Bonus episode: Scott H Young on effective learning, education, Cal Newport, mental models, and more

Tune in on: Apple Podcasts / Soundcloud / Spotify

*Or tune into Made At McGill on any podcast app.

Scott H Young is an entrepreneur and author of Wall Street Journal best-seller Ultralearning. This bonus episode is (a LOT of) extra content from my interview with him. You can learn more about Scott at his blog, and his book Ultralearning is in bookstores everywhere and of course, on Amazon.

Scott is most well-known for a couple of things:

  1. Designing and completing “The MIT Challenge”, which involved teaching himself MIT’s undergraduate computer science curriculum in 1 year instead of the standard 4 without taking any classes.
  2. He also did “The Year Without English”, where in 12 months he learned 4 different languages in 4 different countries in complete immersion with little to no training in those languages beforehand.

In this bonus episode we talk about a bunch of different things, including: the 9 principles of effective learning, mental models, his friendship with author Cal Newport, motivation, cultural differences in storytelling between the West and the East, education, the mysteries of consciousness, and why we can form analogies between vastly different things.

Transcript below

Mo: So the next set of questions will be general questions about the book, and then some random questions and some stuff about your tweets. First thing I’m going to touch on is something you talked about during the warmup, which is you realize that books on learning don’t do well, and part of it is culture and academic stuff. And most books don’t excite people. Could you talk a little bit about that?

Scott: Okay. All right. So I’ll go into the backstory of this. I feel like ultra learning, it’s not like I’m the number one New York Times bestseller or anything, but I think it’s been popular enough, at least from people that I feel safe saying this out loud. When I started writing this book, I even had some friends who will also remain nameless, who are kind of like people don’t buy books on learning. And the thing that I realized was that first of all, also from doing the market research, books on learning don’t do very well. And so this was definitely a worry because learning is like my whole life. It’s my whole topic that I discussed, and so I was definitely feeling like, oh crap, am I going into sort of a dead space book-wise? Is that most people don’t like learning, and they don’t like books about learning. And they don’t do very well.

Scott: Now I think there are exceptions to this, but they’re not as big as they could be. We all know that Tim Ferris is such a superstar author, but I think even he will admit that the 4-Hour Chef did not do as well as 4-Hour Body or 4-Hour Work Week. And so this kind of exhibits or relative trend that people care more about fitness and starting a business than they do about learning. Although some of that might be just specifics about that particular book. I don’t know.

Scott: And so for me, I was very wary starting this. And I think part of it is a cultural thing. I was even talking to people about how in the success space, in the business space, I find that… We’re both Canadians, so it’s a little bit different for Canada, although not too too different. But I find that Americans tend to sports and athletic achievement, is a more powerful analogy for real life success than academics. And usually when we’re talking about academics, it’s often in that context of like “Well, you gotta get good degrees, but learning isn’t very important.” Or learning is given this kind of like, “Well, yes, it’s sort of a higher ideal, but it’s not very practical.”

Scott: And that, it’s not very like, it’s not the thing that people instantly equate to success. Whereas I find that, this is just sort of my own personal sort of experience, especially as someone who’s not super into sports, is that, if someone’s using a sports analogy, people will immediately kind of draw to it as being like an obvious sort of story about success that would have implications for, let’s say, business. Whereas someone who learns something really well or had academic success tends not to be. And I don’t know why that is, but I do know that it’s not true in other countries.

Scott: So I know, for instance, that in countries like in Asia, academic success is very tightly coupled to the idea of success in business and in real life more so than just the institutional way in which being successful in school gets to good jobs and gets to, obviously that’s true, but even adults who are outside of that system now when I have conversations with them, let’s say in China or Korea, tend to have imbibed this idea of being good at learning as being a kind of a life skill in a way that I find, maybe Americans would do with sports.

Scott: That if you are good at like high school football and then that has it sort of an obvious analogy to being a successful leader or a successful entrepreneur in a way that I think, “Oh you are really good at school.”

Scott: I find that culturally Americans are more likely to discount that than to applaud it. Like to say, “Oh, you got A’s in school. Well, that’s just book smarts. You don’t learn real things in school.”

Scott: And there’s reasons for that, which I talk about in the book, but I think the cultural aspect of it is unique because it seems to be more of an attitude than an actual set of propositional beliefs about the value of education.

Scott: And so that was definitely a worry writing this book. And for me, I kind of wanted to be like, “Well, I didn’t want to write a book that was just for students.” Although I think students could benefit from this book, I didn’t want this to be, “Here’s how to pass your exams.” It was learning has had such an impact on my life post-school, and I think that it really is one of these very basic cognitive processes that underlies literally everything we do all the time.

Scott: So, for me, it seemed very obvious that being an effective and successful learner really underlies success in everything that you do. And so I wanted to try to communicate that enthusiasm through examples that I think people would connect with and find exciting. And I hope I’ve been able to do that. But it definitely doesn’t seem like that’s the default, at least in in North America.

Scott: And I think also when we’re talking about learning, too, I think there can sometimes be too much of an analogy drawn from school. So, again, being able to learn well in school and being able to learn well in real life are certainly correlated. But they do involve slightly different skills.

Scott: So being able to pass tests and being able to create a startup are different. And I think that the North American culture likes to point on the differences of that more than the similarities.

Scott: But I definitely think the differences do matter. And so that was a big part of why I wanted to write this book as well, is to bring learning outside of that context. Bring learning about, “Well, what if learning wasn’t about passing tests? What if it was about getting really good at things that matter? How would you do it and, and what would be the differences?”.

Scott: And so that was sort of another goal of writing this book was to try to pull learning outside of the school and talk about all the people who are learning every single day. And it’s not as a substitute for university. It’s not as, that’s not the comparison, it’s just that they want to get good at something.

Mo: You mentioned that you, while you were writing an op-ed for a LinkedIn essay that they, that you were going to cite some older studies and then they told you like, “No, we want newer studies.” Could you talk a little bit about that experience?

Scott: Sure. Well, I don’t want to criticize them because I understand exactly why they were reasoning this way.

Scott: So what I did, I wrote this essay, it did go for LinkedIn and we did use the studies that I originally picked, but it was, the article is called, “Want to learn to code? Don’t go to school.”.

Scott: So just sort of a kind of deliberately provocative essay, sort of arguing that sort of talking with some of this transfer research that a lot of people think, if you want to be a good coder, you have to have studied computer science in school. And, even though I think it is often challenging to learn to code on your own, I think that that’s not as much an issue of intellectual ability to learn to code on your own because there’s tons of resources to do it.

Scott: It’s more just that going to school is such a commitment device for people that they actually put in the work required to do it rather than school being particularly effective at it.

Scott: And so I wrote this essay, and one of the things I want to talk about was again, some of the studies that I think I mentioned earlier about the economics majors and the high school thing, and they were very short, pithy little studies about failures of transfer, particularly as they pertain to higher education. And the person who is editing was just saying, “Oh, are there any more recent studies? Because these studies were old.”.

Scott: And I couldn’t find any that were like that. Like there are lots of studies but, I mean, if you get some recent study on transfer it’ll be like, “Investigating the effects of altering some variable for transfer on the sixth graders” to… Like it’s going to be like that, right? It’s going to be some study that is going to take me three or four paragraphs to just explain what the heck they’re even doing.

Scott: Because that’s how research works. It builds on itself, right? And so it’s not like people who are doing research on transfer are trying to create little quippy studies that I can put in my article. They’re trying to explore what is transfer and how does it work on a cognitive level, and the research on transfer really extends back as I said, almost a century. Thorndike and Wordsworth did their first paper, basically, showing that transfer is weaker than we think, and that was I think 1901.

Scott: So I mean this is a really old literature that has been well studied for decades. I think that I understand why he wanted the newer studies because the objection is, “Oh, well that’s how we were teaching students in the ’70s and ’80s, and it’s different now.” Now there’s good reasons to think that these studies or something similar to these studies would hold up today. And definitely the idea that transfer is not very successful has certainly not gone away.

Scott: But I mean to really argue that point requires almost a book rather than just a paragraph. So I was a little bit stuck when writing that essay. So I appreciate the editor’s position on that, but it was a little bit challenging for me. And maybe that’s also my deficiencies as a researcher and a writer. But I think, I think we were talking about this as well, just the broader phenomenon that people want new stuff.

Scott: So when you write a book, they don’t want you to cite a lot of old studies. They want you to cite new studies. They want you to cite things that are new that maybe haven’t been featured in other books before. And I really resisted that impulse in writing this book because, I think if you look around, you see a lot of relatively recent fields that are just collapsing. They’re just imploding under replication efforts under the fact that the way that they were doing them, the paradigm of the experiment is not as robust as was previously thought and et cetera, et cetera.

Scott: And so when I was trying to write this book, I was very wary of that because I didn’t want to be citing a lot of research that 10 years from now people are like, “Oh, yeah, that’s all BS. Right?” And so I’m probably not going to get it all right. Just the same way that actual researchers are not going to get it all right. But one of the things that I tried to do is, let’s focus on a literature that has lots of different people that are all researching it, and they’re all getting the same effect. And like, it’s coming up again and again and again in many, many different contexts. And unfortunately that’s also the kind of stuff that that’s maybe someone else has talked about it before because we’re talking about tens of thousands of papers spread over decades. It would be surprising if no one’s ever mentioned it before.

Scott: But yet the big thing that I’ve found from writing this book is that, for instance, the research on transfer, most people aren’t aware of it, despite the fact that it can literally fill textbooks of research. Or a lot of students, for instance, are not aware of their research on retrieval. Even though again, testing effect, there is huge literature showing that that’s important or spacing effect or these kinds of things.

Scott: And so I think that’s a challenge when writing about science to a popular audience is that there is both a drive to tell people things that they are not already aware of, which is a sensible drive. But that’s also combated by the idea that you don’t want to tell people things that are likely to be spurious or to be false, which definitely in psychology I think one has to be worried about.

Mo: So I’ve compared your book a little bit to Robert Green’s book and Robert Cialdini’s book, so like influence and the laws of power. One of the things I noticed about those books is like, years later they’ll come out with an extra, a new principle or something like that. And I’m wondering are there any principles that you thought about adding or anything that’s not in the book? What might those be?

Scott: There were at least three principles that I’d started writing and then I didn’t go forward with them. And their book is originally seven principles. So again, the nine principles is not exhaustive. Like some of it is just symmetry. I like the number nine. I think nine is a good number. It’s robust. I liked it more than eight or 10, but that’s completely arbitrary. But I mean there’s a lot more than nine principles.

Scott: And I mean it depends on what qualifies as a principle because we’re talking about directness, and we’re talking about retrieval. Now it’s my theory that very deep down at a very deep level, these are the same principle, that retrieval and directness are actually the same underlying phenomenon. Now that being said, I think that that’s not obvious, and I didn’t want to lump them in the same principle because the non-obviousness of it is I think important.

Scott: So one of the examples I give in the studies on retrieval is that there was a study that was done showing that students who did concept mapping versus free recall, so free recall is where you shut the book, and you try to recall as much from memory and concept mapping is the thing where you draw circles around ideas, and you link them to other ideas.

Scott: And they found that concept mapping did worse than free recall for a test which involved making a concept map. Now this just superficially seems to be that retrieval, at least in this situation, is more important than transfer. So what does it mean when I say that directness and retrieval are the same idea? Well, the idea here is that very importantly doing a concept map when you have an open book and doing a concept map when you have a closed book are actually very different tasks, cognitively speaking. They look the same but they’re very different.

Scott: And so free recall, in my opinion, probably actually is closer to the idea of concept mapping than that. So there might be some aspects of testing that are are truly independent from transfer. And I think like we had talked about desirable difficulties in that book. So there is subsets of the literature and the research that certainly are distinct from the research on transfer.

Scott: But, I mean, it depends on how you organize the principles. So some of these principles might have gotten merged if they were written by a different author. Whereas I decided to split them apart. And there were a lot of principles and a lot of aspects of the book that I didn’t discuss, which I don’t want to say I regret, but I think are very important. And I just didn’t have space to write about them.

Scott: And one of the important things is dealing with the emotional aspect of learning, which I’m learning more and more is super important. So I think ambition was going to be one of the chapters, and I was doing research on that, but I didn’t really like a lot of the research on ambition.

Scott: And then curiosity was going to be one, but it wasn’t, again, I read a lot of the research on curiosity, but I didn’t like it too, too much for making a chapter out of it. And, again, curiosity kind of turned into experimentation, which I kind of like a little bit more because it’s a bit more active as something that you’re doing as opposed to just a descriptor. Seeing with ambition.

Scott: I’m trying to think of other principles that I had because I had the original seven and I think, yeah, intuition was also one that I played around with a lot because originally it was called “insight,” and then I liked the formulation of intuition more. Now, I might, honestly, I might’ve even gone back to insight, but the problem is just that the literature on insight is more about insight as a specific cognitive process of like suddenly putting the pieces together. And I didn’t really necessarily want to frame it that way, but I mean intuition also has a lot of its own terminological baggage that you know.

Scott: So, yes, I think there are principles that I could have written about that were not in the book. Is the book pretty comprehensive? I think it is. I don’t think that there is a lot that I really wanted to say about learning that was missing, but there are certainly aspects of the problem that could have been discussed. I mean, we’re even talking about the whole master apprenticeship thing. So maybe apprenticeship could have been a principle, too. And I could have discussed about different sets of research on that.

Mo: Would you, will we ever see some of the, this content that you’ve been thinking about, like in the form of blog posts or something like that?

Scott: Probably blog posts. Yeah, well, I’m always writing about ideas, but like these chapter drafts, no. I mean, even the chapters that are made in the book, I have some of the chapters I wrote wrote four or five times. So, I mean, there are early drafts of chapters that don’t even resemble what I have written here.

Mo: How about emotion and ambition, like you didn’t write about them, but I think a podcast is a great medium to explore some of these ideas. Freeform.

Scott: Yeah. Here’s the idea is that, the idea behind ultra learning is that the emotional aspect of finding the motivation, getting obsessed about it is very important. And I think it’s very important because I don’t think that the inspiration from these projects comes from a rational place.

Scott: So I give arguments for why I think ultra learning is important, but if you don’t feel like it’s important, those arguments don’t matter. So they’re more to rationalize a project rather than to provide the inspiration for it.

Scott: So what I wanted to do in chapter two of the book where I’m explaining why ultra learning is really to give you a lot of good reasons to convince other people that ultra learning is good. But the way I wanted you to feel reading the book was that ultra learning is cool, and I want to do something like this.

Scott: And so if I didn’t make you feel that way, then there’s no amount of argument I can give that will convince you to do one of these things. Because ultra learning is, I think just especially because of how I framed it as being focusing on effectiveness and like, “How can I be as good at learning this as possible and can I really dive into the deep end?”

Scott: If that doesn’t excite you, I mean you’re not going to do it right? Like I’ll give a good example of this. So my friend, Vat Jaiswal and I, we did this Year Without English project learning languages. And we did a TEDx talk, and the TEDx talk we did, which I kind of mildly regret the title. We could not think of a title for the TED talk, and my friend, he’s a little bit of a, he’s a bit mischievous and he’s kind of like, we should just call it one weird trick for learning a language. And I’m like, “That’s terrible. That’s terrible.”.

Scott: But we were like reaching the deadline and we added, honestly can’t think of any. And so we called it “One Simple Trick” but like it is a little, it is a little bit in the click baity direction, but he kind of liked it as an inside joke because the one simple trick is don’t speak English, which it doesn’t work.

Scott: It is simple. I can state it in one sentence, but it’s not easy to do. And so we did the thing cause we want to talk about our project and also this philosophy of learning a language that, learning a language mostly boils down to that. If you’re going to just have large volumes of immersive practice, you will learn a language. If you don’t, you will not.

Scott: And so there is a sense that it is a true statement, although it is a little bit on the, it’s going to get, attract some people like “One simple trick? What? Not speaking English. That’s super hard.”.

Scott: And I remember when we did the talk, it was really for me a very bizarre experience because this approach to learning languages is something I feel in my bones. Like I have experienced it firsthand so many times that I know like this is the right way to do it.

Scott: Like as I said, I’ve learned, well, six other languages other than English to some degree, and I would say at least five conversationally. And I mean I would say my Mandarin right now is probably pretty advanced.

Scott: But it’s something that, when I tell people this, they don’t want to do it. And it was very interesting for me because there’s two possible rationalizations of that that I have in my head. And one is that a lot of people who say they want to learn a language don’t really want to learn a language. They like the idea of it. But they’re in no way ready to commit to actually learning a language. So I mean for those people, is Duolingo so bad? Probably not. Bose they weren’t actually going to do anything to learn the language anyways. I mean that’s a little bit dismissive, but you hear people all the time say, “Oh, I’d love to learn Spanish.” And then, “But I only have like five minutes a day.”

Scott: I’m like, “Well, get out of here then.” Yeah, no, you don’t want to learn a language. Like just admit that to yourself. It’s better to just say, “No, I want to learn a language, but it’s too much work.” I mean, for me right now, I would kind of like to learn Japanese. I don’t want to put in the work right now, and that’s just where I’m at, and that’s fine. Right?

Scott: I think a lot of people might be better off if they admitted to themselves that they don’t really want to learn a language. They mostly just want to have a fun game to play that feels more productive than YouTube. If that’s your goal, all right, Duolingo is great, but on the other hand, there are people who seem to me to be really interested in learning a language.

Scott: And yet when I tell them this is the way to do it, they’re like, “Oh, no, well, I couldn’t do that.” Like I’ve even had people who tell me they’re going on a trip. So I mean you can do a version of this immersion, even if you’re not going on a trip. But obviously it’s easier if you’re going to a country that speaks the language. And I tell them, “Okay, do the no English rule.” Day one, do this. And they’re like, “Well, yeah, well, I don’t think I’m going to do that, but we’ll try to do something similar to it.”.

Scott: And I’m like, I want to pull out my hair cause I’m like, “No, I have done both methods. This is the method that works. It really does work.” I’ve seen many people do both methods. It really does work. It is the thing to do, and yet they don’t want to do it. And so as I said, some of it is just not people not having enough motivation, but some of it is this emotional aspect to learning, and that was what I tried to communicate.

Scott: That’s sort of the subtext of ultra learning. I don’t have a chapter about it, but it permeates the entirety of the book is that, yes, doing the no English rule is hard. It is scary. You are going to be frustrated at first, but it really does work. If you are able to stick to it for a period of time, you will be able to speak this language. You will be able to do more than you can with years in the classroom and yes, it’s painful, and there’s obstacles and I can certainly share tactics about how to get through those things if you’re struggling with it. If you’re like, “Well, I’d really like to do it, but I have no idea how to do it.” Okay, great. I can give you advice for how to get through those difficulties, but if your reaction when I tell you, would you like to do this is like, “Oh, God, no, I don’t want to do that.” There’s not really much I can tell you.

Scott: And so I think that for me the emotional aspect of ultra learning is this, is that if you hear about this project and you’re like, “Oh, God, well I never want to do anything like that.” You know, there’s not really much discussion I can have because learning is hard work. And for me I feel like often learning is like the language learning example that the way to get really good at something is hard. It is frustrating, it is scary, but, but if you can commit to doing it and you can actually get through and do it, it works.

Scott: And for a lot of people learning a language, I mean, when I was a kid, the idea of someone being able to speak six or seven languages was just kind of an insane thing. And now having done it, I’m like, “Well, yeah, of course.” Like you could, I mean I’m not even that committed to learning languages. I am not saying that like, but there’s people who speak 30 to 40 languages, and I can see how they do it. If you just dedicate your whole life to it, you could speak 40 languages. And, I mean, 40 languages is kind of insane. Like that’s a lot of languages, but it’s something that I think is unimaginable to people.

Scott: So if you just want to speak one language, I mean, yeah, if you went to, especially we were talking about European languages, you want to learn Spanish and you go to, you have a trip that’s two months in Spain. You could make that happen where you come back speaking a level of Spanish that, I’m not saying you’re going to say you’re fluent, but I’m going to say you could do things that other people would think you’re fluent.

Mo: Yeah, man. On the topic of emotion, actually one of my frustrations with like movies and storytelling culture in the U.S. Is that the really smart people are often like they have, they have photographic memory, or they’re just naturally smart. Whereas when I watch anime, so like Japanese culture, I can think of a lot of situations with amazing scenes where these characters were stuck on something, and you know they would die if they couldn’t get stronger.

Mo: And what would happen is they would retreat onto some Island or some like literally darkness with an apprentice. They trained super hard, like this is like the perfect example of ultra learning, and then they would come out way stronger than everyone. And that got me to like super emotionally excited, and American movies have never done that for me.

Scott: Well, we’re talking, we were talking about cultural differences before. And, for me, like I feel spiritually, at least when we’re talking about learning, I feel more Chinese than I do feel Canadian because again, I think a lot, and again, I don’t want to say that I’m, I am entirely supportive of the ways that people do studying and learning in some of those places as well. I definitely think there’s, I have differences, but I’ve come to appreciate a lot of the subtle attitudes that people have about education in those places that they don’t have here. And you gave it a perfect example.

Scott: I gave a copy of “Ultra Learning” to a friend of mine who, he, we go to this weekly Chinese meetup. He’s from Hong Kong, so he speaks Cantonese, but he’s been practicing Mandarin and, and I practice Mandarin at this meetup, and I give him a copy of his book, and he was reading and he sent me a text that said basically verbatim what you were talking about there.

Scott: He’s like, “Oh, now I understand how these people are doing this.” Like going to these, in these wu shan novels like going to the temple and like, training for a month and then having all this going through. It’s just kind of funny because that is a sort of a trope in, I think, East Asian literature that again, the trope in more North American literature is the idea of the genius having a fundamentally different mind. That it’s not cultivated, that it’s just something that they can do. And you see this in “A Beautiful Mind,” or what was the Alan Turing biopic?

Mo: Oh yeah, “The Imitation Game.”.

Scott: “The Imitation Game.” Yeah.

Mo: Even the more a really popular show called “Suits.” Mike Ross is just, it’s just like super smart naturally.

Scott: And so here’s the thing, I actually take a perspective that there are people that are smarter than other people. And so if you feel that way about the world, you’re probably right.

Scott: But, on the other hand, I also feel that a lot of what makes someone really intelligent, and I certainly talk about it in this book, is about how you’re building patterns. And these patterns are not inborn. They are things that you acquire from the environment. So the real, it’s kind of like the blind men and the elephant, that reality is super complicated. And so our cultures tell these stories, these tropes, these cliches about it that are really, the blind man touching the tail of the elephant and seeing it’s long and stringy or the other blind man touching the tusk of the elephant and saying, “Oh, it’s smooth and hard.” And they’re describing the same thing. They’re just describing different aspects of it.

Scott: And so that’s the thing that’s hard to wrap your head around. I don’t think that the truth is that anyone can go into the silent Island and practice for six months and then suddenly they will be the Kung Fu master of all time. But I also don’t think that it’s the case that there’s these geniuses whose minds just operate on fundamentally different levels than yours are mine and that they are doing something that is, their brain just works off of a different principle. I also don’t think that’s the case, at least broadly speaking.

Scott: And so I think the way our cultures influence our perceptions of learning is very important because, I mean, you look at, I mean, if we’re talking about like the context of like video games or something, it seems to be, Japan, Korea, that you see people reach like real levels of mastery, right?

Scott: Where it’s like this person is insanely good at this thing. And I think it’s just because the background assumption is that mastery is possible, and you get through it through intense hard work. So there’s a certain sense that the ideas of this book are kind of an Asian approach to, to learning things or an East Asian kind of cultural philosophy towards learning things.

Scott: But then there’s also things that I think that there is maybe excesses in perhaps that sort of cultural perspective towards learning that. I think sometimes, I’ve been to China, and I’ve met a lot of Chinese people who, they have studied English so much that their vocabulary in English is way broader than mine is in Chinese, but they’re not comfortable speaking it. And I think it’s because they’re extremely good at memorizing vocabulary. That’s sort of the paradigm they’re very good at, but they just haven’t gotten enough regular practice. So there may be the case, I think, in some East Asian contexts that there’s maybe not enough directness, although certainly there’s enough of some of the other principles. So my hope in sort of showing this and certainly from my travels and seeing educational systems around the world, you see kind of trade-offs of different strategies and styles. And rather than saying this is the right way, and this is the wrong way, I think it’s important to just appreciate what those trade-offs are and how you as a learner can kind of see, “Oh, I’m really good at grinding, but I’m not really good at doing, the kind of direct nebulous sort of practice. I’m really good at doing drills.” And there’s some people that are like that.

Scott: And then there’s other people who are the opposite, that they’re really good at going out there and doing it, but they never put in any work to build some of the fundamental skills, or they never build any theory or really practice things. They just want to understand things intuitively or conceptually, and they don’t want to do the hard work of mastering things. So I think there’s trade offs of different approaches.

Mo: Yeah, let’s touch on ambition a little bit. I’d love to hear more about that.

Scott: Well, I think, yeah, this is a, there’s a reason it didn’t make it into the book is because trying to formulate what I meant by ambition, but I think what I meant by ambition was just the idea of taking on a hard project and really like throwing yourself into it.

Scott: And so again, this is sort of an idea that pervades the book. It’s not so much ambition in terms of, but I think, yeah, ambition in terms of like, I’m really going to learn this, and I’m really going to put in the work, and I’m really going to take it seriously.

Scott: And I think that is something that’s often missing. And so you see kind of a timid approach, I think, to learning a lot of things, particularly when people don’t have a lot of confidence where it’s like, “Well, I’ll try my best.”.

Scott: And then it’s not that, it’s not that there’s nothing, anything particularly wrong with that, it’s just that the way it manifests is that when this person is using an ineffective approach, that they don’t modify it. Right? So it’s the person who is like, “Well, I’ll try to pick up some Spanish with Duolingo.”.

Scott: And then they use it for six months and they can’t hablas en Espanol. And so because of that they, they’re just stuck, and then they just kind of like, “Well, I guess it didn’t work very well.” And so, for me, the ultra learning ideas is like, “No, I’m going to take this really seriously, and I’m actually going to get good at this.”

Scott: And so it’s not usually, I think one of the mistakes, and again, another reason I didn’t include it in the book is I think some people might take the lesson, “Oh, it’s all about having a big goal, right?” It’s all about, “I’m going to learn this in two weeks.”.

Scott: And I think that’s kind of a mistake because sometimes that will work, and sometimes it won’t. It’s really hard to predict how much you can learn in a time period. I think my MIT challenge is somewhat of a, somewhat of an exception to the rule rather than the rule itself. Because honestly I was kind of lucky that I was able to do it in that timeframe. It could have easily been the case that I couldn’t have done it in a year. Whereas the year without English is more how I like to do projects now where it was, “Okay, I’m going to do everything I can to learn Chinese over this three months, and let’s see how far I can get” rather than, and then near the end I wrote the HSK four but rather than, “Okay, I’m going to be fluent after three months.”

Scott: I think that was what Benny was doing in the beginning, and I think he even kind of backpedaled a little bit on that path just because it sort of set the expectations wrong, rather than what he was really doing, which is, “I’m going to learn as much as I can and see how far I can go.”.

Scott: Although I do think Benny Lewis had a bit of an advantage having learned multiple languages, he has some sense of the difficulty. So if I were to do a new language learning project, I could more easily pick a goal after three months. But I think the idea is not to just set an ambitious goal but to just really cultivate this ethos of, “I’m going to do everything I can to do this well” rather than, “Well, I’ll just do my best, you know?”

Mo: Could you, do you think experimentation captures curiosity well, or would you have added something? What are your thoughts on curiosity?

Scott: I’m thinking back to the literature on curiosity because a lot of the ways these chapters evolved is that there is some research on this, and so it was like, how can I tie together some of the practical outcomes of some interesting research?

Scott: And so I don’t think I ended up including the curiosity research in the experimentation chapter. So there would have been some differences there. So I remember, I’m trying to think about exactly what were some of the things I discovered. There’s probably a good reason I didn’t include it. I have notes in my thing about curiosity. Maybe it will make it into a blog post.

Scott: But yeah, there was discussion about whether curiosity is a state or a trait. There was some interesting situationally derived curiosity things. So like framing effects affecting curiosity. And so I thought that might be interesting to explore. Basically the idea that like, how you frame what you know and what you don’t know can make you more curious to find things out.

Scott: So I, this has been over a year that I looked at this research, so I, I’m not as, I haven’t done as much repetition of it as I have with the other stuff from this book, so I don’t know it by heart. But I think I remember some of the things, and I remember that being kind of interesting or at least suggestive for how you might pique your curiosity with the subject is, how is it framed? Because when it’s, I don’t know anything about this subject, you’re usually not curious, but at the same time I know everything about this subject. Well, you’re obviously not curious.

Scott: So it was kind of finding this midpoint. And so I was thinking, I think at the time about how you scope your project is driving curiosity. So it’s sort of like, I want to learn X and if X is constrained enough, it becomes an interesting problem to be curious about. If X is too large, you’re just like, “Oh, forget it.”.

Scott: And I think there can be something related to that for the mastery of actual skills as well that, if you set a project like, “Oh, I want to do this specific thing that’s sort of reachable, and I can see myself achieving it,” you’re more likely to put in effort than if you want to do this big nebulous thing that might take years.

Mo: On my way into the office today, I was listening to your podcast, and one of the, the episode I listened to was the one about play, and I wonder if play would have made it into the book or maybe even into the curiosity chapter. Any new thoughts on play?

Scott: Well, play was definitely a part of the chapter on intuition, and so I wanted to try to, so there’s a couple of places I reference play in the book. So one of them is talking about Richard Feynman’s sort of approach to learning where he, on the one hand, sort of embodied this ultra learning ethos of like really driving hard. Like it was clear that he worked really hard on hard problems, but there was also this sense that he had this kind of spontaneous engagement with things that it wasn’t like on grinding through stuff. It was like “Hmm, that’s interesting,” and it had this kind of, “Okay, I’m going to play around with things and not this sort of rigid inflexible approach to studying.”.

Scott: The other place I referenced play is in Laszlo Polgar when we’re talking about the sort of chess mastery and about how he was able to coax his daughters to become chess grandmasters by treating the learning activity as play.

Scott: And I think play is really deep in how we are, how we evolve to learn. Like when you see animals playing, it looks like a frivolous activity, but it is very deep that this is how animals learn behaviors, right? So it adaptive, it’s not something frivolous.

Scott: And I think play is often how we as human beings get good at things that you, it’s yeah, there’s probably a, play might be a principle to explore. I think play has a lot of interesting aspects because it’s, it often involves, and you can think about children, how children play that it often involves sort of this creation of this, to use one expression, this book on rituals that I was reading kind of creating a subjunctive reality. This idea of like “as if” like, “We’re going to play as if, I’m a princess, and you’re a dragon, and we’re using magic spells and stuff.”

Scott: And I think there’s sometimes that that’s discounted that, “Oh, children are just so imaginative. They don’t know what real life is like.” But that’s very consistent across children.

Scott: And I think that there’s probably something to that, that that imagination and that sort of creating a subjective reality is a way of, of kind of like dealing with, “How do I create a context that substitutes for real life that allows me to acquire real life skills without having to have the responsibilities of dealing with real life?”.

Scott: So I think even the fascination with video games, which I mean a lot of people like video games well into adulthood. So if you are one of those people, I’m not criticizing that, but they do seem to be popular among children or younger people I think because there is this idea that, when you’re young and you’re not meaningfully engaging in a lot of adult activities, you often get that engagement through play, through games, through those sorts of things.

Scott: And in some ways it might be the case that people can extend play into adulthood, can really capture this spirit of learning as a child does. And in some ways it’s the kind of, it’s one of those things like the elephant where, you know, you described things in two seemingly opposite ways and how can it describe the same thing?

Scott: And I feel I’m more of a synthesizer than a debater. And for me, play and seriousness are the same. And so I really liked Laszlo Polgar’s idea that play and work are not separate. That we kind of artificially make that dichotomy. But for me, I think that play when you’re learning is very important, but it’s also important to be serious. It’s also important to do that as well. So I think the union of those two ideas is often kind of difficult to understand, but I think it’s something that’s very important.

Mo: On the topic of Robert Greene’s books, one of the interesting things he does at the end of each chapter on a given principle is he explores like the reversal of that principle.

Mo: You actually tweeted about this recently. You wrote, “Being productive equals being focused, except too much focus can blind you to opportunities and more diffuse thinking.”

Mo: You gave a couple of other examples. You write, “Most general principles have assumptions and expected domains of usefulness. It’s always good to think through what those actually are and ask if they apply to the situation.” I just wonder if there are other principles in the book that you think there might be reversals to.

Scott: Yeah, well I talk about some of them in the book, so in a kind of coded way, I talk about them. When we’re talking about focus for instance, there’s a whole section about the level of attention. I even talk about how more diffuse focus might be better for creative problems than more concentrated focus.

Scott: Now, focus kind of has a double meaning in that chapter of like putting in time, kind of regardless of where your mind is, and then also concentrating, and so I think that there can be a bit of a reversal of that for certain types of learning tasks.

Scott: Similarly with … What was the other one I was saying? Oh, like retention, for instance is, the whole idea is, “How do you retain things forever?” Then I talk about in that chapter about why you might want to strategically forget things. I think there are reversals of those ideas.

Scott: For me, I’m not trying to actively maintain every single thing that I’ve learned in memory, constantly. It’s a question of, “Why are you trying to maintain certain things?” Again, I think a lot of these principles are tools.

Scott: Directness, again, is another example of, I think it’s pretty universal when we’re talking about transfer, but in the same sense, it can be the case sometimes that you have no idea how you want to learn a skill and you kind of discover that along the way. I don’t really recommend that so much in this book, and that’s not really the main thrust of my focus.

Scott: Because I think if you give people too much contradictory advice, it can hurt. In the same sense, you may want to, let’s say, get into app programming. You know you kind of want to do something with it, some kind of project, but you’re not sure exactly what yet. You may benefit from going through the development book just to get an idea of what’s a good project to scope and then go do the project.

Scott: I think there can be risks to that approach, but there can also be benefits. Then also not to mention the fact that the reason directness is often hard is because the skill might be too difficult in the real world setting, and so there’s a whole art to how do you break it down to a level where you can use this skill? But not so far that you’re having to do all these far transfer issues.

Mo: Okay. On the topic of transfer, you wrote that part of transfer might be about meta learning and awareness. You talk about, I think you used Benny as the example for this one, but the primary one, you think, you wrote is, “The depth of expertise and overlearning.”

Mo: I just wanted to, I wanted to propose a hypothesis based on no science at all, but I wonder-

Scott: Let’s speculate, let’s do it. I’m also not an expert. Everyone listening here, I am not an expert. I have no credentials at all in this field, so take everything I say with a grain of salt. I do cite papers, so you can read those, but this is definitely a, “Listen at your own risk,” podcast.

Mo: I wonder if this is because your brain has limited resources, and when you’re in a new context you have less resources available to apply that skill or knowledge. Because the resources are being used to take-in and adjust to the new environment, and all the differences compared to the original context where you practiced it.

Mo: When you overlearn something, you begin to use less and less brain resources for the skill itself, and then you have more that can be freed up to adjust to the new context. That creates the presence-

Scott: Oh, we’re talking about-

Mo: … or perceived presence of transfer.

Scott: Oh, we’re talking about transfer. Okay.

Mo: Yeah.

Scott: Here’s my take on it. I don’t know whether I agree with that entirely. I think what I would say is that cognitive resources are a problem. I think the way that they manifest is in terms of working memory and chunking.

Scott: I sort of talk about this in the chapter on intuition, but basically, if I list … I’ll give an example for the people that are listening here. If I list you out the letters F, M, C, B, B, I, and then, I, A, A. Then, I get you to repeat those nine letters, you might struggle a little bit.

Scott: If I say those same letters in this order, F, B, I, M, B, A, C, I, A, you’ll remember them instantly. Right?

Mo: Right.

Scott: The reason why is because FBI, MBA and CIA are chunks that take those three letters, and even though you know what three letters are in them, you recognize them as a cohesive whole rather than as an individual pattern.

Scott: Now, I wrote an article called Discovering the Meta, so it might be related to what we’re talking about here. This is sort of the idea of the intuition chapter, that you build patterns on top of patterns, and they become increasingly abstract.

Scott: When we’re talking about chess, for instance, everyone knows the basics. Like if you are looking at a chessboard, you might be able to say, “Okay, the King is here, and the Knight’s here, and the Pawn’s here,” and blah, blah, blah.

Scott: That’s sort of a basic understanding of chess. As you get a bit better at chess, you might start to recognize, “Oh, okay. Well, the Knight is forking the King and the Queen.” That’s a very important position, and so I can remember that as one chunk, the Knight forking. Or there’s a pin of this piece on this piece. These are a little bit more abstract, so a beginner might not see those patterns but an expert certainly would.

Scott: An even better expert, like a grandmaster is going to be like, “Oh, this is a variation of the Ruy Lopez defense, and this person’s doing this.” Because the library of their patterns are so sophisticated, that they see the entire board as one pattern.

Scott: The idea here is that … This is my take on why transfer is easier when you are more expert, is because you develop more of these meta or higher layer abstractions about the subject. What I would say is that when we are first learning a subject, we tend to learn the base level things, the sort of details of it.

Scott: That’s what we actually learn first, is that we have to build the chunks out of some constituent parts. If we don’t have those constituent parts, there’s no chunks, so we’re building the kind of chunks up like this. That tends to be how it works.

Scott: That’s why we need lots of examples to learn things. That’s why we need lots of situations. The problem is that if you imagine this kind of like a pyramid, it’s sort of you start with the foundation and that sort of all the little details, and then you build up.

Scott: The thing that I think is true is that most situations that we’re talking about when we talk about transfer, the thing that they have in common is something more abstract. They don’t actually have much superficial detail in common. They only have the abstract idea in common.

Scott: The problem is, is that it’s really hard to learn the abstract idea without building it out of these smaller patterns first. That’s, I think, the reason, this would be my speculation of why transfer is often difficult, is because if you only have these underlying details, so if you only have those string of letters that I said, then maybe you’re not going to see the analogy to like, oh, to something else. Because you needed to see them at that level of FBI, MBA or CIA.

Scott: I think, similarly, when we’re talking about, like say, a game like chess, there’s not only patterns and pieces on the board, but also concepts such as, like there’s a concept I like in chess which is known as sharpness. “This play is particularly sharp.” Well, what the heck does sharp mean? Well, sharp means that you have to be very careful because the way that play goes is that just a slightly different move can turn it into one way or the other. Now this is a very abstract concept that you understand almost at an intuitive level that’s built off of tons and tons of patterns of games that are sharp and games that aren’t sharp, and so our pattern recognition abilities work at that abstract level.

Scott: Now, if you were a chess grandmaster and you understood sharpness of play, you may understand sharpness in terms of business context. You later learn entrepreneurship and you understand, oh, this is a kind of business move that’s very sharp because it could go, it’s very unstable, very chaotic. It could go in a lot of different ways. Versus, this is a very slow, steady accumulative process of building a business.

Scott: Now, that’s a level of analogy that if you were weak in either of those domains, you may not make that connection. Right?

Mo: Right.

Scott: You may not be able to extend the analogy of sharpness in chess to sharpness in business, because you just haven’t reached that tier of the pyramid yet, you haven’t built that pattern yet. Again, this is totally speculative, this is not something that I am quoting some other researcher who has got this theory and he’s vetted it with tons of experiments, so I may be wrong on some critical aspects.

Scott: My feeling is that this partly explains why we see transfer being more difficult amongst students, is because they’re using chunks that aren’t as sophisticated. They don’t have as many patterns, and the patterns tend to be less abstract. They tend to be more superficial.

Scott: When we see, for instance, physics students solving physics problems, they focus on things that aren’t super deep about the problem. The example is when they get students to organize physics problems, they’re like, “Okay. These are problems that have to do with pulleys and these are problems that have to do with incline planes, and these are problems that have to do with wheels.”

Scott: Whereas, a physics professor would say, “Oh, these are problems that have to do with conservation of mass. These are problems that have to do with conservation of momentum. These are …” They’re looking at a very deep feature of the problem that’s not obvious from superficial characteristics, but at the same time, you can’t just tell the student, “Oh, well, focus on conservation of energy,” because that’s something that’s not obvious to them. They can’t see that pattern yet.

Scott: Because they can’t see that pattern, it’s very difficult to transfer it. In this sense, the more expertise you develop, transfer should become more flexible because these patterns become more abstract and it is easier to see them in other contexts.

Scott: In the same sense, if you spend years working and learning something and it’s, the superficial details are not the same, transfer might be very hard. The big thing I was saying is that when people talk about learning a subject, specifically academic subjects, they often talk about it in a slightly more abstract level.

Scott: When we’re talking about learning a language, for instance, we talk about learning a word, but what does it mean to learn a word? Well, learning a word is not really an atomic activity. There is the ability to produce the word, there’s the ability to hear the word, there’s the ability to read the word. There’s the ability to know various connections the word has, and associated meanings and conjugations.

Scott: Really knowing a word is actually a kind of a detailed activity. It may be the case that you can recognize a word without being able to produce it. Or it may be the case that you know a word in this context, but not in that context.

Scott: This kind of depth and multifaceted nature of learning means that if you just teach someone a word through, let’s say, a flashcard drill and then expect them to be able to transfer it to all possible situations where they’re using that word, then you might be disappointed when they’re not able to, because there’s actually a lot of skills involved in learning a word.

Scott: Sometimes, transfer can fail for that reason because what we think of as learning is not at this abstract level, it’s at this kind of concrete level. If you don’t have any practice in the concrete level, you’re never going to be able to use a skill if you only have this kind of abstract, sort of higher level knowledge.

Mo: Have you heard of David Epstein’s new book, Range?

Scott: I’ve heard of it. I haven’t read it yet.

Mo: Okay, cool. He basically makes the case that generalists are the way to go, like in this complex world instead of being a specialist. He talks a lot about analogies. Analogies seem to be like an important tool that great problem solvers use when thinking of our problems.

Mo: In your book, you kind of make the case that they’re a symptom of transfer, of people realizing some of these deeper patterns. Right?

Scott: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Mo: You’re a big proponent of metaphors and analogies for learning and teaching.

Scott: Yeah.

Mo: It’s basically, when we use a superficially different example with deep structural similarities. Now, why do you think these exist? Why do you think there are deep structural similarities between superficially different worldly phenomenon?

Mo: It’s an out there question, but what does it mean about the world that we can form analogies and questions, connections between vastly different things?

Scott: You know what I think is a useful subject to study here? Is to study math, because math, especially if you get into higher levels, there start to be what are known as isomorphisms. Isomorphism is a fancy word for saying two things that look different are actually the same. This happens all the time in math, where someone will discover, “Oh, if you formulate the problem in this way …” Let’s say, well, for instance, if you’re doing quantum mechanics, you can do it with calculus, and you can also do it with linear algebra. They can seem almost completely different from each other. Like definitely, what you write on the paper doesn’t look the same, but it can lead to …

Scott: Like we can talk about scattering matrices and then versus doing some kind of differential equations, and then they can lead to the same answer in certain problems. Similarly, I remember my first linear algebra class where they did the least squares regression.

Scott: Least squares regression is something you learn in statistics, but basically, it’s if you have a bunch of points on like a scatter plot, you want to draw a straight line through it that most closely approximates all those dots, you usually use a least squares regression. It’s just an algorithm for doing that.

Scott: I remember learning there’s a way of using matrices to, essentially, do least squares regression. It was just kind of like that, “Boom,” like mind explosion, like, “What?” Like, “I had no idea that these two things were connected.”

Scott: Then you learn it a little bit deeper and then it’s like, “Oh, it’s obvious they’re connected because they share the same deep structure.” The reason that the world works on analogies is because, oftentimes, I think the relationship is …

Scott: I think, I’ll put it this way. The reason that the world works with analogies is also the reason that mathematics works. That they’re both on the same principle, that really what mathematics is, is a kind of formal type of analogy. That it’s a way of, “What is the deep structure of this problem?”

Scott: The reason that we can develop analogies between things is because there is a certain way that you can abstract some of the structure of the problem and find it to be similar to something else. I do think analogies are powerful. I do think that they are very useful. I think that the research that I uncovered on transfer suggests that the way that you get good at doing analogies is to develop expertise and to build a lot of these patterns.

Scott: That was a big pivot for me in a lot of my learning advices, that I used to recommend to students to do analogies. Then I would get all these students writing back to me like, “Well, how do I remember the analogies?” It was like, that’s not the point. The whole point was to use the analogy to remember things, and now you’re trying to just remember the analogy.

Scott: It was something that I realized that analogies work really well once you’re at a certain point with learning a subject. I talk about in the book using Feynman techniques in creating analogies and metaphors, but if you’re not at that point, they’re not very helpful. Because if you’re still at the level where you don’t have enough abstraction yet to see what the deep structure is, you can’t make analogies.

Mo: Okay. Switching gears a little bit, tell us the story of your relationship with Cal Newport. Because to me, you guys have always been these two really cool figures when it comes to learning.

Scott: Wow.

Mo: Anytime I’m stuck on a learning question, I will search, not on Google, but on each of your blogs.

Scott: I’m really, yeah, I’m really happy that you think that I’m cool. It’s, yeah, it’s not usually how I’m described. I think, so Cal Newport and I met probably about 12 or 13 years ago. Yeah, probably 13 years ago now. We met, it was, I think shortly after he published his first book or maybe he was just about to publish his second book.

Scott: I had written this really small e-book, this free e-book on holistic learning, and so I was interested in studying topics. I sent it to our mutual friend, Ben Casnocha-

Mo: Ah!

Scott: … who I was reading his blog. Ben Casnocha, who’s very well-connected, was like, “You should talk to Cal Newport,” because he knew Cal was also writing a book. We were both very, very green. Cal Newport, I think, was still in his undergrad or he was just starting grad school, and I was a freshman in university.

Scott: We had just met at that point, and we started talking about things. Because I had been blogging for a little while, and Cal Newport was just starting his blog. He had published books, but he hadn’t written a blog yet. We kind of started from that basis, and we sort of developed a friendship. I think we have, we have similar … There’s just some people you have an affinity for. You have your similar thought processes and you think in similar ways about things.

Scott: We’ve been friends for a long time, and then starting about five or six years ago, we were saying we should do a course together. Because I really liked his book, So Good They Can’t Ignore You, and we were both really interested in deliberate practice, and we were both thinking, “Well, how do you apply this to working world?”

Scott: That sort of eventually led to Top Performer, although it took a long time to develop into Top Performer. Since we developed Top Performer, then that kind of tied us together because now we were like co-instructors on this course, and so we would have to regularly have discussions about business things. That probably drew us closer together than we would if we were just people who wrote about similar topics.

Scott: Yeah. He’s been a big proponent of me, early on. I think he’s always been super supportive of me and my projects. I think he was one of the people who, he was the person who pushed me to write Ultralearning, because I was really on the fence about writing it for a long time.

Scott: I knew I wanted to write a book about learning, but I had a lot of hesitancy. Not to mention for the reasons we talked about earlier about, writing a book about learning not being a great idea. I was like, “I can’t figure out how to do it.” I think sometimes, you just need someone. He was just, like kind of said, “No.” Like, ” It’s Ultralearning and it’s going to be hard, but it’s going to be successful.”

Scott: He kind of like articulated the vision, and it was just sort of like, “Yeah, yeah. You think that might work?” He’s like, “Yeah, yeah. It’ll work,” and so three years later I’m publishing the book now, so I owe him a debt of gratitude.

Mo: Oh, man. 100%, yeah. Could you … There are thoughts that he will talk about on his blog that I’m sometimes super curious about your thoughts on. What do you think about his stance on email and today’s workflow and stuff like that?

Scott: Well, there’s definitely things that I don’t always agree 100% with Cal, although I always find him a very interesting and provocative thinker, so there’s probably some things that … Like for instance, I do have social media, so I haven’t followed his advice perfectly. Although, I do kind of agree with his broader point.

Scott: I’m a little bit … I know Cal sees it as being symptomatic of problems in society, and I know that’s a popular take right now. I’m a little less … I’m a little bit more skeptical of that. I know that, I think that social media can cause problems for people, but I also think that, for a lot of people, they just enjoy it and so it’s kind of a … It’s maybe bad for some people, but maybe just sort of one of those things that it’s bad because people like it too much, sometimes.

Scott: I’m a little bit less concerned that it has really strong delirious effects on your mind and whatnot. I certainly respect that he’s done a lot of work into investigating that. Then I also think, I think in terms of email, for me, I’m very interested in reading that book when it comes out, because that was a surprising one for me.

Scott: I tend to like email as a communication medium, so I’m very interested in seeing how it goes. Although, although I will say this. I’ve talked to people in larger organizations, and so I can see how it can be dysfunctional. I just don’t think I’m in the environment where it really breaks down.

Mo: Ah.

Scott: When people talk about email, for me, most, I don’t have a lot of group threads. When I do, it’s not a lot of coordination. It’s not a lot of like … I check my email every once in a while, but there’s not a lot of stuff that it’s like I’ve got to be on email constantly to collaborate on things.

Scott: I think, again, it’s maybe one of those things that it’s, I’ll read his arguments and see what he’s talking about. Because I think, it’s a lot of those things you have to understand the context in which someone’s writing about something. I’ve written both pro and negative … Sorry.

Scott: I’ve read both pro and negative stances for lots of topics. Then when you dig deeper, you realize that, again, like the elephant problem. They’re kind of talking about the same thing. They’re maybe just talking about it from different perspectives or expectations. You know?

Mo: Yeah. Could you explain what Top Performer is, then? The problem you set out to solve by creating that course.

Scott: Right. Top Performer was based off of, sort of the kernel of the idea is that Cal Newport wrote this book So Good They Can’t Ignore You, which I highly recommend to anyone here.

Scott: The basic concept of the book was originally, “Don’t follow your passion.” It was, basically, that this whole, “Follow your passion” advice is not very useful for your career, and that what you should be doing instead is trying to build rare and valuable skills.

Scott: This is something I believe 110%. We were talking about how I have some minor differences of opinion with Cal on some things, but this is something that we’re 100% on the same page. I think that’s definitely the way to look at your career.

Scott: There are other windows to look at your career, but I think this is probably the most profitable one. The most valuable mental model for looking at it is in terms of being really good at things that people care about, and that also very few people have that skillset. Certainly for knowledge work, this is the right metaphor to use, I think.

Scott: When we wrote the book, he was kind of like, “Oh, do you want to do deliberate practice?” and this kind of thing, but to me, there was a bit of a gulf because it was like, “Well, how do you develop rare and valuable skills?”

Scott: Top Performer was the kind of “how” to his “why.” We kind of, I really viewed it in this light, is that there was a lot of nuance to the question of, “How do you get really good at things that are rare and valuable.”

Scott: Top performer takes a little bit of a different perspective than Ultralearning. Although, obviously, there’s parallels in all of my work. Ultralearning kind of sets aside the question a little. Like, Top Performer, we really wanted to focus a lot on which skills you ought to develop. Then it was, a lot of it was focusing on just creating a project to do it.

Scott: This is an eight-week course we have, and we really wanted to focus on, “How do you identify what are the skills that you ought to be developing? How do you identify these to like … How do you assess your current skills? How do you figure out what you need to get good at?”

Scott: It approaches learning less from the perspective of, “How the heck do I learn this topic?” and more, “What should I learn? What should I get good at?”

Mo: Okay. Just a quick check-in. Are you good until 3:00 or so?

Scott: What time is it there?

Mo: It’s 2:30. 2:30.

Scott: Okay. Yeah, yeah.

Mo: Okay.

Scott: Yeah.

Mo: Something that you mentioned I found super interesting in the book is that, “The long-term benefits of meta learning can often be mistaken for intelligence or talent.” Can you explain why it could look like that on a long enough timeline?

Scott: Well, okay. I’ll give an example. I knew this woman who was, had her master’s in civil engineering, and she was writing papers on like how to do stuff with like hydroelectric dams and things like this. This woman is very smart. You don’t write papers on like fluid dynamics and stuff if you’re not smart. Yet, I was talking to her, and we were talking about learning computer science. She was telling me, “Oh, yeah. I took an intro computer science class,” and she’s like, “I can’t do this.” I was like, “Are you insane?” Like, “An intro computer science class is way easier than the stuff you’re doing.”

Scott: I was talking about it on an objective level. There is no way that an intro computer science class is as hard as master’s level civil engineering stuff. It’s just not. They’re just not. It is objectively more difficult, the latter, so why does she think that way? What is the belief that she holds? What is the observation of experience she made that allowed her to think this?

Scott: This is what I suspect. I suspect that she took that class, and in the class there were students who had been programming since high school. Maybe when they were eight years old, they had a little thing and they were typing little scripts, and so the assignments come down, and these kids are acing the class. Maybe she asked to do some labs with them, and they’re finishing their work in five minutes and she’s struggling with it.

Scott: How does she interpret that belief? Does she interpret that belief as, “Oh, these people have spent years learning this before. They already know a lot of these concepts. They already have this kind of meta learning advantage and then they’re going in and mastering the class”? Or does she interpret as, “I’m dumb. These students are smarter than me”?

Scott: The funny thing is, is that like I’m kind of mocking her a little bit, but I’ve done this before. When I was studying in France, I was put in a French class. They kind of, we did like a sort of intro French test, and I had been like really eager to learn French.

Scott: Even though I had never really studied in school, I had been practicing with a few of my French friends, and so I kind of, ostensibly, looked like I could speak a little bit of French, but it was more superficial. I didn’t actually, I hadn’t actually studied it formally, so there was a lot of deep knowledge I didn’t have about it. I just had like the, “How do you get through a two minute interaction?”

Scott: They put me in this class with a bunch of other students, and I was the worst in the class. I always felt like I was being kind of crapped on for not being very good. Like I would give a presentation and the teacher would be like, “Uh-uh (negative), uh.” Like, “What mistake did you make?” I’m like, ” I don’t know.” She’s like, “It is not this, it is this.” I’m like, “Well, no one’s ever taught me that before.” She kind of had it like, “You’re being an idiot,” kind of attitude.

Scott: I’m a pretty smart guy and I’m pretty confident, as some of my projects probably indicate. I have enough, I have a healthy sense of self-confidence when it comes to learning, so I didn’t break down from that.

Scott: I realized that, in that moment, my feeling was, “Why am I so much worse than everyone else?” Now, it was only after I got to know the students that I realized, they’d all taken French for years. They’d taken like three years of university French, and it’s like, “Oh. That’s why they’re better than me, because they’ve studied it for three years.”

Scott: Now, I’m not saying that everything breaks down in such an obvious way that someone’s actually been learning this exact subject for years. I’ve talked to people who’ve come from Asia, for instance, and then they’ve gone to math classes in like North America. They go from being near the bottom of their math class to the top of their math class.

Mo: Ah.

Scott: It’s not because there’s so much smarter than Canadian students. I know sometimes, they like to Pat themselves on their back. They’re like, “Oh, I’m so much smarter than this.” No. It’s because in Asia, they were expected to build all of these mathematical patterns to a much higher level of rigor, so they just spend a lot more time doing calculus, and doing algebra, and mastering trigonometry, and answering the questions quickly. Whereas, Canadian students often didn’t have very much homework or it wasn’t very difficult in the class. They have all these patterns, so suddenly they’re excelling in this.

Scott: Again, does intelligence make a difference? Of course, it does. Is there differences in innate ability that determine how you’re going to perform? Of course, it does. Is the ability to have this kind of background pattern related to intelligence? Yeah, probably. Because if you’re smarter, you probably also acquired more patterns.

Scott: In this sense, it’s kind of difficult to disentangle this sort of role of background knowledge in meta learning influencing your ability to perform in things.

Scott: In the same sense, I think it’s a little bit unfair, because I think a lot of students get into a class, don’t realize what the background is of the other students, and then interpret it as, “I’m dumb.” It’s a kind of crazy belief, but we all do it all the time, because what other people’s backgrounds are is often invisible.

Scott: I was taking a salsa class recently and I was, I’m probably, I’m not very good at salsa so I was near the bottom of that class too. I’m really trying. I’m really trying my best, but I’m not super great at it. It’s only after you get to know some of the students that you realize, “Oh, no, but they’ve been doing dance for years.” They’re starting salsa, but they were doing swing dancing for three years. Well, no wonder they’re able to memorize foot combinations more easily than I am.

Scott: I think there is this kind of challenge sometimes that we don’t realize that, “Oh, I am starting at a more remedial place, but it doesn’t mean that I can’t get to that place.” Right?

Mo: Right. I actually, I want to dig deeper on this idea of the comparisons. Because a big part of Ultralearning seems to be this self-directedness. Can you talk a little bit about the self-directness part? Because just in terms of motivation, it seems to be a much more sustainable source than having deadlines and exams from outside sources.

Mo: There’s, obviously, a body of literature about this called Self-determination Theory, which is what that popular book, Drive, by Dan Pink is based on. How do you think about that?

Scott: Well, okay. I’ll put it this way. If we look objectively in the world at the amount of people who finish university, versus the amount of people who have finished the equivalent of a degree in self-education, the lopsided nature of that thing is a strong counter-argument to the idea that self-directed learning is automatically more motivating.

Scott: Now, I’m kind of taking on the sort of underdog position, therefore, in arguing in favor of Ultralearning. I think the reason that I argue in favor of this approach is that it almost kind of begins in a backwards way, that you kind of have to start with the motivation and then build the project to sustain that motivation to the finish line.

Scott: I don’t think it’s the case that you will automatically … Part of the reason I think that my projects are noteworthy is because most people don’t have the ability to sustain motivation on projects that don’t have strong cultural and social pressures to run them to completion.

Scott: I mean, people … I’ve been doing all these podcasts, and so people are talking about this MIT Challenge and there’s a little bit of a like, “Oh, wow. How did you study so long?” I’m like, talk to any medical student. Talk to, literally, any high school student in China. I’m not doing anything unusual. The thing I think that’s unusual is that everyone else is in these formal structured environments where everything around them guarantees this motivation.

Scott: I think the thing that was weird for me is that no one’s doing this, and yet I’m working really hard on it. I think that’s actually part of the reason I’m really excited about Ultralearning. Because this can be a huge advantage, because no one else is doing it. Like if everyone else were doing the MIT challenge, I certainly wouldn’t be having a conversation about it now. It would just be like worth maybe mentioning in a sentence, but then it’s boring and they move on.

Scott: The reason people want to talk about it is because it is unusual. I think the reason people want to hire you is because you can do things other people can’t do, because you acquired skills that they don’t have. Because you got really good at things that people just don’t get really good at.

Scott: The idea of Ultralearning is sort of to imply that, yes, this is rare, and, yes, it’s true that most people don’t actually sustain motivation on self-directed projects. That if you look at Coursera, and you look at online courses, most people don’t complete them. There is, some people take this as an indictment of that, but I take that as an opportunity.

Scott: Because if you, as an individual, are like, ” No, no, no. I’m going to get really good at this skill, and I’m going to cultivate this ability to work through self-directed learning projects,” then, I mean, you are a rare gem that can do things other people cannot.

Mo: Your book is catered to the individual who wants to take control of their own learning, but I think one of the ways to create a systemic change is to get this book into the hands of teachers of any kind, everywhere. I’m hoping for that.

Mo: I’m just curious. How might a teacher use these principles to design a learning project or curriculum for their students?

Scott: This is a very interesting question, because this comes up all the time when I’m having podcasts, is like, “Okay, you’ve written this for the individual, but what about teachers and what about schools and institutions?”

Scott: The funny things is, is most of the people who are asking me that are not teachers, they’re not administrators, they don’t work in the education system. The subtle secret you’ll realize is that if you talk to those people, nothing I say in this book is new.

Scott: People act like it’s new. Like when I’m talking about, like, “Well, why aren’t schools doing this?” Schools are not doing this for their own institutional reasons, but I think that competent teachers who are reading books on how to teach and do this kind of thing are probably aware of a lot of these principles.

Scott: Now, there might be some people who are maybe not designing curricula, that aren’t aware of ideas about transfer, or they don’t know about chunking, or they don’t know about these things, but it’s not as if these are new ideas, and it’s not as if I invented them.

Scott: The reason I wrote this book is kind of the opposite of what you’re saying. Is that the system, to a certain extent, has already absorbed this knowledge, in my opinion.

Mo: Oh.

Scott: It’s already made the adjustments that it was capable of making as a result of this thing. Now, I think there is room for innovation. Like we’re seeing things like Lambda School. We’re seeing startups. We’re seeing these players outside of the institution.

Scott: I hope that maybe this book will inspire some teachers to teach like Richard Feynman or to reach the sort of level of excellence that some teachers might do. At the same time, the reason I wrote this book is because teachers and institutions know about educational psychology. They know about transfer. They know about …

Scott: I had a conversation with a principal and he writes a podcast for other school administrators. It was so funny, because everything I’m talking about, he’s like, he’s totally aware of all of it. This is not like, “Oh, wow. I didn’t know that this was a challenge for education.” Like, yeah, of course he’s aware of it.

Mo: Interesting.

Scott: The thing that I … The reason I wrote this book is because students aren’t aware of it. The learners aren’t aware of it. Because the learners aren’t aware of it, they make lots of really dumb decisions. There’s only some things that the school can actually do. It’s sort of like you can bring a horse to water, but you can’t make it drink.

Scott: If you can’t, if the horse doesn’t know that drinking is important for quenching its thirst, then it won’t. For a lot of students, they go to business school, and their only motivation is to pass the tests. Then they complain years later, “Well, I never learned anything useful in business school.” It’s because the school could only go so far. You had to take the other step. Right?

Mo: Right.

Scott: You can like people buy, that people get Duolingo, and they try their best and then they don’t realize that. They don’t realize why it doesn’t work very well. They don’t realize why, I was talking to a teacher who teaches entrepreneurship in France, and I gave this speech, and I was talking about how I wasn’t entirely pleased with my business education, and she sat next to me. She was like, “We believe this. I really try to get the students to apply what they’re learning in projects and stuff, and they don’t care. They just want to, they just want to get the grade and go on.”.

Scott: And so for me, writing this book is, I think it might help some teachers, it might be a reminder of some of the ideas that they’d learned before.

Scott: But what I really wanted to teach was the students who, and the everyday people that aren’t aware of these things and thus can be tricked by stupidities such as brain training or you know like, “Oh, well, I ought to do this and this to to get better at it,” which obviously isn’t going to work.

Scott: I think what I wanted to do is arm people with inspiration and the knowledge to take control of their own learning. Now is there a possibility for improvement in learning institutions? I think absolutely. I think it’s somewhat difficult to do it in our current environment because of the, some of the reasons I mentioned that there’s these twin goals of teaching people useful things and credentialing them and filtering them at university institutions, and these can sometimes conflict. I think that there’s a lot of institutional inertia. So even if you have some brave people who want to change things, it can be very difficult to change things in a highly bureaucratic context.

Scott: So sometimes you can have dysfunctional institutions just because institutions are dysfunctional. And so I do think that there are possibilities for having better schools, having better learning environments, having better teacher-student relationships. And I think those things are being explored. But for me, my goal in writing this book was to empower the learner to deal with the world that as it exists, deal with the fact that most schools are going to be deficient in some ways, that most books will not give you direct practice, that most situations are going to be missing things, and to give you those tools to handle them.

Mo: So it’s super sexy to talk about mental models nowadays, and-

Scott: Yeah.

Mo: What does the phrase “mental model” mean to you? How do you use them to improve your thinking or make better decisions and solve problems? How do you build that skill?

Scott: So I would say that “mental models” to me means a couple things. So one is that it just tends to be a kind of a kind hyped terminology to describe concepts.

Mo: Okay.

Scott: So it can often just be like, “Well, this is just a concept.” And so learning is obviously about acquiring concepts. And so it’s obviously about acquiring mental models, but there’s a more specific version of a mental model, a more restricted definition that I do find interesting, which is the idea of a common recurring pattern. So it is something that like, there’s a lot of patterns that only occur in really specific situations, but there’s some patterns that, because of their features, they apply to like seemingly really unrelated things.

Scott: And so the idea of mental models in my mind is to cultivate them so that you can start to see how different things relate to each other. And so this is part of this, like I don’t expect people just learning a subject to do it, but as you reach the mastery level, this kind of far transfer may be quite helpful. So one of my favorite examples is, so in the field of cognitive neuroscience, there’s this idea of how do, how do we kind of, how do we store information in a neural net? How do we store things in a distributed way? And how do we learn patterns in these kinds of things?

Scott: And one of the ideas was actually drawn from physics, which is this idea of simulated annealing, which is kind of like how crystals form, which is basically like you start at a high temperature, and then you cool it down and it will kind of crystallize in a particular shape.

Scott: And so this is a real far transfer link, and it shows that the idea of crystallization as a broad pattern of starting out things chaotic and then lowering the temperature so to speak, so that it will crystallize in a way that based on maybe some of the kind of surface strata that you have it crystallizing onto, it will form different types of crystals. That this is something that like crystals and thinking don’t seem alike it all, but it turns out they may have this similarity.

Scott: And in some cases that the link is directly through math. I mean, exponential growth for instance, appears in lots of situations, and math is the way that it appears in all those situations. And so I think mental models is a kind of, it can be kind of a way of thinking about trying to explicitly cultivate some of these patterns so that you just have like kind of a handy list of them so you can kind of see, “Oh, does this pattern apply in this situation?”. And so I think it’s kind of difficult to use mental models if you don’t have this robust experience. But I do think it’s often useful to talk about mental models because they are often the key to importing insights from unrelated fields.

Mo: Yeah. And how do you like build that skill? Kind of like do so do you basically just learn the mental model and then look for the patterns and some of the situations that you come across in life?

Scott: So, again, I think the idea here is that, so some of it is that you can imbibe mental models. So, if someone else has produced a list of mental models, or they tell you a mental model, then you can kind of learn to spot it somewhere.

Scott: And I think this is what I feel like, in some ways, this is what I’m trying to do with my career as a writer is to spot patterns that people are kind of aware exists, but they don’t have a kind of singular construct label to define them, so they can start seeing them places. So even this book “Ultra Learning” was to try to create a new concept, ultra learning, and use it to describe things that maybe people wouldn’t lump together. A sort of an approach to learning.

Scott: But you can, you can also talk about mental models as being, so if anyone here is listened to Slate Star Codex, he has a thing about Motte and Bailey for an argument. And it’s a pattern that, once someone explains it to you, you start to see it, you start to see it in the way people do discussions and things like that. And you can also think about these kinds of higher-level abstract ideas.

Scott: So is there a certain sense that I think part of the advantage of mental models is that we are trying to proliferate mental models so that someone who is smart and spots the pattern can talk about the pattern so that other people can now use it more easily.

Scott: But then there’s also a sense I think in which finding your own mental models is a process of, what is the deep structure behind this idea? What is the thing that’s similar? What is the essence of it? And again, that’s not easy to do in the beginning, but as you get more sophisticated knowledge, you may start to notice these patterns, and sometimes they turn out to be false ones. I mean, the history of science is full of time where people thought they derived a general law of something, and it turned out to be false. But I think it can often be more useful than just seeing the world as a blooming buzzing confusion. Right?

Mo: Right. Yeah. The imagery that comes to mind after your description of it as a recurring pattern is like developing X-ray vision, basically. Like you can see the deep structure in the worldly phenomena.

Scott: Yeah.

Mo: So I’m done with those questions now. I’ll do some, a couple of rapid-fire questions. Basically, I’m going to read you some of your tweets, and I’ll have you expand a little bit. Kind of like a, I don’t know if you’ve ever listened to Naval Ravikant’s podcast.

Scott: I haven’t, but I know who Naval is. Yeah.

Mo: Yeah, so it would actually, I would, like your podcast already has a couple of short-form stuff. I would, I would totally like study his podcast and try it because I love that format, and I think it would totally work for you because you already have really interesting tweets and basically what he does is he reads out his tweet, and then he expands on it in like five minutes. It’s super interesting.

Scott: Oh, interesting. Yeah. Okay.

Mo: So let’s start with, for those who have read my stuff, what are my biggest weaknesses as a writer? Side note, although feedback like this is often unreliable, unreliable, I’m curious if my self-assessment of my weaknesses would match up with yours. I’m super-curious about the thinking behind that.

Scott: I mean, I didn’t get a ton of tweet backs. I think a lot of people don’t want to submit feedback like that, particularly in like a named format because the truth is a lot of people asking for feedback don’t really want feedback.

Scott: So I understand that if you said something really negative about me, “Oh, I don’t like this about this,” I might have a negative impression of you unconsciously. And so people don’t want that, especially with people that they like.

Scott: And so I did get a few comments on that, but not enough to be really meaningful. So my idea with that is that, I’ve been thinking a lot about mastering the craft of writing. And that can sound a little funny because I’ve spent so much time writing and I’m obviously proud of my own work, but I think it’s really important to always go back to the beginner mindset because I think, once you’ve done something for awhile, it’s very easy to get arrogant, especially if you have achieved some level of like, some level of success with it.

Scott: I think a lot of people don’t want to, they want to see themselves as competent, so they want to be in the position as of the advice giver and of, this is the right way of doing things. And I think in all skills it’s better to see yourself as being at the bottom of a new skill rather than as the top of an old one.

Scott: And so for me right now, with my writing, it’s the question of, I’ve reached a kind of steady state I think with my blog and my influence. And the question for me is, “How do I really deliver, and how do I do something better?”.

Scott: And it’s obviously I think useful to get feedback from the audience to see what it is they like and don’t like about my writing.

Mo: And how do you think about self-assessment? Like how did you, how do you learn to do that? That seems like a very important skill that takes a while to learn.

Scott: Self-assessment is more important than feedback from others, I think, with this kind of thing. Like I care much more what I think of my writing than what other people do. And part of that is, and quite immodestly, I’m somewhat arrogant, and I think that I understand what is good writing and bad writing better than other people do. Like I’ve studied it longer.

Scott: So I think I could also give better feedback than the average person to other writers. And so, similarly, I think I could give good feedback to myself with my writing because, not only I have a lot of experience reading other writings, so I know what I like and what I don’t like.

Scott: But then also I have my own style I’m trying to cultivate and my own mission I’m trying to accomplish with my work. So even other writers who are very, very good may dislike my writing for reasons that I don’t agree with because they’re trying to accomplish something different with writing than I am.

Scott: And so, if someone says, “Oh like,” Oh, I can’t think of a good example, but “Oh, I think your writing is too X, but I need that aspect of the writing in order to deliver what I want to do with my work.” I think that’s important.

Scott: So it’s a little bit like if someone criticized Van Gogh like, “Well, you’re not that accurate. You should focus on getting better, accurate renderings.” There’s a little bit like, well-

Mo: It’s not a bug. It’s not real.

Scott: Yeah. It’s not really what he’s going for. And so, for me, if I were to self-assess and see what my weaknesses are, I think, I definitely see a contrast with my writing in this book, in my writing, on my blog. And I think some of that is just being a little too hasty. So I think there’s a lot of process improvements I want to make in my writing so that I can deliver stuff that’s a little bit more polished and better thought out before just writing it. So I definitely think that’s a weakness.

Scott: I don’t think I’m very funny in my writing. I mean, I’m probably, it was one of those things like I don’t, I don’t think I’m extremely funny in real life, but I think I’m funnier in real life than I am in my writing, which might be a weakness, I think.

Scott: I think I, my prose is not as good as I’d like it to be. I often write sentences that are too long, and I realized that’s a style that I like in other writers, that they rewrite the same paragraph many, many times until they can get it in the most concise, sort of almost like an aphorism. Whereas I tend to do, I tend to write like I talk and as if anyone’s listening to this, how I talk, I tend to talk in kind of long sentences that are maybe a little bit too verbose.

Mo: Do you mind if we go through, I, this depends on your schedule, but can we do five more tweets and then call it a day? Okay.

Scott: Sure.

Mo: In your field, what do you think is the strength between, of the connection between talent and success? For example, if it’s 100% then everyone who is talented as successful, if it’s 5%, then only one in 20 equally talented people will have success.

Scott: I regret writing this tweet because people took it the wrong way. Because one guy wrote, “I hope, it’s probably 50%, but I hope it’s 20%.” And so what this person meant is that when I was using the word “talent,” I met kind of immutable goodness.

Scott: And what I meant when I said “talent” is how important is it that you’re good at the thing you do to success? So not really caring whether that’s from something learned or something mastered or something innate, but just how important is it that you’re good?

Scott: And so the example you could think about is that I can think of professions, like the example I drew on was Jerry Seinfeld talking about how it’s his opinion that the talent-success connection in comedy is like 100%. That if you’re funny, you’ve got tons of money, and you’re successful. If you’re not funny, it doesn’t work, right?

Scott: And so in his mind at least that connection is near 100% whereas I’ve heard from a lot of people who are actors who kind of take the idea that there’s a lot more random chance and like sort of weird, chaotic things that could happen in your career that could make you a famous actor or not that don’t really have anything to do with how good an actor you are, or even just even broader definitions of goodness like that also include maybe that you’re good-looking or that you work well for certain types of movies or something.

Mo: Yeah. Another tweet, One thing that matters a lot, live replays. This facilitates social learning and means you can study and emulate the best, yet live streaming is rare professionally. Why don’t more companies internally pick their top 10% to live stream parts of their job for others to learn?

Scott: Yeah, I don’t know why they don’t do that. I think for me, I’ve become very fascinated with this idea of a speed running subculture and video games. Not because I really like watching speed runs. Most of them I find inscrutable, but I find it really fascinating because people have gotten extremely good at video games, and it seems to be this kind of model for a learning environment that’s very different institutionally, speaking from how higher education or education generally works.

Scott: And I really liked that as a model for two reasons. One, I think if you could orient a community around the right goals, you might be able to do things much, much better. Because a lot of the things is that it’s hard to learn certain skills because, unless you’re a member of that community, access to the best people doing it is totally opaque, right?

Scott: So if I want to become a leading physicist or something like that, it’s difficult for me to do that a little bit because I don’t have access to these physicists. I don’t know how they’re working. I don’t know what they care about it, this kind of thing. So if you’re not in one of these top schools, it’s very difficult to get access to that learning environment.

Scott: And I think that the idea of speed running, is that because it’s all done through this live streaming? I mean, if I want to see how the top, Super Mario speed runners do it, I know exactly how they do it. Like it’s, there’s no mystery to it. So I really like that idea. I think that that has a lot of potential. I’ve even tried to do that a little bit myself. So my last ultra learning project was doing quantum mechanics, which I thought I would try to live stream.

Scott: I have some hesitations about how that went down a little bit. It’s kind of difficult to manage the livestream and doing that, but I think you could get better. And I have seen people who were like programmers doing it. I don’t know whether there is a certain amount that the live stream makes things, I don’t know whether that’s enough. Because if we look at the apprenticeship-master relationship, there is a bit of an element that the master isn’t just doing things and the apprentices watching, but the apprentice is also participating and the master is guiding somewhat. So it may be the case that live streaming is not enough, and it may be that as a platform it just doesn’t have all the right ingredients.

Scott: But this is the kind of thing that I’m very interested in. When we’re talking about improving education is that everyone wants to like, I’ll get, we were talking about this earlier, one of the questions I’ve got a couple times on podcasts is like, if you could design a school, what would you do? And the whole idea is, my entire book is pointing out that like I wouldn’t make it a school. Right?

Scott: Like that’s, that’s schools are schools. Right? I think we’ve gotten about as much as we can get from schools. Maybe there’s a few different like tweaks and improvements and optimizations. So I’m not saying everything’s perfect, but I’m more interested in what is the thing that’s not like a school at all that we should be doing?

Scott: And in my opinion, the speed running community as an example of something that is nothing like a school, and yet people are getting really, really good at something. And so I’m wondering what is the, what is the institutional analogy of that for getting good at like, I don’t know, programming or architecture or entrepreneurship or something where you are learning from this kind of community that has a one to many that it’s a little bit easier to get into so that you can, you don’t have to go through all these filters to participate in it.

Scott: So, anyways, I think it’s very interesting. I think there’s opportunity there, but obviously it’s still pretty nascent, so I don’t have any strong recommendations yet.

Mo: So that’s super-interesting. So you think this might almost be a way of scaling and expanding apprenticeship through technology kind of?

Scott: I mean, it’s possible.

Mo: Some aspect of it.

Scott: Yeah, I would like to dig into the research on apprenticeship a little bit more first because it would be very interesting to me to know which aspects are super-important. It definitely seems to be the case that the speed running community is allowed to at least engineers, this kind of pushing the frontier. I don’t know how well it works on, because I think part of it is that if you’re looking at a speed run, and you also have the forums, it’s pretty comprehensible what people are doing.

Scott: Whereas I don’t know, for instance, if you just had a live stream of like Malcolm Gladwell writing a book, it would probably be helpful. I think it would be helpful, but I’m not sure how much it would be, how much what he’s doing is going on inside his head versus like, speed running is really easy cause you can see exactly what buttons they’re pressing.

Scott: Whereas I think the challenge is that most of the skills that we would want to emulate are mostly cognitive skills. So if you were looking at why does this person choose to do it this way? That is maybe more opaque. And so I don’t know how much that factors in.

Mo: I saw this hilarious video of, it’s basically a parody of a stream of gaming, of gamers that stream, especially during like eSports and stuff like that. And it’s basically Microsoft Excel stream highlights. Have you seen this video?

Scott: No, but I think, I think I’d like it. Yeah.

Mo: It’s absolutely hilarious. I’ll, I’ll send you the link after we’re done. It’s only four minutes, but it’s absolutely similar to what you’re talking about. So it’s like live streaming except applied to a more real-life skill.

Scott: Cool, cool.

Mo: Next. Prediction: Science won’t explain the mysteries of consciousness, but not because a scientific account isn’t possible. Rather, it will be because our own illusions about ourselves run too deep for most people to accept the true explanation when given.

Scott: Yeah. So I have this sort of deeper belief that this is, this is a whole other conversation, but that we fundamentally don’t understand ourselves. That we have a lot of, we have a strong confidence that we really know who and what we are as, I’m not talking about like just our identities, like our names and there’s a kind of self-help sense in which people talk about knowing yourself where it’s, it means knowing kind of what kind of person you are compared to other people.

Scott: But I’m talking about a more fundamental level, like knowing what kind of thing you are in the universe. I think that that it is actually deeply mysterious and that a lot of our assumptions about what we are is wrong, and that it would be possible to get the right answer upon careful deduction and introspection. But that our own kind of evolved hard wiring is too, is that we are evolved to have false beliefs about what we are.

Scott: And that because we have evolved to have false beliefs about what we are, this prevent presents essentially a very deep obstacle so that ignoring people who spend years unlearning these false beliefs through kind of careful observation and experimentation and results that I think the average person just won’t accept it because it will run counter to too much of what we think about ourselves.

Mo: So you talk about, there are two types of performance domains. One in which the best are extremely close to another and another where the best are a lot better than the rest. And you gave a couple of examples and situations where that applies. And you say, all, of course, this is all speculative, but I think how close the top performers are in a field, in terms of actual ability, has a lot of implications for how we ought to teach, learn, and encourage talent in society. Could you expand on that last part a little bit?

Scott: Yeah. So, again, this is speculative. I would like to see some empirical research, cause maybe my examples are wrong. This is just from an outsider perspective, and my sense is that athletics, particularly for fairly narrow sports, talent tends to be, like we’re talking about like swimmers who beat each other by milliseconds, and occasionally you have the outlier that just through their body or whatever is just so better performing that they actually succeed by by leaps and bounds.

Scott: But I would say that this tends to be an area where you’re trying to optimize a lot of variables that all have diminishing returns. And so to get, to be the best in the world at like pole vaulting, for instance, in my mind is a very different kind of thing than being the best in the world at writing.

Scott: And because I use writing as a certain opposite example because my opinion is that, the problem with writing is not that you’re trying to optimize a lot of things. It’s that you’re trying to explore an extremely high dimensional space and also trying to offer, like improve some of your aspects of things.

Scott: But my sense is that the best writers in the world are obviously better than the less good writers. And it’s not the case that the person who is the next, like next to Malcolm Gladwell is like, that I think that the, there’s a lot more inequality in writing talent than there is in… this kind of goes with the Jerry Seinfeld analogy. Like it’s a little difficult for you to say, “Oh, like talent perfectly correlates with success in a comedy.” And then also admitting that there’s extreme inequality in the incomes of comedians. If you don’t also believe that there’s like obvious gulfs of difference in how good the best comedians are from the mediocre comedians, you know?

Scott: And so my feeling is that it’s probably closer to this, that there are some domains of talent where there is just huge gulfs between the people who are the best and the people who are the rest.

Scott: And I don’t, it would be really interesting to analyze this. I would be really nice to see. And obviously there’s maybe some positive feedback loops as well that run into this. Like if you get into the right learning environment, then you excel and then because you excel, you develop peer networks that give you access to information and things that those people don’t.

Scott: So it might be related to that, it might be related to other nonlinearities in how different skills add up and synergize and stuff. But my feeling is that, for optimizing domains where you know you’re getting diminishing returns and everything, and you’re just trying to shave a few milliseconds off your performance, I don’t know. For me that kind of success interests me less, you know?

Scott: To me, I don’t really care about that kind of performance. Where I care about that kind of performance is that, if you are going to bleed and hurt and suffer your whole life to become good at something, you should be a lot better than the next person. You know? Like it should be that you actually, you didn’t just shave a second off to get that gold medal, but that you produced something that was totally unfathomable forehand.

Scott: And so I think that there are domains where that that seems to be more the case. But, again, I’d love to see some empirical research that supports or refutes that.

Mo: And what might these, some of the implications be for how people learn or how we teach that stuff?

Scott: Yeah, so I’d have to think about that a little bit more, but I think that, if we are talking about a domain where there’s a large gulf between the sort of the best and the rest, then it, I guess, basically if you see yourself as being 99% of the way there, and you’re trying to get to 100%, you approach learning differently than if you’re 2% of the way there. Right?

Scott: And so there’s a lot of domains where kind of qualitatively speaking more people are caught towards that 99% and towards the 2%. Like if you were doing an exam and your practice tests, you were getting 10% on the exam. Your studying approach is fundamentally different than if you are getting 99% on the exam and you’re trying to avoid making one mistake.

Mo: Oh, okay.

Scott: So I think a lot of domains or the trying to avoid making one mistake, and some of the domains are, no one’s even close to the frontier, so you’re trying to just get better at it. So I don’t know, again, this is speculative, but that would be my theory.

Mo: Okay. Just two left. Much education assumes, and I think this was a retweet, actually, much education as soon as the wrong idea that learning consists of ingesting bits of knowledge and storing them. When you have enough, you can make deductions using innate human reasoning.

Scott: Yeah. I don’t remember whether this is something I wrote or whether I retweeted it, but yeah, this basically is the whole idea of transfer, is the whole idea that reasoning is a general human faculty.

Scott: I’m a really big fan of the enigma of reason which is arguing the argumentative theory of reason, as opposed to the kind of more popular one. The dual process theory right now, which is, I mean I haven’t, I’m not an expert on the literature, so maybe there’s some compatibilities or differences there that I’m not aware of, but the idea of the argumentative theory of reason is basically that reason as a human faculty is not just a general, it’s not just being smart, right? It’s not just a general being smart, that it’s a specific function in the human brain to generate reasons and evaluate the reasons of others, and this explains a lot of our failures to make smart decisions is because we assume that reason is just sort of the superpower, when really what is doing the kind of work of making our decisions is all these intuitive sort of modules that are fairly context-specific.

Scott: And when you see it that way, it’s kind of like, well, critical thinking therefore isn’t a thing. Critical thinking is just meaning that you have enough of these patterns and bind that you make fewer mistakes and that that tends to be pretty context-specific.

Mo: And the last thing I want to end on, and I think this is a good one to end on because it’s big picture on a little bit philosophical is do things not only for the results those actions provide, but for the kind of person they will allow you to become.

Scott: Well, my friend James Clear has this great quote that I really like, which is “Every action you take is a vote for the kind of person you want to be.” And so I think this identity- based thinking is also important because, I think very often, this is sort of an idea that I’ve been toying with a lot, which is that at a deep level, the kind of people we are, that like our ability to do things, our ability to be disciplined or execute on projects and make friends and are not just not just beliefs and impulses but kind of deeper structures, deeper, like they’re habits but not at a surface level. Kind of the same way we were talking about chunking, they’re kind of habits at a more abstract level.

Scott: And so like one of the habits I think of as very important is finishing projects that you start. This has been a habit that I’ve been building for years on my thing.

Scott: And so some people say like, “Oh, how do you finish this year-long project that’s very difficult.” It’s like, “Well, I finish all of my projects.”.

Scott: But it’s kind of hard to communicate that way because just telling someone that, “Well, just finish all your projects” is like, “Oh, what are they going to do with that information?”.

Scott: But at the same time it’s realizing that that idea of finishing the habits that you started finishing the projects is this like constellation of all these little actions, all these little identity choices so that, when I go and take on a project, there’s all these reference points of “I really don’t want to give it up because I’m going to take it seriously.”.

Scott: And so I think that this approach to things is important because a lot of us make, we make kind of impulsive decisions and then rationalize them without thinking about how those decisions fit into the context of the kind of character we want to develop, the kinds of people that we want to become.

Mo: Okay. Awesome. Thank you so much, man. That was a long conversation. I hope I didn’t drain all of your energy there.

Scott: Yeah. Yeah. I think I’m going to take a nap now. No, I appreciate it. You are, we’re almost hitting the record for my longest podcast conversation here, so hopefully the people listening to this enjoy whatever part of the conversation that you leave by. And thank you so much for having me.

Mo: Actions that you want the listeners to take and how can they find out more about you and your book?

Scott: Yes, so go to, and I have again thousands of articles, as well as lots of free stuff if you’re not eager to buy anything right now. And if you want to get my book, which I highly recommend, you can go to my website. Again, I have links to the book, but the book Ultra Learning is available on Amazon, Audible, narrated by yours truly, if you’re not sick of hearing my voice already. And also any other place that you buy your books, Barnes and Nobles, Indigo, if you’re in Canada, like we are.

Scott: So, yeah, I highly recommend checking out the book, and if you do decide to apply any of it to your own ultra learning projects, I would really love to hear about it because it’s just such a passionate topic for me.

Mo Akif

Mo Akif

The Editor-in-Chief of the McGill Dobson Chronicles. Never having started a lemonade stand as a child and tired of reading blog posts about entrepreneurship without actually doing anything, he was on the verge of giving up and joining a pyramid scheme. Luckily the McGill Dobson Centre decided to adopt him, allowing him to get a closer look at what it takes to build something valuable.