Learn Hard Things Quickly

What Is Needed To Learn Hard Things Quickly

In Deep Work, Cal Newport quotes a Dominican friar named Antonin-Dalmace Sertillanges who wrote a short volume titled The Intellectual Life. In the short book Sertillanges writes, “To learn requires intense concentration.”

 

Newport continues to explain his views of learning and how his views align with Sertillanges, “To learn hard things quickly, you must focus intensely without distraction. To learn, in other words, is an act of deep work.”

 

We cannot learn when we are not focused on the material in front of us. We might pick up on headlines and a few trite lines when we brows a news article while watching TV, but we won’t do any real learning. Additionally, if we really need to make sure we understand some new material, we cannot attempt to study and pick up on what we need to know if we are checking our email every 15 minutes, notified about updates from our social media platforms, and continually interrupted by the world around us. We must cultivate spaces that allow us to devote time and attention specifically to the material at hand.

 

Newport describes what we need to do as deliberate practice, a term coined by a Florida State University professor named K. Anders Ericsson. “This brings us to the question of what deliberate practice actually requires,” writes Newport. “Its core components are usually identified as follows: (1) your attention is focused tightly on a specific skill you’re trying to improve or an idea you’re trying to master; (2) you receive feedback so you can correct your approach to keep your attention exactly where it’s most productive.”

 

Deliberate practice does, Newport also explains, seems to develop increased myelin layers around neural circuits related to the activity we want to master, “Keep in mind that skills, be they intellectual or physical, eventually reduce down to brain circuits.” Myelin acts as an insulator for those neural circuits. The more myelin around a brain circuit, the quicker the neural pathway operates and the more it becomes easy and automatic. Deliberate practice helps promote the myelination of the pathways involved in the activity we focus on, even if that activity is focus itself.

 

Practice within deep work makes us better at doing deep work. Learning is a deep work process, and one that we can improve as we practice improving our focus. As our neural pathways become better at focusing and avoiding distractions, we will be able to maintain a state of focus for longer, and as a result our work and learning will improve. Conversely, allowing ourselves to drift in and out of focus and allowing our mind to be continually distracted prevents us from developing the crucial myelin insulation around the brain circuits needed for deep work. This means that when we need to focus on something, we won’t be able to, and without being able to focus we won’t learn, and we won’t be able to adapt to take on new challenges and opportunities. Without developing our focus skills and neural focus pathways, we will not prepare ourselves for the future and for a world that requires quickly mastering complex ideas and processes.
Deep Work in the New Economy

Competition in a New Economy

I am afraid of working in job that doesn’t provide much stimulating and interesting work and which drains my time and energy for when I am not at work. I want to have something to do that keeps me engaged, rewards me for being focused and interested in the world, and which provides enough flexibility for me to have a life I can still enjoy. In the opinion of Cal Newport in his book Deep Work, there are three kinds of people that will be able to find careers of the kind I desire. He writes, “In this new economy, three groups will have a particular advantage: those who can work well and creatively with intelligent machines, those who are the best at what they do, and those with access to capital.”

 

I don’t have a lot of access to capital, and probably won’t move in that direction with my life and career, but I can prime myself for working with intelligent machines (if that opportunity opens up in my life), and I can certainly strive to be the best at what I do, no matter where I find myself.

 

The two avenues that are open to me have one thing in common: deep work. Newport describes how these two avenues tie into deep work: “two core abilities for thriving in the new economy: 1. The ability to quickly master hard things. 2. The ability to produce at an elite level, in terms of both quality and speed.”

 

We need to be flexible, quick to learn, and efficient at producing high quality work if we want to be the best at what we do or if we want to be able to work creatively with intelligent machines. Technology is changing quickly, and whether you code, work with a certain type of machine, or produce material in a certain format, you need to be able to adjust with new technologies and innovative ways of using those technologies to produce and deliver work. As I wrote before, you will also need to produce high quality work, or what you do produce will be ignored and overlooked.

 

Deep work is crucial for success in a new economy. If you cannot focus, you cannot quickly master hard things, you will always find yourself behind the technology curve. Also, if you cannot engage in a distraction free manner with important ideas and topics, you won’t find yourself at an elite level in terms of what you produce and work on. Your work won’t be able to stand the test of time, and you will be passed over for those who can produce more elite level work. This is where I find myself when considering a career and considering how I approach each day. If I am not building those skills, then I am not preparing myself for an economy that demands focus, creativity, and attention.
The First Value of Deep Work

The First Value of Deep Work

“Deep work is not some nostalgic affectation of writers and early-twentieth-century Philosophers,” writes Cal Newport in his book Deep Work. “It’s instead a skill that has great value today.”

 

A tension that I think a lot of us face (I know its true for me) is that we are pulled in two different directions when it comes to media and information. The news cycle moves so fast today that it feels hard to keep on top of whats happening in the world. We all want to feel connected and feel like we are in the know, and we like being the person at the water-cooler who has the latest information about some nationwide or global event. We have a drive to constantly stay on top of what is happening right now.

 

Pulling against this urge is the desire to know interesting things and to consume media that is thoughtful, thorough, and interesting. It is one thing to know what is happening in the world right now, but it is an entirely different thing to truly understand the context and antecedents that gave rise to the current news cycle.

 

The first desire we have is to know new things about the world, the second desire is to truly understand the world. One desire encourages shallow quick headlines, while the other desire encourages deep thoughtful engagement. It is very challenging to do both.

 

Cal Newport’s suggestion is to shoot for the latter. Learning and engaging with complex topics requires real focus and deep work. The value from the second will far outlast the first. The first value of deep work that Newport shares in his book reads, “We have an information economy that’s dependent on complex systems that change rapidly. … To remain valuable in our economy, therefore, you must master the art of quickly learning complicated things.”

 

Staying on top of the news simply requires that we flutter around on Twitter, absentmindedly distracting ourselves and taking in a few headlines and quotes without thinking critically about how it all links together and exactly why people are reaching the conclusions they reach. This is does not develop the skills that are necessary for quick learning, even thought it is a quick way to sort through information.

 

Learning complex things quickly requires that we be able to engage in deep work and focus on the most important items. Failing to build these skills and abilities means that you won’t be able to truly master changing technologies and markets. You will be left behind reading headlines about changes, without actually understanding changes and adapting to them. Deep work is valuable because learning and critical thinking are both becoming more valuable, and both require deep work in order to be done well and timely. The answer then to how we should handle the tension I mentioned above is to more or less abandon the headlines and give up on staying on top of the news. We might look a little uninformed to others about current world events, but we will have a better background and understanding of what is shaping the world today than the others around us, and we will be able to learn the important lessons faster.

Taking Issues of When Seriously

I wrote earlier about moving school start times to a later hour for high school students. In most school districts across the United States, our high school students start the day the earliest, and our elementary school students start the latest. Research, however, shows that swapping that order and pushing high school students’ start times back would improve learning as measured by test scores, reduce traffic accidents, and help high school students get more sleep.

 

Nevertheless, changing school schedules so that high school students start the day later would be inconvenient for adults, and we also have the idea that we need to push high school students to start their day early to prevent them from being staying up all night long with video games and social media. We choose not to consider the when of school start times, even though we will spend hours debating what books should be read in English class and whether art should be a requirement.

 

As Dan Pink writes in his book When, “We simply don’t take issues of when as seriously as we take questions of what.”

 

School start times are only one instance where we deprioritize the when. As far as I can tell, we operate with many inefficient whens in our lives without anyone taking much action to really change them. Many of us are now knowledge or service workers, and we often work 8 hour shifts for no obvious reason. Our work start times are all pretty uniform, and with our consistent 8 hour shifts, we also end at the same time, putting a huge strain on infrastructure for just a few short hours every morning and evening.

 

I see only a few whens that really seem to count for a lot in our daily lives. The start time of our work, the duration of our work, and the end time of our work. These whens are crucial and often inflexible. Every other when in our lives seems to be crammed around those three.

 

What I find disappointing, however, is that we don’t actually ask if those three whens make any sense. We focus on the whats all the time: did a report get finished, did we reach a sales target, what did the student learn? But we don’t often ask these questions in a meaningful way in relation to time: could the report have been finished in half the time, when should we reasonably expect to reach a sales target, what is the best time for student engagement with math versus art?

 

Asking if someone was at their desk at 8 a.m. and if they stayed at their desk for a full 8 hours doesn’t really tell you if they were effective or efficient. This isn’t a valuable way to look at time in our modern world and economy. Our when can be a lot more flexible, and increased flexibility, I would argue, can help improve the outcomes we actually want to see. Thinking differently about the when would help us to do better work and interact better with our world. We don’t need to hold on to rigid expectations about the timing of work or school, what we need is to find avenues to help people produce the best work and learn the most effectively.

Start High School After 8 A.M.

I’m a super early morning person and I have been since high school, but I was definitely a bit of an anomaly in high school and throughout college. Most high school students, not necessarily through their own poor decision-making or bad habits, go to sleep a lot later at night and don’t wake up very early. It is a pattern that is made fun of in families and in popular culture, but it is a pattern that seems to be pretty stable and should be considered when we think about designing a school system for teenage children that maximizes their educational opportunities and efficiency.

 

This is an argument that Dan Pink presents in his book When. In most places in the United States, my hometown of Reno being one of them, our high school students have the earliest start time. Middle school students head to school next, and our elementary age children start school the latest. This allows us to have three different bus schedules that pick up the oldest kids in the early morning, then get the next youngest group, and finally get the little guys. What we prioritize is an efficient bus schedule that feels safe for our youngest kids, not necessarily our kids learning.

 

The problem with this schedule is that it is a bit backwards for our oldest and youngest children. Our younger kids tend to wake up a little sooner and would actually do better than our teenagers with starting school early in the morning. Teenagers need just as much sleep as kindergartners, but rarely get enough. Moving school back for them would actually help them get more sleep and be better students. Their learning would improve, their driving would be safer, and hopefully outcomes for our high school students would be better in the long run.

 

Pink references a study of start times for schools writing, “one study examined three years of data on 9,000 students from eight high schools in Minnesota, Colorado, and Wyoming that had changed their schedules to begin school after 8:35 a.m. At these schools, attendance rose and tardiness declined. Students earned higher grades in core subject areas of math, English, science and social studies and improved their performance on state and national standardized tests. At one school, the number of car crashes for teen drivers fell by 70 percent after it pushed its start time from 7:35 a.m. to 8:55 a.m.”

 

I understand that we don’t want to encourage teenagers to stay up all night on phones and computers, and I recognize that many people would be afraid that pushing the start of school back would do just that, but as it is now, we force teenagers into settings that are not conducive to learning. We make them start school early, prevent them from getting enough sleep, and put them in dangerous situations due to fatigue. What our current system reveals is that we value efficient bus schedules and perhaps a feeling of safety for our smallest kids over the actual learning that is supposed to take place in school. Perhaps it is fine to express our values this way, but we should take a critical look at the learning taking place in our schools and make sure that we are ok with the values we prioritize when it comes to our children’s school schedules. Making a switch would likely help our students learn more and save lives, two outcomes that should be high priorities for society and our education systems.

Signaling Work Potential

“In 2001, the Nobel Prize was awarded to economist Michael Spence for a mathematical model of one explanation for these puzzles: signaling. The basic idea is that students go to school not so much to learn useful job skills as to show off their work potential to future employers. In other words, the value of education isn’t just about learning; it’s also about credentialing.”

 

The quote above is from Kevin Simler and Robin Hanson’s book The Elephant in the Brain when the authors talk about why we go to school and what purpose education is serving for our society and for us as individuals. Education costs have been rising and we continue to encourage everyone to go to college. Several presidential candidates on the Democratic side have even put forward plans for free tuition. The idea at play as college tuition rises, as we push everyone toward college, and as our candidates outline plans for everyone to be able to afford college is the idea that higher education is all about learning useful and valuable knowledge that will help every individual and our entire society become more productive and better functioning. We want smart people with extensive education to drive our society forward, and college is the way to make that happen.

 

However, if much of our education is about signaling, then what will happen if we push everyone to go to college? Some students will learning useful information, important skills, and will develop in ways that they could not if they hadn’t pursued higher education, but will it benefit all students? If much of our higher education is about attaining credentials to stand out and show off, then won’t we simply diminish the status and credentials of those who do go to college? There are arguments to be made for and against free college tuition and it is important to understand what is happening with each to develop a better argument and discussion around higher education.

 

First, we must admit that sometimes college is just about signaling and getting a piece of paper to check a box on a job application. By acknowledging that piece, we can start to move forward and think about what opportunities we want to help provide to people. It seems to me that everyone should have a chance to move forward and pursue the education benefits we applaud, but it also seems reasonable to say that we should not overly subsidize what is often just signaling behavior.

 

For those who simply want the credential and don’t care much for the knowledge opportunities along the way, perhaps a greater development in training and education specific to a technical trade or craft would be a better option. Perhaps a less costly signal that focuses more on doing than learning is a valid alternative to the standard higher education model. With an alternative avenue in place, perhaps we can appropriately decide what level of subsidy should be provided to those who do want to go the traditional college rout. Perhaps existing colleges can also adjust to make their signals stronger, while also encouraging more learning as a side goal.

 

I’m not sure what a perfect path forward looks like, but I know we won’t move in the right direction if we believe that education is only about learning and growth. Some of us will learn a lot and demonstrate clear growth in college, but many of us will simply lose time as we strive for more credentials and attempt to signal to future employers that we are the kind of person they should hire.

The Argument That College Isn’t About Learning

In The Elephant in the Brain, Kevin Simler and Robin Hanson make an argument that we create stories and narratives around how our world operates that make us look as good as possible. We have systems and structures in place that provide us with convenient reasons for behaving the way we do. These convenient reasons are socialable, put us in the best possible light, and make us feel good about ourselves. Simler and Hanson argue that below this surface lie our true reasons and our hidden motives for our behaviors.

 

One area they look at is education. Nominally, we tell everyone that we are going to school to learn something, to prepare ourselves for the future, to build new skills, to make new connections, and to gain new experiences. What we don’t say is that we are going to school to check a box, to gain a credential, and to simply look more impressive to other people. Education is supposed to be about learning and information, not about padding a resume and trying to simply gain something in a personal and selfish manner. Their argument about education relies on a lot of research that is also discussed in Bryan Caplan’s book The Case Against Education, which I have not read but is referenced in The Elephant in the Brain and who I have heard on several podcasts. To suggest that education is about something other than just the learning we are supposed to do, the authors write,

 

“Consider what happens when a teacher cancels a class session because of weather, illness, or travel. Students who are there to learn should be upset; they’re not getting what they paid for! but in fact, students usually celebrate when classes are canceled. Similarly, many students eagerly take Easy A classes, often in subjects where they have little interest or career plans. In both cases, students sacrifice useful learning opportunities for an easier path to a degree. In fact, if we gave students a straight choice between getting an education without a degree, or a degree without an education, most would pick the degree-which seems odd if they’re going to school mainly to learn.”

 

Sometimes we do learn useful things in school. Sometimes we really do gain new perspectives, have new and meaningful experiences, and grow though our coursework. But students don’t seem as focused on the learning in most areas (some technical degrees at the university level might be different) as simply getting through and getting a diploma. Education includes a lot of signaling aspects that are just as important (if not more important) than any learning we might do.

 

Education tells people we are the kind of person who can earn a degree. Good grades tell potential employers that we are the kind of people who can figure out what is demanded of us, and we are the kind of people who will then do what is demanded. Much of what we learn we will forget, and once we get on the job we will be expected to do a lot of training to learn how to do the actual thing we were hired to do based on our education. We learn a bit in school, but we also signal a lot about ourselves in the process.

Curious Conversations

In The Elephant in the Brain authors Kevin Simler and Robin Hanson investigate human communication and ask why we are so quick to speak, communicate, and share information we have acquired, even if we acquired that information at great personal costs. Humans communicate a lot, and we generally like to be the one talking and expressing something about ourselves and our experiences. The problem however, is that it would make more sense for us to do all the listening, and only talk when absolutely necessary or when we were getting a reward.

 

If I spend a lot of time reading a book and learning something interesting and useful, I should desire a reward for the cost of learning the information I know. Before I write a blog post about interesting information, pontificate at the water cooler, or tell my family something I find fascinating, I should ask to be compensated. Instead, what we usually see, is that we can’t wait to tell people about the interesting thing we have learned. We expend a lot of effort in learning new information, and then we give that information away as quick as we can to anyone.

 

We also don’t do a great job listening. Rather than spending a lot of time absorbing what the other is saying, we prepare ourselves for what we are going to say next, missing the entire thing that is actually being said as we mentally prepare for our turn to talk. From an economic standpoint, this does not make sense.

 

“We aren’t lazy, greedy listeners. Instead we’re both intensely curious and  happy to share the fruits of our curiosity with others.” Write Simler and Hanson, “In order to explain why we speak, then, we have to find some benefit large enough to offset the cost of acquiring information and devaluing it by sharing. If speakers are giving away little informational ‘gifts’ in every conversation, what are they getting in return?”

 

I’ll explore this idea a little more in coming posts, but the authors argue that conversation is not really (at least not solely or even primarily) about conveying information. We do a lot of group and alliance signaling in our conversation. We show how creative and insightful we are. We demonstrate to others that we are willing to go learn new and useful information that can benefit the whole group and we show how altruistic we are by sharing this information which we acquired at a great cost. These are important but often unrecognized or unacknowledged parts of our communication. When we speak and when we share information, we are doing much more than just telling people what is inside our head.

Building Models and Examining the World and Our Thoughts

This morning listening to an episode of Conversations with Tyler, Russ Roberts, the guest on the show said something that really stood out to me, “I used to believe that…my models described the world, as opposed to gave me insight into the world.” We operate in a world where there is no way for us to ever have complete information. There is simply too much data, too much information, to much stuff going on all around us for our brains to perfectly absorb everything in a reasonable and coherent way.

 

You do not notice every blink, you could never possibly understand every chemical’s smell that makes up the complex aroma of your coffee, and you can’t hold every variable for that big business decision in your head at the same time. Instead, our brains filter out information that does not seem relevant and we key in on what appears to be the main factors that influence the world around us. We build models that sometimes seem like they describe the world with spectacular clarity, but are only a product of our brain and the limited space for information that we have. Our models do not reflect reality and they are not reality, but they can give us an insight into reality if we can build them well.

 

No matter what, we are going to operate on these models in our daily lives. We develop a sense of what works, what will bring us happiness, what will create well-being, and how we will find success. We pursue those things that fit in our model, toss those things that don’t fit in the model to the side, and somewhere along the line begin to believe that our model is reality and criticize everyone who has a model that doesn’t seem to jive with ours.

 

A more reasonable stance is to say that we have developed a model that gives us insight into some aspect of reality, but is open for adjustment, improvement, or could be scrapped altogether in favor of a new model if necessary. The only way to do this is to be an active participant in our lives and to work to truly understand ourselves and the world around us. The quote from Roberts on Cowen’s podcast aligns with the quote that I have from Colin Wright today. From Wright’s book Becoming Who We Need To Be I have a quote reading, “It’s not enough to just smell the fragrances that drift our way every day. We have to take the time to pull those aromas apart, to figure out what components go into them, and compare and contrast them with others. We have to be awake and aware, not just alive. We have to be participatory in our own lives, and give our mental capacities a reason to keep operating and expanding, otherwise they will, quite understandably, if we’re using biological logic, begin to shut down to save energy.”

 

Deciphering the aromas is a metaphor for understanding how we are interacting with the world and how the world exists around us. If we retreat to safety and comfort by believing that our models are correct and perfect, then we fail to improve our understanding of the world and our place in it. Our mind atrophies, and the potential we have for making the world a better place is continually diminished. Simply believing something because it benefits us, makes us feel good, and is what people similar to us believe can drive us and the world into an inefficient place where we fail to do the most good for the most people. There is nothing wrong with that world, it is an option, but if we believe that human flourishing is worth striving for and if we believe that we can help improve the living standards for ourselves and the rest of humanity, then we must use and expand our cognitive capacity to better understand the universe to improve the world for ourselves and the rest of humanity. Your model is incomplete and gives you insight into one aspect of reality, but you must remember that it is not a perfect description of how the world should be, and you must work continuously to build a better model with better insight into the world.

Most Trouble is Temporary

One thing I have been working on recently is better seeing and understanding the opportunities around me in my life. Often times when I have made a decision to do something, my choice has felt as though it is final, as if there is no going back. In reality, most of our choices are never really final. We can start over, go back, or try something different as if we had put on an outfit, walked outside, and decided t hat the weather wasn’t going to fit what we had grabbed.

 

This same idea of more opportunities than we realize also applies to how we think about success and failure. Things for me have often felt like an ultimatum, either I succeed at this thing in front of me, or I will never be successful in life. This is my only shot and if I don’t get it right this time, then I will never have another chance in the future. However, most of the time a failure is either a temporary set back or an opportunity for us to change course. Unless we are competing in the Olympics or are at the end of a college sports career, we will have more opportunities to find success. Ryan Holiday writes about this in his book Ego is the Enemy, “Only ego thinks embarrassment or failure are more than what they are. History is full of people who suffered abject humiliations yet recovered to have long and impressive careers.”

 

Yesterday I wrote about the ways that our work has become tied with our identity. As part of our identity, a workplace failure takes on new meaning, and almost grows to represent some type of moral failure of us as a human being. However, this pressure is just a story created by our ego. In reality we will have more avenues for success in the future and our failure is only permanent if we allow it to drag us down. We can experience terrible failure and grave mistakes and still take steps forward. We may need to be creative and find new avenues to move forward toward success, but we never need to live with failure in a way that prevents us from ever having goals and dreams in the future. Our Ego prefers to avoid potential failure altogether by never trying or by continually deflecting any criticism to others, so that we never have to accept any blame or reveal any flaw in our own skills and abilities. By failing to accept failure and by failing to move forward from failure, we stop ourselves from learning and probably put ourselves in situations where we make bad decisions and drive ourselves toward the failure we fear.