What is the best way to learn a new skill or discipline? My default strategy has been to jump right into a textbook, journal article or online course, and see where it takes me. Sometimes this works, but often I find myself a year later having moved on to others things, and having forgotten almost everything I "learned." Today, I want to learn more about Artificial Intelligence, Machine Learning, and Statistics, and I'd like to approach this in a structured, thoughtful way such that I don't just forget everything a year later. To do that, I'm stepping back and thinking about how I can learn these disciplines efficiently. I've been reviewing books, articles, podcasts, TED-talks, online courses, etc. in order to see what lessons I can find. The checklist below represents my current understanding. If you're an audio-learner and prefer podcasts, Tim Ferriss has an episode where many of these ideas are discussed.
2. How to Use this Guide
The checklist below provides a structured list of ideas that have helped many people (including me) learn more effectively. However, every person is unique and techniques that work for 95% of the population may not work for you. Therefore, this document is based on autobiographical narratives rather than the scientific literature. I invite you to try out anything that appeals to you; if you get the sense it's not working, then let it go. I created a Google Doc template to help in applying the checklist.
3. Learning Checklist (A-B-C-D-E-F-G)
Since you are trying to learn something new, your initial judgement is almost certainly flawed. Thus it's important to get advice from others.
Regular feedback will help you to see if you're continuing to progress toward your goal. If progress slows, that is a good time to revisit your routine or speak with a mentor.
Internal: Think about how you will regularly measure improvement and success.
External: Identify a tutor, coach or mentor to meet with regularly.
Developing a long term plan for how you'll use this skill will help you to remember the material and grow beyond the goal you had initially set for yourself, in a way that's in line with your broader intention.
Deepen your understanding and give back to the world by teaching the skills you've learned to others via a lecture, blog post, or youtube video. Creating a checklist can help yourself and others effectively apply skills more effectively.
4. Learning Approaches
Many approaches exist for learning a new skill. Chose the approach that works best for you and that is appropriate for the skill. If you're overwhelmed by the options, just pick something, try it for 10 minutes, and if you like it, then keep going, otherwise try something else.
Flash research: You can learn a lot in 10 minutes, just using Google and Wikipedia
Before reading in depth, read quickly and summarize the main ideas first. Then, determine if you'll need to read more deeply.
Teach the skill to a colleague
Write on paper how you would teach this skill to a 12 year old. Identify any gaps and continue learning until you can write out the idea from start to finish in simple language (Feynman Method)
Give a presentation to your group
Cultivate nonjudgemental awareness to see without self-criticism. Be patient and mindful. Then act to improve.
Solving homework problems
Apply the skill to a real-life problem
Katas - repeat task to gain grace and efficiency
Drawing (e.g. for geography or anatomy)
Writing (for vocabulary words)
Take practice tests
Keep glossary of new terms, and review regularly
Chunking - your mind handles masses of data by grouping it into clusters. An example from economics is: giving → trading → selling → market → economy. Each concept is increasingly complex and as your brain learns each one, it can then more readily handle more complex ideas.
Neural Pathways - as you practice a new skill, the neural processes needed to carry out the skill get more and more efficient, such that you're eventually able to perform the skill without conscious thought. You can then focus your conscious thought on learning more complex tasks.
Making Connections - Finding connections between what you know and what you're learning can accelerate progress, improve recall, provide unique insight, and make learning more fun. Josh Waitzkin does this with Chess and Tai Chi Push-hands. I've seen this myself with Mathematical Modeling, Social Dynamics, Individuation, and Storytelling (discussed a bit in Seven Basic Plots) and also with Music Theory and the Physics of Waves.
Learning Style - Know whether your learning style is auditory, visual, reading/writing, kinesthetic, or some combination. Use the techniques that work best for you.
On my first pass through this material, I noticed some disagreement between Josh Waitzkin and Tim Ferriss/Scott Young. I suspect it's likely that when you get down to specifics, they'd largely agree. But for now, I just wanted to highlight some of the disagreements, to come back to later.
Depth vs Breadth: Is it better to get some knowledge of a lot of concepts in your domain, or go deep into a few?
This probably doesn't have a simple answer, it probably depends on your goals.
If you want to be the best in the world, depth in some areas will be essential. If you just want to be proficient, you may not need depth at all.
Focus on the Goal vs Process: Is it better to be driven by a goal you love, or is it better to focus on loving the process itself?
This also probably doesn't have a simple answer and probably depends on your goals.
If you can learn what you need in 20 hours, focusing on the goal is probably fine.
If it's going to take years to get to the skill level you want, it's probably important to find a way to love the process itself, too.
Growth Plan vs "Good Stuff Sticks": Do you need a plan for remembering the material?
It's agreed that to best remember the material, you need to continue using it.
Some believe it's important to have a plan for this.
Others believe the best material will naturally be used over time, and therefore more likely to be remembered. Thus a plan isn't necessary.
Abraham Lincoln: “Give me six hours to chop down a tree and I’ll spend the first hour sharpening the ax”
References that shaped the structure of the checklist
The Art of Learning by Josh Waitzkin (book)
Pragmatic Thinking and Learning by Andy Hunt (book)
The Art and Science of Learning Anything Faster by Tim Ferriss (podcast with transcript)
Ultralearning by Scott Young (book)
References that influenced elements of the checklist
The First 20 Hours by Josh Kaufman (book, TEDx talk)
Learning How to Learn by Barbara Oakley (book, TEDx talk, online course)
References I plan to review
Mastery by Robert Greene (book)
How to Read a Book by Mortimer Adler and Charles Van Doren (book)
The 4-Hour Chef by Tim Ferriss (book)
People that helped me the most with this document