Timothy Ferriss, “Accelerated Learning in Accelerated Times”

Posted on Friday, September 16th, 02011 by Stewart Brand
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Learning to learn fast

A Summary by Stewart Brand

To acquire “the meta-skill of acquiring skills,” Ferriss recommends approaching any subject with some contrarian analysis: “What if I try the opposite of best practices?” Some conventional wisdom—“children learn languages faster than adults” (no they don’t)—can be discarded. Some conventional techniques can be accelerated radically. For instance, don’t study Italian in class for a year before your big Italy trip; just book your flight a week early and spend that week cramming the language where it’s spoken. You can be fluent in any language with mastery of just 1,200 words.

That’s what Ferriss calls the “minimum effective dose” for learning a language. The equivalent with any skill or goal is worth identifying. A regular 5 minutes of kettlebell swinging can tone the body rapidly; 30 grams of protein within 30 minutes of waking makes your slow-carb diet effective; just 20,000 “early evangelists” for your book in its first 2 weeks guarantees it becomes a best seller.

With any skill, “solve for extremes and anomalies.” Look at who’s best and how they do it, but especially look for those who are surprisingly good—the wispy girl who can deadlift 405 pounds—because they’re doing it with technique rather than genes, and technique is learnable.

How do you manage the self-discipline to bear down on learning a skill? Ferriss suggests you begin by treating your new regime as a trial (vowing permanence can be discouraging)— give it 2 weeks or 5 serious sessions. By that point early rewards from the discipline will keep you going. You have to measure to detect the rewards (“What gets measured gets managed”–Peter Drucker), and score-keeping lets you make your progress a competitive game with others—which becomes its own motivation. Make public bets about your specific goals, where you’ll pay painfully if you fail. “Loss aversion” is a surprisingly powerful incentive.

You can get profound effects in an amazingly short time, Ferriss concluded. “Doing the unthinkable is easier than you think.”

PS: A collection of all of these summaries of the SALT talks is available on the Kindle for $3. Foreword by Brian Eno.

Other media from this Seminar will be posted here.

  • Much distilled wisdom in this short piece:)  Enjoy

  • David Sucher

    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.


    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?

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