Meta Learning: How to Accelerate Understanding

Learning doesn’t have to be a chore, filled with mindless tedium and rote memorization. It can be fun, and much easier than conventional wisdom would claim. Malcolm Gladwell is the famous author of many excellent books, including Outliers, and the Tipping Point. He said that it takes 10 000 hours to achieve mastery in a vocation or career. Proponents of lifestyle design and efficiency such as Tim Ferriss would argue that this is not necessarily the case. He is the author of the 4 Hour Workweek, the 4 Hour Body, and the 4 Hour Chef, which is about meta-learning.

For a lot of people, there is a stigma attached to acquiring knowledge. This is partially related to different personality types, but it is mostly because the vast majority of education systems are massively ineffective and dull. There are some countries and teachers who stand out by engaging in different methods, but they are the exception to the norm. Most of us quickly grow to associate learning with being forced to remember a lot of uninteresting information that we will quickly forget. This is due to schools prioritizing taking tests over encouraging enthusiastic views of teaching. In elementary schools, kids are assigned homework to practice the same skills they are apathetic toward over and over again. They are also tested on their knowledge of way more information than is necessary. This problem can be exacerbated in post-secondary institutions, where tests matter even more.

This flawed goal of education causes innumerable global problems. It results in people having less opportunities, being unproductive members of society, and making poorly informed decisions. When we have limited employment options, we’ll probably spend a massive percentage of time working in jobs that make us miserable. Such common time wasters also make us suffer from a severe lack of accomplishment. This could even lead to a life of crime for disadvantaged classes who happened to be born into suffocating circumstances. A lot of us are forced to devote our lives to a system that barely serves us, in hopes of making enough money to survive. If we are unmotivated, and don’t take the time to learn enough information before making choices, we can get into the habit of blissful ignorance. It results in us engaging in countless actions that cause us harm, sometimes without even being cognizant of the consequences. We could eat unhealthy diets and be sedentary, which can lead to chronic health problems, and shorter lives of poorer quality. We could vote for politicians with whom we disagree about almost everything because they belong to our favorite party, and we didn’t bother researching their positions. This can cause laws and other public changes to occur that might be detrimental to societal progress. In some cases, we are completely oblivious to them.

There is a more efficient and exciting way to learn. It can take significantly less than 10 000 hours to achieve mastery, and a tiny fraction of that if the goal is the limited proficiency that many of us seek. More effective methods allow us to become experts in 2 years instead of 10, and award us with practical knowledge in any topic or skill in days, weeks, or at the most, months, instead of years or decades. We just have to start looking at learning in a different way.

The primary mindset that Tim Ferriss encourages with regard to learning includes focusing on fundamentals, looking at problems in unconventional ways, and setting clearly defined goals. He talks about the 80/20 principle in relation to focusing on the fundamentals, which advocates for the minimum effective dose. When looking at a skill or subject to learn, or a problem to solve, we should think about what 20% of actions we can take that will get 80% of the results. We often do a lot of unnecessary things in combination with those that serve us a lot better. In most areas of life, including learning, there are frequently foundational guidelines and practices that elicit more benefits than anything else. If we want to learn a new language, we can do do so much more quickly by learning the grammar structure of it, and working up from there. If we want to get in shape, a few fundamental exercises like deadlifts, squats, and kettle bell swings will get us more bang for our buck than doing hour long crossfit workouts 4 times a week. If we want to learn to play the guitar, there are a handful of chords that will allow us to easily play every AC/DC and Rolling Stones song, and every pop song. It may take a while before we’re playing Stairway to Heaven, but we can make a lot of progress in a very short period of time. No building stands up without its foundations, so looking for these in anything we want to learn about will serve us well.

Looking at problems in unconventional ways can also help us a lot more than standard methods. Outliers who succeeded in spite of disadvantages can teach us more than those who flourished because they did everything the hard way. If everyone does something in a particular manner, it has likely been a while since someone questioned whether there are more efficient practices. Athletes or academics who have to navigate around inherent setbacks tend to find creative solutions to problems that require less work. They might do deadlifts and sprints while everyone else is going for 5 mile jogs, or only read the first and last page of each chapter of a textbook while everyone else memorizes every word. One excellent way that Tim Ferriss demonstrates this principle in his book called The 4 Hour Body is an anecdote of a 114 pound high school athlete. She got better at sprints than her counterparts by doing nothing more than deadlifts to her knees thrice a week. This got her maximum deadlift to 405 pounds, and made her faster than her opponents with a fraction of the work.

Setting clearly defined goals is another great way to cut learning curves. We often start new hobbies or interests with unnecessarily broad intentions. What do you want to learn about playing guitar? Just how to play it? What do you want to learn about Spanish? Just how to speak it in general? We can make a lot more progress by breaking large tasks into smaller chunks, and taking them one specific step at a time. Learning Jujitsu can seem incredibly daunting if we have no martial arts experience, especially if we are out of shape. However, if we focus on each class we go to, and put the larger goal of becoming at least mildly proficient in the backs of our minds, it can help us improve at a faster rate. When we start the class, we can think about nothing other than the moves we will learn that day. Once we have mastered those, which could take a long time, we can progress to the next set.

Creating incentives to force us to complete our clearly defined goals is also a good idea. One example that Tim Ferriss has used in his books is giving a friend money to donate to a hated group, like the Neo-Nazis, if we fail to reach a goal. Another is sending a friend a picture of yourself in your underwear that they have permission to publicize if you don’t lose a certain amount of weight by a particular deadline. Setting clear goals is all well and good, but it doesn’t matter how specific they are if we fail to meet them. Extreme incentives motivate us to be phenomenally focused on making accomplishments.

This brings us to meta learning, which is essentially learning on a higher level than average. It is the ability to chunk bits of information together, so that remembering one aspect of a concept or skill connects it to several other components in our minds. Meta learning builds neuronal connections, increasing associative knowledge. It allows us to connect disparate details more efficiently. In the book called The Art of Learning, by Josh Waitzkin, the former world chess champion explains meta learning. He discusses how he and other chess players use it to chunk series of moves together, which makes them able to act more quickly. They can think five or more moves ahead of what is currently happening, allowing them to consider the consequences of their actions in microseconds instead of seconds. That is why people like Josh Waitzkin can accomplish feats like playing several chess games simultaneously. They are all connected in his head, and he often automatically knows what moves to make without understanding the reasons behind them. In the book, he talks about how he used these methods to also become a world champion in Tai Chi Push Hands, the martial arts version of the movement practice. He then used the same tactics with Jujitsu, allowing him to achieve a black belt in an incredibly short time frame. Other people in various professions regularly engage in meta learning. Fire fighters sometimes know how to escape a burning building without being able to see or hear properly. Cops and soldiers can tell when a suspect or combatant is about to shoot before any movement occurs.

The benefits of meta learning are prodigious. We can all get into the habit of focusing on the fundamentals when starting a new skill or field of study, looking at problems in unconventional ways, and setting clearly defined goals, along with incentives to help us achieve them. This can aid us in chunking different subsets of information together, and accelerating understanding. The more we engage in supercharged learning curves, the more time we can save, and the more we can achieve. Once we become learning machines, we can all live vastly more productive and fulfilling lives.


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