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KF #22. Nimble Learning Archives - How to be Awesome at Your Job

543: How to Build Skills Faster and Improve Mental Performance with Britt Andreatta

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Britt Andreatta says: "Our body is built for learning."

Britt Andreatta shares neuroscience insights for boosting your learning, memory, and creativity.

You’ll Learn:

  1. How to make your learning stick
  2. The striking benefits of boredom
  3. How to deal with information overwhelm

About Britt:

Dr. Britt Andreatta is an internationally-recognized thought leader who creates brain science-based solutions for today’s challenges. As CEO of 7th Mind, Inc., Britt Andreatta draws on her unique background in leadership, neuroscience, psychology, and learning to unlock the best in people, helping organizations rise to their potential.

Resources mentioned in the show:

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Britt Andreatta Interview Transcript

Pete Mockaitis
Britt, welcome back to the How to be Awesome at Your Job podcast.

Britt Andreatta
Hi, Pete. I’m super excited to talk to you today.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, me too. Me too. Well, I’m excited to dig into your wisdom associated with learning and I understand you’ve been learning some things about fabric art lately. What’s the story here?

Britt Andreatta
You know, I’ve discovered a new hobby for myself, which kind of surprised me, but I am just really into it and it takes me to that place of flow where I can do it for hours and not feel like I’m working. And because I’m a researcher, I’m always in my head analyzing stuff and it gets me out of that. And I just get to play with color and textures and build these beautiful fabric murals that I just take great joy from it. But it’s a new hobby so I’m now in that place where you’re trying to feed the flames of a new hobby and investing way too much in it and then figuring out where I’m putting it in the house and have scraps of stuff everywhere, so it’s kind of fun.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, a fabric mural, I don’t know if I have seen a fabric mural before. I probably have, I just don’t even realize it. Help me visualize that.

Britt Andreatta
Well, so you can draw something on a piece of fabric, and then instead of using paint to fill it in, you use pieces of fabric to be your paint, and so you’re sewing them on, or stitching them on, or quilting them on, whatever technique you want to use to build the image using fabric.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, that’s interesting. I’ve heard that these kinds of activities, here’s a segue for you, like these sorts of things, kind of like knitting, is something that can sort of put you into a different brain groove. And I imagine you are one of the most qualified people to comment on this. What’s the story there?

Britt Andreatta
Well, whenever we have something that takes our attention but doesn’t require a whole lot of cognitive thought, you know, really concentrating on something or analyzing something, it can just take us to that zone, a little bit of a zone state where you can be really present.

I think we all have something like this. For some people, it’s running. For some people, it’s some kind of knitting or fabric art. For some people, it might be gardening. But there’s real pleasure in it because it acts as a mindfulness practice. It allows you to hit that place of presence and really just being in the here and now, which is, for me, it’s hugely relaxing. I find that I’m so much calmer and happier after I spend a little time doing this thing. The fact that I build things and then that I can give away as gifts is also cool. But even if I couldn’t, just the value of being in that state makes me a happier person to be around.

Pete Mockaitis
I hear that, yes. That’s excellent. Well, so we’re going to talk about brain science and learning and such, so maybe we can go meta for a moment before we do that. Do you have any quick tips for listeners right now because we’re about to learn something? What might they do in this very moment of listening to maximize the learning from the exchange we’re having right here?

Britt Andreatta
Great question. So, the big myth that we all believe but which is not true is that we can multitask while learning and we just cannot do that.

Pete Mockaitis
Uh-oh. Everyone doing the dishes right now, like, stop. Put the wash down.

Britt Andreatta
Put them down. We can multitask in other parts of our life, like you can cook and listen to something. But when you truly want to learn, and learning requires that you take it in and it gets pushed to your short-term memory and then ultimately your long-term memory, our brain really needs to be able to focus on it and gather all that information so it has a complete set of data to push into memory.

And when we multitask, we kind of flip back and forth, it’s called switch tasking, so if you’re also trying to look at your email and listen to this podcast, what your brain would do is I’d become the Peanuts character in the background, “waah, waah, waah, waah,” as you read the email, or you’re listening to what I say and you’re not really glomming onto what the words in the email are saying.

So, if you really want to learn, just focus on learning. If you’re listening to this for entertainment, it’s okay that you’re doing the dishes at the same time. But if you really want to push it into memory, give it the focus it deserves.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. So, that’s the first thing is giving it the focus. But does anything else leap to mind?

Britt Andreatta
Yeah, with any kind of learning, learning is stickier, meaning you’ll be able to recall it better in the future if you try to find a way to attach it to something you know. So, as we’re talking today about brain tips and tricks, if you remember a time that works for you in the past, or you imagine a time doing it or it calls up a memory, and each time you can attach it, or it reminds you of something you learned in the class in college, hook it to something you already know and it makes it stickier than if you just let it be kind of a free-floating piece of information.

Now, good teachers will do the work and help you attach it to something you know, but that’s a trick you can also use for yourself, is find a way to connect it to something you’ve already experienced or heard or seen or lived through.

Pete Mockaitis
You know, it’s funny, that really reminds me of when I was in high school in Economics class, I started thinking about the firm and profit maximizing and how, in a way, that’s kind of like life, there’s stuff you like doing, that’s like revenue, stuff you don’t like doing, that’s like cost, and you might try to maximize your profits, or you might say that’s a hedonistic way to live your life, and you shouldn’t. But, anyway, that’s how I was kind of like connecting with things and it makes a world of difference. And then, subsequently, I guess you might call these scaffolding or mental models, or there’s probably a number of terms neuroscientists use for these concepts we have to attach stuff to. What do we call those?

Britt Andreatta
It’s called a schema.

Pete Mockaitis
Schema, there it is.

Britt Andreatta
Yeah, so there’s schemas in your brain for all kinds of things, and they’re different for each of us, but the trick to good learning or to putting it to memory is to hook it to a schema you already have.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, it’s funny, as I think about that, I’ve done this kind of naturally with a lot of things and maybe that’s why I got good grades. So, it’s interesting, like anything from a computer game I loved to play, it’s like, “You know what, this is a lot like a missile base, they’re defending a planet.” Tell me, what are some of your go-to schemas you find yourself naturally attaching new learning to frequently?

Britt Andreatta
So, I build learning for other people frequently, so when I’m trying to build an experience for my audience, I try to find something that I know is pretty common knowledge. So, for example, I have a change training and I’ve built it all around this idea of going hiking or mountain climbing, and even if you’ve never done it, you know what it is, right?

So, as I’m playing with the concepts and likening change to different kinds of terrain and journeys, your brain has a place in it because it’s heard of that before. So, if you’re designing learning for other people, this is what great science and math teachers did in high school and college, is they took something that’s fairly abstract and they found a way to attach it to something you already knew about, and how you did that with your own Economics class.

So, if you’re designing learning for others, think about that. And for yourself, whenever you can put yourself through that little pace of, “Huh, what does this sound like? What can I connect this to? Do I have an experience of this?” it just gives your brain something to physically adhere it to in a way that makes the difference in terms of how it is stored in the brain and the ways your brain can call it up in the future.

Because the way our brain calls up a memory is all of our senses are part of when we learn, so we’ve got the visual, the auditory, the taste, and the smell, all of those are like threads, and they get bundled up, these bundled up sensations get kind of packaged as part of the memory. And so, pulling any one of those threads can pull it back.

This is why if you’ve ever traveled in Paris, for example, and you were there and you were feeling the rain, and smelling the croissants or the stinky cheese, or whatever it is, if you ever smell a croissant in the future, it can pop you back to this picture of Paris, “Oh, my gosh, I remember I’ve been there.” So, memory is actually tied through all these senses, and if we’re intentional about that, then we can use those threads to help pull that thing back out of the brain.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, yeah, that is interesting. And so, while we fast-forwarded right to some immediate tactics, but maybe we can zoom out a little bit in terms of so you’ve got this book Wired to Grow and now a version 2.0 even. Can you tell us, what’s the main thesis and what’s sort of like the hot new discoveries that warranted a second version?

Britt Andreatta
Great questions. So, I wrote the first book five years ago and it came out, honestly, for me, just doing research into neuroscience because I wanted to be better at my craft as a chief learning officer, so I literally did the learning for my own benefit. And then I ended up sharing it as a presentation, and people were like, “Oh, my God, you need to share this with more people.” So, I started doing it as a keynote, and then it turned into a book.

Neuroscience is still a relatively young field. It’s only recently that they’ve even had the technology, and new technologies coming online all the time, to even see inside of us and see what really is happening. So, neuroscience is relatively fresh on the scene in terms of giving us a new way of looking at any behavior. I happen to look at learning but you can apply it to anything.

And so, honestly, I had written two books since the first one. I’d done the one on change, which is Wired to Resist and I had done the one on teams Wired to Connect. And, like anything else, as I wrote books, I got better at it. So, then I kept looking at this first book, and it just looks so sad compared to the others. It wasn’t as well-researched. The graphics were terrible. I was just like, “You know what, it needs a refresh,” and I was really busy. And I thought, “Instead of writing a whole new book, why don’t I just refresh ‘Wired to Grow’? I can update some studies. I can clean up the graphics. It won’t take that much work.” So, I actually took it on as “doable” project.

Well, in five years, so much had change around what we know about learning that I literally had to rewrite the whole thing. I mean, it’s 90% new material and 10% some of the original concepts from the book. So, the reason I did, you know, the real reason I did a second version was to kind of get that up to speed with the other ones. But what was really exciting was seeing just how much more new information we’ve discovered about how we learn, what memories are, how we drive behavior change, what creativity is, like there’s just so many good things that the book ended up being twice as big as it was originally.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, that’s cool. So, can you share with us, like what is sort of a new discovery that is sort of mind-blowingly cool?

Britt Andreatta
All right. Well, there’s several of them, but let me give you a couple of them. One of the first is just really understanding what creativity is. They can now see when we have those aha moments, and a lot of our best ideas come from aha moments. Even if you’re trying to solve a problem, usually you don’t solve it in that minute that you’re concentrating on it. It’s usually when you step back and take a break, or you’re in the shower. Oddly enough, showers are one of the number one places people have moments of creativity.

That they can now see the aha moment, and they can see the brain waves change on the MRI machine a few milliseconds before the aha moment actually happens. And they can also see that right before the aha moment happens our visual cortex goes offline. Scientists call it brain blink. But, essentially, it’s all happening in that millisecond before we go, “Eureka!”

And what’s interesting now is, as they’re understanding what creativity is, we can now set ourselves up for having moments of creativity. So, some things to do are the resting neocortex, take a break, give your brain that chance to step back from what it’s concentrating on because that allows more regions of the brain to come online and those connections to happen, those synapses to fire.

The second thing you can do is prepare your brain to have connections. So, this is really about getting outside of your comfort zone, reading sources and topics that seem unrelated or that would not be your normal go-to. So, it’s kind of like walking into a library, and instead of going to your favorite section, you go explore a lot of different sections in the library and expose your brain, let it take in more stuff. You’re preparing it to draw connections that you might not normally see.

And then the third thing that you can do, it’s called sensory gating, which is stuff like taking a shower where we have the white noise and we’re warm and we can kind of setup this place for things. Sitting out in nature is another form of sensory gating. Being near water seems to be particularly effective. And so, you just allow these senses to kind of take a break, and it seems to setup that moment to create more aha moments.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, now, you got me wondering about hopping into a sensory deprivation chamber, a.k.a. float tank. Like, is there some science there? You’re gating all kinds of senses there.

Britt Andreatta
I haven’t personally sat in one, and I didn’t remember reading a study specifically about that, but it makes sense to me that that would work, right?

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah. It’s like, “I need my pen and paper though. Can I get that in here?”

Britt Andreatta
Exactly. This is what’s funny, is that before, I’m sure you’re like this too, like when I’m trying to solve a problem, I just want to keep at it, and I used to get annoyed when I would feel tired, or I just need to have a break. I’d feel like I was slacking. But since I read this research, I’m now like, “Great. Take a break. I’m setting myself up for the aha moment.” So, it gets me more committed to the breaks. And, honestly, it’s made work go better now that I’m kind of working with how the brain creates moments of aha.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah. Well, I really appreciate that explanation associated with sensory gating, like that’s what these things have in common, that’s why showers do that because you are in an environment where some things are shut off, they’re closed, and so there you go. I heard a fun story, I guess I think it might’ve been Aaron Sorkin, got great ideas in the shower, so he just built a shower in his office and took like eight showers a day, which I respect.

Britt Andreatta
When I’m teaching this group to crowds of people, I’ll ask, “Where do you get your best ideas?” and shower is one of the number one reasons. In fact, I encourage people to read a book that’s written, it’s called The Blue Mind and it’s all about the research of why water, being in it, on it, under it, around it, seems to lend itself to both us feeling calmer and having more creativity.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, that’s really cool. Well, so I want to talk about some calm for a moment. So, we’re talking about brains and working to process and learn information. It seems like quite an epidemic folks have these days is just information overwhelm, overload, too many emails, too many incoming things, competing priorities, like, “What even do I focus on? I just feel…” maybe like you’re drowning in all this stuff. So, can you tell us, what does that to our brain and what should we do about it?

Britt Andreatta
That’s a great question, and I definitely suffer from this as well. Well, it’s true. Technology has outstripped biology. We now have technology pushing things at us faster, bigger, better than we are biologically designed to consume so we are overwhelmed. And that’s why, I think, we’re seeing stress levels go up, people not taking vacations. Used to be that email was a convenient way to communicate, and now there’s just so much pressure. People want instant communications. There are so many different channels at which we can have information pushed at us, and we are living in the information economy, so everyone is trying to get our attention with, it’s about screen time now, “How long can we keep eyeballs on the screen?”

So, remember there is a capitalistic component of it where people are maximizing that because that’s where their dollars come from. That’s why when you’re on social media, it constantly is loading up more things to click on. You will never get to the bottom of the page or get to the last video because it’s designed to keep taking you down the rabbit hole.

So, with that, and I love technology, it’s beautiful and wonderful, and yet it can really stress us out so we all have to have some agency and some sense of self-control. I think this is why digital detox is really important. Like, giving yourself a day to just not be on any screens, coming home at the end of the day and just setting your devices down and not picking them up for a while, and definitely, so you don’t take your screens to bed. These are all important things to think about.

The other thing, too, is that, remember, we’re a tribal species. We are designed and built to live in tribes of about 150, and that’s what our brain was really built to keep track of, relationships we could manage. And so, now that we’re global, and trust me, I get the beauty of being a globally-connected world. I think it makes us more empathetic to our brothers and sisters of different cultures around the world. It also means, though, that we’re trying to track too many things. And, particularly, because news likes to send us all the negative stories, it can put us into that amygdala, a fight of flight response, of feeling stress all the time.

Because when we look at the news, what we’re hearing about is 10 people drowned in Bangladesh, and so many people this happened to them here, and a plane crash over there, and fires here. Not that we shouldn’t be informed, but if you’re not careful, your brain is literally feeling like you’re under attack all day every day, because your brain, these are all members of your tribe, and you should gear up to fight that foe.

So, I think it’s also a little bit about controlling access to yourself, not letting all these messages come to you. And then also, intentionally finding ways to find good stories and counterbalancing the negative spin that’s designed to sell things.

Pete Mockaitis
Yes, I think that’s well-said, and I feel it in terms of sometimes I’ll hop into an Uber and then they’ll just have sort of some news going, it’s like, “This home was broken into, and this thing burned down.” I kind of go back and forth with this in terms of like, “Just how much do I really need to know this? Like, being informed sounds like a good thing that we want to be, but then, again, how crucial is it?” And sometimes I get a little bit snarky with the newspapers or media, it’s like, “Here’s the news you need to know.” Like, “Do I need to know it today? Really? Is that a need? To what extent do I need it?” And I get all philosophical about the matter.

So, I guess, what I’ve come away with this in terms of, hey, different professionals at different times have different needs for news consumption. So, if you’re running a political campaign, yeah, you’re going to need to know a lot of those things about what’s going there. And if you’re sort of just engineering innovative technological solutions over at XYZ company, you may not need to know what the headlines are all that often.

Britt Andreatta
Exactly. And then it’s just about realizing that your devices and the companies that feed those devices are going to be trying to get your attention. They’re going to use whatever strategy they can to get more of your time. So, at some point, you just have to say, “No, I’m turning it off. I’m having a no-technology window of my day.” And then just pay attention to your body. Our body is really an amazing thing and it will give you information. If you’re getting a knot in your stomach, turn it off. If you’re starting to feel anxious, give yourself a break. Your body is giving you information about how it’s receiving it.

This is why mindfulness is so great. It makes us pay attention to our bodies. And it’s also why fabric arts and knitting and running and all these stuffs is great too because it gets us out of that zone. It gets us more into the here and now where probably we’re okay.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, so you mentioned mindfulness, and I’m thinking about I was amused in our last interview, I asked you about a favorite book, and you told me, I’m thinking you said, “I haven’t read this book yet but it’s going to be my favorite. It’s Altered Traits,” because this is a topic you love and authors you love, so you know it’s going to be great sight unseen, which I thought was pretty awesome in terms of that’s how closely you’re following this stuff.

So, while we’re talking about mindfulness, maybe you can convince me and many listeners here, what were some of the striking research results coming from that book or elsewhere that you’ve seen to make say, “Pete, I am 100% certain you will see an amazing return on your time and energy invested in mindfulness practice”? Can you lay it on me?

Britt Andreatta
Okay. No tall task, Pete.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah.

Britt Andreatta
Well, two things, boredom is a good emotion. Somehow, we’ve been convinced that being bored is bad. And yet, boredom is oftentimes where creativity comes from. Boredom is oftentimes when our brain makes those connections. Boredom is often calming for our system. So, let me just challenge the myth that boredom is a bad emotion. I think we want to cultivate a little bit of boredom in our lives. It’s not a bad thing.

Two, mindfulness looks a lot at different ways. So, for people like you and me, I can tell by just looking at the bookshelf that’s behind you right now that you and I both can, like, live in the world of the mind, and read stuff, and be into the study, and analyzing stat, like we live in the life of the mind. So, classical meditation is actually hard for me because my mind can really just chew on it. Physical mindfulness practices, like yoga, walking meditations, even doing the dishes can be mindful. This is why the fabric arts thing is really working for me because it gets me into my body and out of my head.

For some people, getting into their head and doing the traditional meditation of just kind of watching your thoughts and letting them go, that’s really valuable. So, each of us needs a different type of mindfulness practice. There’s a lot of different ones out there so play with them. Please don’t just give one class a try and say, “That’s not for me.” Try different formats and try a couple of different teachers because you’re going to find the one that makes you go, “Oh, yeah, that feels good. That made me better having done that.”

In terms of mindfulness, why you want to explore it, the research is pretty damn convincing and pretty darn consistent. It really does amazing stuff to us. So, there’s some immediate benefits that you get in terms of lowering your blood pressure, but that’s only if you’re in a mindfulness practice you enjoy. If you’re in one that’s rubbing you the wrong way, your blood pressure is probably going to go up. But, generally, when we find the right one, blood pressure goes down, our body gets into a more relaxed state.

The more we practice mindfulness, the more we can stay at a calm state, and even if we have an upsetting event, we don’t escalate as high as we would have before having that mindfulness practice. So, our highs are not so high. And we come back to stasis faster, being able to achieve that calm state longer.

In addition, it’s doing all kinds of things physically. Like, people who have regular mindfulness practices have lower risks of heart disease, have lower risks of age-related decline, there are just some good stuff that happens. And here’s the kicker, they’re actually showing that you live longer with a mindfulness practice, that the chronological age of your body shifts.

And so, one of my favorite researchers on this, Richard Davidson, one of the co-authors of Altered Traits which did turn out to be my favorite book, I was right. It’s amazing. Anyway, he has put Tibetan monks on MRI machines, like, he’s taken the people who have thousands of hours of meditation under their belt, and then he’s compared them to people who have never meditated. And what was astounding was some of these monks who probably are like world-class champions at meditation, they are many decades physically younger than their actual chronological body.

Pete Mockaitis
Many decades, like three, or four, or five?

Britt Andreatta
Yes, like it helps you live longer. And I don’t know if you’ve heard of this, but our DNA strands have these little things on the end, they’re kind of like the tips of the shoelace.

Pete Mockaitis
Telomeres?

Britt Andreatta
The telomeres, I can’t pronounce it correctly but there’s these telomeres things at the end. And as we live, those get shorter and shorter. And they say that, basically, that they predict how long we live. And when you kind of run out of the ends of those things, you’re ready to die. Well, people who have regular mindfulness practice, those telomeres tips, they slow down, they don’t shorten as fast for those people who don’t have mindfulness practices.

So, literally, the body, the brain was built for a mindfulness practice of some kind which is why you’ll find a form of it in every religion and every culture, it’s just that we’ve all kind of forgotten that, and so we’re kind of having to come back to something our body was built for. And I would just say, Pete, give it a try. Find the right channel. Find the right teacher, but don’t give up till you get one that makes you feel good.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, sure thing. And I’ve gotten into some good grooves from time to time with, well, so, Simple Habit is a sponsor, and I think they’re great and I really enjoyed working through those. And I think it’s almost like any other positive habit like exercise or you name it, in terms of like, “Oh, I get on the wagon, I fall of the wagon,” so there’s that. Okay, cool. Well, go ahead.

Britt Andreatta
Well, I wanted to answer, I wanted to say one more thing when you asked me the question of, “What were like some big key findings?” So, I got into creativity, and there’s one more I wanted to highlight which I think is relevant here, which is our bodies can repair themselves in ways that are just astounding researchers.

And a couple of the things that have really developed just in the last decade is you can take people who are paralyzed and have been paralyzed for years, and using the right kind of neural stimulation, you can regrow the nerves that have been damaged. And so, they’re actually seeing people that have been paralyzed walk again. I have seen videos; the research is outstanding.

And so, there’s some things that we’re learning about our bodies and the ability of our bodies to regrow nerves, and it’s more that we just haven’t had the right knowledge to work with how the body can do it but now researchers are starting to get that ability. So, some of the things that I was seeing in the research was just neuroplasticity and neurogenesis, the ability for our nerves to be flexible and also to grow new ones is truly astounding. And so, yeah, if a paralyzed person can stand up and walk again, I can probably learn a new habit.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, yeah.

Britt Andreatta
There’s no excuse for any of us to say, “I can’t do it.” It’s really about, “Do you have the right teacher? Do you have the right motivation? And are you willing to put in the time?” But if you get enough habits under your belt, if you get enough repetitions under your belt, you really can rewire most parts of your body in significant ways.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, that’s exciting. So, whew, boy, we’ve covered a lot of fun territory. Let’s see. Talk about learning again, so let’s hear, we’ve hit a few strategies associated with connecting things to an existing schema if you want to have some creative ideas, having some gating. I’d love to get your take on what are some of the most powerful learning strategies you’ve discovered that just make a world of difference in terms of what you absorb and remember and are able to, in fact, apply in life.

Britt Andreatta
Great question. So, one of the things that came out in my researching the second edition was our understanding of memory has actually changed a lot in the last five, six years. And scientists have actually identified that there’s nine different types of memory, okay? So, there are some memory we know of, like when we are trying to learn something academic and we’re studying facts and figures. That’s one kind of memory. It’s called semantic memory.

There’s a different kind of memory which is embodied memory. It’s called episodic. So, if I was studying about France and studying facts about Paris, that would be semantic. If I went to Paris and was standing at the bottom of the Eiffel Tower, about to enter the Louvre, I would now have all these sensory pieces of data that would be part of that memory.

No surprise here. Episodic memory is the most enduring. It’s the one that is the stickiest because it’s tied in our memory banks to a whole bunch of experiences and sensations not just, “Did we memorize it?” right? And then there’s some memory that’s kind of unconscious to us, stuff like the Pavlov dogs thing, right? We can create cues and get somatic responses. Habits, you know, when we do something over and over again, our basal ganglia turns it into a habit. That just becomes something that we can cling to and we don’t really have to think about it.

So, part of when you’re thinking about learning is to think about, “What kind of memory am I working with here?” and then build the learning to align with the right kind of memory as opposed to sticking the same approach. So, with that said, this is really pointing to why virtual reality is a gamechanger, particularly for certain kinds of things to learn, that when we can take something and literally put on a headset and be in the physical space, our brain takes a VR experience and codes it as a lived memory.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s awesome.

Britt Andreatta
And it responds to being in that setting as if we’re really there. So, it’s tricking the biology enough that your brain really feels like it’s in that setting, and so then it’s coding it as a lived memory. So, VR has the potential. You wouldn’t use this for everything but certain things, like when you have people who need to learn a dangerous task, having them build up experiences in a safe environment is really important. Or when people need to learn a physical space and it’s not easy or safe to get them into that physical space, they can build the memories of the space in a virtual environment.

And, certainly, things that are about people, like having empathy or having emotional intelligence. When we are in a headset dealing with another person, that is also lived memory, so we can gain some of those skillsets. So, I would say virtual reality, because of how it’s aligning with our biology, is really worth looking at and, realize, it’s evolving quickly.

So, if you tried a headset a year ago, it was a little wonky back then. It’s already better and it’s going to get better every six months, so just keep trying it. But I think a VR strategy should be part of every organization’s learning plan for the future.

Pete Mockaitis
So, VR, interesting, you know, new tool available. And then let’s say if we don’t have that and we have kind of the basics in terms of audio-visual stuff, PowerPoint, keynote, projector, laptop, videos, audio, flipcharts, whiteboards, talking in person, these things.

Britt Andreatta
You’re going to run through the whole list, Pete?

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, a few more. So, if you’ve got the traditional tools, and based on how people learn, how might we choose to, say, deliver or structure a presentation or a training differently such that more is absorbed?

Britt Andreatta
Great question. One of the things that I like to say is our body is built for learning. Like, we’ve been learning for hundreds of years before we ever had any of these technologies. So, what’s cool is we’re designed to learn from each other. Mirror neurons are specifically designed for observational learning. So, we’ve been learning each other since we were chasing down the woolly mammoth on the plain, watching each other do it. The original PowerPoint was the cave drawing, where we, “Okay, we all gather over here and we’re going to go do this,” and sitting around the fire and telling stories.

So, learning is innately in our DNA. We learn from each other, we learn through story, narrative. I always say, whatever you’re teaching, build it into a story because the brain is built for story. Whenever you can, show and tell. And then, more importantly, let people do it. This is where people fall down a lot. I’m not kidding, I’ve gone into Silicon Valley and sat through a two full day manager training where they’re spending thousands of dollars to take people “off the job” for manager training. and great visuals, great content, and yet there was no practice. Not one minute of practice.

[39:25]

Pete Mockaitis
Anything.

Britt Andreatta
Yeah, I mean, practice is how we change our behaviors, it’s how we change our habits, so you got to make sure that whatever behavior you’re trying to drive, whatever that looks like, what kinds of words and actions do you want to see out there, have them do it in the room and make it safe to make some mistakes, and do the coaching and the improving in the room. Because once people get strong in the room, they’re much more likely to go do that back out in the fields or on the floor, or wherever they have to go do their jobs. So, make sure that your learning elements have those pieces to it.

Then in terms of what kind of technology you’re doing learning through, it just depends on what you can afford and where your audience is. If they’re working globally, you’re going to need to be leveraging video conferencing and some digital assets. If you’ve got people in the room, then you could be dealing with a whiteboard and some conversation. So, I hesitate to tell people, “Go out and invest in a bunch of stuff,” because good learning can happen anywhere. You can make great learning out of any tools that you have.

And then, because of observational learning, I would say, if you have the ability to use video, it’s great because you can show people stuff and make that scalable because you videotape it once and then a bunch of people can see that. And so, scalability comes down to if you invest in something, then that may be usable by a lot of different learners over time. But all those bells and whistles don’t get you away from building good learning with aha moments and driving behavior change.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Well, thank you. Tell me, Britt, anything else you want to make sure to mention before we shift gears and hear about some of your favorite things?

Britt Andreatta
I would say people learn best when learning is chunked in 15- to 20-minute segments. What we have found is that human attention span really can’t focus for longer than 20 minutes. So, even if I’m running a half-day program, it’s all done in 15-minute content pieces broken up by processing of activities and practice sessions. So, string a bunch of bite-sized stuff together to make a longer learning event, but don’t talk to people for more than 20 minutes because they just can’t retain it, and then they’re not going to have the thing that you want to push into their memory.

Pete Mockaitis
And when you say processing activities, I guess I’m thinking of all kinds of interactive exercises that can take a while, but I imagine you’ve got a couple processing activities in mind that might just take a minute or two. What are some of those?

Britt Andreatta
Yeah, absolutely. Literally, it can be as short as take one minute and jot down some notes about how this applies in your own life or memory you’ve had with this, right? So, you’re just asking them to attach it to something. You can give them some kind of reflective questions to answer or a conversation to have with a partner. They could take a quick assessment. I kind of always do like five-minute activities, one- to five-minute activities. They don’t have to be long. But it basically just says, “This thing that you just learned, play with it for a minute.” And when you play with it for a minute, you’re naturally pushing it and attaching it to your schemas, you’re naturally personalizing it a little bit. And then the brain can be ready to learn more.

But if we keep giving people more content, not only does their attention span wane, but then they have more and more and more to try to attach to something, and then they’re going to miss some pieces. So, chunk it. Chunk it into bite-sized experiences. It doesn’t have to be big and showy. Literally, a couple good reflective questions or a dyad conversation and you’re good to go.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay, thank you. Well, now, could you share with us a favorite quote, something you find inspiring?

Britt Andreatta
I love this quote from Robyn Benincasa, she’s a world champion, and she says, “You don’t inspire your teammates by showing them how amazing you are. You inspire them by showing them how amazing they are.”

Pete Mockaitis
Yes, I like that. And how about a favorite study or experiment or bit of research?

Britt Andreatta
You know, I’m still into what’s happening with mindfulness. I think that continues to be a great place for us to explore. But I’m really interested right now in kind of sense of purpose and innovation. So, I’ve been doing a lot of research on what drives innovation and also the brain science behind having a sense of purpose or a meaningful life, so those are some things that I’ve been really digging on right now.

Pete Mockaitis
And we mentioned Altered Traits. Any other favorite books?

Britt Andreatta

I’m really enjoying Bill Bryson’s current book called The Body. It’s just really interesting research about our whole internal working, but he’s also a comedian so he makes it really funny, so I’m enjoying the science behind that.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, cool. And how about a favorite tool, something you use to be awesome at your job?

Britt Andreatta
You know, PowerPoint is my go-to thing for everything but I also have been doing a lot of video editing with Camtasia, and so those are two tools I use frequently to do the work that I do.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. And is there a particular nugget you share that really seems to connect and resonate; folks quote it back to you often?

Britt Andreatta
I recently heard from some folks who went through the change training and they just said that they found that they were able to apply it to everything, not only work changes but personal changes. Even just kind of our response to things that are difficult in our life, that that’s a type of change journey as well, and how we resist. So, I oftentimes get people who email me and say, “Hey, thanks for sharing that. I now really see all the ways that I’m resisting or people around me are resisting, and have some new ways to try to help people move through it.”

Pete Mockaitis
All right. And if folks want to learn more or get in touch, where would you point them?

Britt Andreatta
My website is the best place to go BrittAndreatta.com. Everything I’m up to is there. And then I love it when people connect with me on LinkedIn. I really do enjoy my community of folks on LinkedIn, so please connect with me. I’d love to hear from you.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. And do you have a final challenge or call to action for folks seeking to be awesome at their jobs?

Britt Andreatta
I would say give yourself permission to have a break. We need more breaks than we need more to-do lists. So, put down the device, go find your knitting or fabric art or running, or whatever gives your brain a break, and just let all this stew around for a while so that you can have some aha moments tomorrow.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, Britt, thank you. This has been a treat. I wish you lots of luck and fun and all the ways that you’re growing and learning and connecting and doing your thing.

Britt Andreatta
Thank you so much, Pete. I love connecting with you. I love your podcast. I love your audience of learners. We’re all part of the same tribe. And I’m excited to stay in touch.

494: How to Train Your Brain for Maximum Growth with Dr. Tara Swart

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Dr. Tara Swart says: "Visualization...primes your brain to grasp opportunities that might otherwise pass you by."

Dr. Tara Swart explains the science behind neuroplasticity and how to train your brain to brave any challenge.

You’ll Learn:

  1. How to use neuroscience to break out of your comfort zone
  2. The six approaches to problem solving
  3. Simple tricks to turn around terrible work days

About Tara:

Dr. Tara Swart is a neuroscientist, medical doctor, leadership coach, and award-winning and bestselling author. She works with leaders all over the world to help them achieve mental resilience and peak brain performance, improve their ability to manage stress, regulate emotions, and retain information. She is a senior lecturer at MIT Sloan School of Management where she runs the Neuroscience for Leadership and Applied Neuroscience programs, and is an executive advisor to some of the world’s most respected leaders in media and business.

Resources mentioned in the show:

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Dr. Tara Swart Interview Transcript

Pete Mockaitis
Tara, thanks for joining us here on the How to be Awesome at Your Job podcast.

Tara Swart
Pete, thank you so much for having me. I’m super excited about this.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, I’m excited too because neuroscience stuff is always super fascinating and you are at the forefront of some cool research and teaching at MIT and elsewhere. So, why don’t we kick it off, if you could share with us maybe one of the most fascinating or recent discoveries that’s come out of neuroscience?

Tara Swart
Sure. Well, the one that I focus most of my research on, because I think it’s the most fascinating, is about neuroplasticity. So, we used to think that by the age of 18, our brain had grown and changed and that our personality was pretty much set by that age. We know now that there’s massive growth from zero to two, that there’s a lot of pruning of neural connections in the teenage years, but that the brain actively molds and shapes itself to everything that we experience, every smell, every person that we meet, every emotion that we experience until we’re about 25.

And that from 25 to 65, we have to actively do things, learn new things, expose ourselves to different experiences to keep the brain as flexible, or what we call plastic, as possible. And if you start making some changes in your late 30s to early 40s, you can even contribute towards reducing the decline in some cognitive functions that starts to happen around the age of 70. So, when I first started understanding this really well, it just opened up a whole new world of what you’re capable of doing, and it turns around that whole idea of self-limiting beliefs.

Pete Mockaitis
And so, I’m curious then, so if you’re over 65, what happens then?

Tara Swart
Well, I think that a lot of people worry about their memory changing and they think it’s like the first signs of dementia or something, and people get very stressed about that. And they focus on it. What actually happens from 65 onwards is that, sure, some of the pathways that relate to, for example, sequential memory, so the order of the things happening, they do change. But, actually, we have a more super sophisticated pathway to our wisdom and intuition. And my view is that we focus on our changing strengths and we access that wisdom and we outsource our sequential memory to our devices.

Pete Mockaitis
Yes, I already do that.

Tara Swart
Yeah, me, too.

Pete Mockaitis
So, neuroplasticity, I’ve heard the term before and people are really excited about it. And so, practically speaking, what does that mean for us? So, our brains are continuing to change shape and we can have some impact in how they’re changed. But so, practically, in terms of, I don’t know, skill-acquisition, or learning capabilities, what does that mean for us?

Tara Swart
There’s two main things, and I want to focus on the skill acquisition, actually. But I do want to say before that, that if we don’t think about neuroplasticity then our brain is being changed by things that we’re not conscious of and, personally, that’s not something that I would really like to happen. So, I’m very conscious of what I watch on the TV, what I read in the news, who I hang around with because I’m just so aware that all of those things will be having an effect on my brain.

That aside, in terms of proactively bringing change and flexibility into your brain, it’s really about continually learning, well, learning and/or exposing yourself to new things. And the reason for that is that change will happen around us, and some people can find that really stressful, and some people seem to ride that change more easily. The more that we’ve done to introduce change and, therefore, inoculate ourselves against the stress of change, the more easily we’ll be able to deal with those things that can come from left field both at work and in life.

Equally, things like learning a new skill, and my favorite analogy for this is learning a new language. It’s a physiological process in the brain like building a road from a dirt road into a highway, a tarmac highway that you can speed down. That’s basically starting to learn a language where you have a few words when you go on vacation, all the way up to becoming fluent in Spanish, if that’s the language that you choose.

And what I really love about it is that the language thing is easy to understand. Yes, if I use an app or I get lessons, I can learn a language. It applies to things like emotional intelligence or mental resilience, things that seem much more intangible but when neuroscience tells us it’s exactly the same process in the brain, it feels much more doable for people.

Pete Mockaitis
And I want to hear some more about what you said, you said if we are introducing changes, then we become more resilient to unexpected stressors and things that happen to us. What’s the story here?

Tara Swart
Basically, anything new or anything different is seen as a threat by the brain, so the more that we are proactively introducing our brain to new and different things, the less stressful it will be when something happens at work or in life that comes from left field that we didn’t expect. So, we’re essentially increasing our comfort zone with new and different things.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, that’s great and handy. Now, I’m wondering, can we overdo it in terms of we become sort of like addicted to the novelty and, “I need to be entertained and have new inputs all the time or I’m sort of like unsettled and anxious”?

Tara Swart
That’s a really good point, and I think sometimes what is an issue here is a set of words that we use in neuroscience and how they translate to real words. So, for example, when I say, “You want to make your brain more plastic,” people can take offence at that because we don’t want plastic in the ocean, do we? We definitely don’t want it in our brains. That just means flexible in neuroscience.

And similarly, novelty is not that unhealthy novelty that you’re talking about that we can get addicted to just constant stimulation. It’s just about the way the brain views something new or different. So, we prefer to be in our comfort zone, we prefer to default to our strengths, and it’s really about just pushing ourselves out of our comfort zone, and increasing the toolkit that we have in our brain for different ways of thinking and different things that we’re able to do. So, that’s what I mean by novelty in this sense.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Got you. Thank you. And so then, I’m curious, are there some cool studies that suggest just what is the impact of habitually doing that versus not? Sort of what’s at stake or the consequences here?

Tara Swart
I think what’s at stake is really just staying the same, and then something happening that you didn’t expect, and us finding that really, really difficult to cope with, and us having to draw up deep on resources that we didn’t know we had. What we’re doing if we take on new learning throughout our lives, like a language or a musical instrument, or just listening in a different way to how we’ve been listening before, is that the brain is more like moldable material so that when something suddenly changes around us that we didn’t expect, we actually know what that feels like and we’re able to go with that more easily.

And, actually, it starts from birth. If you’ve got young kids, bringing them up bilingual or multilingual is one of the best things that you can do for what we call their executive functions later in life. So, executive functions are things like being able to regulate your emotions especially in stressful situations, being able to think flexibly or creatively, and being able to solve complex problems.

There are studies that show that children who are brought up bilingual are better at that later in life. So, we’re not going to get the same benefits as starting bilingual from birth if we haven’t got that already, but we’re trying to emulate that in our adult brain.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, some things are connecting here. We talk about executive functioning and our ability to have a plastic or flexible brain for stuff that shows up. We had a chat previously with the CEO of Korn Ferry, Gary Burnison, who talked about how learning agility was like the top thing in terms of a competency that predicts executive success, and there’s a few ways you could find learning agility. But it sounds like it’s very much in this ballpark of, “How do you figure out what to do when you have no idea what to do?” It’s sort of like there’s no script or playbook, you’re in a new situation and you just kind of got to figure it out.

And so, if you have, in a way, gotten some comfort with being uncomfortable and not having a clue, but having kind of gotten it figured out time and time again, you’re better equipped to handle it again when the next thing happens.

Tara Swart
What I love about your podcast series is listening to these perspectives from people from all different industries and backgrounds. So, if you’d asked me the same question, I would’ve said the ability to adapt, to be adaptable, and have mental resilience, which is either to cope with change or bounce back from adversity. And, to be honest, I think he’s just using a different word for exactly the same thing.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah. Well, so that’s exciting and I know I’ve had that experience. I’m thinking about sort of my early consulting career, like I had no idea, “Hey, Pete, figure this out.” Like, I don’t know. I just don’t even know where to start, and then I’d say, “Well, I guess it might make sense if we check out this and this and this.” And before I knew it, I had a decent plan. And then you do that dozens of times and it’s okay. It’s like, “Yeah, I have no idea what we’re going to do next, but history and my experience has taught me that that’s fine. That, through time, we will get to the bottom of things and all is well.”

Tara Swart
Pete, that already tells me a lot about your brain because if you think about somebody who relies solely or strongly on logical thinking, they could really struggle in that scenario. Ask somebody who relies solely or strongly on creative thinking or motivational thinking, what you’ve done is actually it comes back to the learning agility piece, which I call brain agility, is you have probably seamlessly worked through several different ways of thinking because you know that one of them will give you a solution even to something that you don’t know.

So, logic relies on things that we know and that we’ve learnt formally. Intuition relies on wisdom and experience that we’ve picked up in life. But there’s also empathy, there’s the brain-body connection, there’s staying resilient and motivated, and there’s creative thinking. So, if you’re able to work through those, at least, six different ways of solving a problem, you’re so much more likely to come up with a solution than if you’re just relying on one or two main ways of thinking.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, I really like how you’ve laid out a bit of a framework there. Can you give us those quick six bullet points there in terms of we might approach a problem six different ways? Can we hear them again?

Tara Swart
Yeah. And I actually like to put them in a certain order because I believe that logical-technical thinking is so overrated in modern societies. So, obviously it’s there and it’s important, but I like to start at the top, mastering our emotions because, to be honest, if you get too emotional or you don’t understand the impact of emotion in a crisis situation, that can really unravel you.

So, I would say that the six are mastering your emotions, trusting your gut or your intuition, listening to your body, making good decisions which is the logic, staying motivated and resilient to reach your goals, and using your creativity to design the real-world outcomes that you wish to have.

Pete Mockaitis
So, when it comes to tackling or solving a problem, it might fall into any of these or all of these is kind of sounds what you’re suggesting, is that some are more… line up readily with one of them, and others you really want to take maybe a multifaceted approach to get to the bottom of them. Can you tell us a bit about the distinction between trusting your gut and intuition versus listening to your body?

Tara Swart
Yeah, sure. So, listening to your body is actually a sense that we have that not many people have heard of which is called interoception. So, just like the five senses that we all know about, and even that sixth sense, intuition, which we’ll come to, interoception is the acknowledgement of the physiological state of the inside of your body.

It’s how, for example, our kids learn to tell us when they’re hungry or when they need to go to the bathroom. So, you recognize a feeling that you need to go to the bathroom. This is about recognizing slightly more intangible feelings like butterflies in your stomach, or the little hairs on your arms standing on end, or nervous laughter, or blushing, or sweating. So, it’s just being much more aware of our bodies than we can be when we’re super busy and focused on an important deadline.

Intuition, separately, is accessing wisdom and life lessons that we’ve picked up. So, more of a combination of physical and emotional feeling, what we know about how we lay down information in the brain and the nervous system is that we keep at the top of our mind or in the article or text the things that we need to do to live our life and do our job every day. And that’s commonly known as the working memory. Deeper down in the more limbic part of the brain, which is the emotional and intuitive system, are our longer-held habits and behavior patterns.

Deeper still, we believe, in the brain stem, the spinal cord, and in the gut neurons, we hold the wisdom and experience that we’ve picked up in life, because we can’t remember every single thing that we’ve experienced in life, but obviously we learn from these experiences. And that’s how we see patterns where, perhaps when we were younger and less experienced, we wouldn’t have noticed them before. So, it’s more about recalling patterns from the past that you’ve built up through life experience. Whereas the listening to your body is very visceral.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay, good. Thank you. And so then, I’m curious, with what we’re picking up from our bodies, what are some, I guess, if this then that, like almost recipes with regard to, “If you’re noticing that something is twitching or your hairs are standing up, you might intuit or take from that sort of this signal”?

Tara Swart
There are some really specific ones and I think there are some that are very much down to the individual. But one that I actually talk about a lot with my coaching clients is about how to recognize magnesium deficiency in the body. So, statistics show that 75% of people in the modern world are depleted in magnesium supplies in their body.

Pete Mockaitis
No kidding.

Tara Swart
No.

Pete Mockaitis
And that is harming our sleep, I’ve learned elsewhere.

Tara Swart
It’s harming our immune system and it’s increasing our stress levels. It has wide-ranging effects. When we’re stressed, we leach magnesium from our system. So, a little bit like if you’re training for a marathon, you would eat more protein. When we’re stressed, we need to supplement our magnesium levels.

Now, how do you know if you’ve got high levels of this stress hormone or low levels of magnesium, they tend to go together? A really, really obvious way of knowing is if you ever get that little twitchy eyelid or tiny little, yeah. Whenever I say that, everyone says, “Yes, I know what that feels like, and I get it sometimes.”

Sometimes it can be cramping in your feet or just twitches in your fingers or toes but that’s quite a solid sign of magnesium deficiency, and many people wouldn’t know that. But if you do know, you can go and take your magnesium supplement and, hopefully, reduce your stress levels and stop the negative consequences of that on your immune system and your resilience.

An extreme one, to be honest, Pete, is that I’ve done a lot of coaching in financial services since 2007, and I’ve worked with way too many people that said, “Yes, I was getting chest pains for months but I never thought I would have a heart attack.” And I’ve worked with men and women in their 40s to 60s that have had mild heart attacks or tragically people who’ve seen their colleagues drop dead on trading floors.

So, that’s the extreme version of not listening to your body, but there are so many smaller things that we can listen to, whether it’s that we’re not sleeping right, or we’ve got these twitching muscles, all the way down to just, “Do you feel drained when you spend time with a certain person? Do you feel energized when you work on a certain project?” and really using that to choose what you do and who you do it with.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, cool. Thank you. And so then, I want to get your take then. So, this sounds great with regard to we’ve got a number of approaches we can take to solve a problem, our brains have neuroplasticity, that capability. So, if we want to do some smart rewiring of our brain and thinking, how should we go about doing it? We talked about like a language, or a musical instrument, or some other novelty that we can pursue. But I’m wondering, what are some of the obstacles or things, best and worst practices, I guess, when it comes to making sure we’re molding this plastic brain?

Tara Swart
So, I think it’s really important to say that something like learning a language or a musical instrument is very attention-intense. So, it’s inevitably going to distract resources from the day job or your work-life balance. So, I only really recommend something that major when you absolutely have the time and space to bring those things into your life. There are lots of small things we can do even when we’re stressed or busy that really help towards cultivating this more flexible brain and mindset.

So, for example, journaling is a very simple practice, something that hopefully most people could fit in a few minutes most days of the week. And what that does is really raise from non-conscious to conscious any behavior patterns that might be barriers to your success. I have to say that when I’ve done a regular journaling practice, which I have spent six months or a year at different times doing it religiously, I don’t necessarily always do that now, and I’ve read back over three to six months-worth of what I’ve written, it’s quite shocking to see your own handwriting and your own thought processes repeating over and over again where you totally expect a different outcome from doing the same thing.

And we’ve all heard about this, but when you actually see it in your own handwriting, you are compelled to try to do something different in the future. And, therefore, it’s actually a really good way of accessing your intuition and seeing where it works when you go with your gut and maybe where that was not the right thing to do.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, can you give us some examples of, in your own journals or those of others you’re aware of, how they said, “Holy smokes, this is there and I didn’t even notice it before. I’m going to do something different now”?

Tara Swart
Yeah. So, I’ll give you a small example of my own from something we’ve already talked about which was that twice a year I go to MIT Sloan to teach and I often take my journal with me because I have more time there, I’m not with the family and everything. And I was journaling, and then I thought, “Oh, I wonder what I wrote when I was here six months ago?”

So, I looked back specifically to the time that I was in Boston, and I had recorded that I was having that twitching eyelid, and I was actually having it again at the time. And so, I worked out that travel, jetlag, just being in the plane, just being in a different environment, was causing me some stress. And so, I just became much better at making sure I took all my supplements before I traveled, carrying my supplements with me, and just increasing the dosage of magnesium whenever I was traveling. That’s a tiny thing.

I would say at the other end of the spectrum, the biggest thing I’ve heard clients and friends talk about is when you’ve been in a bad relationship for so long that you still don’t leave. And when you just think about it in your mind, it’s easy to disregard that you have the same nagging doubt over and over again. If you actually recorded in writing, it becomes just so much clear. It’s really raised in your consciousness. And I know that it’s helped so many people to not make that same mistake over and over again.

Pete Mockaitis
You know, I think the same thing can go when I need to fire somebody, which fortunately is rare. But it’s sort of like all those little things, like, “Huh, this is weird.” It’s like, well, you know, you can sort of make a quick excuse or rationalization or justification in the moment for a one little thing, and you sort of forget that you did that before, and then before that, and then before that. Whereas if you had a log, it’s like, “Wow, we have 50 incidents of this and many of them following the same patterns and many of them we’ve discussed numerous times. I guess this isn’t going to go anywhere.”

Tara Swart
Absolutely. When I talk about a bad relationship, I mean, either personally or at work, also bad relationships with yourself, so, for example, alcohol is an obvious one. But if you want to get more psychological, then the inability to say no is one that hugely gets clarified by journaling.

Pete Mockaitis
And so, when you say journaling in your own hand, this has come up a couple of times, are you a big advocate for using handwriting as oppose to digital means? And why?

Tara Swart
I am and I’m not. I mean, I would rather that people were journaling digitally than not journaling at all, if you see what I mean. I think I’m probably just of the age group where there’s something to the handwritten or we might talk later about vision boards where I say it’s a collage made by hand, but obviously you can now do it digitally. So, again, it’s better to do it than not do it.

I’m a huge fan of technology but I do think, for example, that if you create a vision board and you keep it on your device, you would just less likely to look at it than if you actually have a physical vision board in your bedroom or in your office.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, let’s talk a little bit about visualization in particular. So, I want to get your take on what’s that doing to our brain and the effects we might be able to harness from it.

Tara Swart
So, you know how we talked about anything new being sort of threating to the brain. What visualization does is it makes you go through a scenario or imagine a certain event or an outcome, and because when you visualize it, when something similar happens in real life it’s not as threatening because you’ve already seen it in your brain.

Now, there’s various bits of research on visualization in the brain, there’s so many that I’m actually just wondering I’d love to get through them all. But, for example, if somebody is in a coma and you ask them to imagine playing tennis, it actually activates the parts of the brain which are active when somebody is physically playing tennis. So, the whole movement parts, the hand-eye coordination, the social elements, it actually activates, just visualizing it, even if you’re in a coma, activates similar parts of the brain.

We also know that just the act of knowing that something is possible, which is half won by visualizing it in your brain, makes it more likely that you can physically achieve it. So, visualization really comes originally from sports science. And the classic example there is of a human running the sub four-minute mile. So, at one point we did not believe that that was not physically possible. When Roger Bannister first ran a mile in less than four minutes, within two months, seven other athletes ran a mile in less than four minutes. So, that’s not quite visualization for yourself, but it’s knowing that something is possible. makes you able to achieve it. And that’s kind of what visualization relies on.

My favorite story about visualization is a study that was done on people in their 80s. So, three groups of octogenarians, one group was just asked to carry on living like normal for a week, they were the control group, one group were asked to reminisce about what it was like to be in your 60s, and one group were actually moved to homes that resembled their home 20 years ago. They had photos in the home of themselves 20 years ago, and they had their visual aids and walking aids removed if they weren’t something that they used 20 years ago.

Both the reminiscing group and the active group showed improvements in their visual acuity and muscular-skeletal coordination after one week. And the reminiscing group results weren’t as dramatic as the people that actually lived it, but they were quite significant in themselves. So, there’s just so many examples of what people don’t traditionally think of as visualization.

But just tying it back to where we started, I actually call a vision board an action board because it’s not that you can make imagery of what you want in life and just wait for it to come true, you have to actively do things to make that more likely. But one of those things is to look at this board and visualize it actually becoming true.

Pete Mockaitis
And so, if we are going to do some visualizations for a goal, let’s just say someone wants to be promoted to a leadership position in their company. So, if that’s the goal and we want to do some visualization, how might we go about doing that optimally?

Tara Swart
So, there are actually some exercises in the book that focus on becoming our best selves as it were. If you specifically wanted to focus on getting a promotion, then, although I call it visualization, I would say that bringing in all the other senses is important. So, it’s literally like doing meditation. You would spend a certain number of minutes as frequently as you can during the week, you could even start with one minute and build it up to five or 10, or 15 minutes, and you would imagine yourself in that corner office, wearing that suit or whatever represents you reaching that leadership position, and you would visualize who’s around you, what does it look like to be in that position, what does it feel like in your body and in your mind, what does it smell like, even what does it taste like, like the taste of success.

And you would basically envision it until you can almost feel it through your five senses and in your body, and you would build up that practice, as I’ve said, to longer and longer periods of time so that, for example, when you go for a job interview, it doesn’t feel so alien. One of the things that I encourage, from neuroscience research, is apply for jobs that you don’t even think that you could get, even if you get a bit more interview experience so you get more advice on your resume. It’s all building up to it becoming more likely in the future. Essentially, what visualization does is it primes your brain to grasp opportunities that might otherwise pass you by.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, that’s nicely said. And when you say longer and longer periods of time, how long are we talking?

Tara Swart
Actually, the latest research on meditation shows that transcendental meditation for 20 minutes twice a day is really ideal. So, that’s not actually that long. I mean, I’m still building up to that myself. I’m not going to sit here and say that I am meditating for 20 minutes twice a day because I’m not. Although I would say more and more of my clients are actually doing that now.

So, I think if you start with 10 minutes, you try to do it most days of the week, you get yourself to daily, you either do 10 minutes twice a day or you increase it to 20 minutes once a day, it’s literally building that pathway in your brain from the dirt road to the highway. It’s just smoothing the path, deliberately practice something, repeating it until it becomes more natural in your brain.

And then, with both meditation and visualization, you can just switch it on when you need it. That’s the lovely thing about things like journaling and visualization, that if you get the foundations right, it actually becomes like a superpower that you can use when you need it.

Pete Mockaitis
And when you say transcendental meditation, is that something other than what I’m thinking of when I think of meditation, focusing on breath and such?

Tara Swart
Transcendental meditation specifically means use of a mantra. It’s a religious practice that you can be ordained into, but in terms of remaining secular and focusing on leadership and business, I ask people to think about a recurring insecurity or anxiety that they have, like, “I’ll never get that promotion,” and to create their own positive affirmation that overturns that insecurity. And then you can use that in your meditation.

So, even if you just use it when you have that negative thought in your head or you sit down and repeat it for 10 to 20 minutes, either way it works. I think creating that personal mantra, you can go and receive a mantra from somebody else but I think a really good way for leaders to use is think, “Okay, what’s the insecurity that holds me back?” And then to create a mantra that helps to reframe that.

Pete Mockaitis
So, the mantra could be, “I am fully capable of doing that job.”

Tara Swart
Yeah.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. So, is it just that simple, something like that?

Tara Swart
Just literally that simple. Whatever works for you in your words. So, just what you’ve said, every one of your listeners could go and just tweak that for their own wording and what really means something to them and use that to set a mantra, yeah.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Well, so I want to also get your take on… so you’ve got some pro tips, I understand, for if you’re having a bad day, you’re not feeling it, you’re tired, you’re grouchy, you’re irritable, you’d rather just be in bed. What can we do to turn things around in a hurry?

Tara Swart
Okay. Well, ideally, you would make sure that you’re well-rested and well-fed and hydrated, and that you have a regular meditation practice. But on a day that maybe you haven’t been doing all of those things, I tend to run through a list of things that usually kind of time-sensitive, and think, “Okay, I’m feeling tired and grouchy, and this day is not going how I want it to. Do I have time to drink a glass of water?” Usually, that’s a yes. “Do I have time to do 10 minutes of meditation?” That might be a yes, it might not. So, if you don’t, maybe you could just do a quick positive affirmation.

If you have more time, “Do I have time to go outside for a walk or a run?” Oxygen is one of the major resources for our brain and our thinking. If we have more time, “Do I have time for a nap?” That’s usually a no. But let’s say you have a really important interview coming up and you did actually have the afternoon at home to prepare for it, if you’re super tired, if you actually haven’t slept, and that might be a really good thing to do. Again, this is very individualized.

Do you just use caffeine? I don’t recommend drinking too much caffeine or having any caffeine later in the day, but if you’ve got an important meeting or interview, you might want to have a shot of caffeine just for that temporary boost. If you’re looking longer term than that, then things like eating blueberries, having a spoonful of MCT oil or coconut oil are short-term things that we can do to boost our brain. Ideally, we’d be doing those things longer term, keeping our brain in ideal physical condition to really draw on our mental resources.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, I like that idea of how much time do you have and just sort of having the lineup of these things. And it seems like there probably, again, some universals for all people that are good to do. And then I imagine some particulars with regard to, “Oh, boy, if I listen to whatever music, then I am raring to go.” So, I’d imagine there are some real benefit into taking some time to write up your own, “What’s my one-minute, five-minute, 10-minute sort of hitlists?”

Tara Swart
Music is a really good one so I’m pleased that you mentioned that because I forgot to, and I also agree with writing up the list. So, for some things, I’ve been writing a list for so long that I don’t need the list anymore. But, at first, I had a list of positive statements when I needed that boost. I had a list of accomplishments for when I needed a slightly longer term, “Yes, I can go for that promotion,” kind of self-project that you might work on.

Doing a gratitude list or something that can really like reframe you into more positive thinking. So, keeping these lists so that if your energy is really low, you can just go to the list. You don’t actually have to think it all up yourself is a really good idea. And whether it’s eat a square of dark chocolate, speak to a friend, listen to some music, you’re absolutely right, all of those things can work for different people, and you need to know what the right things are for you and the right timescales.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, sometimes what I like to do is, usually Twitter is no good, but there’s this account You Had One Job which just is ridiculously hilarious, I think, in terms of like people doing road signs just wildly incorrectly, or mislabeling things. It just pushes all my right buttons and so fast, it’s sort of like, “Oh, there’s a joke. Ha-ha. Oh, there’s another one. Ha-ha. There’s another one.” And then it’s like, “Okay, well, that was good for three minutes,” and I’m back to something. And I’m now had a lot of laughing going on.

Tara Swart
I love the way that you keep intuitively hitting on these things that are backed up by neuroscience because humor actually has a massive effect on the brain. So, even if just using this by yourself, looking at Twitter and laughing to yourself has a good effect on the brain, but actually laughing with somebody else.

So, imagine you’re in just one of those tricky tense situations at work, shared humor has a really positive impact on the brain in terms of bonding, lowering our guard, making us more likely to collaborate. So, each of the things that we’ve talked about apply not just to ourselves, also in terms of how do you positively impact someone else’s brain.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, Tara, tell me, anything else you want to make sure to mention before we shift gears and hear about some of your favorite things?

Tara Swart
I would say, we talked a little bit about what if you’re tired and grumpy, which, of course, we all have those days. I think that another really important area of research from neuroscience is around sleep. And. as a neuroscientist, I do find it quite disheartening that there are still high-profile leaders that will say, “I only sleep four or five hours a night,” just because of the impact that has on so many other people that feel that maybe they should do the same.

There’s a Nobel Prize-winning research now that shows that there’s a specific cleansing system in the brain called the glymphatic system that needs seven to eight hours to work. It needs seven to eight hours uninterrupted overnight. And that goes together with the stats that 98% to 99% of humans need to sleep for seven to nine hours per night. I think we’ve always wondered, “Why do spend so long sleeping?” And neuroscience really is giving some answers to that.

Obviously, I’d been a junior doctor, I travel a lot so I’m often jetlagged, and I don’t want people to suddenly think, “Oh, my God, I’m going to get dementia,” because that’s what the research shows if we disrupt that cleansing process regularly over our lives that it’s causally related to the onset of dementia later in life.

I just try to get eight hours of good-quality sleep as often as I can. If my sleep is disturbed, or jetlagged, or other reasons, I take the opportunity to turn myself onto my left or right side because that’s the most efficient sleeping position for that cleansing process to work. So, to me, sleep has loomed larger in important space on the research that we’re seeing coming out.

Pete Mockaitis
Wait. So, this is interesting. You’re saying that if we’re sleeping or just lying down on the side as oppose to on our back or on our belly, we’re getting more brain cleansing?

Tara Swart
Yeah.

Pete Mockaitis
Huh! Oh, I never knew that. Thank you. And I am into sleep, so that is cool.

Tara Swart
It was my challenge to come up with something that you haven’t heard about, Pete.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, I appreciate it. Well, now, could you share with us a favorite quote, something you find inspiring?

Tara Swart
The one that I find myself using the most is an Alvin Toffler quote, which is, “The illiterate of the 21st century won’t be those who can’t read and write, it will be those who can’t learn, unlearn, and relearn.” And, of course, this connects back very strongly to what we were talking about that logical-technical skills alone are not enough, that we need that brain agility and we need that neuroplasticity. So, it’s such an old quote that just applies so beautifully to the cutting-edge neuroscience.

Pete Mockaitis
And do you have a favorite study, or experiment, or bit of research that you haven’t already mentioned here?

Tara Swart
Well, I think my favorite research is that research on the people in their 80s, but my second favorite piece of research is actually done on rats. It shows three groups of rats. One group that were kept in a confined space, which equates to having a sedentary job, one group that were forced to run on a treadmill for certain number of minutes or hours a day, which is the sedentary job person that drags himself to the gym at the end of the day, and one group were allowed to roam around freely during the day and do various types of exercise whenever they wanted to for as long as they wanted to. And that equates to the person who is mobile during the day and then, at some times, does exercise that they’ve chosen that they enjoy.

And we do see a differential effect in the brain when you do exercise that you enjoy. So, there’s two lessons here really. One is to not be sedentary. And if you don’t do any formal exercise, then just being mobile as much as possible is really important. Those two groups of rats, the two that exercised, they both got the benefits of oxygenation in the brain, but the voluntary exercise group released more of a growth factor in the brain called BDNF, or brain-derived neurotrophic factor. And that factor leads to not only connection of existing neurons in the brain but actually growth of new neurons in the brain. So, that’s a very exciting latest part to the neuroplasticity research.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, thank you. And how about a favorite book?

Tara Swart
Who Moved My Cheese? by Dr. Spencer Johnson. I return to that book every time I have a big dilemma or unanswered question in my life because it uses metaphor. It always just seems to apply to everything.

Pete Mockaitis
Thank you. And a favorite tool, something you use to be awesome at your job?

Tara Swart
Definitely mindfulness meditation.

Pete Mockaitis
And is there a particular nugget you share that really seems to connect or resonate with folks; they quote it back to you often?

Tara Swart
I would say that psychology having informed business and leadership for so long left some things like emotional intelligence as very intangible. The analogy that I use from neuroscience of learning a language, or building a pathway in your brain for any scale, like even intangible scales like emotional intelligence or mental resilience, that is a thing that people have come back to me and said, “Once you put it to me like it was building a pathway in my brain, and you gave me the steps that I had to do to build that pathway, I felt like I could do it.”

Pete Mockaitis
Awesome. And if folks want to learn more or get in touch, where would you point them?

Tara Swart
Well, I’m very active on social media, so on Twitter @TaraSwart, and on Instagram @drtaraswart with D-R as the doctor. Yeah, I try to put lots of neuroscience-based facts and images out on those channels. And my book is available on Amazon and at all major retailers so, hopefully, you’ve enjoyed it and, as you know, there are many exercises in the book. I really do think that we need to take the time to step back and do those sort of self-development exercises.

Pete Mockaitis
And do you have a final challenge or call to action for folks seeking to be awesome at their jobs?

Tara Swart
Yeah, I would say try to change 10 things by 1% rather than trying to change one big thing. So, go to bed half an hour earlier, walk around a bit more during the day, make whatever tweaks to your diet you know that you need to make, read a new book. Just pick 10 quick things, write them down, and just work through them over time. You’ll find much more cumulative effects and being awesome at your job than if you try to take on one big challenge.

Pete Mockaitis
Tara, thanks so much for sharing the good word and good luck in all the cool ways you’re molding your brain.

Tara Swart
Thank you so much. I hope you mold your brain too.

485: Learning like a Superhuman with Jonathan Levi

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Jonathan Levi says: "It's actually quite ridiculous what your mind can do if you know how to use it."

Jonathan Levi shares how speedreading and visual mnemonics can enhance your learning.

You’ll Learn:

  1. The scientifically-proven method for speedreading
  2. How curiosity improves learning
  3. A simple trick to remember names and face

About Jonathan

Jonathan is a serial entrepreneur, author, and lifehacker born and raised in Silicon Valley.

He’s the author of the Become a SuperLearner series, and the host of the award-winning Superhuman Academy podcast. His passions include learning languages, musical instruments, acro yoga, weightlifting, and cooking.

He lives in Tel Aviv, Israel with his superwoman, Limmor.

Resources mentioned in the show:

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Jonathan Levi Interview Transcript

Pete Mockaitis
Jonathan, thanks for joining us here on the How to be Awesome at Your Job podcast.

Jonathan Levi
Thank you so much for having me, Pete. I’m really stoked to be here.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, I’m stoked to have you. And, boy, we’re talking about super learning, speedreading, memory becoming super human-type things. I think it’s going to be a ton of fun. But I’d love it if you could maybe orient us for starters. Like, what’s really possible for a human being with regard to some of this stuff? I know we got memory champions who dazzle us. But can you just sort of paint a picture for what happens in the highest echelons of human super learning?

Jonathan Levi
Yeah. You know, no one’s ever asked me that.

Pete Mockaitis
I’m just giving you a little softball to warm it up.

Jonathan Levi
Yeah. Why has no one ever asked me that? I think the real answer is I don’t know, but I know what I’ve seen. I don’t know what the upper upper echelon is, but I’ve seen incredible learners throughout history, and I’ve made a practice of studying incredible learners throughout history. And the vision that I paint, and the reason my show is called Superhuman Academy, it used to be called Becoming Superhuman, is because I believe in a different model of super human.

And I think probably the prior generation, what I call superhuman, they would call a renaissance man or woman. Someone like Benjamin Franklin or, to go less cliché, someone like Thomas Jefferson who, like, “Oh, you know, I invented 15 different electronic devices. I discovered electricity. I, on the way, happen to dabble in diplomacy a little bit and helped entire countries form their revolutions, made huge advancements in democracy, learned six languages because no one was willing to translate the books, so I did it myself,” that kind of thing.

Built businesses, sold businesses, established entire organizations, and I think you see this throughout history. You see these people who are so multidisciplinary, and I think that, ultimately, if you ask me, “What’s the purpose of all of this? Why learn faster?” is to do that. It’s not really to go deep, deep, deep, deep, deep into one subject, though I suppose you could, but I think apropos, like how do you be awesome at your job? It’s being a multidisciplinarian. It’s being able to be someone who’s maybe in sales and already have learned your entire customer’s product pipeline.

I gave a talk to Shell’s 150 Top Salespeople in the World, and I asked them, “What’s your biggest challenge?” And they’re like, “We need to know more about our customers’ businesses than the customer knows themselves.” I’m like, “That’s a pretty big challenge because the customer focuses on one business. You each are managing five to 10 accounts.” But that’s what it is, and that’s what’s possible if you can learn and, more saliently, if you can retain everything you learn.

You can be a multidisciplinarian and from there things get fun. Then you can learn four to five languages. Then you can learn four to five different musical instruments. You can pick up different sports and habits, like acroyoga, or Olympic weightlifting, or speaking Russian, or piano. These are all things that I’ve just done in the last few years because you make learning a habit, you make learning a super skill, and then you make learning a hobby in a way of life.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah. Well, that’s cool. So, your benefits there in terms of what’s possible is you could, is it fair to say, that most of us could become half as awesome as Thomas Jefferson or Benjamin Franklin if we knew super learning approaches?

Jonathan Levi
Yeah, I think we could become just as awesome.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, what level is awesome?

Jonathan Levi
One hundred percent as awesome.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s exciting.

Jonathan Levi
And I’m right now reading a book called A Brief History of Everything, and I’ve read half the biographies out there and The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin, and Elon Musk. I really geek out on the stuff. And sometimes I just think to myself, I’m like, “You know, it was easier back then because there were fewer people doing cool stuff. It’s like 1% of the population was college-educated and the vast majority of people couldn’t read. It was pretty easy to stand out as a brilliant genius.” So, I think we can achieve as much in learning. It might be harder to have an impact. Timing is everything, right?

Pete Mockaitis
It’s like, “You and everybody else knows five languages. Not impressed.”

Jonathan Levi
Bingo. And it’s like I was toldby a teacher, it was like the best thing you can ever do to be successful is to be born in the right place at the right time to the right parents. Everything else is like minor tweaks. So, being born on the cusp of like a couple different revolutions in a couple different countries in a time where democracies are forming. That’s pretty, like, you’ve got really great opportunities there that I think maybe we don’t have.

But then again, maybe 300 years from now people will go, “Gosh, I wish that I could’ve been born right when the world was transitioning from old industrial agriculture and ineffective means of energy production and pollution to renewables and sustainables. Gosh, they had so much more opportunity back then than we do now.” So, who knows, right?

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, indeed. It can go either way. Well, so that’s exciting. So, we painted a big picture in terms of what may be possible. And I’d love to maybe zoom right in. So, what’s really nifty about your courses in helping folks become superhuman and super learning is that you could readily measure results with regard to, I mean, memory performance, speedreading performance, fast learning performance. So, could you share with us just roughly kind of approximate average before/after results that you see for your students in terms of what you do measure?

Jonathan Levi
So, I don’t have exact numbers for you but I can tell you from stuff that people publicly post in our Facebook group. Typically, when people come to us, they can remember exactly the average, right? Your short-term memory is kind of like four or plus or minus two. Sometimes we get someone who can memorize seven.

When people leave our course, the maximum we have them memorizing is like 20 random pieces of information and they all can memorize the 20. I can tell you that I pushed myself a little further because I’m kind of the poster boy and I can memorize 50 digits backwards and forwards without breaking a sweat. And the upper-echelon students that we have that have kind of gone on to take this more seriously, they are memorizing thousands of digits. Or, we had one guy go to a conference and memorized a 150 people’s names at the conference. And the conference was a two-day conference. It’s like, “How did you manage to have 150 conversations?” That’s the super skill there.

Pete Mockaitis
Really. When did you go to the bathroom?

Jonathan Levi
Exactly.

Pete Mockaitis
When did you go to get snack?

Jonathan Levi
Right. You probably were shaking hands and kissing babies, you know. But it’s insane what you can do. And we know, I guess I should preface by saying like we teach the exact same techniques that are being taught to win World Memory Championships. We scale it down a little bit because some of the things that are being done in competition are just not practical.

For example, in order to win a World Memory Championship today, you need to kind of have all the memorization work and setup done, so all you have to do is rearrange things. So, I’m not going to tell you, “Hey, Pete, go out and memorize 999 different images for all the possible different three-letter or three-digit numbers out there in the world.”

But we teach the exact same techniques in terms of how you actually do it, how you create these memories, how you organize them, how you structure them, how you review them. So, the world record right now for memorizing a deck of cards is under 13 seconds. The record, last I checked, this changes pretty often. Last I checked, the record for the number of decks of cards was 36 decks of cards in an hour. Pi has been memorized in 30,000 plus digits. It’s actually quite ridiculous what your mind can do if you know how to use it. And that’s like the really big asterisk because most of us were never taught how to use our brain.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, that’s intriguing. So, that’s the memory side of things. How about the speedreading side of things?

Jonathan Levi
Yeah, so speedreading I always like to preface, not least, because people have been fined many hundreds of thousands of dollars for false advertising in speedreading but also because of those individuals, people have a lot of misconceptions about what speedreading is. So, it’s not reading a page a second, at least not the way we teach it, which is the way that’s based on science.

It’s not reading one page with your left eye and the other page with your right eye. It’s not photo-reading. It’s not any of that. The research is very clear and I encourage people to visit our website SuperHumanAcademy.com/science. We actually hired a PhD in neuroscience who recently was on a Nobel Prize-winning team for some of the work that they did in memory.

The research is very clear that comprehension drops at 600 words a minute. Coincidentally, the speedreading that we teach, we tell people, “You can get up to 600 words a minute with the amount of comprehension that you’re getting or higher because of the memory techniques that we implement, and you can get up to 800 words per minute with around 70% to 80% comprehension.” Again, there are sometimes things that you need to read that you don’t really need 100% comprehension.

But, with all that preface, I do want to say memory techniques are kind of like an operating system overhaul. Or, to choose a different metaphor, it’s like completely changing out the engine and transmission. Whereas, speedreading, I found, in my experience and the experience of over 200,000 students, is more like a specific tool, and you’re not going to use it all the time like you use memory techniques. You’re going to use it when you need information quickly, when the joy of reading is not the most important part, and when you’re not going to be doing it for extended periods of time.

People always ask me, “Okay, you can read 700-800 words a minute. That means that you can read the average book in 90 minutes.” And I say, “Yup.” And they say, “Do you ever do that?” And I say, “Only once or twice because after that I need like a three-hour nap. It’s exhausting. It’s absolutely exhausting.” So, I always like to give people those caveats because it’s an incredibly powerful tool. It got me through business school. It’s the only reason why my email inbox is not completely overflowing, and why I am able to keep up on a lot of the research, I hate to say all the research, that’s being done on neuroscience and learning. But it’s not what a lot of people have marketed it as.

Pete Mockaitis
You know, it’s so funny, Jonathan, I was debating with myself, it’s like, “All right, if this guy comes on the show, it’s like he can do 10,000 words per minute. How much am I going to rip into him? Am I going to do it gently or viciously?” You know, that’s what I was thinking.

Jonathan Levi
Viciously.

Pete Mockaitis
It’s like, “Okay, will I just quietly cut that out because I know it’s wrong?” But I love it. You gave me all the right answers. Not that I know all the right answers in advance, but I’ve kind of dabbled and researched a bit in terms of like what’s just impossible. And I love the integrity here in terms of hiring a doctor, getting into the mix, and sharing the constraints and limitations. Like, hey.

Well, first of all, it would still be awesome to double your reading whenever you need to. That’s still a huge benefit. But, note, if you want to really enjoy what you’re reading, and you do want to savor it, and you want to get full energy for everything else you’re doing in the rest of the day, then it ain’t the tool for you to pull out in that moment. So, great visualization.

Jonathan Levi
And I want to say there are gradations, right? Like, I, after being trained in speedreading, before, well, there kind of isn’t a before. I had learning disabilities growing up so my parents bought me speedreading books when I was like 12. So, it’s hard to determine when my “before” was but I never could get it to work. And when I was tested at age 24 for my reading speed, I was reading in like 450 words per minute, whereas the average person reads 200 to 250 words per minute, if they’re college-educated. But my comprehension was 40%, so like what does that achieve?

Today, I can read that same 450 words per minute with near perfect comprehension. So, it’s not an either/or situation but it is…One of my mentors once told me, “The best speedreaders are able to vary their speed, not just based on what they’re reading but in individual sections and sentences.” So, it’s like, “Okay, I know what’s going to happen in the section. Let me ratchet it up and I can read much faster. Whereas, okay, hang on, I’m really confused about this whole chapter on quantum mechanics. I’m going to bring it back down.” And that back down may still be 300, 400, 500 words per minute but with much higher comprehension.

When I created our original course, I came at it from this whole perspective of, first of, I was taught to speedread by two different teachers and it never worked for me because it’s the classic Woody Harrelson, like, “I read War and Peace in an hour and it’s about Russia.” But, also, understanding that the ultimate timewaster is chewing air. It’s even worse to read fast and forget everything you’re reading than it is to just read it slowly. So, we focus on comprehension.

And, truthfully speaking, over the last six years, we’ve made the comprehension and memory and retention parts bigger, and speedreading part smaller, and we’ve moved all of the comprehension and retention pieces up earlier on in the course because it’s just, time and time again, that’s what transforms people’s lives in our courses.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, so let’s dig into a bit of the how here. So, how does one boost their comprehension when they’re reading?

Jonathan Levi
Yeah, that’s a great question. First thing you can do, and I think your listeners will appreciate this because I haven’t talked about this in 5,000 other interviews that I’ve done over the last six years. Many people don’t realize how important preparation is overall, and I’m going to explain two different aspects of preparation. And both of them are going to seem like, “There’s no way that works, this is fluff. Give me the good stuff.” This is the good stuff. Don’t worry.

One, if you don’t know where you’re going, any road will take you there. And so, if you just pick up a book and you don’t stop to ask yourself, “What am I trying to get out of this book? What level of comprehension? Am I reading it for a specific piece of information, for enjoyment?” That’s going to change the way that you pay attention. It’s kind of like setting goals, right? If you don’t have goals, you kind of just coast, like, “What are you doing, right?”

So, going in with preparation, and preparation also means like having a backup plan. Like, what are you going to do if you don’t understand the text? Are you going to reread it or are you going to ask someone or are you going to look it up somewhere else online and see if it’s explained more clearly? So, having this backup plan and knowing exactly what you want to get out of the text.

In my next book, The Only Skill That Matters I go into much more depth about this conversation of preparation and give people kind of a flight checklist of, “You need to answer these questions before you dive into learning.” Part of the reason that this works so well is we know a lot about the way that the adult brain learns and the requirements for learning. And we know that adults learn best if they know why they’re learning something, how they’re going to use it, and if they’re going to use it immediately, which is a nice segue into the next kind of preparation piece, which is something we call prereading.

Prereading comes from this reading methodology called SQ3R – Survey, Question, Read, Recall, Review. When you do prereading, you survey and question. You’re looking at the text very, very quickly and kind of skimming. You’re doing what I like to call reinforced skimming. You are looking for things that jump out at you – titles, words that are capitalized, numbers, headings, things that are italicized, long words, things that stand out, pictures, diagrams. And then you’re generating questions about those things.

For example, “Why are they mentioning San Francisco? What happened in 1949?” You’re generating all kinds of cognitive biases as well to try and get your mind to be curious. A human brain can’t resist a good question. And so, if you are able to generate questions and curiosity and, essentially, get yourself to the point where you actually want to read this text, even if it’s something you don’t necessarily want to read, you’re going to enhance your focus, which is going to enhance your comprehension.

Studies have actually shown that people who pre-read the text not only are able to read faster when they do read it, they’re also able to produce higher quality, more accurate summaries of the text, which is a proxy for how well they understood, retain, and were able to reproduce and recall the text. It’s a very good test for understanding actually how much of it sank in. And all that is from flipping through the pages, spending one or two seconds on each page before you read.

Pete Mockaitis
Interesting. So, with one or two seconds, I mean, you’re not really subvocalizing anything. You’re just sort of just getting a visual exposure.

Jonathan Levi
You’re barely comprehending anything.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, like those are words.

Jonathan Levi
Yeah, you’re literally generating curiosity. And the beauty of this technique is that there’s kind no wrong way to do it. We’re in the process right now of building our certified coaching program and training our certified coaches. So, I’ve just gone through this whole thought process, and a lot of what we do, the trick is like, “I don’t know what’s going on in the person’s head and there’s a lot of like false flags that can happen and cognitive biases and stuff like that.”

But with this one, the test is very simple. Is the reader able to produce questions around the test? Like, if I have you skim, Pete, 15 pages, looking at each page for one second, and then I take the book away, and I ask you, “What are some of the things you want to know when you read this when I let you read this?” And you go, “Okay, I saw this thing in there. It was like hyper myalgia or something like that. I didn’t catch what that word is but I’m dying to know what it is and what it means, and why is it in the history textbook. Like, that makes no sense to me.”

Or, you come and you say, “Man, I saw the word vegan and I have a feeling I know what this author is going to say, and I have a feeling this is going to be that kind of text that my friend, Allan, really loves because he’s like a total vegan warrior.” So, you’re already generating questions, curiosity, and you go back to those three requirements that I mentioned. You’ve already done a lot of the work to prime your brain. And this comes from the theory of an early learning expert named Malcolm Knowles.

You’ve already told me how you’re going to use the text. You’ve already told me why it’s applicable and why you’re looking to read it. And, since you’ve already told me that you’re going to be using it immediately to talk to your friend Allan, or send it and rub the article in his face, so you’ve generated so much curiosity and questions, the other test is like, “Are you now eager and excited to read this text because…? Forget the fact that it’s about real estate law in the Netherlands, or something super boring like that. Are you eager to read it because you have all these unanswered questions?”

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah. And if you’re not, that might be an indicator right there. It’s like, “Well, do you have to read it?” Maybe you get all that done and move on to something else.

Jonathan Levi
Yeah.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s cool. Well, yeah, that gets me going. I’m thinking now about Bob Cialdini’s book Pre-Suasion. He sort of talks about how he figured out a formula to get his class like super engaged such that they would not even leave when the bell rang. It’s like, “Oh, it looks live we’ve cracked the code here.” And it was in that very thing, it’s about generating questions, like, “How is it that this occurred when this, this, and this were not working in their favor?” Like, “Well, I don’t know. How did that occur?”

And it’s just like any good story or movie or book, even like a mediocre one, like Lifetime Original Movies. There was a period in my life, I don’t know why, but they kept sucking me in, and they weren’t really good.

Jonathan Levi
This was before Netflix.

Pete Mockaitis
Right, yeah. Cool. So, SQ3R, you brought it to life way more than I’ve experienced when I first encountered it, that it’s all about generating that curiosity and that eagerness so that your brain is amped, it’s primed, it’s good to go. So, what should we do after the prereading?

Jonathan Levi
Well, then you’ve gotten through the S and the Q, now you get to R. You do your first readthrough and, ideally, you speedread depending on your level of training, I guess, I would say. You speedread the text, and we can go into how all that works, or doesn’t work in the case of a lot of what you see online. And then after that, you pause and you review. You review the text. You close your eyes, or close the book, or look up at the ceiling, and you ask yourself, “What did I take away from that?” And you do this, you can do it at the end of every page, you can do it at the end of chapters, but you stop and you create visualizations, visual mnemonics.

This is huge because most people read once and expect themselves to remember everything that they read in that book forever. And that’s not going to happen even with the best mnemonic techniques. You’re only going to remember it for so long. What you need to do is spaced repetition. So, you close the book, you review, and then later on, ideally, ideally, you would test yourself on this knowledge.

I like to create simple tests for myself by just writing a summary for myself of the book, key takeaways and key points. And then after that, you continue to review. Periodically, you go in, look at your notes, look at your highlights, and just kind of refresh yourself. Look at your book summary. Because anyone who tells you, “I can teach how to memorize something once and remember it forever,” is a liar. Your brain is designed to forget things. It is highly efficient, in fact, at forgetting the things that you don’t use. So, if you want to remember something, you kind of need to review it and use it.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, there’s a brief period of time which all of United States history made great sense right when I turned the A.P U.S. history exam in high school. And it was kind of fun and then it all left me. Alas! So, understood. So, if you don’t need it, it goes away. Got to do some reinforcing of it. Cool. So, that’s sort of the speedreading side of things. Any perspective with regard to like, “I stop send.” I saw a video of Tim Ferriss drawing some lines in on a book. Anything you want to comment in that world?

Jonathan Levi
Yeah, absolutely. So, first, you have to understand that your eyes are not meant to read, right? And reading is great. I love reading. Me and reading are besties. But we are not really meant to process language visually and, therefore, reading does this kind of weird thing where you take visual information, which is these little squibbles on a page, which we’re super effective at consuming information in that way. We can not only assess someone’s face, and if we recognize them, but also the complex emotions on that person’s face in 150 milliseconds. It’s insane. We’re really good at picking up information visually.

But then what we do is we try to process language through that. That’s where everything kind of falls apart because we don’t process language that fast. And so, we subvocalize, which is an unavoidable thing because we’re meant to process language auditorily. And so, you have this kind of like whole mess of what’s going on and that’s why when you scan people’s larynx, even speedreaders that way.

Pete Mockaitis
As I do.

Jonathan Levi
Yeah, as one does. You just put a sophisticated electronic equipment up to one’s larynx in your goings about, and you see that there’s electrical signaling when someone is reading because we’re kind of processing with our larynx. I’m not a neuroscientist and I don’t play one on the internet, but that’s kind of what we understood about reading.

So, there’s no way to avoid some subvocalization entirely but you can reduce it in the same way that we’ve all seen those stupid things posted, where it’s like, every word is misspelled but the first and last character is right so you don’t even notice or you can still read it. Or, situations where you see a paragraph of text and the word “the” is repeated every single time twice but you don’t even notice because you’re kind of on autopilot.

So, we can reduce subvocalization. And one of the ways that we can do that is by optimizing the movement of the eyes. When your eyes are in motion, when they’re making what’s called saccades, you’re actually subject to a phenomenon called saccadic blindness or saccadic masking. In other words, your optic nerve kind of shuts off while your eyes are in motion.

If you don’t believe me, you can put two fingers out in front of you, one on your right hand, one on your left, and then look at your left finger, and then look at your right finger. And notice that you kind of don’t pick up any information in between. Your brain stitches the pictures together.

Pete Mockaitis
Huh.

Jonathan Levi
Yeah.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, it’s funny because we have our recording time are going, it’s actually moving, right? You see those red numbers moving. They totally disappeared. Yeah, okay. I’m with you.

Jonathan Levi
And that’s fine. That’s like really useful if you don’t want to fall over every time you like move your eyes. But what that means is while your eyes are in motion, you’re not taking in additional information. Most people, when they read, they make one saccade and one fixation which is kind of, think of a fixation as like an eye fold or resting of the eye. It’s when you’re fixated on something per word. And, therefore, there’s a lot of motion going on, and a lot of times spent in saccadic blindness.

You can never train your eyes to have a wider fovea, which is the focal area of the eye, but you can train your brain to pay attention to the fuzzy stuff, the same way that someone who needs glasses can still kind of pay attention to what’s happening even though it’s a little fuzzy. You can do this with various different tools, and once you train your brain to pay attention to the fuzzy stuff, in the perifovea, the stuff outside the focal optimal area, then you can start making larger saccades, moving your eyes only once or twice per line of text. Then we can optimize those even further so you waste less time and less of the fovea and perifovea looking at white stuff in the margins, and more time looking at the good stuff, the text.

Pete Mockaitis
And so, when you say tools, is this like the writing of lines inside a couple words of the margins of a book or what do you mean by tools?

Jonathan Levi
Tools to expand your ability to take in information from the perifovea are called Schultz tables. And you can actually check them out at Games.BecomeASuperLearner.com. We have some free Schultz tables exercises that people can do. It’s quite fun. It’s like a Sudoku but you stare at the middle square and then you try, without moving your eyes, to pick up all the stuff in the periphery. Then you expand it, get bigger, make the number smaller, and you can actually train yourself to pick up stuff in the margins, which is pretty cool.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, that is fun. And we’re both genuinely enthusiastic about this. This is what makes a podcast great. It does sound like fun for me to do and I definitely plan on doing so. So, now then, you mentioned subvocalization, which is like the inner voice of kind of saying the words. You’re saying, so that still happens even though our eyeballs are taking in more words, we’ve got that tiny voices actually reading silently all the words that we’re picking up.

Jonathan Levi
Yeah. Well, not all. Even people who aren’t trained in speedreading rarely subvocalize every word, like, and, etc. But for a long time, I thought I just need to get better and reduce it to the point where it doesn’t happen. And then I dug deeper into the research and realized a few different things. One, there’s no way to eliminate subvocalization. It’s just part of how we process the text but you can minimize it.

And, also, every once in a while, and by that, I mean like at least once a month. People like to send me a different research paper or article or study “disproving” speedreading, and I love these because almost invariably they prove the kind of speedreading that we’re teaching. They’re disproving the speedreading of 5,000 words per minute by saying, “Reading is limited in the most skilled and trained readers to 600 words per minute with perfect comprehension.”

And one of the things that they talk about is you cannot train your brain to read an entire page or even an entire line, it just can’t be done. You can’t read an entire line without moving your eyes. But they’ve shown in studies that when you block the stuff in the periphery, in the perifovea, so, for example, if you tracked someone’s eye on the line, and you essentially only let them read the word that they’re reading, and you don’t let them have what they call a preview effect, their comprehension and reading speed dramatically suffers even when the preview, even when the blocker is moving pretty much as fast as their eye.

So, it’s super interesting. It’s like this research that disproves speedreading is actually proving exactly this, that the perifovea is a critical part of reading, and you need to be able to see what’s happening. So, therefore, we should be able to optimize and train that piece.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s cool. That’s cool. Well, let’s say we shift gears a bit.

Jonathan Levi
I don’t know if that answers your question though.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, no, I dig it in terms of, yup, that voice is going to be going and there’s no way around it. But you may not have to articulate every connect a word in the inner voice, so that’s handy.

Jonathan Levi
Yeah. And, again, one of the reasons why that’s so important is, first off, our comprehension is just better visually. We have better visual memory and better, as I said, we’re faster at comprehending things visually, but also, I encourage everyone listening to this podcast, go back a couple minutes, and if your app allows it, it probably doesn’t allow you to go beyond 3x speed. The reason for that is we can really only comprehend the spoken word in around 400 words per minute. And the reason most of these apps are limited to 2x speed is because you can’t really get every single word at more than 300 to 400 words per minute.

Now, I’m speaking about 150 to 160 words per minute so you do the math. 2x speed is 300, and see how comfortable that is. And then imagine another 50% on top of that. So, subvocalizing every word really just slows you down.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Cool. So, let’s shift to the memory side of things. I’ve read some of the tricks associated with trying to memorize a list of things, “Create a ridiculous picture in your brain to connect them.” So, if I’m remembering iPhone and screwdriver, I might imagine like 100 screwdrivers dancing on my iPhone, and then I’ve connected that with this list. And then, numerically, turn each number into like a sound, like nine becomes a P or B sound, and then you can create words out of numbers, and then visualize them and link them together.

So, those are some tactics that I found kind of handy when I really hunker down and say, “Okay, I have to remember this list. There’s no means of writing this down. We’re going to go use these approaches.” But what I find tricky is faces, and I think all professionals can be enriched by this if we can put faces to names. So, Jonathan, I’d love to put you on the spot, how can we boost our memory for names and faces?

Jonathan Levi
Yeah, it’s a great question. It’s actually people often ask me, like, what do I use this stuff for, and where has it made the most impact in my life. And I think they expect me to be like, “Well, I speak four languages and I learned two musical instruments in the last few years and blah, blah, blah, blah.” But that hasn’t impacted my life nearly as much as just always being able to remember names.

And one corollary of that is I can tell you all the waiters that has served me in the last two weeks. Today my waitress at the restaurant was Maya, and whenever I need Maya, like everyone else is shouting, “Excuse me,” or, “Check please,” and I just say, “Maya,” at normal speaking volume, and she whips around and I have my check, and it’s amazing.

But how do you do names and faces? Very simple. Same association and visualization techniques. In order to memorize something, first you need to visualize it, it’s going to be the vast majority of the benefit is going to come from visualizing everything that you want to remember. Creating these novel bizarre pictures that you mentioned, but then also connecting it.

Our brains function a lot like Google’s PageRank algorithm. They ask, “What is this connected to? How many other things is it connected to? And how important are those things?” Because there’s a lot of information hitting us every day and we need some way to figure out what is and is not important.

So, what I might do is, first, connect that person to someone else that I know that has that name, and figure out their commonalities, picture the two of them together, picture the two of them fighting, something absurd and outrageous. That might be easy. If their name has another possible visualization opportunity, for example, Mike, I might picture them doing karaoke and embarrassing themselves with a microphone.

Pete Mockaitis
With a microphone.

Jonathan Levi
Right. If their name is Ross, I might picture them bargain shopping at the store Ross, and on and on and on. If they have a name that maybe you don’t know, like Sangina, or Croshant, I would break it down and figure out a way to make it into some kind of visualization that I am familiar with. So, Croshant might become Croissant, and I might visualize him wearing a hat made out of a croissant, and then probably, hopefully, not going to call him Croissant, but if I do, I can say that I misspoke. And that’s how you do it. It’s visualizations and connections to preexisting knowledge.

Now, I’m probably never going to forget what a croissant looks like or what a croissant is. That’s a memory that’s like pretty deeply-ingrained for me especially because I have many memories when I was living in France of walking down the street and picking up fresh croissants, and maybe I could throw Croshant in with that memory. So, you pick things that are familiar to you, that are important to you, and then you incorporate those into, again, tip number one, your visualizations.

Pete Mockaitis
And so, just how long does that mental process take?

Jonathan Levi
Fractions of a second if you’re trying to. Well, so Harry Lorayne once told me, this is going to seem like a tangent, he once told me that first thing to remember names and faces is actually paying attention to them. So, I do have to mention that because Harry Lorayne is kind of the godfather of modern memory improvement and he’s right. About this we agree. Most people don’t pay attention. So, first step is pay attention.

And second step is repeat the name back, because I cannot tell you these techniques are so incredibly powerful. You really don’t want to mis-remember someone’s name. I had someone who I thought I could’ve sworn she said Sharon. It was Shannon. For many weeks after that, I called her Sharon, and I never once forgot, by the way, to call her Sharon. They’re very powerful techniques. Make sure you get the name right.

In that time where you go, “Is that Croshant? Am I saying that right?” you now have given yourself one to two seconds which is more than enough time. Recently, at the same lecture for Shell, someone came up to me after I got off stage, and he said, “Okay, memory man, look at this.” And his last name was C, his nickname was C+13 because his last name had 14 letters, C plus duh, duh, duh. And it was pronounced Horechevsky. It’s like a long Polish name.

Pete Mockaitis
Horechevsky.

Jonathan Levi
And he said, “How do you remember that?” And I was like, in the time it took me to describe it, I already had it, right? So, I imagined people dancing the Hora, like Orthodox Jews with their black and white outfit, they’re dancing the Hora in a Chevy, and they’re like shaking skis above their head – Horachevsky. Like, how quick is that, right? All I did was just, “What do those three things sound like? Hora, Chev, Ski. Visualize that.”

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, that’s cool.

Jonathan Levi
Now, I always talk about Horachevsky. I don’t remember his first name, he didn’t ask me to memorize his first name, I believe it was Jeff.

Pete Mockaitis
And what’s funny is that I can imagine that maybe the first hundred times you do this you got to hunker down and think for a good, I don’t know, 20 seconds, “Horachevksy, okay. Boy, I’m going to go with a prostitute, I don’t know.”

Jonathan Levi
That works. That’s even better than mine. It’s more outrageous. Violent, sexual and kind of like disturbed imagery works even better.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Cool. Well, so you’ve got a turn of a phrase that I can’t resist, I got to touch on this. What’s the mnemonic nuclear option and how do we use it?

Jonathan Levi
Oh, yeah, this is a good one. So, the mnemonic nuclear option is my kind of fun nickname for the Memory Palace.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. How does this work out?

Jonathan Levi
Yeah, I call it the nuclear option because it’s kind of like, for most things, going to a water balloon fight and bringing in ICBM with a nuclear warhead. It’s like it’ll do the job. It’s probably overkill but it’ll do the job. If you’re learning three people’s names at a cocktail party, you probably don’t need a Memory Palace. It’ll work.

And what you do in the Memory Palace Technique, or Method of Loci, people may have heard, is you take a location, such as your house, your office, whatever, you take these visualizations that you’ve created of Mike on the mic, or Horachevsky, and you put them in places. That’s it. You put them on furniture, you put them in windowsills, corners. I like to put them in logical places based on what they are.

So, for example, the word for burn in Russian is stored on the stove. Makes a lot of sense. And just by doing that, because our brains are wired to remember location, it’s kind of part of your survival toolkit. If you don’t know where the winter food supply is, or where you buried something, or how to get to the watering hole, you’re kind of done from an evolutionary perspective. So, our brains remember locations really crazy well automatically. So, this is kind of just hijacking that, and it’s an incredibly powerful technique.

This is how people reach those achievements of Pi to 30,000 digits or a deck of cards in under 13 seconds. It’s insanely powerful. I think, out of all the hacks that I’ve ever learned, and I’ve done 240 something, 50 something episodes with some of the world’s top superhumans, this one is the craziest one, where it’s like, “I can teach you this, and in an hour of practice, I can ten 10x to 20x your memory.” It’s massive ROI.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, I guess we’ve almost spent a whole hour on it, but I’ve heard of this. But, so, if I just like stick a person on the couch in my head, I don’t know, it doesn’t seem kind of very noteworthy to me. Like, do I need to make it ridiculous with regard to how they’re being placed on the couch? Or how do I make it?

Jonathan Levi
Let me show you how powerful this is. We’ll play a fun game. Did you move around a lot when you were a kid?

Pete Mockaitis
No.

Jonathan Levi
And everyone in the audience can do this even if they did. Do you remember your childhood home?

Pete Mockaitis
Yes.

Jonathan Levi
Do you remember your parents’ bedroom?

Pete Mockaitis
Yes.

Jonathan Levi
That was probably the room that you spent the least time in in the house, right?

Pete Mockaitis
That’s true.

Jonathan Levi
Okay. What side did mom sleep on, left or right?

Pete Mockaitis
You know, I don’t know if I know. I know where the little wolf puppet was that belonged to my dad, where was that post.

Jonathan Levi
Okay, where was that?

Pete Mockaitis
That was on the left side as I’m facing him, the left foot side.

Jonathan Levi
Okay. Do you remember, was there a table by the side of the bed?

Pete Mockaitis
Yes.

Jonathan Levi
What was on that table?

Pete Mockaitis
There was an old-school alarm clock with red digital numbers. There’s usually a book.

Jonathan Levi
So, two things, was it a GE alarm clock, the red digital numbers?

Pete Mockaitis
I’m not sure.

Jonathan Levi
So, a funny story, I do this a lot to demonstrate. By the way, when was the last time you were in that house?

Pete Mockaitis
It was more than 13 years ago.

Jonathan Levi
More than 13. Did you ever sit down and go, “I better remember this red alarm clock”?

Pete Mockaitis
No.

Jonathan Levi
Right. So, your brain does this automatically ranging from you can tell me what corner of your shower the soap bottles are in, like, the most mundane stupid things, all the way up to 13 years ago what was on the bedside table, and the room that you spent the least time in. The other funny thing, as I do this a lot as a demonstration, it seems like everyone’s parents had that same freaking alarm clock. My parents had the exact same one, it was like wood grain, red letters, GE. They must’ve made millions on those alarm clocks.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s good. That’s good. So, I’m with you. Fair enough, I’m remembering these locations real well. And so then, I can just stick new things there and they’ll be there when I revisit the location?

Jonathan Levi
Yeah, and you do need to review. You can’t do it once and it’ll be there forever. Though some stuff that I put in there once randomly I can’t get rid of. That’s a whole different skill. But with very minimal review, it will stay in there.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Well, I want to make sure we get a chance to talk about a couple of your favorite things. Jonathan, can you give us a favorite quote?

Jonathan Levi
Ooh, I’ve got a few but I’ll go back to an old, old school one that I used to love, which is, “The greatest happiness in life is the conviction that we’re loved, loved for ourselves, or rather loved in spite of ourselves.”

Pete Mockaitis
Powerful. And how about a favorite book?

Jonathan Levi
I have to probably say Dale Carnegie, How to Win Friends and Influence People.

Pete Mockaitis
And if folks want to learn more or get in touch, where would you point them?

Jonathan Levi
Yeah, so people can check out SuperhumanAcademy.com where we have hundreds and hundreds of hours of podcast episodes with the world’s top performers, online courses, free trials of online courses. We got a ton of stuff up there. And I would encourage people to check out my latest book coming out September 3rd, it’s on Amazon, and we can send a link to put in the show notes for you guys. And that is called The Only Skill That Matters, and it talks about all this stuff in a fun and engaging way, with stories and examples. My mom says it’s a really good read, so what more testimonial do you need?

Pete Mockaitis
That’s good. And do you have a final challenge or call to action for folks seeking to be awesome at their jobs?

Jonathan Levi
Yeah, I want people to go out today, and I want them, in their job, or in their day-to-day interactions, to learn the names, as we’ve discussed today, I want them to learn the names of 10 new people. And then I want them to remember those names, first off, and I want them to see what the impact in their life is of just getting to know 10 new people and learning their names, professionally, personally, or otherwise.

Pete Mockaitis
Thank you. Jonathan, this has been a lot of fun. I wish you all the best in your learning adventures.

Jonathan Levi
Back at you. Thanks so much for having me.

471: How to Acquire New Skills Faster with Scott H. Young

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Scott Young says: "Happiness is not pleasure. Happiness is the expansion of possibilities."

Scott Young shares innovative methods to learn new skills more efficiently and effectively.

You’ll Learn:

  1. Foundational principles for mastering skills more effectively
  2. The importance of “meta-learning”
  3. The Feynman Technique and other approaches to accelerate learning

About Scott:

Scott is a writer, programmer, traveler and an avid reader of interesting things. For the last ten years he’s been experimenting to find out how to learn and think better. He doesn’t promise he has all the answers, just a place to start.

Resources mentioned in the show:

Thank you Sponsor!

  • The Simple Habit meditation app can help you gain greater control over distractions for faster learning. The first 50 listeners to sign up at SimpleHabit.com/Awesome get 30% off premium subscriptions.

Scott Young Interview Transcript

Pete Mockaitis
Scott, thanks so much for joining us here on the How to be Awesome at Your Job podcast.

Scott Young
Oh, it’s so great to be here.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, I have many questions for you but I want to start with hearing the tale of how you completed MIT’s four-year computer science program in one year. Like, what even led you to think that’s a good idea, and how did you pull it off, and what were the results?

Scott Young
Yes, so this actually brings me back. This was about eight years ago. I just graduated from university and I had studied business, I met a lot of people who you go to school and you study something, and you realized, “Oh, wait a minute. Actually, this wasn’t really what I wanted to get out of it.” I was thinking, “Well, I should go into business.” I kind of have these ideas that one day I might run a business.

I go in and I take a bunch of business classes and find that, well, actually, most of business schools is how can you be a good little middle manager in a large company and not really so much about running your own or starting your own things.

And, at that time, I was thinking back to when I was a freshman and I was contemplating either going into business or studying computer science. And now, sort of in retrospect, have felt like the better choice because in computer science you, actually, learn to make things, you make programs and algorithms and scripts and websites and apps and all sorts of things like that.

And so, I was thinking about maybe going back to school, maybe I should go and do another degree and postpone my life. And around this time, I stumbled upon this class that was taught by MIT and uploaded on their MIT open course sort of platform. So, it was completely free, it was an actual class that MIT really taught, and they just uploaded some of the materials from it, so the lectures, assignments and solutions, exams and solutions.

And as I was going through this, I kind of thought this little lightbulb moment on my head of, “Well, if you could do a class, maybe you could try to do something like this for an entire degree.” And so, this sort of began this kind of research process, I spent several months putting it together of trying to figure out, “Okay, like how can I use the material that they put online? What gaps do I have to fill? What kind of alterations do I need to make?”

But the end result was sort of constructing this curriculum that was pretty close to what an MIT student would actually take. Just a few little minor deviations or substitutions from one class to another but the scope of the content was pretty much the same. And so, I decided to start going through this. And I was going through some of the test classes, I found that, “Well, wait a minute. When you actually take a class online, you do it with this process where it’s self-paced.”

There’s actually some places that you can maybe even do things a little bit faster. So, it sounds a little crazy when I say that. How could it possibly be faster? Isn’t studying in MIT really difficult? And it certainly is. But there are some definite places where the way that you do it in traditional classrooms could be made a little bit more efficient.

So, one of the instances of that is that when you’re taking lectures, for instance, you sit in the classroom and you have to sit through the whole thing, even the parts where the professor is getting some water and getting the slides set up and all that sort of thing. Whereas, when you’re watching a video, you can watch it at, let’s say, 1.5 times the speed. And if you miss anything, or get confused, it’s not a problem because you just hit pause and rewind.

[03:12]

And I found there were a lot of little places that you can make those sorts of adjustments and that, combined with a lot of hard work, made me think of trying something a little bit more ambitious. And so, I did this project I called the MIT Challenge, which was to try to pass the final exams and do the programming projects for MIT’s computer science curriculum, but instead of going to MIT, just take it on my own and try to acquire the knowledge and skills without having to pay tuition and go to Massachusetts.

Pete Mockaitis
And how did it turn out?

Scott Young
So, the project went great. I think it went pretty close to how I expect it. I mean, it was a lot of work. I did work very hard over those 12 months, so I can’t certainly just gloss over that because it is a lot of work to learn those classes. But, in the same sense, I spent 12 months and I finished the classes as I anticipated, and I did the projects the way that I wanted to do them.

And so, I sort of ended, after that year, with having kind of acquired some facsimile or some close approximation of a computer science degree without having to spend the same amount of time and certainly a lot less money to actually get that education.

Pete Mockaitis
And your marks or whatever, in terms of the final exams were kind of on par with a C or better levels to that?

Scott Young
Well, that’s a sort of deep question there. It’s like, “How do you grade yourself and evaluated?” So, for a lot of the exams, there’s no, “This is an A grade, this is a B grade.” As you probably know in a lot of technical classes, they even grade on a curve for some exams. I talked to a friend who’s a professor, and he says, some of the exams where even a 35% is a pass just because the amount of content that you have to do in such a short period of time, you just can’t finish the whole exam.

And so, my goal for the exam was just relatively coarse. It wasn’t a super fine grading that I got, like, this was an A+ or this was only a C+ but rather it was just to see if I could get over a 50% benchmark in most of the classes. So, for some of the classes, I was closer to that benchmark, and for others I got 80%, 90%. It just sort of depended on the specifics of the actual class. But I uploaded all of the exams, I actually did, to the website where I put this page so anyone can look at what I actually did on those exams. You don’t just have to take my word for it.

Pete Mockaitis
And one day someone is just kind of grade you hard. This is like the weird recurring dreams I have. Like, I’m back in high school, you know, it’s going to come for you. That’s pretty cool.

Scott Young
Well, I’m sure, yeah.

Pete Mockaitis
So, let’s hear about a couple of those, while we’re in the story, a couple of those tips and tricks. So, one was 1.5x the video speed, another was just a ton of hours of your life invested doing this stuff.
Any other particular things that made that possible?

Scott Young
Well, so there are some other things that you can consider doing when you’re doing a class like this or when you are working on something in a self-paced way. So, one common thing you’ll do in class is that you have graded assignments. And because there are graded assignments, you have to go from start to finish, complete the whole thing, and make sure it’s as good as possible because, of course, you’re getting marks for it. Hand it in, and then maybe a week later someone will grade it and give you some feedback. Whereas, if you’re doing a self-graded assignment, you can do it one question at a time.

Now, this obviously makes it a little hard to actually grade it because doing an assignment from start to finish is, strictly speaking, harder because you’re not learning in between. If you’ve got a question wrong because you have the wrong formula, you don’t get to look at the solution to see what the right formula was, which you can then use on questions two, three, etc.

But from a learning perspective, I don’t see it as a disadvantage. It’s actually an advantage because you can go through and you don’t have to wait as long to get those feedback cycles to make improvements. So, that was one of the things I did.

I know from the show notes, when we’re talking, of some of the questions you want to ask me. Another thing we were talking about was techniques like the Feynman Technique and other tools to help you break down kind of complicated subjects. But these are all sorts of things that regular students can apply as well.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay, very nice. Well, let’s just get into maybe the goods. So, Ultralearning is kind of your brand and book title here and we have master hard skills, outsmart competition, accelerate your career. It sounds like the stuff you love to do here. So, can you just sort of lay it out for us, like what’s the key difference between, I guess, ultralearning and normal learning?

Scott Young
Yeah, so in some ways I think the MIT Challenge project that I did is a little bit of an exception because of how closely I was trying to match what you do in school. So, the idea of ultralearning, as I sort of defined in the book, is that it is a strategy for learning, it’s both self-directed and aggressive. So, self-directed is kind of in contrast to how we often typically think of what education, where you sign up for class, you sit in a class, the teacher tells you, “All right. You’re going to learn this, you’re going to do this homework,” and you just follow along the instructions. You often don’t have a lot of initiative or control over the process.

Whereas, self-directed learning is when you are kind of deciding, “Okay, I’d like to get good at this. What’s the right way to do it?” You design the project, you pick which materials you’re going to use, and you go through it, even if some of those materials are, let’s say, a class or held from someone else. And so, this is really putting the learner in the driver’s seat, which I think is very important because that often means you get what you want out of some education program rather than just what someone, at a college or someone I think in a classroom, decided that you should be learning.

Now, the second thing is the aggressiveness which I know I think that probably comes across when I’m talking about the MIT Challenge or other projects. But one of the recurring findings I found when I was taking the research that a lot of things that are somewhat more difficult at first are actually much more effective in terms of your ability to actually acquire skills and retain knowledge.

And so, a lot of students sort of unwittingly kind of adopt these studying tactics or learning methods that end up getting much worse results and that are not as efficient, require a lot more time. But if they did something that is a little bit more intense, they would get better results.

And so, ultralearning was sort of a combination of that, and I documented the book by finding these people who just had accomplished these really incredible self-education projects where they had learned really hard skills that are useful for their career and their life often in ways very different from how you would approach it in school.

Pete Mockaitis
So, why don’t we dig into one of those tales in terms of another transformation with regard to doing some ultralearning?

Scott Young
Yes. So, some of the examples in the book that I cover is Erick Barone who, he basically taught himself all the facets of video game design. That means doing the art, doing the music, doing the programming, doing the story-writing, everything, by himself over a period, this was a project he did for five years, and ended up writing a bestselling game which he ended up selling tens of millions of copies of.

We have people like Tristan de Montebello who is actually someone that I met before he did his ultralearning project, and he did want to get really good at public speaking. And over the course of seven months, he went from having about zero experience, just then having a handful of speeches in his entire life, to being a finalist for the world championship of public speaking through a process of doing lots and lots of speeches, but also getting feedback, videotaping his performance, seeking all sorts of unique ways to improve his skills.

And these are some dramatic examples, but a lot of the ways that I think this practice of ultralearning can impact your life are things that they may not be going to be bestselling novels, but they are things that really matter to the person who did them. So, people like Dinah Feisenfeld was another woman that I met in the process of doing this, who was a librarian. She was reaching near the end of her career, and she was facing the fact that the world doesn’t need as many librarians as they used to, and it’s a struggling field with budget cutbacks and stuff.

And so, she decided she was going to learn statistical programming and data visualization because she recognized that where her field was going was being able to deal with large volumes of information that were coming in about books and resources and these sorts of things. And so, taking on a self-education project, she was able to turn her career around so that instead of something becoming obsolete, she was becoming indispensable. So, I think these are just a few of the stories that I cover a lot more in the book of people who have accomplished interesting things.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, that librarian story really resonates with me, one, because I love libraries and, two, because, hey, that’s really a beautiful move from a career perspective in terms of, “All right. We’ll take a look around. What’s going on? What is really necessary? What skills are associated with that? And then, bam, I’m going after them.” So, that’s pretty inspiring in terms of what can be possible for all of us in terms of from zero to extraordinary in maybe a year or maybe less.

So, that’s awesome. Well, let’s dig into then a few of these key strategies. So, you had said one theme is that you do some approaches that are aggressive and that they’re more difficult at first, but more effective over the course of time. Are there any other kind of key distinctions you’d make between some of your learning strategies you advocate and typical school learning strategies?

Scott Young
Well, one of the main principles that I talk about in the book is the idea of directness and there’s actually a huge body of research extending back decades that basically shows that we’re very bad at what psychologists call transfer. Meaning, that if you teach someone something in a classroom, and then you try to test them in a way that is somewhat different from how they get it in the class, they often do abysmally on these tests even though you would expect the knowledge was transferred.

So, one example of that is in one study, economics majors did not do better on questions of economic reasoning than non-economics majors, which is something you would expect to have acquired after spending a number of years studying something intensively at universities. And there’s a whole constellation of findings that are all around this problem of transfer. And the problem, it seems to me, is that a lot of the ways that we think about education are quite indirect.

You go to a classroom, it’s removed from the real world, you learn some very abstract ideas, and then they say, “Okay, go off and apply it to the real world.” And what’s missing is that often people struggle to apply it to their real world. They struggle to apply these big abstract ideas, or these ideas that are quite removed from the context of their actual lives.

And so, ultralearning, in many of the cases that I looked at, was really tied to using the skill from a very early point. And by tying it to a very early point, you often avoid these problems where you spend a lot of time studying something that doesn’t turn out to be useful.

So, one of the examples of an ultralearner I talk about in the book is Benny Lewis who’s learned dozens of languages. And his approach for learning languages is to start having little conversations with a phrase book, or Google translate or something like that, from the very first day he starts learning it. And this is in contrast to how we often think about language learning where you get some big book and you work through a bunch of exercises, and maybe you spend months without having a real conversation with someone.

And so, by doing that, he is accelerating his process but he’s also making sure that when he does learn something, it’s going to be used immediately. And, obviously, the examples I already brought up about Eric Barone learning video game development often through working on his own video game, or Tristan de Montebello learning public speaking by doing these speeches, this is sort of in contrast to how we often think about the kind of sit and listen model of lectures and classes, which is so typical to our normal education process.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah. Boy, this reminds me of when I first learned how to podcast. I hunkered down with Pat Flynn’s YouTube videos, which were amazing, and I was like, “All right. Tell me what I’m doing. All right, now, I’m going to do it.” It’s like boom, boom, boom, boom, boom and it was pretty fun and rewarding because, to go from, “I have no idea what I’m doing,” to, “Okay, that’s what the guy said I was supposed to do,” to, “Oh, hey, I just did it. All right. What’s next? How do I get this RSS feed business going? All right. Let’s bring that out.” And so, it did really reinforce in such that it became second nature in a hurry.

Scott Young
Yeah, yeah. And I think that’s just one of the ideas but I think it’s a very important one because it’s one that’s often missed by people. If you think about learning in terms of going to a class or reading a book and doing a test, not to say that those things aren’t valuable or they’re not useful tools to get you to your destination. But if that your dominant paradigm is, “Well, I want to learn something, I’d rather sit in this classroom and do it this way,” you will often have these issues potentially, at least, of transfer where you want to have a real skill but you’re not actually able to perform it the way that you’d like.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Well, so that’s heady principle. Lay another one on us. I’d say I think you got nine principles and I thought I want to hit them all. But I’d love to get those that are the most transformational with regard to, “Okay, this only takes a smidge of time, but, wow, the results are delicious.”

Scott Young
Right. So, another one, and this is another one that’s, I think, not widely appreciated but is super powerful. It’s what is known as retrieval. And so, there is a really interesting study done by Jeffrey Karpicke and Janell Blunt where they took students and divided them up into different groups. And one of the groups they got to do what they called repeated reviews. That means that you have a text or you have some material that you’re studying, and you just read it over and over again. And this is very similar to how a lot of students study, they take their notes and just read them over and over again as they’re preparing for a test.

And the other group of students, they got them to do what they called free recall, which means you read the text and then you shut it, and you don’t read it again, and you just try to spend time trying to remember everything that was in the text. And what was interesting about this study is they asked the students right after they had done this, “How well do you think you learned the material?” And what was interesting is that people who did repeated review said, “I got this,” that they rated their own sort of self-assessment of how well they learned the material the highest. Whereas the people who did free recall were like, “Oh, wow, I don’t have this,” and they rated their own performance rather poorly.

Now, the interesting twist of this study is that when you go on to test the actual students, it is the people who did free recall that performed much better than the people who did repeated review. So, this is an example of one of these findings that we already talked about of directness, this idea of learning directly before, but retrieval is another example of this idea of aggressive learning and ultralearning where it’s not so much about putting in 80 hours a week, but rather, “What are you actually doing with that time?”

And, in this case, if you spend your time doing repeated review, which is an easier more comfortable activity, there’s no doubt about it. There’s a reason why students like to do it is because just flipping over your notes feels pretty good. It doesn’t feel too bad. Whereas doing free recall, which is often uncomfortable, which you often recognize, “Oh, wow, I don’t actually know this really well,” and you have a little bit of fear about this test coming up. That is not always the most pleasant feeling but yet it is much more effective.

And so, this is just another example of where if you want to remember something or if you want to actually have knowledge at your disposal for a test or for real life, that if you practice retrieving it, you will remember it much better than if you just review it over and over again.

Pete Mockaitis
Some people toss it and leave it but you pull up quick to retrieve it, is what I’m summarizing. See, I’m retrieving it right now, Scott, and connecting to rap music from my youth. Well, that’s intriguing. So, then to do the free retrieval or what do you call it?

Scott Young
Free recall.

Pete Mockaitis
Method of retrieval, you just sort of, I guess, you can do either just sort of speaking it or writing it and sort of saying, “Okay, what did you just pick up there?”

Scott Young
Right. So, there’s lots of different ways that retrieval can happen. So, free recall is the one that’s done at this particular study, and it’s a useful one because you don’t need anything. You just shut the book and you just try to remember it from the top of your head. You can write it down on a piece of paper, you can say it loud, you can even just do it in your head if you really wanted to.

Other forms of doing this kind of approach is one of them is doing practice testing which means if you do practice questions, so if you’re doing a physics exam and you do practice questions, that’s another form of retrieval because you don’t have the answer with you. And that is an example where you have to bring up the knowledge from your head.

Other examples, there’s a common type known as cued recall. So, cued recall is where you give someone a hint or you give someone kind of a small question in order to trigger the knowledge. This is very common in forms of flashcards. So, you have questions with answers on the back. And this is, again, a good way to recall information the long term because you have to practice remembering it.

I think the real lesson of retrieval is to not think of, “Well, I’ve learned something. Now it’s in my head and, therefore, it’s just going to be accessible to me whenever I want it.” But rather to think of retrieving knowledge of actually bringing it up in the right situation is often the very essence of learning, is to not just have the knowledge in your head somewhere but to be able to access it when you need it is what’s very important. And that’s what you’re practicing when you do retrieval. Whereas when you just do review, it’s sort of that kind of an analogical level where you can imagine your brain just sort of saying, “Oh, this is on the paper. I don’t need to remember that because it’s just there when I’m looking at it.

And I think this is also interesting because one of the reasons students get deceived into thinking this kind of reviewing your notes over and over again works really well is because it gets easier and easier the more you do it. And so, our brain substitutes the feeling of, “This is getting easier,” with, “I’m going to remember this in the future. And those aren’t necessarily the same thing. As anyone can remember being at a party, and someone says their name, and then two seconds later you don’t remember it. It’s for the same reason that you say to yourself, “Well, Mark, that’s a normal name,” and then you forget about it, right? So, there can be the same sort of effect where ease is substituted for how well you’ll actually remember something later.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, so I’m intrigued. So, I’m imagining these scenarios and these principles playing out. I can see how it readily applies to learning a language or a subject matter like physics. I guess I’m wondering about maybe communication skills with regard to you said you had an ultralearner who became a finalist in the global champions of public speaking. So, how does that sort of change things a bit in terms of, “I want to have a skill that I am using. Like, I can put up some drywall, or I can play a guitar, or I can give a good speech, or I can listen better”? Are there other principles that play into those more? Or how do we think about practicing in these dimensions?

Scott Young
So, as we mentioned before, there’s nine principles in the book, and some subjects, some particular skills are going to be like one of the principles are going to be particularly relevant for the fact that most people misapply it, and then for others it might not be super relevant. So, retrieval is one that tends to have to do with when you have to remember things.

So, interestingly enough, retrieval is actually super important for public speaking because you want to be able to remember your speech. And how do a lot of people memorize their speech? They write it on cue cards and they read it over and over again when they are reading it out and practicing in front of their coworkers or spouse or someone. Whereas, what you should be doing is putting the cards away and trying to recall it from memory because that’s how you’ll be able to actually repeat it without putting it on the cards.

But, really, being able to memorize a speech is just a really small part of what makes a good public speaker. And, similarly, if you’re playing a guitar, or you’re doing other things, there is going to be some retrieval. You need to actually memorize those patterns in a song or you need to be able to remember things. There’s a lot of other things that go into it as well.

So, another chapter, we discuss the idea of drill. And so, drills are something that have gotten a bit of a bad rap. We all remember drills that we were forced through in our elementary school where we were kind of punished and had to do the same drill over and over and over again until we mastered something.

And the problem is often just that when you are in a formal education environment, someone gives you a drill and you just have to do it a bunch, but you don’t really know why you’re doing it. Whereas, when you are doing a self-directed learning project, drills can actually be quite useful. And the idea behind a drill is that when we are practicing a complicated skill, like listening or putting on drywall as you mentioned, if you’re doing some skill like that, there’s often a lot going on. Particularly, the more complicated a skill is, if you’re playing chess, if you’re painting a picture, if you are juggling on a unicycle, there’s a lot of little components that all have to go into performing the skill well.

And so, ultralearners are people who are really good at this process of self-directed learning sort of instinctively know to break apart components of the skills which they can kind of practice in some sort of isolation and then weave back together with the sort of more complicated skill that they’re actually trying to perform.

So, Tristan de Montebello, who did the public speaking project, he was actually quite interesting in how innovative he was with doing some of these drills. So, on one of his goals, he wanted to work on his humor and some of his jokes, and so he decided to actually perform at middle schools because when he was performing in Toastmasters Clubs, people were very polite, they would certainly applaud and laugh along to what he was saying. But what if he wanted to know what people really thought, he would go to these grade schoolers who would not pull any punches if they thought his speech sucked.

And so, similarly, you can do the same thing when you are working on your own skills. Break it apart and work on components. So, if you’re a writer, you could sort of, let’s say, work on little mini efforts to get better at storytelling, or research, or grammar, or vocabulary, like that.

Pete Mockaitis
Intriguing. So, you’re breaking that into components and then drilling one of them repeatedly.

Scott Young
Well, the idea here is, well, repeated drilling can be one way of improving it, but the right way to think about it just that any skill you want to learn, and particularly the ones that we’re talking about that are not the kind that are usually taught in school, like listening, for instance, the right way to think about it is not, “Well, how the heck do you get better at listening?” It’s to think of listening of actually being many, many different skills that all kind of come together in one activity.

So, being able to listen is not only being able to hear but be able to pay attention. It’s about having some knowledge of what the speaker is talking about. It’s about being able to respond in such a way with your body language and your words so that they can tell you’re listening, have constructive comments, do not react emotionally. There’s tons and tons of little things there.

So, if you wanted to get better at listening, a good starting point would be to look at your skill right now, try to see kind of how it breaks down, practice doing some listening with your spouse and sort of see where you’re making mistakes. And then, what I advocate in the book is that you either focus on the thing that your weakest on, so you focus on your weakest point rather than just some random point to improve.

So, if you’re really bad at listening because you get distracted really easily, that could be something to focus on. And, similarly, if there is too many components, so you’re trying to do many things at once, so, again, like you’re juggling with the unicycle, that might be too hard when you start. So, you start by just juggling one bowling pin, and then you add two, and then you add three, and then you add the unicycling like that.

So, there’s lots of different ways you can think of skills, and I outline some of these specific tactics in the book. But this is the right way to think about these sorts of nebulous skills and things we want to be good at in life that really are quite complicated.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, so these are a lot of good little tidbits. I’d love to get your take on is there a particular sort of small adjustment that makes a huge difference? Would you put the retrieval toward the top of your list? Or is there another thing that you’re thinking, “Wow, this makes a world of difference for leverage”?

Scott Young
Oh, there’s tons, yeah. Well, the retrieval is an obvious one. So, if you’re doing anything that you have to pass a test for, you should be practicing retrieval and not doing repeated review. And, again, the fact that most students don’t do this is a real tragedy because they waste a lot of time and they really convince themselves they’ve learned something that they haven’t.

I also talked about directness which is another one. One of the questions that I encourage anyone who reads the book, anyone who’s listening right now, to ask themselves before they try to learn anything, to ask themselves, “Where am I going to use this?” And this doesn’t mean that where you’re going to use it has to be super narrow, and that like, “Well, I’m only learning Spanish so that I can go to a restaurant in Mexico and order fajitas.” Like, it doesn’t have to be that narrow for your end goal. But if you can focus on that little concrete starting point, you’re much less likely to get adrift with these transfer issues.

One of the principles that I open the book with is what I call meta learning, so this is the idea of learning how to learn something, and that’s something that is important for all learners, but particularly important if you’re going to take on your own project and try to design it. And this step is just simply before you start learning anything, just Google, “What are the best resources for learning X?” or, “What are the best methods for learning X?”

And if you spend an hour or two on Google just reading some articles, you will quickly find tons of books, tutorials, videos, textbooks, tons and tons of resources that you can choose from. And so, the actual, the literature on adult learning or self-directed learning projects shows that most people, when they are learning something, they just go with whatever is first available. So, they just, “Oh, one of my friends, he knows this, so I’m just going to ask him,” or, “This is the first book I found at the bookstore, so I’m going to read that.”

And I find that spending a little bit more time to do research avoids a lot of pitfalls because you actually know, “Oh, actually, a lot of people don’t recommend this for learning a language, for instance, because they didn’t find that it works.” And you can save yourself six months of playing around with it. And so, that’s, again, another little tip that I suggest for people to undertake.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, I really like that in terms of being conscientious and mindful of what are the tools and resources you’re looking to for your learning because it’s really true, there could be—I’m thinking about some of my favorite classes. Like, there’s some textbooks that I just thought were excellent and I still with me today because I thought I enjoyed reading this and learning this.

And like one topic was social psychology. I mean, I’m sure there are lamer social psychology textbooks than the one I had. And if I had them, I probably would have less knowledge as a result of being saddled with it. And I also think about that with regard to sort of Amazon reviews or if you take a gander at a book, you can look inside, you can check out the table of contents, you can read a couple of pages. And it’s wild how two books on the same topic will be substantially different in their resonance with me as I get into them a bit, like, “Wow, this is really kind of lame and boring and no fun,” as opposed to, “Whoa, this is a page-turner and it’s still non-fiction content that is skill developing.”

Scott Young
Well, the sort of analogy that I like to use is that when you are preparing for learning projects, it’s a little bit like packing a suitcase. You don’t want to pack your entire house and bring 15 bags for a weekend vacation. But, at the same time, you don’t want to show up somewhere with nothing, and you have to buy everything on the road because that’s no fun.

So, the right way to think about it is you do a little bit of researching ahead of time. And the amount of research you do, I think, scales with your project. I was mentioning, when I was doing this MIT Challenge project, I spent a few months just sort of researching on and off in my spare time because I knew it would be a pretty serious undertaking. Whereas, if you’re planning on doing something, which is, you know, it’s going to take you maybe a couple of weeks to learn, then maybe just spending an hour or so on Google is probably sufficient.

And so, the right way to think about it is just that there are lots and lots and lots of different ways to learn everything. And so, a lot of people get stuck in whatever was first recommended to them because that’s just what they go with. And if that isn’t working for you, if that book isn’t working for you, the course, what have you, using a different tool, or at least being aware that different tools and methods exist is very important. I think that’s particularly true of practical skills like, let’s say, languages, or programming, or using Excel, or drywall repair, as we were talking about earlier.

Pete Mockaitis
Now, you mentioned the Feynman Technique a couple times, so I just can’t resist. Let’s close the loop here. What is that and how is it helpful?

Scott Young
Yeah, so the Feynman Technique was a sort of idea that I kind of pieced together from reading smatterings of Richard Feynman’s autobiography where he talks about some of his processes that he used to learn things. Now, it’s probably not the case that he used exactly this method, but he did seem to use similar cognitive processes in the work he was doing so I called it the Feynman Technique sort of after my inspiration from him.

And the basic idea is that if there’s some idea that you don’t understand, it’s particularly useful with difficult conceptual kinds of classes, if you’re learning physics or math or biology, or you have to study for a tough accounting exam, or there’s some concept in your work that you don’t understand, you start with a piece of paper and you write at the top, “Understanding X,” so whatever you’re trying to learn. So, it could be understanding torque, or understanding macros, or whatever you don’t understand.

And then you try to explain it to yourself as if you were teaching it to someone else. And this does a couple of things. The first thing that it does is just by writing, you are taking advantage of the fact that by writing things down you can get things out of your head so it’s easier to deal with the more complicated topics. So, a lot of ideas in our head are sort of hard to think about all at once especially if they’re confusing. But if you write them down, they start to make more sense. So, very often you can start and you just write from start to finish, and you’re like, “Oh, I don’t know what I thought was so confusing about it. It actually makes sense now.”

On the other hand, if you are genuinely confused, and there is genuinely a sort of puzzle piece missing to assemble the whole picture, then doing this process will help you narrow in on where that piece is missing. So, as you write through this, you say, “Oh, I don’t understand steps four to five in this procedure I’m supposed to follow. Why am I supposed to do it this way?” And then, with that knowledge, you can go back to your book, you can go to an online video, you can ask a colleague, a boss, someone who knows something, you can ask them, “Hey, why is it like this right here?” And then the advantage is that instead of asking a super nebulous question, like, “Oh, I have no idea what this thing is about it all,” you can just ask them a very specific question where you’re more likely to get a useful answer.

And so, I sort of first wrote about this idea about eight years ago, and it’s since been really popular. A lot of people have put their own videos and tutorials online demonstrating the Feynman Techniques, so it’s really been something that’s helped a lot of students, and even a lot of professionals, deal with confusing problems and ideas in their life.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. So, at the top of the page you’re writing, “Understanding the topic,” and then you’re writing down, you say as though you’re explaining it to someone else. And so, I guess I’m imagining maybe it doesn’t matter if you’re writing down sort of extemporaneous bullet points versus full texts, prose.

Scott Young
I tend to do full text prose. It depends a little bit on your style. Like, obviously, this makes it more time-consuming, but I think that’s one of the benefits is that if I were to explain some idea, I would sort of say, “Okay, so the first thing we have to understand about this idea…” Like, pretend you’re giving a lecture, and you don’t have to write it on the page. One advantage you can do is just say it loud. And the main advantage of doing this is that it helps you organize your own thinking so you can identify some of these gaps in your knowledge.

Another advantage is that one of the main limitations we have is we have limited working memory. So, working memory is kind of the workbench of the mind, so to speak, where you take all the little memories and sensory inputs, and you sort of assemble them together to new thoughts and solutions. So one of the challenges is that this workbench is kind of famously small that when researchers measure it, we find that we can only actually have a few ideas in mind simultaneously without having one of them be forgotten.

And so, because of this, if you have a device where you can write it on a piece of paper, or you can even like write it out on a board, or do something like this, you can offload some of those ideas so you can focus on the parts that matter. Whereas, if it’s in your head, you can often feel like a jumble where everything is bouncing around.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah. And I love what you had to say with regard to when you zero in on that, it’s great for you because you’re focused, and it’s great for your teacher or your resource because it just brings me back to memories of school in which there’d be a student who would just say, “I don’t get it.” And you can tell the teacher was so frustrated with him, and it’s like, “Could you be more specific?” Because there may be a dozen points of entry that they’ve got to now got to navigate and select one as opposed to going right for the jugular that’s going to make the impact.

So, good stuff there. Now, I want to get your take, so the aggressive part and learning in general can be awkward, frustrating, unfun when you feel like you’re flailing and stupid and on the early stages of learning stuff. How do you think about discipline or mindset so that you can stick with it?

Scott Young
So, one of the things that I like to think about a lot is, “How do you structure your environment? How do you structure your goals and plans so that you don’t have to just have this constant feeling of willpower?” So, one of the mistakes I think a lot of people make is kind of, ironically, they actually are a little bit too easy. What they do is they’ll say, “Oh, you know, I’ll just work on this whenever I have time.”

Well, the problem is whenever you have time is always going to be more fun in the moment to pull out your smartphone and play on some game, or go on Twitter, or watch Netflix, than it will be to do some learning activity, especially in the beginning stages where you maybe haven’t yet entered that zone of positive feedback where you’re feeling constantly reaffirmed that you made the right choice to learn this thing.

And so, what I often find is, “How can you structure your environment and your time to just make sure that, ‘Okay, well, when I’m doing this, this is the only thing around me. I’m not distracted. I can focus. I can actually apply my time’?” And then often there’s little other subtle things that you can do to avoid kind of your little dips or your weak points when you’re doing things.

So, one of the big things you can do is get setup. So, for learning a lot of skills and tasks, the major obstacle is just getting setup. Like, if you’re going to paint a painting, you need to buy paints and an easel and brushes and make sure you have all the materials, and get the newspaper laid down, and all that kind of thing.

If you’re learning a programming language, very often the most frustrating part of learning to program is just getting your computer setup so that you can program. Or, for learning a language, for instance, very often one of the major difficulties is that because everyone around you speaks to you in English all the time, it’s always a little bit of friction, always a little bit of difficulty to push outside of that and start speaking a language you want to learn.

So, in the book, I often talk about ways that you can use little tricks to kind of get yourself to move forward. So, a really minor one, but one that made a big difference for me, as I was learning a new language, in this case it was Chinese, and I had to do a lot of flashcards. I was doing a lot of flashcards as part of the process of acquiring Chinese vocabulary. And one thing I noticed with myself is whenever I would mess up a flashcard, meaning that I got the wrong answer, there was this immediate pang of, “Ugh, I hate this,” or frustration. And that frustration immediately led to the urge of, “Let’s put this away. This is enough studying for now. Let’s go do something else.”

And what I found is that that little pang of frustration was actually really short-lived. So, what I could do was is if I just made a rule to myself that I was only allowed to quit when I’ve gotten one right, or the most recent one right. What that meant was that, yeah, sometimes I would get frustrated, but very often I would persist for much, much longer because as soon as you got one right, then you’re going to get a bit of positive feedback and you want to keep going.

And so, I think by thinking about your own behavior and your own habits and your own projects in this kind of systems level view, rather than just, “Hmm, I’m just going to put in lots of willpower,” I think you’ll get better results because very often it’s these very subtle things that if you can adjust, you can go much further.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, that’s a great rule there, “I’ll only quit, right after I get one right,” because once you get one right, you’ll feel good and you want to keep going. And, two, you’ll end on it on a high note as opposed to remembering, you know, primacy and recent effects. Like, instead of remembering that session as a huge drag that you painted, it’s like, “Oh, yeah, I got it. Cool.” And so, you’ve got that memory with you to reinforce you starting up the next time.

Scott Young
Absolutely.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, tell me, anything else you want to make sure to mention before we shift gears and hear about some of your favorite things?

Scott Young
Well, I would say that my main focus with this book and the reason that I sort of obsess myself with learning over the last decade is that I think for a lot of people, learning is something practical, it’s like, “Okay, I’ve got to get from point A to point B.” But I found, from doing these projects, and I found in my own experience mirrored in other people that I met that, really, it’s much more than that. That often what our greatest moments in life, the most we fear, the most happy, fulfilled are when we expand our own sense of what we’re capable of and what our possibilities are.

And so, I remember talking with Tristan de Montebello, he was the guy with the public speaking project, and I remember him telling me, he’s like, “You know what, Scott, it’s not that I just got good at public speaking, that that was I was excited about, but that this totally changed how I will approach any project in my life in the future,” that just all these skills and things that he would like to learn just seem to open up in front of him, that he kind of considered before.

And so, my main motivation for writing this book was not just to give people some practical tips, although we’ve talked about lots of them, but so that they may have that own experience in their life where something that they thought, “You know what, well, there’s no way I can learn this because I’d have to go back to school, and it would be tons of agony for years, and it’ll be painful. I won’t be able to do it.” That they could open themselves up whether that’s to learn something, a new hobby, a new language, a new instrument, a new skill, or maybe even transition to a new career, or really upgrade their skills in their career so that they can do a job that seems kind of terrifying for them right now.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, now, can you share with us a favorite quote, something you find inspiring?

Scott Young
So, one of the quotes, and I’m going to modify it a little bit because I really like it, but this is a quote from the motivational speaker Zig Ziglar, and he says, “Happiness is not pleasure. Happiness is victory.” And the thing that I’d like to modify it to is kind of really into what I was saying that I think that “Happiness is not pleasure. Happiness is the expansion of possibilities.” So, I do think that it is when we achieve things, it is when we expand, when we feel like we’re capable of that, we have our happy moments, not just when we get a reward or something nice happens.

Pete Mockaitis
And how about a favorite study or experiment or bit of research?

Scott Young
Well, I can tell you right now one of my favorite ones is the one that I talked about in this book which is this one by Karpicke and Blunt about the retrieval versus repeated review. And it was so brilliant just because it just fit entirely with the idea of how students think about learning and what actually works.

Pete Mockaitis
And how about a favorite book?

Scott Young
So, a book I would recommend, which has been my favorite book for last year, is called The Enigma of Reason by Hugo Mercier and Dan Sperber, and this book is basically challenging the idea of what we think we are doing when we are thinking and reasoning about things. And I found it to be a very interesting book because it explains so much of why we argue about things, and also how we can think smarter in our lives.

Pete Mockaitis
And how about a favorite tool, something that helps you be awesome at your job?

Scott Young
Right. So, I’m going to go really basic but I really like reminders, just to-do lists. And I know that sounds a little like a little bit too basic, everyone wants to use advanced tools, but I find making lists very helpful. So, I have a list for my to-do items, but I also have a list of ideas, and books I should read, and restaurants I should go to, and projects I’d like to work on, and things that someone said, and quotes, and I probably got a dozen more lists on my computer.

Pete Mockaitis
And how about a favorite habit?

Scott Young
So, related to that, I think one of the best habits you can do is, before you go to bed, plan your day in the morning. So, plan what you’re going to do in the next day. So, that could be just as simple as writing it out on a to-do list, “I’m going to do these eight things tomorrow,” or it could be as specific as figuring out what you’re going to do with each chunk of time. But I think the more you plan things ahead of time, the more you figure out how you’re actually going to use them, you’re less likely to succumb to doing the easiest thing in the moment.

Pete Mockaitis
And if folks want to learn more or get in touch, where would you point them?

Scott Young
So, if you want to reach out to me, you can go to my website at ScottHYoung.com, and you can find my contact form there. You can also reach me by writing to personal@scotthyoung.com. You can send me an email. I would definitely love to hear if anyone has applied some of these methods or if they go out and get the book, and decide to do their own ultralearning project, what they’ve decided to use it for.

Pete Mockaitis
And do you have a final challenge or call to action for folks seeking to be awesome at their jobs?

Scott Young
So, the point I’d like to leave with this is one that we did mention before, but is something that I think is so important that I’d like to end it again considering we’re talking about the recency effects, is the idea that whenever you want to learn something, you should always start by asking yourself, “What is one concrete situation that I can use this in? And how can I do a little bit of my time practicing or applying it in that situation?” You’ll go a lot further if you can think of your learning in terms of, “How do I do things?” rather than just putting abstract knowledge in your head.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Scott, this has been a lot of fun. Enjoy your learning.

Scott Young
Oh, thank you so much.

453: Why Generalists Succeed and How to Learn Like One with David Epstein

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David Epstein says: "Breadth of training predicts breadth of transfer."

David Epstein explains why and how generalists tend to achieve more.

You’ll Learn:

  1. How focusing on short-term improvement can undermine long-term development
  2. Pro-tips for breaking through your learning plateaus
  3. The benefits of becoming a jack-of-all-trade

About David

David Epstein is the author of the book Range: Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World, and the top 10 New York Times bestseller The Sports Gene. He was previously a science and investigative reporter at ProPublica, and prior to that a senior writer at Sports Illustrated. His writing has been honored widely.

David has his master’s degrees in environmental science and journalism, and is reasonably sure he’s the only person to have co-authored a paper in the journal of Arctic, Antarctic, and Alpine Research while a writer at Sports Illustrated.

Items Mentioned in this Show:

David Epstein Interview Transcript

Pete Mockaitis
David, thanks so much for joining us here on the How to be Awesome at Your Job podcast.

David Epstein
Thank you very much for having me.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, I’m excited to dig into the stuff but, first, I want to hear about your work as an ecology researcher in the Arctic.

David Epstein
So, I studied geology and astronomy in college and, afterward, I worked in a plant physiology lab and that led me living in the Artic in the far north of Alaska, a place called Toolik Lake, where I was basically studying the radiation that plants give off in an effort to sort of help try to understand how the carbon cycle might change as that area warms and the permafrost melts a little because most of the ground is frozen there, so when there’s melt, a lot of nutrients are liberated and they can cause like major changes to the plant life which can cause changes to the carbon cycle.

Pete Mockaitis
Intriguing. And so, how long were you there and what was life like up there?

David Epstein
Yeah, I was basically there for, well, you couldn’t be there a lot of the year because you couldn’t get supplies, so you can only really be there for like half the year basically. I loved it actually. So, it’s technically a desert and I love deserts because even though it’s lush on the ground and the air is cool enough year-round that there’s not much atmosphere and demand for water so you don’t get much rain even though there’s a lot of fog and slush on the ground.

And so, all the plant life is really low to the ground, and so in the middle of summer, when it’s basically light all day and you’re sort of seeing this, the sun go down and just come right back up and all the plant life is low, you can see really far and make for some great hiking. I thought it was beautiful. Some people felt it was desolate who were up there but I loved it.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, yeah, I’m curious if that isolation can serve as just amazing, creative, energizing time, or like, “I am going insane.”

David Epstein
Yeah, I’m more on the creative, energizing side, and I think like when I asked, after my first book, people would often ask, “How did you write it?” and I really don’t know how to answer that question because I’m not really sure. Every project is kind of different. And I asked my wife once, I asked her, “How did I write it?” and she said, “You went upstairs and came back down two years later.” And so, I’m pretty good at spending time on my own for projects and being quiet out in the expanse of nature. It’s definitely more creative and invigorating for me than a feeling of isolation.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, cool. And you’ve recently channeled your creative energies into another opus, a grand tome, I’m excited to talk to you about. So, maybe why don’t we start with some of the most fun tidbits in terms of what would you say is perhaps the most surprising and fascinating discovery you made while you’re putting together your book Range?

David Epstein
For me, it was this idea that there are things that you can do that cause really rapid short-term improvement that can systematically undermine your long-term development. So, to that point about surprising, I’ll mention the single study that was probably it’s certainly one of the most surprising in the book to me was this one that was done at the U.S. Airforce Academy where they had a setup that you would never be able to recreate in a lab because basically they would get in a freshman class of, whatever, a thousand students, or several hundreds of students, and those students all had to take a sequence of three math courses: Calculus 1, Calculus 2, and then a third course.

And they were randomized to Calculus 1 to a professor, and then re-randomized for the second course, and then re-randomized for the third course, and they all take the same tests. So, these researchers recognized that this was an excellent natural setup for studying the impact of teacher quality, or teaching. And so, the finding of this study was that the professors who were the best at promoting contemporaneous achievement, that is whose students overperformed on the Calculus 1 test the most compared to the baseline characteristics they came in with, those students, then, systematically underperformed in all the follow-up courses.

So, the professors whose students did the best in Calculus 1, they rated those professors the highest, then went on to underperform in future classes. And what the researchers concluded was that the way to get the best results on the Calculus 1 test was to teach a more narrow curriculum that involved a lot more what’s called using procedures knowledge where you learn how to execute certain procedures and algorithms and you don’t learn more of what’s called making connections knowledge where the curriculum is broadened and you’re forced to kind of connect types of concepts and learn how to match strategies to types of problems as opposed to just execute procedures.

And so, when they’ve moved on into these other courses, those students who had the more narrow curriculum were systematically undermined. And that’s sort of one of the themes that runs through Range are the things you can do that seem the best in the short term sometimes undermine long-term development, and I thought that was just an amazing display of that and an amazing study.

Pete Mockaitis
Wow. It’s sort of like the items that were being covered on the final test is sort of like, “Yeah, he drilled on real good over and over and over again and thoroughly,” but sort of at the expense of getting some broader conceptual understanding of how the math number, calculus, stuff is working I guess more globally.

David Epstein
Right. And that’s what they, then, would need, that’s what then would help them kind of scaffold later knowledge, so they didn’t do as well in those other classes. First of all, that was just deeply counterintuitive finding to me, but also, so I remember, for example, the professor, out of a hundred, whose students I think did fifth best on the Calculus 1 exam, and he got the sixth best student ratings overall, was dead last in what the research called deep learning, that is how his students then did in the follow-on courses.

And so, that’s really kind of worrisome. The fact that a lot of these strategies, and that chapter four of Range is about these learning strategies, and a lot of those strategies cause the learner to be more frustrated, to not do as well in the short term, and to rate the person teaching them worst. So, that’s kind of worrisome because these professor ratings may not be a good indication of what someone is learning. Their own assessment of their own learning in the short term may not be a good indication either. So, that’s, I think, something that’s important to be aware of.

Pete Mockaitis
And so, I’d be intrigued then to correlate that, if you were to sort of draw some parallels into the professional working world, in terms of how might we be shooting ourselves in the foot if we’re trying to master a certain narrow domain of work.

David Epstein
Yes, so let me give another example that came out of the research that I think relates to this. So, in this one study, people who were playing the role of, basically, simulations of naval officers, essentially, and they were being trained to respond to types of threats based on cues. And one group would practice threats where they would see a certain type of threat again and again and again and again, and they would improve and learn how to respond to it. And then they would see the next type of threat again and again and again, and so on.

The other group would get all these different types of situations all mixed up, and that’s called interleaving, and that kind of training is often more frustrating, it slows down initial progress, the learner will say that they didn’t learn as much, and all those things. And then both groups were brought back later and tested on situations they hadn’t seen before. And in that scenario, the interleave group performs much better than the other group because, again, they’re being trained to sort of match strategies to problems as opposed to just how to execute procedures.

And I think that goes for anything we’re trying to learn. I think our inclination is usually to pick up a new skill and do it over and over and over, when, really, we want to vary the challenge a lot early on so that you’re building these broader conceptual skills. And not only do you want to vary the challenge, but I think when we think about, at least in my life, the sort of formal professional development that I’ve been exposed to as opposed to kind of the informal professional development that I do on my own, is always coming away where it’s like, “Okay, here’s the topic, you’re going to learn this topic, and then you move on from it forever.”

And, in fact, the best way, we should actually use what’s called the spacing effect where you learn a topic and then you come back to it later, and that sort of helps you solidify it. So, one of the famous studies here is two groups of Spanish vocabulary learners who one group was given eight hours of intensive study on one day, and the other group was given four hours on one day, and then four hours again a month later. So, they all had the same total study.
Eight years later, when they were brought back, the group that had the space practice remembered 250% more with no practice in the interim. And so, I think we should apply that to anything we want to learn instead of just doing a topic and moving on from it. You don’t have to do it as intensively but you should wait until actually you’ve kind of forgotten it and then come back to it and do it again. And that’s how you like move it into your long-term memory basically.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, that’s really cool. And it seems like this is drawing some connections for me with regard to, we had the Korn Ferry CEO Gary Burnison on and we were talking about their top competency that maps to all sorts of career successes, what they’re calling learning agility which is sort of the notion of sort of knowing what to do when you don’t know what to do.

David Epstein
That’s really important.

Pete Mockaitis
And so, that would make great sense because as you sort of rise in the ranks and you encounter more and more ambiguous and puzzle-some and, “I have no idea what’s going on” types of issues, the more that you struggle those things the more you’re raring to say, “All right. Well, let’s see how we go about figuring this out.”

David Epstein
Yeah, and I think that gets at sort of a link between the two things we’re both talking about in this classic research finding that can be summarized as breadth of training predicts breadth of transfer. Transfer means taking your skills and knowledge and attempting to apply it into a totally new situation that you haven’t seen before. And breadth of training breeding breadth of transfer basically means the broader your early training was, the diversity of the situations you’re forced to face, the more likely that when you’re in a totally new situation, you’ll be able to will that knowledge and transfer that knowledge to that new situation.

Pete Mockaitis
I see. Okay. So, now, would you say that’s sort of the main idea or thesis behind Range or how would you articulate it?

David Epstein
No, I think that’s just part of this, the theme of Range that is, I mean, the overall theme is sort of that society may overvalue specialists and undervalue generalists. But the theme beneath that, to me, is again that these things that are the most efficient ways to get the quickest improvement, whether that’s telling someone to specialize right away, or practicing in this repetitive specialized way, is often not the way to get the best long-term improvement.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah. Boy, there’s just so much, so many implications to that in terms of if you think about sort of what you’re measuring and if you think about training or learning or development things. It’s sort of like you often don’t have the luxury of checking in sort of months or years later to see how we did. And so, there’s all kinds of systematic forces that would point us to doing just the opposite of that.

David Epstein
Yeah, totally. This project, in some ways, started in the sports world for me and only the introduction of Range is in the sports world but one of the things that got me interested there is that there’s this incredible drive to early specialization in youth sports. And then I went and looked at what the research says about optimal development, and it says that athletes who want to become elite, typically, have what’s called the sampling period where they play a variety of sports to gain these broader physical skills, scaffold later learning. They learn about their interests, they learn about their abilities, and they delay specializing until later than their peers who plateau at lower levels.

And I was looking at that, and then you see what was actually going on, and sort of saying, “Gosh, all these forces are pushing the opposite direction of that in the United States.” In Norway, which is like is, for me, probably the best sports country in the world per capita right now. There’s an HBO real sports on that’s showing they have embraced this stuff and changed their sports development pipelines.

But when I was living in New York until recently, there was a U7 travel soccer team that met near me, and I don’t think that anybody thinks that six-year-olds can’t find good enough competition in a city of nine million people to travel, right? It’s just that there’s these other forces at work, like those kids are customers for whoever’s running that league. And so, all these other forces militate against what we know about optimal development.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Well, so then what do you think is to be done in terms of if you’re a professional in a workplace and you want to develop well and over the long haul such that you have a fruitful career and rise and achieve all of your career dreams? What are some of the key things you recommend folks do?

David Epstein
Yeah, so let’s say you want to be an executive, which I think a lot of people would like to be at some point. LinkedIn recently did some research at looking at what were the best predictors of who would become an executive, and they have these incredible sample silos so they did this in a half a million members. And one of the best predictors was the number of different job functions that an individual had worked across in an industry.

And so, I think our intuition is to say, “Pick a job function and stick with it and drill into it and carve your niche and get specialized.” But, in fact, these people who sort of probably developed a more holistic view of their industry and how to integrate different types of skills are the ones who go on to become executives. And so, they are getting that breadth of training. And so, when it comes to having to do these more complex problems, they’re probably better equipped.

So, LinkedIn’s chief economist’s main advice was, “If you want to be an executive, work across more job functions.” And I think that’s good advice but I think you can do things short of that in a lot of ways. Like, learn what your colleagues do, learn more functions at your own work, because our natural inclination is to settle into our competencies. And as we settle into a rut and we get competent enough, I was talking to the economist Russ Roberts, he said it’s a hammock because it’s comfortable that’s why we don’t get out of it. And I was thinking, I want to make a weird analogy here.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, please.

David Epstein
When I was getting into my last book, I didn’t write about this, but I was reading some scientific literature on speed typing, okay? How fast is speed typing?

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, I’ve been looking into speed typing. Continue.

David Epstein
Really?

Pete Mockaitis
Well, yeah, I had a recent guest talk about how that’s one of the top skills you can use to sort of accelerate your performance in all kinds of things because a lot of typing that’s going on. And I’m a fan of the website Keybr I think it is, which sort of helps you get fast at typing fast. So, anyhow, my interest is piqued. Please continue.

David Epstein
Okay. So, yeah, so the idea is we all, like at first when you’re learning typing you make a lot of improvement and you get to whatever you get to, 60, 70, 80 words a minute, whatever you get to. And then you plateau and we pretty much all stay there at very good but not great. And it turns out there’s all these strategies that you can use to get like twice as fast, and they’re not even that complicated. Things as simple as you’d use a metronome, you take it up a little bit, and keep up with it even if you make mistakes, whatever.

There’s a bunch of strategies to get like twice as fast. But what it suggested to me is that our natural inclination that just experience will get us to a certain point but then we stop naturally improving just with experience. We sort of settle into that level of performance. And I think that’s kind of true of everything.

And so, we’re in danger as we get more experience and get more comfortable of not developing new skills anymore. We have to try new things. And I think that’s good both because it can get you off a plateau. When I was on a plateau stuff at writing this book, I decided to take an online fiction-writing course and it worked beautifully to help with the problem I was stuck with.

And so, I think it works because it can help get you off a plateau, but also one of the other main ideas in Range is this idea of match quality, which is the degree of fit between an individual, their abilities, their interests, and the work that they do. And good match quality turns out to be very important for your motivation, your performance, and the only way to improve your match quality, it turns out, is to try some things and then reflect on those experiences and keep sort of pinballing, doing that, and with an eye toward improving that match quality.

So, like the Army, for example, has created a system called talent-based branching where they were kind of hemorrhaging their highest potential officers since basically the start of the knowledge economy where those young officers could learn skills that they could laterally transfer into other types of work. And, at first, they just threw money at those officers to try to keep them, and that didn’t work at all. The people who were going to stay took the money, and the people who were going to go left anyway. That has a half a million dollars.

And then they started this thing called talent-based branching where instead of saying, “Here’s your career track. Go upper out,” they say, “We’re pairing you with this coach-type figure and here’s a bunch of career tracks, and just start dabbling in them, and your coach will help you reflect on how did this fit with your talents and your interests. And we’ll do that so we can get you better match quality.” And that’s actually turned out to work better for retention because when people have high match quality, they want to stay. There’s a saying that I quote a research in the book, saying, “When you get fit it will look like grit because if you get a good fit, people will work harder.”

Pete Mockaitis
Well, I’m glad you brought up grit because that’s something I want to talk about. You say that there could be a problem with too much grit. What’s that about?

David Epstein
So, I think for listeners who maybe have probably heard the concept of grit, I’m guessing. But the psychological construct came out of this survey where it started as a 12-question survey where half the questions were points for resilience basically and the other half for consistency of interest. And so, you lose points if you sometimes abandon a project for another one or I think you change interest, and things like that.

And the most famous study, what was actually done on cadets going into West Point, so future Army officers. They were trying to get through what’s called east barracks, that’s the U.S. military Academy’s six-week orientation where it’s physically and emotionally rigorous. And grit, that survey turned out to be a better predictor of who would make it through these than more traditional measures that the Army used. And although most people make it through, which is great, but in the study. I feel like Angela Duckworth and her colleagues, I’d give them a ton of credit because some of the critique I write about in the book comes like directly out of their own papers and it’s kind of like lost in translation, I think, where those people in that study were highly pre-selected for a number of qualities.

Pete Mockaitis
Absolutely. Got to get that Senate recommendation, Congressional letter. That ain’t easy.

David Epstein
That is what statisticians call restriction of rank problem. So, if you’ve truncated a lot of variables by selecting a small group out of humanity, so it makes the other variables exacerbated. But they were also pre-selected for this very short-term six-week goal, right? And life isn’t a six-week goal. So, when we looked at the longer timeline, again, like half of these people basically leave the Army almost the day that they’re allowed.

And so, high-ranking Army officials said, “We should defund West Point because ‘it’s an institution that taught its cadets to get out of the Army.’” And that’s not the case, right? And those people didn’t just lose their grit. It’s that they learned some things about themselves, which tends to happen in that time period, the fastest time a personality change in your life is 18 to your late 20s, but it continues changing faster than people think over your life, and they decided they wanted to go do something else.

That’s why throwing money at them didn’t work where talent-based branching did because it’s giving them some control over their career path and their match quality, and trying things and then changing direction is basically essential to improving your match quality. And if you’re not willing to do that, then you’re just hoping for luck in your match quality. And I think if we thought of our careers the way we thought of dating, right, we would never tell people to settle down so quickly.

Pete Mockaitis
“Just stick with that gal. She’s great.”

David Epstein
For some people that might be a good idea.

Pete Mockaitis
“You have four dates. Don’t quit.”

David Epstein
I thought I was going to marry my high school girlfriend and at the time that seemed like a good idea. And then I had more experience in the world, in retrospect that wouldn’t have been a good idea. And I felt the same way in my approach to jobs. Some jobs I thought I was going to stick with, I thought I was going to be a scientist. In retrospect, that wasn’t a good idea for me, but I didn’t know that until I tried that stuff.

Pete Mockaitis
And so, I’m intrigued then when it comes to sampling, I’d love it if you could share some of your favorite kind of tactical tips with regard to, “How can I get a lot of sampling going?” So, you talked about, “Hey, talk to work colleagues who are in a completely different functional area. Maybe check out an online course.” What are some other means of sampling?

David Epstein
Yeah, I kind of take this approach from someone’s work I love that resonated with me because I had career change, or changed directions several times, from a London business school professor named Herminia Ibarra. And she has this quote I love, “We learn who we are in practice, not in theory.” Basically, what she means is this psychological research shows that we’re not like so great at intuiting our own talents and interests before we have a chance to try stuff, we actually have to try the things, and then learn about ourselves. Act and then think, instead of think and then act, as she says.

And so, for me, I kind of started a book of experiments where just like when I was a science grad student, I’ll say, “Here are my skills now. Here’s some things I want to learn. Here are things, some weaknesses. Here’s my hypothesis about how I might be able to work on this.” And then I’ll go try something and see if that works.

So, again, I mentioned this online fiction-writing class I took, right? So, I got stuck in structuring my book, and I needed to do something different. And so, I go take this class, and among the things I was made to do was write with only dialogue, and write with no dialogue at all. And after doing the no dialogue at all, I went back to my manuscript and stripped a ton of quotes and replaced them with my description because I realized I was unconsciously coming from usually doing shorter-form types of things. I was leaning on quotes to convey information in a way that is not really good writing. And that’s not even the improvement I was looking for. But just getting out of my normal mode of doing things gave me this huge advantage.

And so, I try to do that regularly. Like, people might be familiar with this research “The Strength of Weak Ties” like your new job usually comes not from the people core in your network because they’re kind of doing this, you know those options already, and a lot of them are doing things similar to you. It comes from these people that you are several degrees away from but you can get connected to.

And that’s what Herminia Ibarra’s work shows, that when people find better career fits, it always comes from some key whole view, like they take some class, or they go to some event, or they meet someone at a dinner party and sort of ignites an interest, and then they start testing it little by little, getting in a little more and a little more until sometimes they make a full transition.

And so, I’m constantly doing those experiments with my book of experiments. So, I think everybody should constantly be doing this, “What do I want to work on? Here’s my hypothesis for how I could do that. I’m going to go try that thing.” Then reflect on it and put it in your notebook and keep going forward. And I think even keeping that, what I call that book of experiments, prompts me to constantly be doing that in a proactive way, whereas there was a period when I was at Sports Illustrated, for example, where I very much settled into something I felt come to that and just did over and over for a while, and took a while till I realized, “Gosh, I’m actually not adding to my skills here.”

Pete Mockaitis
And I really like that just sort of the fun exercise you mentioned with the writing, with regard to all dialogue and no dialogue, and then how that filters in forever. And that reminds me, boy, back in my AP, I guess, English composition or rhetoric course in high school, our dear teacher Judy Feddermier, that was sort of like each week that was the challenge. It was a different kind of a challenge associated with the writing, like, “Okay, this time you are not to allow to use any to be verbs. No is, no are, no was, no were.” I’m like, “This is crazy.” And I just used one, “This is crazy.”

And so, but sure enough, I was like, “Yeah, this writing is a little awkward,” but it’s what you sort of kind of back to being able to use some. You realize, “Oh, boy, having fewer of them sure sounds better in terms of more active and exciting and lively than a bunch of is’s and are’s.”

David Epstein
Yeah, and I think it sort of just gets you out of that. Because the interesting thing is and sort of almost like troubling thing to me when I did that with the no dialogue, and went and changed my manuscript, was that until then I didn’t realize that I had been kind of unconsciously doing something I’d gotten used to. And it took doing something different for me to think about that which is annoying. I wish I were just like perceptive enough to realize that without having to get kind of knocked out of my normal mode but, really, I wasn’t.

Pete Mockaitis
And so, I guess, I’m wondering then, in the whole universe of essential skills you might choose to start experimenting and dabbling in to add to your repertoire, is there a means by which you think about prioritizing them? Or is there just sort of, “Hey, there’s a glimmer of interest here. Let’s see what happens”?

David Epstein
Yeah, that’s a good question. Usually, I kind of always have some project or other that’s either in some stage of development, and my projects tend to be quite different. And so, there’s usually something related to my project that’s either like an area of knowledge maybe that where the project is kind of driving those in some way, where it’s I know I need to, that this book is going to be the biggest structural writing challenge I’ve ever had, therefore like I need to improve my skills. So, usually it comes out of something that I’m otherwise doing, and realizing what’s the new part of that challenge.

So, I will say, when I’ve taken on these bigger projects, like my first book was the hardest structurally to organize all the information writing challenge I ever had, and this book was much harder than that one. And so, I think the one thing I’ve done a pretty good job of is taking on these projects that are kind of in the optimal push zone where they’re not so over my head that I simply can’t do it, but they are definitely stretching me to the point where I have to think about learning new things.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, that’s fun. And I’m also wondering about sort of things that you hate. So, one approach is there’s a glimmer of interest or sort of what skill is necessary to develop there. And I’m wondering about because when you’re talking about in terms of sort of this inefficiency or doing a wide breadth of things such that it’s more frustrating and less fun sort of the in the early stages, but then you have some cool capabilities later on as a result of doing it.

I guess I’m wondering to what extent would a chasing after skills that I’m just currently very bad at, I’m thinking about sort of home improvement and being handy type skills right now, so kind of the opposite of intellectual, “Hey, we’re having rich conversations and thinking about the themes and summarizing them well, and marketing and reaching audiences,” like all that stuff is like very different than, “Okay, I got to drill and I’m trying to make this thing go there and not make a huge mess.” Is there a particular value in doing stuff you hate?

David Epstein
I don’t think you should necessarily do it over and over if you hate it unless it’s really essential to something you’re doing. So, when I first started doing some lab work en route to what I thought I was being a scientist, my expectation was that I would love it and this was what I would do for the rest of my life. And what I found out was that was not necessarily the case, and that was an important thing to learn.

And, conversely, I’m a fairly new homeowner, and the last thing I would’ve thought I would ever be interested in was plumbing, for goodness’ sake. And, it turns out, it’s kind of interesting actually. Like, we had some stuff we had to fix and I started to find this sort of interesting. So, I don’t think you should do anything with plumbing if you hate it, but I do think you might find things that you a priori would think you wouldn’t really like, then when you actually try them might be more interesting than you thought. And, vice versa, things that you expected to love that maybe not so much.

Pete Mockaitis
Interesting. So, it sounds like it’s worth at least an hour or two to see what happens.

David Epstein
One of the things I write about in Range is a so-called end of history illusion. This is psychology of finding that we all realize that we, based on our experiences and everything, we have changed a lot in the past, but then think we will change very little in the future. And we do this at every time point in life, if we say we change a lot in the past, and then proceed to underestimate how much we’ll change in the future. So, it leads to all these kinds of funny findings.

So, one just sort of humorous one is, because people underestimate how much their taste will change, if you ask people how much they would pay for a ticket to see their favorite band, their today favorite band to 10 years from now, the average answer is $129. And if you ask how much they would pay to see today their favorite band from 10 years ago, the average answer is $80, because we underestimate how much our taste will change.

And the thing is personality actually changes over the entire course of your life, and one of the predictable changes is as you become older, your openness to experience, which is one of the big five personality traits, declines. But doing new stuff that you’re not used to can actually stop that. So, there are these studies where older people are in that decline phase, and this is a trait that we know is very much correlated with creativity. And these old people were trained on things like certain types of puzzles, okay? And even if they didn’t get better at the puzzles, they became more open to experience. And so, I think there’s also these personality reasons that are associated with creativity to do stuff that is just outside of anything else you’re doing if you want to stem that decline of openness to experience.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, I think what’s interesting about that is it might be hard to even dream up or conceive like what is that thing because it’s so not in your current world. Do you have any tips on how to kind of spark that prompt or stimulus in the first place?

David Epstein
For me, and this has been a long-running thing is I go to libraries and bookstores because those are places where I find interests that I didn’t know I had. And that’s why I value those places so much because, nothing against Amazon, but, yet, the algorithm works in a way that it sends me things I’m interested in and that I think I’m interested in, and it doesn’t send me the things that I don’t know I’m interested in basically.

Pete Mockaitis
Right.

David Epstein
And so, when I do this more natural browsing which, by the way, I consider the willingness to go to libraries now like a competitive advantage for me because I think people don’t do it anymore. But those are the places where I find these things that I did not know I was interested in, and that’s why I really value them. That’s why I make sure I go to those places instead of just only ordering my reading material, and I’m a big reader on Amazon.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, I’m a huge fan of libraries and, boy, now, you’ve got me kind of excited just to see what would happen if you just went kind of blind into a stack, grabbed a book, and say, “I’m going to read six pages and see what happens.”

David Epstein
When I go into like a local bookstore or something like that, I don’t go, like if I really need a book right away and I know what it is, I will order on Amazon, and if I really need it quick, I’ll have it on my Kindle. But when I’m going into like bookstores, I’m not going for a particular thing. I’m going to look around and I always end up with something that I didn’t really expect.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s cool. Well, can you tell me, if folks are inspired, they’re thinking, “Yes, David’s Range that’s what’s up, I’m all about it. I want to get some more skills, be more interdisciplinary,” are there any kind of watch-outs or warnings or mistakes that are associated with this endeavor?

David Epstein
Well, I think people are probably pretty aware of the jack-of-all-trades-master-of-none sort of syndrome. Like, you don’t want to get cast as someone who doesn’t know anything. And I think it’s actually pretty culturally telling that the end of that phrase, that adage, jack of all trades master of none, is oftentimes better than master of one, but we’ve totally dropped that part and I don’t think we even know it. And I think that’s because there’s sort of this bias against breadth. And so, I do think there’s that danger of signaling to other people that you don’t really know anything about anything.

Pete Mockaitis
It sounds dangerous.

David Epstein
Yeah, and I think that’s actually one reason why. So, I was just at…maybe a lot of people have heard of Motley Fool. You know Motley Fool? I was just at an event of theirs, and there was a survey on a video screen and the audience could vote with their phones. And the survey was, “What do you think is the average age of a founder of a breakout startup on the day of founding, not when it becomes a breakout?” The choices were 25, 35, 45, 55, and the overwhelming favorite was 25.

And the answer is actually based on research from MIT and the Census Bureau is 45 and a half. But we sort of think of this, you know, Mark Zuckerberg, when he was 22 and famous, he said, “Young people are just smarter.” Like we think of Tiger Woods, even though that’s not the normal typical model, and Mark Zuckerberg, it’s these very dramatic stories of youthful precocity that we think of as the norm, but actually the people who become these really successful entrepreneurs usually bounce around a fair bit first.

And I think what a lot of them end up doing, I describe people like this in Range, is they get this mix of skills that maybe other people sort of look down upon, but it leaves them with this intersection of skills that creates new ground where they’re not in direct competition with someone. They’re trying to do something new, and they have to create their own ground, and they often become entrepreneurs, sometimes because they have to. And that can be really good but it can also be really challenging because you can kind of end up, and I think especially so, in this year of LinkedIn, which I think is a great tool, but also allows HR people to make a much more narrowly-defined job and still have a ton of candidates.

And so, in Range I talk about the work of Abbie Griffin who studies so-called serial innovators who make these repeated major contributions to their companies. And her advice to HR people is basically, “Don’t define your job too narrowly because you’re going to accidentally screen these people out because their traits are like they’ve often worked across domains, they have a wide range of interests, they read more widely than other colleagues, they have a need to talk to more people in other disciplines, they like to use analogies from other disciplines, they often have hobbies that seem like they might be distracting,” but that those are the traits of those people, and her concern is that HR people will see them as scattered and not as focused on any particular area.

So, I think the real concern is of the signal that might be sent to people who are in a position of making personnel decisions.

Pete Mockaitis
Absolutely. Well, thank you. Well, David, tell me, anything else you want to make sure to mention before we shift gears and hear about some of your favorite things?

David Epstein
I think specialization made a ton of sense when we were in more of an industrial economy, when people were facing similar challenges repeatedly and that was when those Army officers did not move outside of the Army with nearly as much frequency because other companies, specialists were facing the same challenge, and they were ahead, and you can’t catch up. But in the knowledge economy, some of the patent research I looked at in Range shows that it’s basically just since like the late ‘80s forward where the contributions of more generalists inventors.

So, in this research, the generalists are defined as people, their work is spread across a larger number of technology classes, as class is a patent office, whereas the specialists drill more into a small number or a single technology class. And both of these types of people make contributions, but the contributions of those people who are broader have been increasing with the knowledge economy.

And so, I don’t think this has always been true that generalists have these special, or broader people have these special contributions to make, but I think it’s sort of a function of the fact that with our communication technology, information is rapidly and thoroughly disseminated. And there are many more opportunities, for combining knowledge in new ways as opposed to just creating some totally new piece of knowledge.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, that makes sense. Now, could you share with us a favorite quote, something you find inspiring?

David Epstein
I love that quote from Herminia Ibarra, “We learn who we are in practice, not in theory.” That’s one that’s like really stuck in my head because I don’t totally know what I’m going to do next, and I’m thinking about things. And so, that’s really affected the approach that I’m going to take.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. And how about a favorite book?

David Epstein
Right now, I would say that my favorite book, gosh, I read a lot so this changes from time to time, but right now, I would say my favorite book is probably War and Peace, the Anthony Briggs translation, so I read multiple translations when I got really into it. And I didn’t realize, I was just reading it because like I was going through this website that aggregates all great book list, and I was trying to just like go down some of the greatest books.

And it is a novel, in the form of a novel, it’s actually Tolstoy’s refutation of the great man theory of history, and he uses Napoleon as the main character, and argues, and he does like some journalistic reporting on those events, and argues that, well, Napoleon was really an effect not a cause of these larger forces basically.

And so, he had these historical essays. And the story, his writing is amazing. But I also found that argument really interesting, and that led me to read this essay about a philosopher Isaiah Berlin based on War and Peace where Isaiah Berlin used these two types of characters he analyzes in War and Peace the foxes and the hedgehogs. The hedgehogs know one big thing, and the foxes know many little things.

And those hedgehog and fox constructs were then borrowed by Philip Tetlock, the psychologist, to do the work that’s featured in my chapter 10 of people who develop the best judgment about the world and about political and economic trends, who know many little things instead of one big thing. And so, it was really cool, you know, that research I was already interested in, to see in War and Peace sort of where those ideas of the fox and the hedgehog via Isaiah Berlin’s philosophy as it where it came from. So, not only did I enjoy the book for its own right, but it really made me think about some modern research in an interesting way.

Pete Mockaitis
And how about a favorite tool, something that helps you be awesome at your job?

David Epstein
Oh, my goodness. I would die if I didn’t have Searchlight on. That’s why I have to be a Mac user because I basically, the organization system I use is writing lots of words in various things that I think I would search if I wanted to find it. And so, I’d probably use Searchlight 500 times a day.

Pete Mockaitis
And a favorite habit?

David Epstein
Running, if you count that. I’m a very avid runner.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, sure thing. And is there a key nugget that you share often that tends to get sort of quoted back to you frequently?

David Epstein
In my first book, The Sports Gene there’s like I did some data analysis of body types, and this one part that mentions that if you know an American man between the ages of 20 and 40, who’s at least 7 feet tall, then there’s a 17% chance he’s a current NBA player. And, yeah, people mention that to me a lot.

Pete Mockaitis
I just think it’s funny that a very specific numerical tidbit is what people are sticking with.

David Epstein
Yeah, I tell you, I’m really bad at predicting at things for my own books that people are going to latch onto versus the things that I latch onto the most. It’s kind of an interesting experience.

Pete Mockaitis
And if folks want to learn more or get in touch, where would you point them?

David Epstein
DavidEpstein.com is my website, and I’m davidepstein on Twitter.

Pete Mockaitis
And do you have a final challenge or call to action for folks seeking to be awesome at their jobs?

David Epstein
Yeah, I think if I can really talk to someone it would be managers, and say, “Do your own form of talent-based branching where you allow people to explore some of their other interest and talents, and help them reflect on those experiences.” I was on the podcast for The Ringer, Bill Simmons. He runs probably the most popular sports podcast in the world, and he used to be ESPN’s most popular writer, then he did something on HBO and that kind of failed. And now he started his own company, and it’s one of the happiest workplaces I have ever been in.

And one of the interesting things was people who were hired to edit like online articles, some of them have become like seriously famous in the sports world podcast personalities with huge followings, and that’s because once they’re in that company, he’ll say like, “Okay, come try on a podcast for a little bit and see how it goes.” And it seems like people have an opportunity to basically try their hand at whatever the company has to offer. And a couple of the people who came in, in these more kind of quotidian jobs have become like famous, and it was a happy workplace. So, I think he’s really onto something with sort of letting people try their hand at things in a way that like doesn’t really damage anything too much if it doesn’t go well.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s cool. Well, David, thanks for this. I wish you tons of luck with Range and all your adventures.

David Epstein
Thank you very much.