J.D. Moyer

beat maker, sci-fi writer, self-experimenter

Reaction to Tim Ferriss's Talk on Accelerated Learning (and Thoughts on his Rapid Rise to Fame)

Ferriss dispensing some armchair wisdom.

I recently attended Tim Ferriss’s talk “Accelerated Learning in Accelerated Times,” as presented as part of the Long Now Foundation’s Seminar series.  Jason W. from Proton Radio invited me — thanks Jason!

You can listen to the whole presentation here.  And here’s the Long Now blog post summarizing the talk.

I sensed the audience had a mixed reaction to Tim’s talk.  It was the first time he had given this particular presentation and it felt both rough and rushed.  Also, I think Ferriss’s rapid rise to celebrity status rubs some people the wrong way.  He can come off as arrogant sometimes.

Personally, I’m still a fan of Tim Ferriss.  He donates and raises large amounts of money for a number of worthy charities, and his views on learning, self-improvement, and taking the “big picture” view of life are useful and refreshing.  His bootstrap-style career success and self-promotion don’t bother me, and all guys in their thirties come off as arrogant sometimes.

Here’s a summary of what I gained from his talk on accelerated learning (in no particular order):

  1. There are a number of techniques that can be used to optimize learning speed and improve retention.  These include the use of mnemonic devices (memory tricks), studying things in random order instead of thematic groups (shuffled flash cards), and choosing specific frequencies for reviewing information.
  2. Most people vastly underestimate their own ability to learn new skills, and overestimate how long it will take to become pretty good at something.
  3. “Natural talent” isn’t necessary to become good at something, and the most useful learning techniques can be learned from people who acquired mastery without natural talent (the outliers).
  4. There are entire industries based on the myth that learning takes a long time (language study courses, for example); this idea shouldn’t be accepted at face value.  In fact, a good starting approach to learning something is to do the opposite of whatever “best practices” are generally accepted.
  5. Existing skills can be used as frameworks to more quickly acquire new skills.  In addition, older skills can be kept “fresh” by using them as reference sources for new skills.  For example, if you are a native English speaker who also speaks French, and you are trying to learn German, you can look up the meaning of a new German word in French (instead of in English).

Some of it I buy, some of it I don’t.  Ferriss insisted multiple times that everyone in the audience is capable of accelerated learning (learning five languages, several martial arts, chess mastery — whatever).  According to Ferriss it’s just a matter of applying the right techniques and finding the right teachers.

I’m not wholly convinced.  Ferriss, to me, seems like a freak of nature.  He’s obsessed with deconstructing and optimizing the learning process.  I’m not sure all aspects of his approach are transferable to average mortals.  Is this just my own laziness and/or insecurity speaking?  Possibly.  But I’ll try to explain why I’m skeptical.

Prepare to be obliterated.

At one point Ferriss talked about learning chess.  He said that if he were to learn chess from his friend Josh Waitzkin, he could “obliterate us” (hapless audience members).  This obliteration scenario would occur not only as a result of Ferriss’s learning prowess, but also because of Waitzkin’s unorthodox and brilliant teaching style.

I found myself unconvinced that Ferriss could become a chess master in a matter of weeks.  Ferriss is interested in learning languages, martial arts, effective diet and exercise tips, and many other things, but he’s never expressed an interest in chess.  It’s not one of his passions.

Ferriss did concede in the Q&A that the interest has to be there in order for rapid learning to occur.  Rapid learning is very difficult unless there is a deep, compelling fascination with the subject matter.

Having a great teacher and sufficient motivation can go a long way.  I learned to beat-match extremely quickly because Spesh taught me, and because I had to.  But to achieve real mastery, a deeper interest has to be there.  Ferriss underemphasizes this, and overestimates how much choice we have (in terms of what subjects we can learn quickly).  We can’t choose what we’re interested in — we can only expose ourselves to new things and hope something sticks.

Best Point — Expand from Your Base

Ferriss’s strongest point is that most people underestimate how much they can learn, and overestimate how long it will take.  We can use our existing skill sets to pick up related skills very quickly.

I completely agree with this, and recent examples in my own life have encouraged me to think more broadly about what skills I should try to acquire in the next few years, and further out.

Recently a colleague suggested that I learn a particular new programming language/database design tool.  I threw myself into learning the new software, and within a matter of weeks I was able to complete projects and bill for my time.  Since most of my previous billable work had been created with one piece of software, I had held onto an image of myself as a slow learner and “one trick pony” in regards to programming languages.  This aspect of my identity instantly changed, and I began to speculate about what other programming languages and design tools I might add to my quiver.

I’m not necessarily “good at” learning new programming languages, but I am fascinated by programming problems.  If I’m presented with a programming problem, I can’t help thinking about it until I have a solution.  This is my real asset in this area — a deep interest in how to solve database problems (and how to help people with database solutions).  That, combined with my existing knowledge of general principles and concepts, allowed me to pick up the new skill-set quickly.

I don’t think we should only look to skills we already have when thinking about what to learn next, but it’s a good place to start.  If you can speak two foreign languages, why not learn two more?  If you can already cook in the French and Italian styles, why not learn to cook Indian food as well?

On Art, “Genre”, and Learning

I’ve been producing dance music for about twenty years (I released my first single, as “DJ JD” in 1992 on Megatech Records).  During that time I’ve heard various styles and genres come and go.  Spesh and I had our first (and arguably only) big record in 1999 (“We Are Connected”).  At the time that style of music was called “progressive house.”  Then progressive house lost popularity, and minimal techno became popular.  After a few years, minimal techno lost out to big-sounding electro.  What used to be called electro is now called progressive house.  What used to be called progressive house is now called melodic techno.  That’s my take anyway, I’m sure many would disagree.  My point is that tastes, genre names, and styles all change.  How is an artist supposed to remain relevant?

I try to remain relevant (as a producer) by learning new styles and deciding if I want to incorporate those elements into my sound.  If I choose to not include a sound or style as part of a track, I want to do it because I don’t like it, not because I don’t know how to do it.

For this reason, I recently gave myself a crash course in dubstep production.  Many of my music production colleagues hate the dubstep sound and ridicule it.  Personally I like some of it (especially the more epic stuff with vocals), but find many dubstep tracks sound very similar (to the point of being monotonous).  In any case I wanted to learn how dubstep was made.

Dubstep/pop phenom Skrillex, standing on the shoulders of Aphex Twin and many others.

It took about one afternoon of research (reading message boards, watching videos, and just listening carefully) to get the gist of it.  I learned how to make and manipulate the classic “wobble” sound, I got a sense of the arrangements (huge dynamic shifts, switchups to half-time tempos with super-wide snares), and I grokked some of the EQ and mix-bus compression techniques that were being used.  I didn’t learn enough in one afternoon to call myself a dubstep producer (nor do I want to), but I was able to get what was going on technically and stylistically.  Some of those production elements might find their way into my breakbeat and tech-house productions.

I don’t want my artistic style to be defined by “fear of the new.”  Learning what’s happening with a new (or new to you) trend is not the same as swallowing it whole or becoming a convert.

If you want to judge for yourself if the Jondi & Spesh sound has evolved with the times while still staying true to its essence, check out our latest single.  Let me know what you think.

Q&A with Stewart Brand and Kevin Kelley, What Is Ferriss’s “Ultimate Goal”?

For me, the most interesting part of the presentation was the Q&A.  Both Stewart Brand (founder of the Whole-Earth catalog) and Kevin Kelley (founding editor of Wired) came on stage to ask Ferriss questions (both their own, and those submitted by the audience).

Brand and Kelley, both thoughtful guys who have been in and out of the public spotlight at various times in their lives, asked Ferriss some pointed questions along the lines of “What’s the point of it all?” (all this rapid learning, both in general and for Ferriss in particular).  Ferriss responded to the latter part of the question by stating his life purpose (to love, be loved, and never stop learning), and also plugged his new book project (a cookbook, to be published by amazon.com), but I was left with the sense that he had somehow dodged the question.  Obviously Ferriss loves learning and is good at it.  He’s an optimizer who enjoys finding and using exploits and shortcuts.  He’s also a skilled, extremely ambitious self-promoter who is driven by his desire for an ever-expanding audience.  I think what Brand and Stewart might have been getting at is “what do you ultimately want to communicate to your audience?”

Ferriss’s shtick is a combination of useful, valuable content and attention-seeking fluff.  Sometimes it’s hard to tell the two sides apart.  As Ferriss’s audience grows (as I think it will for some time), it will be interesting to see which direction he chooses.  Will he choose to go broader, doing whatever it takes to grow his audience (the cookbook angle seems to point in that direction), or will he decide to go deeper into a particular area and offer value to a more select audience?

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10 Comments

  1. J.D. I appreciate your thoughtful analysis of Tim Ferriss’s talk, and I think you captured both the plus and minuses of his presentation. It’s great to have an audience of such caliber.

    • Thanks Kevin — the Q&A with you and Stewart Brand was the best part. I’ll be back for more Long Now seminars.

  2. Will Spencer

    “He’s an optimizer who enjoys finding and using exploits and shortcuts.”

    I couldn’t agree more. I thought that he called himself a “Kung Fu” champion in his book was an insult to those who had spent years learning their craft. I would have been infuriated if I had trained for years, only to be pushed out of the ring and have that be called a valid substitute for talent.

    I suppose he’d tell Picasso that cultivating 80 years worth of painting mastery could have been done in a couple weeks, if only he had wanted it. The truth is that nothing worth doing well is easy.

    I recently heard about a DVD called “Learn to Play Piano Overnight.” I was curious, so I picked it up. In the first few minutes, I started seeing where the instructor (a well-meaning woman) was going. So I fast-forwarded to the end.

    Turns out, you can indeed learn to play great music in just a few lessons…. if you only play the white keys. Yes technically that’s playing the piano. But it’s not playing the piano.

    So perhaps Ferriss is useful as someone who challenges individuals’ ideas of their own mental plasticity. But not as someone whose goals and methods will satisfy achievers.

  3. My comment at the LongNow blog:

    “Very interesting talk.
    “I hadn’t heard about Tim Ferriss until a month or so ago and like most self-help gurus, I was skeptical. But my enormous respect for Stewart Brand made me, at least, listen to Ferriss. And I did.

    “But.

    “What evidence do we have for the truth of Ferriss claims? I felt a gut reaction hesitation when I heard Ferriss explaining why (if I understood correctly) that he forgets about the languages that he has learned until he no longer needs them.

    “I was puzzled that the audience (this from other reports) was puzzled why Ferriss was even on the stage. But his presence seems quite reasonable — if indeed Ferriss has found a way to accelerate learning, that helps human evolution and enough said.

    “But is there any way to verify that Ferriss has indeed done what he has claimed to have done?”

    • I think it’s easy to verify that Ferriss has accelerated learning in himself. He speaks a large number of languages and has learned a number of difficult physical skills, like Japanese horse archery. These is video evidence for both.

      On the other hand I think there’s less evidence that he has in fact developed a comprehensive system for accelerated learning. I think it’s an interesting topic/endeavor … his current (cook book) project I find less interesting.

  4. Al

    J.D. Taking a cue from Tim, any chance you might talk a little on how you went about learning the new programming language you spoke of? Maybe you’re a bit of an outlier whose method would prove helpful to other people (*cough *cough).

    Just discovered it but lovin the blog, btw.

    All the best,
    Al

  5. Ha! Glad you’re enjoying the blog.

    Derek Sivers just posted on this very topic:
    http://sivers.org/srs

    I can’t say my own approach is that organized. I tend to just jump in and learn the minimum I need to complete the project at hand, then do some exploratory learning when the pressure lets up.

    Right now I’m learning Cubase 7 … going back and forth between web tutorials and actually trying to use the new features in the software.

  6. Thanks for the review J.D. Glad that at least some lessons could be gleaned from the presentation.

  7. PJ

    Great review JD. I listened to that talk on Soundcloud. I found your point on having a deep interest particularly useful for my own understanding of accelerated learning principles. I appreciate that. I learned something new today. Thanks

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