Ryan and I return to the podcast in 2018 to talk about: what we’re doing with Paleomodern Polymaths, how taking responsibility is the key to gaining more power and control in your life, how to educate yourself, and tell nostalgic stories about growing up together.
Here are some books we talked about on the podcast that I highly recommend:
Note: These are affiliate links
Yesterday while re-listening to Kanye West’s College Dropout I started reminiscing on the situations in which I felt trapped in my life (or parts of my life) and the actions that led me out of them. The album chronicles many of Kanye’s frustrations with the flawed institutions in his world and life before he achieved the creative success and autonomy he strived for, as well as his not so straightforward journey toward actualizing his dreams. He finishes the album with a story of his career, ending at the moment he decided to sign as an artist for Rock-A-Fella, letting the potential success of the album and his future life as a creative speak for itself. While I may have not gone from endless summers of working late nights, wasting my money on diamonds and other unfulfilling material goods, getting evicted from my apartment, to signing a contract to release my Opus with the artists I looked up to as a child, I think the feelings and the message that Kanye communicates in this album are universal.
There have been so many times in my life when the institutions in my world felt like a personal prison. When I was working 40+ hours week at a restaurant to pay rent and coming home to what felt like just enough time and money to survive, but not enough to enjoy my life or better it in any way. When I was burning myself out and destroying my relationships because it’s what I thought I had to do to meet my demanding academic expectations, studying a field I had yet to see support the lifestyle I wanted. When I had to go to school everyday where I knew I’d be bullied and have to pretend to ignore it, and not understand why. When I’ve felt stuck and dissatisfied in many recurring situations in my life, big and small, and realized I wanted something different. Even when things are good (as they are for me right now) and as they continue to get better, there will always be ways in which I want my lifestyle to be more closely aligned with my values and the institutions that lock me out from the life I desire always present themselves as a challenge.
While reflecting on these memories I identified how I escaped these institutional prisons and lifestyle plateaus. I made an escape plan. The more I investigate this pattern, it seems an escape plan is the your best bet at living a better future. In The Four Hour Work Week Tim Ferruss tells the story of building a sports supplement company to escape his unfulfilling job technical sales job, then building an escape plan to get away from the prison of his own creating, running a company 80 hours a week so that he could Escape the 9 – 5, Live Anywhere, and Join the New Rich. How did Tim escape? He built the plan that is detailed in the Four Hour Work Week and carried it out as a series of experiments with no assurance of success (in fact he was almost certain he would fail, but figured that most failures are reversible). When he grew tired of the pressures writing gigantic technical self help books alone he made a few more escape plans. First a Vimeo talk show with his best friend. Then a television show that ended up never airing. Finally a podcast, which grew into another life altering success. What I always loved about Tim Ferris was the way he encouraged his readers to challenge their assumptions, find and demolish the walls that construct their personal prisons, and to view life as a series of experiments, or in this context, escape attempts.
How should you go about developing your escape plan?
- You should be able to start right away
- You should be able to fully execute it with only a few hours of effort a week for six months
- Failures should be either reversible, or wins in a different direction
- You should be able to see yourself progressing biweekly
- The act of working on it should be its own reward
- You should walk away with something to show for it
- It should have the potential to change your life in a huge way if you’re lucky, and in a noticeable way if you’re unlucky
- It should be a step towards a life you want to explore
For some commentary on the above points, I’ll walk through an example of an escape plan I built and executed for myself. I wanted to work on things that would give me more personal satisfaction and creative fulfillment. So I decided to start a website. At the time I knew next to nothing about web development. I decided to take an online course that walked students through the process of building multiple websites so I could start right away. After the course I planned to build on the sites I’d already made to create a site that was useful for me. I continued to do good work at my job and keep my ambition private. As I learned a new skill or built a new site in the course every two weeks or so, I added them to my resume and portfolio so I could see and show my progress, even before I was sharing it with anyone. I set up my environment so that when I’d make progress on my site in the morning before work I would feel like I’d already won the day before it started. I focused on the valuable and important skills I was developing in the process and the products of my work more than the potential success of my new website. I ended up building FindSkateparks.com, which certainly could have been the next Yelp and turned me into an overnight billionaire, but instead became a fun tool for myself and others to review the skateparks they visit. I redesigned my resume around my new site and used it to leave the workplaces where I felt a cultural divide between myself and my coworkers. I used my improved resume to find a much more ideal job, working with bright web developers, building cool applications and learning new useful skills everyday. Put simply, the plan was to make a website, a very achievable stretch goal within my control, and I went through the bullets above when designing the process to optimize my upside and minimize my downside. In a few hours a week for six months I reinvented my career and built something I’m proud of.
With my recent experiences with these escape plans, and the experiences of my peers, I’ve decided the most surefire path to a better life next year than last year is to build an execute two ~6 month escape plans. I’m excited to see the surprising places my new plans will take me in 2018.
So where do you find yourself now? You’re Andy Dufresne at the Shawshank prison. Your life has good parts and bad parts, and you’ve figured out how to make it work for you so that you can survive and possibly even thrive in the position you find yourself. Since you are neither reckless nor obtuse you are not going to throw out the good parts of your life for a chance at something better. Instead you are going to develop a plan, a plan that will evolve as you learn more about yourself, your surroundings, and the way out. You are going to spend the waking hours of your days maintaining your position in life and acting as if nothing has changed. At night while others fantasize about the other side you will slowly carve your tunnel to freedom one etch at time. Every night you’ll save your work so you can build on it the next day. You will notice an improvement in your demeanor as you realize you feel less trapped when you see your tunnel growing closer to freedom every night. You understand that it might not work, but you will stick to your plan until either it does or you realize the ways in which it is flawed and start developing a new escape plan. One day, while doing your daily carving, you will notice the wall you are scratching at sounds hollow. Eventually a crack will develop. Soon light will shine through and when you least expect it you will be able to fit through. Once you’re free you’ll remember the patience and persistence it took to achieve your goals and you’ll understand you can apply it to accomplishing anything you want. You’ll remember how a little bit every day started to add up after a few months, and after a few years you’d developed the skills to sculpt part of your life in your image. Then, before you get too settled with the status quo, you’ll find the unfavorable walls of the world you escaped to and start carving again.
What I did:
I completed The Web Developer Bootcamp, “the most comprehensive” online course on web development. I did this as a part of my self directed software engineering course for my Graduate Unschool project. I added this course (and a few others I will not be writing about at length: Angular 4, React from the Ground Up, The Full Stack Web Developer) because I realized it’s important to learn relevant technologies when pursuing a career in software. Web development is also a practical skill that I can combine with what I learn in the MIT courses or personal interests to build projects to show and test my knowledge.
This course has had a serious impact on my life. Since finishing it I have: started working as a full stack web developer and developed and launched my own website.
I strongly recommend this course to anyone, with any background, who wants to learn to develop web applications.
What I learned:
I made a custom project based to showcase everything I learned in this course: FindSkateparks.com
Users can easily search the database of skateparks, find the closest or top rated parks, or add their own skatepark to the website.
The website uses geolocation to find the user’s location and show the parks closest to them.
The most useful information is at the top: location, hours, and required equipment. This is so users can easily find how and when to visit a skatepark without having to search through inconsistently structured pages. Users can also add comments and ratings, which will change the park’s overall rating over time.
Simply put, I learned everything you need to know to build a website or web-based application from scratch.
This includes experience and understanding using the following technologies:
- DOM Manipulation
- Database Associations
Here are some of the many projects I built as a part of the course:
The capstone project for the course. I based my skatepark site off of this.
A simple web application for making editable lists.
- Patatap Clone:
A visual beat pad. This is actually pretty fun to use. Click the link and use your keyboard to make beats and interesting patterns. This was the first project that made me feel like I could build something cool and useful.
How I did it:
Although I typically approach my Software Engineering Graduate Unschool courses using a modified deliberate practice method, this course had a different format, so I took an approach that was more in line with the natural layout of the course, and added a section to experiment with a new learning strategy. The following sections were completed sequentially.
- Coverage & Practice (50 %)
- The course is structured as a series of video lectures, most of which were code-alongs, and exercises. I have always been critical of the wastefulness of passive learning, and the code-alongs take the passiveness of a lecture and turn it into an engaging process where you are guided though building something that demonstrates an underlying idea, helps you gain experience with a certain concept, or will be used as a useful reference when you’re developing something outside of the course. A code-along is where the instructor has you solve a problem together while he guides you through the steps he takes and the reasons for his approach. You’ve probably experienced this lecture style in science classes in the past. It’s important to note that when taking this approach the problems the instructor chooses to solve ultimately make or break the course. Ideally an instructor would carefully select each problem to demonstrate the core concepts and skills in the course and order them in a sequence such that every problem is challenging enough to be interesting and engaging (so guidance is welcomed), but not so challenging that it is overwhelming and disorienting (so students shut down). Colt Steele, the instructor of this course, choose the problems perfectly. Each code-along builds on the last, it’s always engaging, and I walked away every single day feeling as though I was a better developer than the day before. This was the best lecture/coverage section I’ve ever seen in an online course, and I think this course can be used an example for how anything should be taught.
- Creative Project (45%)
- This section was an experiment for me, and was not part of the course as it was presented. Typically I’d end the bulk of the skill development section after completing difficult practice exercises and be left with the synthesis section to demonstrate my knowledge (in a way that I have been dissatisfied with so far). However, I realized that we all have personal reasons for learning something, so I took everything I learned in this course and spent almost as much time personalizing the skills I had developed to create something I was interested in. I ended up learning as much in this phase as I did in the previous phase, building on top of what I’d already covered in the course. My creative project for this course is: findskateparks.com
- Creating a personal project really helped me connect with the usefulness of the skills I developed in the course, and forced me to practice them in a realistic way, as opposed to the rote way they are typically practiced though textbook problems or assigned exercises. Of the courses I’ve completed so far, I can most easily apply the skills I’ve learned from this one. I believe that is a direct result of investing my time building something I care about using the course knowledge. I will be adding creative projects as a potentially crucial part of the learning method.
- Synthesis (5%)
- I procrastinated for months then painfully wrote this article outlining what I did and what I learned in the course.
What I learned about learning:
- Web development is an awesome connector skill that can be combined with any other skill to further one’s pursuit of both. Examples: my creative project (skateboarding), this blog (learning and writing), your favorite website, your favorite web application.
- Directed problem solving, where the students are physically solving problems along with the instructor, is an excellent way to turn the passive and mostly useless lecture phases of a course into a more active, engaging, useful phase. Especially so when the problems are selected in a way such that they are challenging, but not intimidating, for students, and demonstrate the core concepts of the course in a way in which they’ll be realistically used.
- Creative projects turn new skills into long term skills by forcing you apply them in a realistic way.
- We want to learn new skills so we can do something with them. Every directed learning resource you encounter will fall short of the specific reason you wanted to learn your new skill. Reconnect with your “why” and use the skills acquired in the course in a more direct way to reach your personal goals before moving on.
What I did:
I successfully completed all the readings, lectures, homework assignments, and projects for MIT’s Introduction to Algorithms (the fall 2011 version of 6.006) course. I’ve included examples and brief explanations of my work below to give an idea of the types of things I’ve learned. All of my programming work and my final solutions to the homework assignments can be found on my GitHub.
I’ve included some examples of my work below:
Code I wrote for content aware resizing of images. The basic idea here is you can resize images without cropping or losing content. The code shows my bottom-up dynamic programing implementation of deciding which seam (vertical path from the bottom to the top, example shown in red), would be the least noticeable if removed.
image being resized via my algorithm
This program uses data from the National Highway Planning Network to find the shortest path from a source to a destination in the form of driving directions. This is similar to how Google Maps and other navigation software products work. Here is the code I wrote to implement Dijkstra’s algorithm, which performs the search and returns the results very quickly, as one must sort though a large amount of data to find the shortest path for a cross country trip.
Here I implemented interval subsequence hashing using a modified python dictionary I wrote to quickly compare DNA sequences (represented as series of letters). Included are my results, comparing the DNA sequences of two humans, a human and a chimp, and a human and a dog.
I dramatically improved the speed of image decryption software written for a theoretical extreme multi-core chip that is limited to only performing arithmetic operations on 8-bit or 16-bit unsigned integers. I’ve shown my straight forward arithmetic operations which perform better than that prewritten asymptotically efficient algorithms when inputs are 64 digits or less. I’ve also included an example of the type of extremely sensitive data that can be decrypted using this technology.
This is my implementation of a bidirectional search which provides the fastest (smallest number of moves) solution to an arbitrarily arranged 2×2 Rubik’s Cube (pocket cube) in <5 seconds.
This is a selected example of the written portion of a problem set, and my (neatly typed up) solutions. Although it is much easier to show and understand the value of some of the software projects I worked on in this course, it’s important to demonstrate that 6.006 is a very theory heavy course, and foundational understanding is emphasized much more than practical programming skills. I enjoy theory and figuring out creative proofs to (seemingly) difficult problems was one of my favorite parts of this course.
Here is a theory heavy problem that I found to be particularly difficult. The problem assumes that you are a newly hired employee at a competitor of Facebook and asks for an algorithm for suggesting potential friends. More specifically it requests that the algorithm find the strength (computed as the product of all edge-ranks, within users that are less than k degrees of separation apart), between a given user s and every other user v to whom s is connected, in O(kE+V) time (this is a graph theory problem). This solution required the creativity to recognize that maximizing a sum (the strength) of a product (the edge ranks) is equivalent to minimizing the sum over the log of 1/(the product). This converts the problem to be a shortest path problem for all paths shorter than k in length.
What I just described is technical, but the reason I chose this problem is to demonstrate that this MIT course teaches students to think creatively and challenges students to think outside of the box. A cookie cutter application of an algorithm from our algorithms textbook doesn’t suffice. The course teaches more about how to reframe real world problems so we can map them to previously solved problems and apply the solutions, which I believe is the most valuable skill one can learn in almost any domain.
This is another example of a proof that I found to be particularly valuable, but also built on the most important skill of this course, reframing problems and modifying solutions so you can use resources of previously solved problems (in this field these are called algorithms) and apply them to novel problems. In this particular problem I am writing pseudocode to develop more basic arithmetic operations for the theoretical chip from the image decryption problem.
How I did it:
Before I analyze what I did, I’ll give a raw explanation of what I actually did. I completed this MIT Course in my free time by using an evolving version of the learning method I developed and found success with in college. The method breaks learning a college course into three phases, which are listed below, along with the actions I took to complete those phases.
- Coverage (5%)
- I listened to all the lectures at 3x speed, speed read the assigned reading (chapters of the textbook and additional reading assignments) for the course (in <5 hours) (here is how I did it). The purpose of this section is to see the forest before I start investigating individual trees. The entire course material is covered up front for multiple reasons. First, because textbooks are used primarily as (incredibly valuable) reference tools, and it is much easier to find what you’re searching for if you’ve seen it before, even if you didn’t realize what you were initially looking at. Covering the course in full without any deep dives emphasizes the scope of the course more than the details. When learning anything it’s important to understand what’s actually important so it can receive the appropriate attention. If I stopped when I struggled to understand each algorithm (the majority of the readings and lectures), I may have wasted hours memorizing them, but after completing my coverage phase and standing back from the course I realized that the purpose was not to teach us specific algorithms, but to teach us how to reframe problems so that we can use algorithms that others before us have developed. This clarity helps me focus on the important details of the course instead of all of them, ensuring that my time is spent more effectively. Also, reading and listening are forms of passive learning, which can only take you so far. My experiences have convinced me that real skill building, deep understanding, and internalization comes from active learning (phases 2 and 3). Since I find passive learning to be somewhat shallow, but still helpful in the initial phases, I feel that it is important to give it a sense of closure early so I don’t waste extra hours rereading paragraphs and re-listening to lectures because I don’t feel I fully “understand” them. The truth is I can only gain a false sense of understanding, (which is more dangerous than knowing you don’t know) from anything other than the actual application of the knowledge. Instead I quickly move through this section, capping the time, with the expectation that I will understand almost nothing, but that the exercise will give me a sense of what’s out there, what I haven’t learned yet, and what I can expect to gain a deeper understanding of through my active, intensive, next phase.
- Practice (80%)
- I completed every problem set and project sequentially using my adaptive set method. I wrote down every problem set number on a different line of a piece of paper (my mega adaptive set), and beside each problem set number I wrote down the number of each problem on the associated problem set.
my mega adaptive set
I started on the first problem set, attempting each problem and subproblem individually and discretely to the best of my ability, and providing a falsifiable answer, which I then immediately compared to the official course solutions. If my solution was correct I crossed the problem number off my mega adaptive set, and neatly wrote up my solution to be used as an “official solution”. If my solution was incorrect I circled the problem on my mega adaptive set, compared my attempted solution with the official solution line-by-line, identifying where exactly I went wrong, correcting my mistakes, and completing my incorrect solution using the official solution as a guide. Then I threw away my corrected, attempted solution, and moved on to the next problem on my set. Once I reach the end of the problem set (I call each of these a run-through) I circle the problem set number if there are circled problems remaining on the problem set. I then attempt another run-though of the problem set, where I repeat the process described above, but only for the circled problems. It is important to note that I do not attempt a circled problem within 24 hours of circling (unsuccessfully attempting) it. This is to ensure that solutions are not memorized and that I’ve actually learned the important concepts and tools necessary for solving the problem. Once all the problems have been crossed off a certain problem set, I cross of the problem set number and move on to the next one. Since this is an algorithms course, I thought it would be fun to rewrite my practice set method in algorithm form.
- Synthesis (15%)
- I identified (in this case singular) the most important core principle underlying the content of the course. This principle is as follows; To solve a non-trivial problem, reframe it such that it resembles a previously solved or trivial problem (although this reframing is typically non-trivial), and apply the known solution. I believe that statement, an algorithm resource (the course textbook or the internet), and practice solving problems using the stated method forms a basis for this course.
- I went through my coursework and selected the solutions and projects I felt were most representative of what I accomplished and what I learned throughout the course. I paired these solutions with brief descriptions, so readers of all technical backgrounds can very quickly gain an insight into what I actually did. I believe it is important to show your work in a way such that it is beneficial to you. An A on a transcript can only communicate one point of information. It is important to take ownership of your work so that it takes it from something you did for a course, to something you made and can be proud of. This creates a virtuous cycle, because knowing you want something to display, whether as a selected project on your resumé, an item in your portfolio, or as a part of an article on your learning blog ;), motivates you to make something special, something you can be proud of. This nicely presented work helps you feel better about your work, and the experience with your learning project, which motivates you to do more, build more, and make more presentable and interesting projects in the future. I am in the process of learning this first hand, despite preaching about the importance of showing your work so that you can take credit and benefit from it for the past few years. The selected projects on this page are more visual and understandable than on my last course write-up, which was a major step up from me completely skipping this phase on my last two MIT courses. During a recent job search I had official offers for Software Development positions extended to me because of my last synthesis article, and how it showed my knowledge of the field, my learning methods, and my ambition. I did not expect my last article to help me get a job. If I did, I would have sent it to potential employers. Instead I just left a link to my blog on my resumé because I believe it is an important part of my personality, and hiring managers later told me how my Graduate Unschool articles strongly influenced their decisions to extend offers to me. I’m not writing these to get a special job, or prove anything to anyone else, I’m writing these synthesis articles to complete my learning process. Everything else is a free bonus for showing my work in public.
- The purpose of the synthesis phase is to teach the material of the course in a way that is helpful and more concise than the original course material. This is how knowledge progresses, somebody learns something, then represents it publicly in a way that is easier to understand. Imagine how long it would take to complete a simple high school math test if you had to derive everything from fundamental axioms. Imagine if every time you wanted to use a computer you had to invent it from scratch without any sort of guide. When Newton talks about standing on the shoulders of giants this is what he means. Our ancestors built the intellectual world around us though absorbing, mastering, and representing knowledge in a form that is easier/faster to learn. Your duty is to do the same. You don’t need to discover a useful math theorem or invent a piece of technology to be a part of this process, all you need to do is learn something, synthesize it, and make your synthesis publicly available. Read a book and share what you learned from it, write a how to article on something you can do whether it’s simple or complicated, help those that you know and those that you will never meet learn what you know faster than you did. That’s the real secret to accelerated learning, we can all accelerate each other’s learning.
What I learned about learning:
- If you have two goals, it is simpler and faster to complete them sequentially and discretely, rather than simultaneously
- This learning method applies to the application of this learning method.
- Right now I recognize that the synthesis phase is a major weakness for me, but re-covering my old synthesis section notes, practicing writing the last two articles, and showing others how to write a synthesis article is helping me evolve the synthesis phase, as well as improving my skills at it.
- It makes sense to pause one goal for the completion of another, if you think it improves the sequencing.
- I paused this course twice, once for 6.0042j (which I was closer to finishing) and once for the web developer bootcamp (whose completion was more urgent).
- Start with a naive solution, then iterate towards improvement/Ignore the temptation of the ideal solution
- Make your synthesis articles visually appealing
- You can feel more proud of your work
- Visually appealing articles are much more easily and quickly communicated. With a visual representation an outsider can gain a much better understanding of what you did in 30 seconds than if you just left a giant block of text with a few complicated math problems sprinkled in.
- One doesn’t count to 1000
- I had to make the transition from counting my hours to making this a major part of my lifestyle. At first I was tallying off every hour I completed towards my 1000 hour goal. I made mini goals to hit so many hours a day, week, month, but I was always behind. Once I decided that this was important to me and dedicated sacred hours to this, I stopped counting completely and realized that I would easily overshoot my goal. If you hope to make significant progress on a big project you need to stop counting away the minutes to completion and make it a part of your life. Take detours here and there, fall in love, but make it a part of your lifestyle, that way you won’t need to count or remember. Instead you use the habits, taught and synthesized from your past self, to propel you current self forward.
After a medium length hiatus the podcast returns! Ryan and I talk about my experiences at improv, struggling for enlightenment, who is The Ryan Doner(?), how we’re finding ourselves, the ultimate way to respond to criticism, acceptance, moving to new cities, the Lindy Effect of friendship, and some mistakes we made and how to make it easier to stop your negative patterns. Enjoy!
Selected Links for the Episode:
What I did:
As a part of my software engineering course for my Graduate Unschool project, I completed the fall 2005 version of MIT’s 6.042j course, Mathematics for Computer Science. This means I read all of the course materials (textbook/lecture notes/solved problems and examples), successfully solved every problem of every homework assignment (equivalent to a perfect homework score), and synthesized the course into it’s essential elements, shown below. All of my completed solutions and my course synthesis can be found here. I’ve also included a few examples of my solutions so you can see what types of problems I solved, also below. If you want to read more about the learning process, scroll past the examples of my work.
The foundational knowledge and tools I learned/used while taking 6.042j.
Examples of my work
How I did it:
The learning method I’ve paired with the software engineering course is essentially an evolution of the learning method I developed and used in college. It is heavily based off of the core concept of Deliberate (or possibly Directed in my case) Practice, and I am evolving it by trying new techniques I found from Scott H. Young’s learning methods, more literature on Deliberate Practice, and other experimental tweaks. Below is an overview of the phases I broke the course into. These phases were completed in discrete chunks:
- Coverage (5%)
- I speed read all of the textbooks, and course notes (I try to do this in ~5 hours).
- Practice (80%)
- I make each individual problem set into an adaptive set. I then attempt each problem as if it were a normal homework assignment (using the PDF version of the book and in-class examples heavily for references) and make my best attempt at a solution. After completing my solution attempt, I immediately compare it to the official course solutions. If my solution is correct, I cross the problem off my adaptive set and move to the next unsolved problem. If my solution is incorrect, I compare my attempt with the solution, identify exactly where I went wrong, circle the problem, and move forward to the next unsolved problem. When I work my way to the end of the problem set (I call this a run-through), I start again on the problem set, this time going through the circled problems in order (being careful to not attempt the same problem in the same 24 hour period to avoid memorization). I continue to run through the problem set until I have crossed off every problem, then I group my solutions together and move on to the next problem set.
- Synthesis (15%)
- I identify every major concept and problem solving tool I used while completing the problem sets and put them in a list. I prune the list so that it only contains essential information, but I also ensure that nothing essential is missing so that the list spans the course (think of it as a basis for the course). I then write this into a one-page synthesis sheet so that the entire course’s information is organized in one place (this is useful so others can learn the course faster in the future, so you can refresh yourself quickly, and it could be used as a crib sheet).
There’s a lot more that goes into finishing an MIT computer science course in your free time than a just a learning method, and how I finished this course is very different than how I started because I constantly experimented with my approach and integrated what worked into my habits. I started in September 2015 after successfully completing MIT courses 6.01 and 6.02 back to back in two weeks each, with a huge plan for how I would complete all of the MIT courses on my list in just six months. I decided to experiment with taking courses simultaneously because it was what I was familiar with (traditional school), and I thought the spacing and connections would help. I’m glad I tried that because I realized that I was very wrong.
Attempting two courses at once divided my focus, and pushed the finish line further back (it should take twice as long to finish two courses if completed simultaneously) which made it more difficult to make progress because I’d experience decision fatigue when deciding what task I was going to attempt each day, and it made what was once a bite-sized achievable short term goal, completing one course, into an overwhelming project, causing me to procrastinate, fall behind, feel guilty, and become avoidant of my work.
Eventually I stopped working on Graduate Unschool completely. I went from regularly spending 6 hours a day 6 days a week making serious progress to going months without programming, forgetting where I stood in each course, and asking myself if I was ever going to follow through on my original intentions. Sporadically I’d have short intense spurts where I’d stay up all night making a new plan and plugging away at problems, but that energy would wear off, and I’d go back to my intellectual drought of pretending Graduate Unschool either didn’t exist or was a relic of my naive past.
Then one day, somewhere between a financial rock bottom and a personal career renaissance I reconnected myself with the original intentions of the Software Engineering Course. I found myself easily slipping into flow states while programming, loving it again, and wanting to get better and pursue a career in developing software, and although I didn’t have a formal education in computer science, I believed that this would fill in the gaps in my knowledge and signal to employers that I truly did “know my stuff”. I started ramping up my skills again, challenging myself everyday, and I eventually found a job as a software developer where I have been working for around seven months now. Just as I’d hoped, my job had me programming everyday, and consistently learning all sides of software development. My secondary intentions for the software course had been fulfilled, and I hadn’t even made it very far through my personal plan. I realized that it was very likely that I could continue to have a career in software without ever completing another MIT problem set or practice interview question. I also realized that I cared deeply about developing hard skills, I loved programming, and more importantly pursuing excellence and improving my programming skills as I started developing software full time. Through some introspection I found that I truly enjoyed the MIT Computer Science courses, and that completing them was important to me even after I’d successfully completed the career transition I originally thought the courses would help me with. With purified intentions, and a serious break from any disciplined self-learning routine, I made a little bit of progress everyday, built some healthy habits, finished this course, and most importantly gained insights into the learning process. My synthesis sheet clearly shows what I learned about math while taking 6.042j. Here’s what I learned about the learning process itself.
What I learned about learning:
- Attempting two courses or topics at once divides your focus and slows progress and motivation for both. It is faster and better to start one thing, focus on it, finish it, and move forward.
- Setting up a feedback system where you can see your progress everyday is extremely helpful and motivating. Including a mechanism where your progress measures and acknowledges both efforts and results seriously accelerates your learning. You’ll know exactly what to do when starting everyday, where to go, and when something is difficult and takes multiple attempts before you make any tangible results progress, you’re rewarding the important part of learning a difficult concept, the unseen internal progress that can only be made from serious attempts (both successful and unsuccessful).
- Avoid large gaps away from your work. Taking a ~ 1 year gap in the middle of this course seriously set me back. It took tens of hours to figure out exactly where I had left off, what work I had already completed, and what remained. Even after straightening all of that out I had to complete a serious amount of redundant work, either because I’d lost a problem, or because I didn’t recognize a solution until I had already redone it.
- Make frequent progress, however small. My recommendation is to improve your desired skill 1% everyday.
- Increment the intensity of your approach to avoid overwhelming yourself and creating a system you’re likely to quit or burn out in. My recommendation is to start by completing one pomodoro (25 minute chunk of uninterrupted work) each day at the same time (since consistency matters), so it becomes a part of your lifestyle. At first you will feel resistance, but once it becomes a habit (meaning it no longer takes willpower to complete your pomodoro), you can consider adding another pomodoro, and repeating the habit incrementing process. If, after completing your regular pomodoros, you want to continue, feel free to keep working, but it’s important to realize that 25 minutes today and 25 minutes tomorrow will serve you better in the long term than 5 hours today and feeling too exhausted to start tomorrow.
- Stream of consciousness work journaling helps your progress feel more meaningful, keeps you focused, and gives you a catalogue of your actions for you to analyze and learn from in the future. At the beginning of every session I write the date, every action I’m taking as I take it, and often what’s going through my head and what I’m feeling as I work. I keep my journaling short, personal, honest, and quick (~20 words per hour, I spend about a minute an hour total on the journal, so it’s not distracting. Instead I note my distractions in the journal so that I can move forward with my work.)
Here’s an example of my stream of consciousness journal.
- Document your work and keep it well organized.
- Close your loops. I’ve already recognized the importance of keeping the phases of each course discreet, and in the process of completing this course I’ve realized it’s important to keep the courses discrete as well. This means finish one task before moving on to the next one. The only reason I’m typing out this synthesis (and not avoiding it like I did for the first two software engineering courses), is because I forced myself to complete all phases of 6.042j before continuing on 6.006. Once you’re finished with one task it clears up space in your mind that you can use to fully focus on the next task.
- Give yourself credit for the work that you do. If someone want to visualize what I learned while completing 6.042j I can send them this page. Find a way to demonstrate your skills so you can benefit from your work.
- Build your skills through iteration. You’ll be intimidated when approaching new things. Throw perfectionism out the window, finish something quickly, stop avoiding it, don’t fall behind on any of the pieces, get it out there, get feedback on how you can improve a few specific pieces of it (but again, just upgrade it, make it just a little better than your last one, don’t try to accomplish too much in a single iteration), and make it a little better next time. This is how you get better at anything. It takes patience and humility.
- Break very difficult problems into digestible chunks. Sometimes concepts are so complicated you won’t be able to successfully complete it in your first attempt, and you won’t be able to even completely understand or internalize the solution on your first attempt (meaning you’ll get your second attempt wrong as well). Find your saturation point, find a piece of the solution that you can easily understand today, maybe one concept, maybe one problem solving mechanism, and briefly focus on that while analyzing the solution. Quickly write how it works, then when you reattempt the problem later, start by focusing on what you’ve internalized in this process. Now that you’ve chunked out a piece of the solution, the remainder will be less intimidating. Try the now truncated problem again, and you’ll be surprised how quickly you progress. Learn the problem, solution, and problem solving mechanisms in smaller pieces so you spend less time feeling stuck.
- How to attempt problems you know you are unlikely to succeed at: Give it your best attempt. Don’t take too long (pomodoros come in handy for this). Make sure it’s a complete solution that can be turned in and be graded (you want to know where you’re going wrong, and why your assumptions were wrong). Don’t leave anything out that was asked for. Set yourself up for success, even if it is unlikely, because then you can close the gap between a successful solution and what you did more quickly/easily. It’s easy to fall into one of two unproductive traps: wasting multiple days attempting to figure something out that is too far outside of your current skill level, and giving up whenever you are uncertain and relying on the solutions to guide you. Instead of focusing on solving problems, instead focus on using problems to measure and push the limits of your skills. If you can’t solve it today, see how far you can get today, then focus on solving it tomorrow, and move forward.
I asked the four people I admired the most in my 23rd year, “what were you doing when you were 23?” and “what are you doing now?“. Then I shared the emotional journey of my 23rd year.
Selected Links for the Episode:
Jackson and I discuss: our different career paths after college (leaving the fields we were trained in), how to develop grit (and it’s importance), our alternative energy solutions as well as our experiences working in alternative energy research, how Jackson developed and maintained a healthy sleep routine while balancing a part time job, marching band, and one of the most demanding majors in college, how to approach making friends and establishing yourself socially in a new city, and how to follow through and finish difficult or discouraging goals.
Selected Links for the Episode:
Selected Quotes from the Episode:
- “I got pretty good at fining fun in what I was doing” –Jackson Klein
- “First and foremost you need to focus on yourself if you’re going to do anything for the world.” –Jackson Klein
I recently read Noah Kagan’s article, how was your 2016?, where he reflects on his experiences over the past year, compares them to the original “bucket list” of goals he made at the beginning of the year, and shares his goals for 2017. I haven’t been much of a “goal-setter” recently, but I have successfully made life-changing New Year’s resolutions the past few years, and after reading this article, listening to a few episodes of The Tim Ferriss Show, and reading Arnold Schwarzenegger’s recent autobiography, I figured setting 2017 goals to revisit throughout the year would be an experiment worth trying.
Below is my 2017 bucket list, in Noah’s format, followed by a brief explanation:
To make this list I seriously reflected on: what were the most meaningful actions I took in 2016, what will I be glad I spent my time on a year (or five years) from now, what lessons do I want to learn in 2017, and what is truly important to me.
In 2017 my two main themes (what I usually use instead of goals) are: invest my time by practicing hard and important skills (play the real game and the long game), and be bad at more stuff. The majority of my ambitions are wrapped up into Graduate Unschool, most of what I want to do/learn/become is included in there, and after almost two years it is still a huge priority to me. At the end of 2016 I got in the habit of regularly dedicating time to deeply focusing on Graduate Unschool, which I’ve loved, and I believe it’s the best thing I can do to set myself up for future success, even while I still have no idea what exactly that would look like. 1000 hours is a huge amount of time, but it’s easily measurable and achievable if I make working on it a part of my life, which is the point of this goal. It should challenge me to scale up my best habits. I know that if I want to develop skills the only shortcut to putting in a massive amount of hours of deliberate practice, is putting those hours in while you’re young (which I still am), and using habit formation to minimize willpower depletion. Right now is the perfect time to internalize that lesson.
Why would someone want to spend more time being bad at things? My reason is when you’re starting something new, growing, experimenting, or learning you’re going to spend most of your time failing and being really bad at whatever you’re attempting. If I can become more comfortable shamelessly trying my best, observing objective feedback on my performance, and repeating, I’ll improve much more quickly than if I only practiced skills I’ve already mastered. The hard part about this is that I’m not shameless (yet) and my ego still convinces me that it’s embarrassing to be bad at something. Not anymore, this is the year I’m going to break this pattern. What’s actually embarrassing is being so concerned with how I’m perceived that I’m limiting my own growth. Instead I’ll be reframing poor performance and failure as an essential and important part of the learning process (and practice). In the past I’ve ended up writing less, releasing fewer podcasts, and trying fewer experiments because I’m afraid that they might turn out bad. Guess what? They probably will be bad, but they aren’t the finished product of me as a writer, a podcaster, or a student of whatever else I’m trying to learn. Part of the process of becoming a great writer is writing hundreds of bad articles (like this one) and putting them out in public so I can receive feedback and learn from them. Today I can easily prove complicated real analysis (advanced math) theorems, but years ago I had to learn how to graph functions, and solve for x just like everyone else. Those skills became easier because I solved thousands of math problems (and spent more time failing to solve problems that were outside my skill level), not because I suddenly became smarter. I never viewed elementary math as a demeaning task, so why should I feel foolish flailing my body around to learn a new skateboard trick, or making awful YouTube videos if they’re a part of the skill-building journey? The answer is simple: I shouldn’t.
2017 will be my year of practice. What will you make it into? What’s important to you this year? These are questions worth asking.
Source of inspiration for this article: http://okdork.com/2016/12/29/how-was-your-2016/
On this episode I talk with Rich Davis, man of the lord, about billionaires, emotional state transference, Rich’s ambition and life goals, our obsessive drives for self improvement, how perception becomes reality, competing with yourself and others, and why we strive so agressively to improve.
Selected Links for the Episode:
Selected Quotes from the Episode:
- “That’s how we evolved and became one of the most successful animals on the planet, was being able to take care of ourselves.” -Rich Davis
- “It’s always very active thought work, there’s continuously new things to find, and I’m addicted to that” -Rich Davis
- “If I could summarize finance it’s that: a dollar today is worth more than a dollar tomorrow” – Rich Davis
- “I don’t want to just be good at things, I want to be the best, at everything.” – Rich Davis
- “People are so focused on becoming better than other people… I want to be beyond comparison when it comes to how good I am at something.” – Rich Davis
- “The best way to be the best is to only compete with yourself.”- Rich Davis
- “Nothing in this world can mimic the inherent drive you have for something.” – Rich Davis