not be those who cannot read and write, but those who cannot learn, unlearn, and relearn.”
—Alvin Toffler, author of Future Shock
Over the last five years, I’ve made it my life’s mission to prevent as many people as possible from ever feeling the suffering I felt: the suffering of feeling stupid, or of being unable to understand the complex world around them.
CHAPTER 3: LEARN LIKE A CAVEMAN
Even if you were lucky enough to study something very visual, like medicine or engineering, what percentage of your learning would you call vivid, visual, or experiential? What percentage came via boring textbooks and rambling lectures? Think, for that matter, about the most recent thing you attempted to learn—even if it was outside of school. How did you approach it?
The most innovative schools, from the established Montessori to the new-age MUSE, know this and have modeled themselves accordingly. Students in these schools don’t learn geometry from a textbook; they learn it by building real structures and observing real phenomena.
Fortunately, it is not too late for you to claim your birthright as a SuperLearner. You just need to return to the basics. To learn like a caveman.
CHAPTER 4: THE ADULT BRAIN AND HOW IT LEARNS
“Knowledge is to be acquired only by a corresponding experience. How can we know what we are told merely?”
—Henry David Thoreau
“If it’s not in the hands, it’s not in the head.”
What stood out about Knowles’s work was his singular focus on understanding the needs of the adult learner.
Adults come into the learning environment with some strongly held beliefs about the way things work
Far too often, we approach a “new” subject as if it’s completely foreign, when in fact, the whole of human knowledge is connected in some way.
NEED TO KNOW
By simply considering the ways in which you will apply a piece of information, you increase your ability both to focus on and to remember it.
Adults learn best through active practice and participation. Design your learning experience accordingly!
Knowles found that it’s best to start with a problem and work towards a solution.
we need to be involved.
The next time you find yourself stuck in a rigid learning environment, such as a normal online course or a highly structured corporate training, take a step back and think. How can you customize your path, make decisions, and reclaim some ownership over your experience?
the drive to learn must come from within you.
dive deep into your why. Why do you want to learn it? How will you use it? Why will your life be better once you have?
CHAPTER 5: AN OUNCE OF PREPARATION
A woodsman was once asked,
“What would you do if you had just six minutes to chop down a tree?”
“I would spend the first four minutes sharpening my ax.”
In his accelerated learning book disguised as a cookbook, The 4-Hour Chef, Tim Ferriss shares his framework for preparing to learn anything faster. It goes like this:
- Deconstruction: How small can I break things down into their basic units of learning, such as individual vocabulary words or grammatical rules?
- Selection: What are the 20 percent of those units that will give me 80 percent of the benefits (Pareto’s Principle)?
- Sequencing: What is the best order in which to learn these units?
- Stakes: How can I use psychology or social pressure to condense my timelines and push myself to learn faster?
Whatever you’re learning, thinking ahead is key.
- Why am I learning this information, and how and when will I actually use it?
- What level of understanding or knowledge do you need? To what level do you need to know the information you are learning? Do you need to be able to recite other people’s works word-for-word. The depth to which you need to know something dramatically changes the way you should approach learning it
- How can this information be broken down into small parts? How can it then be recombined into broader categories or themes?
- What are the most important things to learn based on my personal goals?
- What is the right order in which to learn this information?
- How will I actually access this information? I made the mistake of organizing my memory palace (a powerful tool you’ll soon learn) alphabetically.
- What will your study schedule look like, and how can you compress timelines? work expands to fill the time you allow it.
- How will I measure and track my progress? what gets measured and reported improves exponentially.
- What will I do if things don’t go to plan? If you have a specific plan ready for when you inevitably fall off track, you’ll minimize the damage and ensure that you waste as little time as possible.
CHAPTER 6: WHY (AND HOW) TO 10X YOUR MEMORY
When I asked Harry why, in his sixty years of teaching these techniques, he was unable to bring them into traditional schools, his answer was this:
“I made a big mistake…I started to interview the teachers first…and they all insisted: ‘We don’t use memory.’”
for the majority of things you need to learn, rote memorization doesn’t work. But that doesn’t mean that all memorization is bad.
First things first, we need to master our visual memory.
If you want to improve your memory tenfold, create novel visualizations, called “markers,” for everything you wish to remember.
CREATE HIGHLY DETAILED VISUALIZATIONS
By creating a high level of detail, you ensure that you are adequately visualizing a vivid, memorable image in your mind’s eye. Fuzzy, nonspecific images are much easier to forget
OPT FOR THE “OUT THERE”
your visualizations should include absurd, bizarre, violent, or sexual imagery.
LEVERAGE YOUR EXISTING KNOWLEDGE
Wherever possible, you should make use of images, ideas, or memories you already have.
CONNECT IT BACK
it’s important to choose markers that will clearly symbolize the information you’re trying to remember!
picture Mike Tyson holding a microphone, singing embarrassingly off-key karaoke on stage.
a visualization so clear that you can see Mike belting out the missed notes: face tattoo, lisp, and all.
Alice: picturing her chasing a rabbit down a hole, like Alice in Wonderland, blue dress and all. Your marker for Alice might look something like this:
Once you know that system, you can create words out of the numbers.
the phone number 740-927-1415 transforms into Crazy Pink Turtle.
When you meet someone new, create a marker. When you get a new credit card, memorize it with a marker. When you learn an interesting fact in a blog post, stop for a moment, and create a marker. From now on, I want you to make it second nature to visualize everything that’s important to you.
CHAPTER 7: THE MNEMONIC NUCLEAR OPTION
imagine that you’re standing in the doorway to your childhood bedroom. choose the most nostalgic one.
Next, I want you to turn to the right, and walk to the first corner of the room.
What is in that first corner? Is it a desk? A closet? Or perhaps it’s your bed. Whatever it is, right on that piece of furniture, I want you to picture two seahorses. These aren’t just two regular seahorses, though. As you picture them, they’re shamelessly engaged in an elaborate and messy mating ritual. It’s a scene straight out of National Geographic. Gross! Now, I want you to get rid of those perverted seahorses by imagining them getting sucked up by a vacuum hose.
Now, traveling counterclockwise along the perimeter of the room, let’s take a trip to the next corner. I want you to imagine that in this second corner, there’s a delicious container of chunky peanut butter, tantalizing you. If there’s a desk in the corner, you can imagine the container on the desk. If there isn’t, imagine that someone has smeared the chunky peanut butter up against the walls in the corner. Yuck!
Up next, move over to the third corner, where I want you to visualize a big, messy, tangled, ball of wires. You know, the kind of ball of wires you have in that one drawer somewhere in your house? In this corner, you’re going to picture that bundle of wires…and use some detail. Picture that old phone charger cable you have from the 1990s and those broken iPhone cables you still haven’t thrown away. Get specific. I want you to imagine that the wires are strung all along the corner or furniture like Christmas lights. For example, if it’s a closet, imagine that the wires are tangling up all of your clothes hangers, making one BIG mess.
Finally, there’s a picture hanging right next to the corner. But it’s not just any picture. It’s your favorite historical picture of all time. You know the one. It’s that picture you saw in history class and thought, “Wow…I wish I’d been there to see it!” For me, it’s a famous picture of the American athletes protesting at the 1968 Olympics. For you, it might be the tanks in Tiananmen Square or the iconic photo of Marilyn Monroe. Any picture will work. Now, I want you to imagine that picture hung right there, in the fourth corner of your bedroom.
In corner one, you have two X-rated seahorses getting vacuumed up.
In corner two, you have a bunch of chunky peanut butter.
In corner three, you have a mess of tangled cables.
In corner four, you have a famous historical picture.
And, back at the doorway, a big “location” pin blocking your exit.
Unlike other techniques, the memory palace allows users to not only memorize large amounts of information, but to do so in perfect order. In fact, once you begin using memory palaces, you won’t believe how easy it is to recite information both forward and backward. This, among other reasons, is why every single memory competitor and record holder uses some variation of the technique. Best of all, it works for anyone and everyone. Study after study has shown how this simple technique can transform average people into memory superhumans.
How can any one method be so powerful, you ask? A happy coincidence of neuroscience. You see, when used properly, the memory palace technique checks off nearly every criterion of memorability.
When, for example, I memorized my TEDx talk using a memory palace, I spent a few minutes thinking about how to logically lay it out. How many paragraphs were there? Where were the transition points? This is something you can do “in your head,” by walking around the space physically, or even by drawing a quick floor plan on a piece of paper.
I chose to assign each paragraph or key idea to a specific room and memorize the important “transitions” in the walkways between rooms.
Once you have the logic and layout of your memory palace, the rest is easy. Using your new, “electric” memory, create novel, illustrative visual markers for everything you want to remember.
Instead of imagining a washing machine sitting on the window sill, I imagine it shaking violently and breaking the window. Doing so helps me remember that the washing machine could only be near the window—and adds a bit of violence and absurdity, while we’re at it.
CHAPTER 8: NEVER FORGET AGAIN
Ebbinghaus discovered that our memory is subject to exponential loss.
there’s a sharp, nonlinear decline in memory immediately after learning something.
Ebbinghaus discovered that with repeated, spaced repetition, his memory of the random syllables became better and better.
Since Ebbinghaus’s day, people have concocted a few clever solutions to this little conundrum. One such solution is the Leitner box, a system of organizing your flashcards into five separate boxes. As you study, you move your cards between the boxes depending on how well you understand the information. As you reorganize the cards, you review each box more or less frequently, based on how hard each box is.
spaced repetition systems (SRS):
The idea behind digital SRSs is quite simple. Create flashcards—or download someone else’s—complete with audio, video, pictures, and text. Then, start reviewing. For each piece of information, tell the software how difficult it was to answer, on a scale of one to four. The algorithm then considers your answers and reaction times and predicts when you’re likely to forget that card. If you answer “easy” within a few seconds, you’re unlikely to see that flashcard again for weeks—or months! If you struggle before admitting defeat, the flashcard will come up again during that study session. In fact, you’ll see it again and again, until it’s easy. Then, it will come up again tomorrow, and the day after that, until you can consistently answer quickly and confidently.
But what about things you learn from books? Most of us read books to gain a general knowledge and perspective of new ideas, not to memorize the individual facts, figures, and quotes. For this reason, it doesn’t really make sense to import each of your highlights into a spaced repetition system. Chances are, you don’t care to memorize them like you would vocabulary words. Nonetheless, you do need to perform some kind of spaced repetition or overlearning if you don’t want to forget everything you’ve read.
I like Readwise so much I’ve actually negotiated a two-month free trial for my readers. You can claim it by visiting www.readwise.io/superlearner.
Gabriel Wyner, author of Fluent Forever. In the book, he teaches his meticulous method for combining memorable photos with spaced repetition software. With this method, Gabriel was able to learn four languages—simultaneously. Gabriel is now developing his own SRS, Fluent, which helps people learn languages in this way.
CHAPTER 9: PRIMING YOUR BRAIN FOR LEARNING
Survey, Question, Read, Recall, Review.
we ask ourselves questions to improve our motivation, such as “For what reason am I reading this?” “What’s in it for me?” or “What do I expect to see here?” Doing this helps create curiosity, which in turn generates motivation and enthusiasm for reading.
THE POWER OF PRE-READING
The skill we call “pre-reading” is actually two processes in one: Surveying and Questioning.
“to investigate, examine, question, and record information about it.”
At first, pre-reading may seem counterintuitive to you: Doesn’t it add extra steps, slowing you down? Actually, the opposite is true.
SURVEYING THE SITUATION
We are not reading the text—or even trying to. Instead, we’re looking for titles, subheadings, proper nouns, numbers, words, or anything that doesn’t seem to fit in. When we pre-read, we gain an understanding of the structure of the text, and we build a sort of mental map. If there are “cutaways,” or terms that jump out at us as unfamiliar, we stop our pre-reading and gain a better understanding before resuming.
we’re looking for that 20 percent of details that give us an 80 percent understanding of what we’re going to be reading.
Adult learners need to be curious about what they’re learning.
cognitive biases. One of the most important of these is confirmation bias. This is the tendency to pay extra special attention to things that confirm our beliefs.
Another effective class of questions is to ask yourself: How will I use this information?
How could you use this knowledge in your day-to-day life? Who are some people in your life with whom you could share it? When might it be useful for sparking up a conversation?
As with all pre-reading questions, these thought exercises are designed to put your cognitive biases on “high alert.” When you finally read the text, you’ll find that you have a laser-like focus and determination to prove yourself right—no matter how boring the text may be.
Let’s say, for example, you were pre-reading an article about nutrition. Just by noting a few prominent keywords, such as “paleo,” “grains,” “animal protein,” “cancer,” “obesity,” or “insulin,” I can already tell a lot. And by seeing which studies and which experts are cited, I can tell even more.
flip through the pages at an extremely high speed. As you do, start asking yourself questions about the details you’re noticing.
From now on, I suggest that you pre-read just about everything.
CHAPTER 10: LEARNING TO WALK ON YOUR HANDS
If we eliminate the voice, we eliminate the bottleneck, right?
The truth is, it’s not quite so simple.
We can dramatically minimize it and learn to subvocalize only a small portion of the words we read.
“breaking the sound barrier,”
Unfortunately, there’s not much we can do about saccadic blindness. What we can do is reduce the amount of time we spend in it.
A normal reader is trained to make one fixation per word, resulting in about eight to ten fixations per line. That’s a lot of time spent in saccadic blindness. But we can train ourselves only to make, say, one or two fixations per line.
Most readers center their fovea on the first letter of the first word and the last letter of the last word in a line.
the most advanced speed-readers center their fixations on the second and second to last words on a line.
Before reading, pre-read the chapter ahead, survey its structure, and generate your questions. After speed-reading each paragraph or page, pause, and take a moment to recall, creating visual markers to represent what you learned. Once you’ve finished the chapter, close the book and review those visual markers. And of course, revisit the books you’ve read with some form of spaced repetition. Unless you complete each of these steps—particularly the memory aspects—you will have no more success than I did before discovering this method.
CHAPTER 11: CROSS-POLLINATION AND BRUTE FORCE LEARNING
“Who is wise? He that learns from everyone.”
Cross-pollination states that learning one subject will have significant, unforeseen benefits when learning another.
But there’s another important benefit of cross-pollination. It allows us to take advantage of our enthusiasm and passion for learning in real time.
different people understand, present, and explain the exact same concept in very different ways. As a learner, it’s impossible to know if the way that you’re first exposed to is what’s going to “click” for you.
to attack it from as many different perspectives as possible to try and gain complete access. Brute force learning, on the other hand, means learning something from as many different perspectives as possible to try and gain complete understanding.
CHAPTER 12: CHECK YOURSELF
“You can fool yourself, you know.
You’d think it’s impossible, but it turns out it’s the easiest thing of all.”
—Jodi Picoult, Vanishing Acts
Bloom’s Taxonomy is a helpful reminder that the words “learning,” “knowing,” and “understanding” greatly oversimplify what’s really going on.
In his method, Benny advocates speaking a language from day one—even if you only know a few words. Forget studying and studying until you are “ready” to debut your language skills.
If you’re hoping to learn a subject, another great way to “test” yourself is to write—and publish—a blog post about it.
CHAPTER 13: PAY IT FORWARD
“To teach is to learn twice over.”
when we teach others, we ourselves benefit tremendously.
“If you can’t explain it simply, you don’t understand it well enough.”
I’ll often build entire courses because I want to learn more about the topic myself.
- Pick a topic you want to understand, and start studying it. Write down everything you know about the topic on a notebook page. Use illustrations wherever possible to simplify your understanding and portrayal of the subject. Add to that page every time you learn something new about it.
- Pretend to teach your topic to a classroom. Make sure you’re able to explain the topic in simple terms.
- Go back to the books when you get stuck. The gaps in your knowledge should be obvious. Revisit problem areas until you can explain the topic fully.
- Simplify and use analogies. Repeat the process, continually simplifying your language and connecting facts with analogies. Do this as many times as needed to strengthen your understanding.
CHAPTER 14: HIGH-PERFORMANCE HABITS
sleep, you probably don’t give it nearly the respect or the priority it deserves. In the over 225 interviews I’ve done with some of the world’s foremost superhumans, sleep is one of the few things that comes up time and time again.
napping becomes a powerful tool for many SuperLearners.
Studies have shown that students who suspend their learning to do something unrelated actually remember better than those who don’t.
Another one of the recurring themes among the top performers I’ve interviewed is nutrition.
A diet low in carbohydrates, devoid of sugar, and rich in high quality, natural fats will make your brain sing. It’ll trim your waistline too. Omega 3 fatty acids, such as those found in fish and chia seeds, are particularly great.
Our brains and bodies love to have a consistent source of energy. But this isn’t possible when your blood sugar resembles a cutting-edge rollercoaster. Minimizing processed carbohydrates—particularly sugar—helps stabilize your blood glucose. What’s more, on the extreme end of the spectrum, a high fat and low carb diet can put your body into a state of ketosis. This means that your body is burning fat as a source of fuel!
Running on ketones is such a performance boost that many people choose to fast to get into this state.
at the very least, it’s a good idea to switch out the starchy breakfast cereal for a few eggs and an avocado.
The third major theme for brain performance is also no surprise: exercise.
When we exercise, we do much more than maintain the health of our bodies—the vessels that carry around and protect our brains. Exercise also has dramatic effects on our neurochemistry. Even a light workout can improve mood, lower stress, increase alertness, and enhance memory. In fact, some research has demonstrated that learning is easier while the body is in motion. So if you want to bring an audiobook with you on your bike ride, by all means. It won’t hurt to invest in a standing desk while you’re at it.
Meditation, getting enough oxygen, and exposing yourself to bright, natural light during the day all help a great deal. Nootropics, ranging from green tea all the way up to modafinil are also quite useful and worth experimentation—with your doctor’s approval. But none of these can help you if you neglect the three foundations upon which brain health is built: sleep, exercise, and nutrition.
It really is that simple, and it really is that important.
“Once you stop learning, you start dying.”