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Going meta

Introduction

Human knowledge too vast for any one person to master.

Humanity is very good at creating domain experts and our education system is structured to help teach and identify the best in each subject. However, these experts have created a problem which is that accumulated human knowledge, the sum total of all their efforts, has grown to be far beyond the scope of any one individual to keep track of, let alone master. This is a problem because domain experts are increasingly isolated in their fields, ignorant of the wider body of human knowledge.

Long-term solutions

There are several long-term solutions to this problem.

  1. Increase an individual's capacity to learn e.g. genetic engineering, life extension, better teaching.
  2. Create better systems for synthesizing human knowledge. Current examples include how the US President will have teams of experts advising him or how big companies have hierarchies where experts advise senior management to enable them to make decisions. Maybe solutions rely on multiple experts advising one decision maker, maybe with the internet you can replace strict hierarchies with looser, more democratic decision making?
  3. Human-computer partnerships where the human acts as the synthesiser but the computer can provide access to the specialist bodies of human knowledge.

In this essay, however, I want to explore the much easier solution of Charlie Munger's which is to learn all the big ideas.

Learning all the big ideas in all the big disciplines so I wouldn’t be a perfect damn fool who was trying to think about one aspect of something that couldn’t be removed from the totality of the situation in a constructive fashion. And what I noted as the really big ideas carry 95% of the freight it wasn’t at all hard for me to pick up all the big ideas in all the disciplines and to make them a standard part of my mental routines.
— Charlie Munger, billionaire investor at Berkshire Hathaway
Berkshire Hathaway's billionaire investor Charlie Munger

Problem

The problem is that traditional teaching is not designed this way. Typically subjects are taught bottom-up with a view to helping those who aim to be experts in a subject rigorously learn it from first principles. Although, this can be valuable, outside your one or two chosen domains of expertise it makes learning even just the core concepts nigh impossible. 


Solution

What is needed is:

  1. an easy way to save, find and review the key mental models and concepts.
  2. an easy way to learn the key mental models and concepts.

#metadatabase

  • an easy way to save, find and review the key mental models and concepts.

My current solution is fairly good which is when I books, listen to podcasts or watch interviews and someone suggests an interesting mental model I store it in quip, in one of many excel spreadsheets that I have categorized based on topic.

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As an example, I recently finished reading 'Poor Charlie's Almanac' which includes his famous essay on 'The Psychology of Human Misjudgement.' Which I have quite simply inputted into an excel spreadsheet. This is very gratifying because it means that I have a systematic way to save all the knowledge and ideas that I come across that otherwise I would quickly forget.

However, as you can see this is likely to very quickly get unwieldy.

The question is in what way would I like to interact with this material? I think there are two ways the first is just general, and perhaps randomized revision. E.g. everyday one mental model from my metadatabase is sent to my phone to review. The second is retrieval, most likely, in the form of checklists I can use to work through a problem, say an investing decision. The question is how to generate this checklist? One way would be to simply create categories based upon which folder the concept/model was saved in but perhaps clever tagging could allow for flexibility on this front.

To consider an example suppose I am thinking through an investment decision and I want to run it against my list of mental models. First I would select the appropriate checklist and then I would be able to run through each item on that list systematically. For example if I was analyzing whether a company is a good investment I would consider checklist item #17 which if relevant I would click yes to and write a brief summary of my thoughts as they relate to the mental model and the specific idea I want to analyse. 

If the brief summary is insufficient to remind the user what the checklist mental model or concept is perhaps there could be a side panel which can come up with a more detailed explanation and link to further notes or even the original source material. 

inputs.png

Obviously to help create this functionality there needs to be a good standardized way to input information. There seem to be a few different types of input structure you may want. But you could have a simple form where if a section is left blank it would not be saved onto the database.

At the end of doing this I could then generate a report of all the checklist points that were relevant to this particular problem alongside my hand written analysis.

#metalearning

  • an easy way to learn the key mental models and concepts.

Of course just like how I read books and write down ideas that interest me I think a lot of the learning will be organic. However, I do think that there should be both an enjoyable and systematic way to learn the core concepts in all the major subjects.

The format my friend and I came up with are five hour videos that would be pitched at medium difficulty in between a more rigorous lecture course on the one hand and layman documentaries and articles on the other hand.

To do this the material needs to be completely reworked and reorganized to allow students to take a top-down, major concepts look at a discipline rather than a more rigorous bottom up approach. 

As an example you may take a five hour course on electric batteries which after an initial hour of foundation work would then over 3 hours explain the 10 major concepts and breakthroughs in the history of battery technology followed by an hour on the future of batteries and the major challenges and potential areas for progress. Having then learnt those 10 major concepts the student could then add those 10 concepts to their library of mental models. 

What we envision is a education company that is focused on content creation rather than platform and tools creation. To make a comparison to the gaming industry, #metalearning would be a game company like Valve or Blizzard rather than a console company like Microsoft's Xbox or Sony's Playstation.

#metaresearch

There may even be a role for a different kind of research. Typically a lot of economics research and financial journalism is reactionary, where opinions are given on recent events taken from a largely unchanging and unspoken world view. What if instead, each news story was an opportunity to communicate and compare alternative world views? Each view would be presented with clear references to the underlying mental models and concepts they use back in the database.

 

    Ideal High School

    In this essay I am going to outline my dream school and some of the ideas about why I think it would work well. I admit that the following school would probably be impractically expensive but at least it would give us something to aim for.

    WE HAVE SEEN THE ENEMY AND IT IS GENERALITY

    What is the point of education? I think ultimately it’s to create successful people, specifically world-class experts and high-skilled professionals. Of course given the make-up of today’s economy most jobs are neither of the two but hopefully with time our economies will develop such that low-skilled roles are automated. It is possible that the job market is fundamentally demand constrained where even if supply increases quantity does not but for now I am going to assume away in the long run the zero sum nature of the job market. For an analysis of this please see my essay about the ‘trade-off between technology and employment.’

    Given that context, what then is the fundamental problem with education today? In a word generality. and to elaborate, generality at the cost of expertise. Underlying all that follows is an assumption about the marginal benefits of learning, particularly that after an initial upspike when you first learn the basics of a subject and how it can you teach you to think about the world the marginal benefit is very low until you reach a point of expertise. There is no better example of this than languages where after the initial taste of a new culture the language has virtually no value until you can break through to the point where you can have day to day interactions. Then beyond that, the marginal benefit is again relatively small until you approach real fluency.

    Too often in education we get trapped in one of the two valleys. How common is it to hear students say why am I learning this? Or I spent all that time studying and I got good grades but I’ve now forgotten everything I learnt.

    My ideal school is built around avoiding the valleys and aiming for the peaks. Theresa Amabile, Harvard Management Professor did a ground breaking study where she asked the question was is the key to having productive and happy employees? Interestingly, it wasn’t compensation, it wasn’t titles or the status of the firm. It wasn’t having a ping pong table in the office or even doing your dream job. What mattered was the employees felt like they were making a little bit of progress in something that was important everyday. Contrast that with most students experience of school which is not making progress in something that seems really unimportant: when am I ever going to use trigonometry in my lifef? And uniquely as a consumer experience, education is the one place where if as a customer you have a bad result it’s your fault! No wonder so many students leave school never wanting to learn another thing again! So the second problem I think with generality in gaining a well-rounded education you lose the sense of progress.

    SAMPLE CLASS TIMETABLE – CORE SUBJECTS: MATHS, HISTORY, ENGLISH & FOREIGN LANGUAGE

    First think to note is my ideal class timetable is both long and infringes on the weekend. School on Saturday I think is no problem because I had that since I was eight and I think as a child as long as all your friends are in the same boat it does not really matter. In writing this I imagined a boarding school hence making the late night lessons and private study sessions feasible but even if students went home I see no reason it should be any earlier than 7pm. Not only does it buy more time for the school day it also I think makes it more convenient for the parents as many parents now work. I should emphasise that homework would be fairly minimal with most traditional homework being done in class time with the teacher on hand to help if there are any problems. Lectures would largely be outsourced to education companies that focus on creating compelling learning materials. Salman Khan’s Khan Academy is a good first step in this direction.

    So now time to walk through the class schedule. The first section to notice is the blue blocks which consist of the traditional academic subjects: Maths, History, English and Chinese. I believe these subjects are not only valuable for the fact they can teach you a way to think about things but also because the knowledge is intrinsically valuable.

    With the higher number of hours studying Maths and with better teaching all students would not only learn to an A-Level competency in general Maths but beyond that in Statistics where the focus would be on a practical understanding of statistical programs and manipulation of data. This would give students a valuable job market skill that would be useful in most roles in most industries. Some would argue that it is not possible for all students to attain such a high level in Mathematics and Statistics. I would disagree because I feel that in the ideas discussed below it is possible to teach in a significantly more effective way.

    History would be learnt not only with the view of learning about the past and the opportunity to expose oneself to different influences but also as a way to learn how to write and dare I say it how to think. One downside to learning history I think is that many of the major debates such as the causes of the First World War feel very stale and as a student it can feel like there is a right answer. Wouldn’t it be cool therefore if some time was spent studying conspiracy theories and having vibrant debates about why they are or are not true? This is not only an important life skill but also a valuable asset on the job market.

    Chinese and English would be studied to build competancy in those two languages, although of course Chinese here is only used as an example and could be swapped for a language of the students choosing. I have in my time studied Chinese, French, Russian, Latin and Ancient Greek and despite doing well in exams am unable to speak any of them! A classic case of being trapped in the first valley. I am a firm believer that you cannot improve in anything if you spend less than five hours a week at it especially something cumulative like a language. In addition to throwing more hours at it I also think learning languages could be done more efficiently. Firstly less than that you spend most of your time trying to not to forget what you’ve learnt rather than actually learn new things. Secondly irstly the two highest leverage activities to learn a language are one vocab learning and two have real life conversation practice. More specfically two students would stand in front of the class with one student orally translating English sentences into Chinese with the other translating them back into English. And thirdly I think in language learning there is too much emphasise on correct grammar and pronunciation, as a beginner this is not important. Instead the aim should be for students to be able to speak without inhibitions such that they can understand and be understood, this is very different from speaking accurately. It is amazing how many students I have met at Tsinghua whose exam English is very good but when it comes to having a conversation they are too terrified to say anything. Finally learning another language in addition to your mother tongue is of course another valuable asset in the workplace as well as a window into another culture.

    SAMPLE CLASS TIMETABLE – PROGRESS LESSONS – CREATIVE, PHYSICAL & WILDCARD

    Our enemy remember is generality and so students would pick one creative discipline, one physical discipline and one wildcard (the red blocks) to spend at least five hours a week working at. Although of course it is possible that the disciplines they choose may evolve into passions or even careers the real focus is on learning how to learn and experiencing the process of setting goals, making progress and becoming more of an individual. Students when they are younger would be free to switch disciplines every six or even three months and sample lots of different activities but as they got older they would be expected to settle down into one or two disciplines for years at a time. Students would with their teachers choose their goals and agree how they will be evaluated against their goals. Students would learn to compete against themselves rather than defining themselves compared to other people. Students will take responsibility of their own learning with the safety net of the core academic subjects would have the freedom to genuinelly choose areas that interest them.

    Teachers and schools would become enablers. Say a student wants to learn how to paint teachers could help arrange visits to art museums or for local artists to come and visit. If a student wanted to learn how to play football teachers could help organise a trip to see a football game or an opportunity to trial at a local football club. I heard a story that #1 chess player in the world Magnus Carlsen when he was 12 or 13 would alongside a few other grandmasters spend hours just talking through various situations. That’s the kind of tailored learning experiences that students want and need. Many people complain that they have no opportunity to contribute so imagine if schools ran mentoring programmes where local people have regular contact with students structured around a discipline they are interested in. How awesome would that be?

    One problem of course would be designing curriculum for all these diverse topics thus having outsource companies that you could buy at the very least teaching materials from would be very useful.

    Too often I think as an educational system we are afraid of specialization too early because what if the child misses out on other opportunities? What we forget is specialization too late also means missing out on the opportunity to really develop one area and know it intimately and be excellent at it. After all, in a specialized economy where excellence often requires starting early and working hard many children are not afforded the opportunity to try and go pro at something because they didn’t put enough hours in at a young enough age. As Confucius said ‘the man who chases two rabbits catches none.’ We should be more afraid of students catching no rabbits then catching one rabbit but not two.

    SAMPLE CLASS TIMETABLE – SAMPLE LESSONS

    Despite my criticisms of a general education there is absolutely a lot of value in being open minded and having lots of influences. However, I feel that this process does not have to be an academic one wrapt in the frankly energy sapping process of preparing for and taking exams.

    The short sample lessons would be a chance to gain exposure to lots of different influences. Each one and a half hour lesson would vary from listening to Korean pop music, studying tectonic plate theory to learning about the life of Steve Jobs. The longer sample session would be a chance to delve deeper into one subject; particularly for example big ideas in science like the Big Bang Theory and Evolution. Again to help a tutor with the sheer number of diverse subjects that would have to be prepared schools course outsource teaching materials and lesson plans to education companies. They could also be used to build skills like public-speaking or touch typing. Each semester students might be asked to create presentations or write essays about a few of the topics they learnt or to research topics of their own but again the focus would be not be on exams but rather exposing the students to lots of interesting influences and helping the kids to be curious about the world and open-minded to its possibilities.

    SAMPLE CLASS TIMETABLE – PRIVATE STUDY

    With the sheer number of class hours spent on the core subjects outside of big projects and preparing for exams I think homework should be kept to a minimum. If there was scope for private study though it might be to help students who are struggling. Teachers would tutor one-on-one to help students with problem areas. This would also benefit teachers to help them understand where students are struggling better. Too often teachers are not aware that students are falling behind until the end of year exams. In our ideal school of unlimited resources this is not acceptable.

    MACRO TIMETABLE

    The academic year would be long but I think students would be more willing to endure because school would be more enjoyable. Also to achieve excellence at the end of the day takes a lot of hours, 10,000 of them if Malcolm Gladwell is to be believed. Having said, that the academic year can be structured to take advantage of the ebs and flows of motivation and focus. What if each year you had two week Maths camps or two weeks in Washington actually learning American history first hand? The focus on one subject would not only help students break through plateaus but also break the monotony of the academic year. It might also be a good way to add academic variety to the curriculum ,what if after summer examinations you had a month of studying different subjects? Swapping out maths, english, history and chinese for physics, computer science, economics and design. This might also be a good way to introduce an academic taster to students so that they can in the last ¾ years of high school choose additional academic subjects to study on top of their diet of maths and history. Imagine if students studying Italian spent as a 14 year old a year in Italy? Not only would this help them with their language study but would expose them to a new culture at a young age when they are still open minded. Also I think it would be extremely challenging. One downside to our modern culture is we coddle our children too much. We forget that many of our ancient cultures had challenging rituals for children to go through as a passage into adulthood. Much like Sparta’s (extreme!) habit of having their sons spend a night out in the wild with just a spear to protect themselves we should not be afraid of throwing our children into the proverbial deep end lest we be left with thirty year old children!

    University Education & The Professor's Problem

    Despite the flurry of attention that education reform has received in recent years, from the scalability of online learning, to the failures of the K-12 system one perspective that is too often left unconsidered is the plight of the university professor. We put the responsibility on professors and universities to not only be the centres of innovation, pushing the frontiers in human knowledge and understanding but also to be the pinnacle and perhaps even heart of our education systems. In no sphere of human endeavour, not in business, in sports or in politics do we ask those who are most excellent to also bear the brunt of the responsibility of teaching the next generation, unless that field of excellence is unfortunate enough to be on a university campus. And yet rather than praise we vilify, rather than reward we complain. I too believe that progress in university education is not only possible but necessary; I’m not denying the problems that exist. On the contrary, I’m arguing for their resolution but a resolution not through a complete rejection of the institutions that have given so much to us over the previous decades as has been proposed but rather through a hybrid model of technology and university that will offer the best of both worlds.

    TWO MAIN NARRATIVES ABOUT TECHNOLOGICAL CHANGE IN UNIVERSITY EDUCATION

    For decades people have talked about how technology will finally bring change to the seemingly unchangeable. Of course I’m talking about lectures: the process by which one person stands in front of rows and rows of silent and attentive students, talking and occasionally writing on a board, a teaching method that has stood the test of 100s of years, stubborn to innovation, may finally be broken.

    Generally though when we talk about the benefits technology can offer to university education there are two main narratives. One is the extension of education’s reach and power to the poor, for those for whom traditional education isn’t an option. Online learning is cheaper, more scalable and even offers an affordable chance at lifetime learning.

    The second narrative is that of competition, the new replacing the old. The campus university system is broken and we should replace it with the online experience. However, online education for all its cost-efficiency lacks the richness that campus universities can offer: whether it’s face to face interaction between professors and students in seminars and around campus, or networking opportunities, personal growth and life experiences. Not to mention the huge signalling power that incumbents like Harvard in the US, LSE in the UK and Tsinghua in China can offer its students. An online experience taken to its extreme would lose all this richness in favour of 5 year old children in a darkened room, alone, staring at a computer screen for the next 20 years: a learning experience we can all agree is not likely to produce the kind of educated and well rounded citizens we would all want.

    THIRD NARRATIVE: A HYBRID MODEL OF UNIVERSITY WITH ONLINE + CAMPUS

    There is a third narrative though, one that is too often left untold. That is one where technology is used to enhance not replace the universities we have. As a thought experiment imagine a new type of university where everything is exactly the same! You would still have seminars with teachers and students interacting face to face, and you’d still have the same physical buildings and campuses, except let’s change one thing. What if lectures were watched on a computer rather than in a lecture hall, this would allow students to pause, rewind and replay in a way you cannot do in a real-time lecture. Taken even further, with adaptive learning technologies the computer experience is more and more able to approximate a 1-1 tuition experience where your learning material is catered to suit your needs. Find topic 3 hard? Here’s another explanation or some more practice problems. Find topic 4 easy? Then whizz on through.

    In fact, not only might this sort of online learning be comparable to traditional lectures they may even be superior. First of all, because students are doing everything on a computer suddenly educators will be awarded a wealth of data, particularly for the more mathematical-type subjects about what topics students find the most difficult, what explanations work best, there may even be insight into the study habits of students. All this data can be used to personalise and improve the learning experience.

    Better technology doesn’t necessarily mean better courses. Great technology has existed for a while, now it’s about writing better courses that take advantage of this technology.

    This personalization has become a buzz-word in entrepreneurship circles but I think often these start-ups are misguided. Too often they focus on general, scalable (and therefore profitable) fixes to teaching and learning problems. But for anyone struggling with matrix multiplication for the first time, these technological fixes will seem largely irrelevant, there is too much focus on the technology and not enough focus on actually using this technology to write better courses, that is where the real value add is. Although only a humble graduate, I have tried writing my own lectures on a few university subjects. A few videos I put online about linear algebra for example have garnered comments such as:

    ‘If you are not in the United States, please come visit and replace 90% of our linear algebra professors. I am confident that these 7 minutes of your lecturing make more sense than an entire semester under their instruction.’

    ‘Agreed. An entire generation of human beings unable to employ mathematics because instead of getting this guy for a teacher, we get Captain Rigorous Mathematical Proof, who never explains his notation and is shocked when someone has a question.’

    ‘You are…AMAZING!’

    ‘Thanks, that really clarifies things!

    ‘Thanks so much for posting these videos!! I finally understand!!!’

    ‘Why don´t we get professors like this?’

    ‘The awkward moment when your learn more from a youtube video in 7 minutes than you did from lectures for a whole semester’

    ‘this is much clearer than the lecture i just had in class. thank you very much! ‘ ‘oh my goodness THANK YOU!’

    ‘all of a sudden, it all makes sense. thank you so much.’

    Now of course, just because a few students found my videos useful doesn’t’ mean they all did, nor does it mean that all university professors are bad at teaching, in fact many are very good. This is not the point I’m trying to make. Rather I hope this shows the extent to which the odds are stacked against the professors in terms of teaching well.

    THE PROFESSOR’S CHALLENGE

    First off you are lecturing in front of 100+ students who you probably rarely get to interact with, in fact many may not even bother showing up, so you may not even know what some of your students look like, let alone how you might teach them better. And then to add insult to injury your pay, rewards and remuneration are heavily stacked towards your research work, which by the way teaching requires you to do part-time and suddenly people are surprised if your teaching isn’t world-class. Furthermore, the university education system asks some of the smartest people in the world, men and women who – particularly in the mathematical fields – have spent decades trawling through the dense and demanding frontiers of their subjects to relate to an average student who is having trouble with some of the basic definitions and derivations of that same subject. In my own small way, I understand how frustrating that can be: for the teacher. I tutored a boy who got a D in GCSE maths and needed a C and I can tell you trying to explain concepts that are so second-nature and sub-consciously intuitive to me to someone who is completely confused by them is an almost impossible challenge, and I had the good fortune of spending hours after countless hours one-on-one with him.

    One comment I got from someone who saw my linear algebra video was:‘That’s a great analogy, they always help me understand things. Why couldn’t my lecturer do the same??!!!!’

    I think part of the answer is the intuition of the subject is so ingrained for most professors, and for so long that it’s hard to imagine a situation when that wasn’t the case. So of course, in my own little case as a mere graduate I have nowhere near the understanding or knowledge of a professor but paradoxically I may be able to teach a given subject better exactly because I don’t know as much.

    I would like to finish by asking a question: what is the most valuable resource at a university? The answer I think is a professor’s time. The hours they spend lecturing, teaching in seminars and individually in office hours and let’s not forget writing courses is immense, and it’s time not doing research. It’s absurd that with so many people going to universities and the extent to which there is standardisation across universities in what is learnt that more (although not necessarily all) isn’t shared. What if one great teacher in linear algebra wrote and gave the video lectures for everyone studying linear algebra in the UK? Or what if there were a few education companies, driven by profit, writing foundation lectures for courses for universities, their professors and their students to choose from? Would that not lead to better outcomes?

    Right now Professors’ time is wasted because even if the professor is lecturing it’s time spent trawling through algebra or talking about the consensus causes of the Second World War. What possible value add is our world-class professor having there? What if you took that 2 hours of lecture time and asked the professor to go through the harder material or to add their own unique, more nuanced perspectives, or put the basic materials in the context of contemporary debates. If there is anything archaic about university education it’s people ideas about what a Harvard or an LSE education should mean. Just because students might learn the bones of say linear algebra online from the same video course provider that would by no means mean that Harvard and LSE would therefore be offering the same educational experiences. In fact rather than diminishing the differences it would enhance them, you would really be interacting with the professors at each university in a meaningful and valuable way.

    A BETTER WAY: MORE PROGRESS AND BETTER TEACHING

    And finally, putting the education question aside let’s remember the other purpose of universities: innovation. In a world where growth in the developing countries may be predicated on copying the developed and where those same developed countries struggle with stagnation and heavy debt the future looks bleak. In the past we have looked to governments to be the leaders in innovation such as with the Manhattan Project or the Space programme, but as, in particular, democracies have evolved into welfare states, trapped in 4 year political cycles and burdened by heavy debt it is unlikely governments will be the crucible of future innovation. Nor perhaps will business, particularly with the short-term focus of even Silicon Valley’s investors. Only at universities can projects be worked on where there is no hope of immediate payoff and yet it may be these very projects that lead to the greatest innovations. Education reform should not be about working against universities and the professors that inhabit them but rather working with them, giving them a fighting chance to do all that we ask of them.

    Chinese Language Course

    You’ve got to make sure that whatever you’re doing is a great product or service. It has to be really great and I go back to what I was saying earlier that if you’re a new company… where there’s an existing market place against large entrenched competitors then your product or service needs to be much better than theirs. It can’t be a little bit better because then you put yourself in the shoes of the consumer and you say why would you buy it as the consumer? You’re always going to buy the trusted brand unless there’s a big difference. So a lot of times an entrepreneur will come up with something that is only slightly better. And it’s not, it can’t just be slightly better. It’s got to be a lot better.’ Elon Musk – Paypal, SpaceX, Tesla.

    PROBLEM

    In my life I have tried and failed to learn Ancient Greek, Latin, Russian, French and Mandarin. Despite the endless hours, very good grades and the fact I was fortunate to be studying at arguably the best high school in the UK (Westminster School) I have never been able to have a basic conversation in any of these languages. I don’t mean just today but even when I was actually learning and passing exams in them. I always attributed this to my own lack of ability to learn languages, I didn’t have the gene for it. Recent events though have forced me to reassess, in particular having just spent the past year at Tsinghua University in China I can now speak Mandarin. Badly admittedly, but speak nonetheless. In fact, several of my best friends in China could not speak English at all.

    However despite this successful outcome even that learning experience I feel was not optimal. For example, going to China to study with a classroom of foreigners defeats the whole point of going to China at all because inevitably you make friends with your classmates and end up speaking to them in English not Chinese. This interestingly was the case even when our Chinese was easily good enough to have the same conversation as we were having in English. Classes were four hours a day stretched out for two epically long seventeen week terms which even the most driven would struggle to maintain a high work ethic for. And furthermore, there was little student teacher interaction, with most classes involving the teacher reading from a textbook. I was fortunate because learning from my friend’s experience I had actively avoided making too many foreign friends instead trying to mix with locals as much as possible. I found it was having natural day to day conversations with my friends, not attending class, that really improved my Chinese. But still, it was hard not mixing with classmates and by the end of the year most of my closest friends were foreigners and in fact I had several classmates who hadn’t made a single Chinese friend all year!

    Despite all these flaws, this is still much better than my previous experiences learning languages where, because I had just two or three hours of classes a week not forgetting what you had learnt the previous was hard enough, let alone actually improving.

    SOLUTION – GENERAL PHILOSOPHY

    I think the solution is very simple: focus and immersion. The best way to learn a language is to be immersed in an environment where for twenty-four hours a day all communication is in the language you want to learn. The obvious problem is that you first need to learn the basics of a language before you can reap the benefits of immersion.

    The two graphs above I believe describe the typical language learning experience. On the left is the marginal benefit curve, i.e. the benefit of every extra hour’s effort. On the right is the total benefit curve. I argue that after an initial spike in benefit, whether it’s getting exposed to a new culture and language or perhaps being able to say a few words on holiday, very quickly the marginal benefit of every extra hour you spend studying a language drops very low. That is until you reach the level where you can have basic conversations in the language and make friends. At that stage there is an uptick in the marginal benefit signified by the hump in the middle of the marginal benefit curve. Once you can have basic conversations and friends in a language there is another long period of limited marginal benefit to every hour you study because it takes a long time to get to the level of true fluency where you can write and express yourself like a native. For this second long period of limited marginal benefit the best, and really only method, for language learning is immersion.

    For the first valley though immersion is not an option and so I propose intensive language camps. The big advantage of this is that I feel the learning curve is much faster if there is greater focus. Secondly, people can sustain very concentrated work ethic for a week or perhaps even a month but maintaining a proportional work ethic over years, especially when you feel like you’re not making any progress is very difficult.

    Initially I thought it might be possible for someone to jump from complete beginner to basic conversational fluency but I have since been persuaded that this is probably over ambitious. Therefore my current best guess as to the optimal way to learn a language as an adult would be to first have a one or two week intensive beginner course where the focus is getting to sentence construction as quickly as possible. That would be followed by perhaps six months of the more typical three or four hours a week where the primary focus is on maintenance but this would also allow for perhaps a gradual build up in vocabulary as well as general increasing familiarity with the language. This would then be followed by an intense three to five week course which would aim to get the student to complete basic conversational fluency. Ideally, the student would then the day the intensive course finishes get on a flight to the respective country to immerse themselves for at least three months and get real world practice using the language. As I mentioned previously, studying at language schools has the serious disadvantage that you don’t really immerse yourself because all your classmates are foreigners. The provisional best solution my friend and I came up with is that, for example if you are a Japanese language student after the intensive course you would go to Japan to live with Japanese university students, studying at a Japanese university but living in an apartment outside. Perhaps to make it worth their while the language student would pay a disproportionately large share of the rent. In return the language student would be immersed all day every day with Japanese speakers and crucially would have an instant social circle of local friends. Initially I thought that a language learner might try to enroll in a masters course where there is limited need to understand the teacher, a good example might be an art course but this seemed unworkable.

    The big advantage of just living with university students but not actually attending university of course is that with no academic pressures the language learner will have the time to enjoy the local culture. A big problem I think with short-term language programmes is that your motivaton to study is directly diminished because this is your one chance to live in the country and inevitably rather than spending every minute locked up in your room studying you’d rather be about experiencing the country. This is exactly what my British friend found when she spent five weeks studying Korean in Seoul, she didn’t really want to study because there was so many things that she wanted to go and see. By separating the intense language program from the immersion I think you can get the benefit of both. Obviously, the intense language programs as well as the several months living in a foreign country are not easy to manage if you are in a full-time job so our primary target customer base would be university students. Having said that, as it is becoming more and more acceptable to change jobs and change companies it is not entirely inconceivable that a person might have six months off which they want to spend first learning another language and then living in that country.

    SOLUTION – SPECIFICS OF COURSE

    As I mentioned, my initial plan was to go straight from beginner to, for Chinese at least, what I felt was the minimum vocab requirement of about 600 words. I should mention that Chinese is unique in its relatively simple grammar (although this is offset by its lack of an alphabet)! But nonetheless I feel that there is too much emphasis in language learning on accuracy, particularly grammatical accuracy. In reality, what matters is that you and your friends both understand what each other is saying most of the time and that you can match normal conversational speed. My initial plan was to learn 600 + words in less than two weeks but after getting feedback from my friends I realized that this was overly ambitious and so I reduced the first intense language program to less than 200 words and just seven days.

    The lessons would be everyday from 8am to 10pm with 8 hours of classes a day. The classes would be structured in a very specific way where the first 15-20 minutes would be spent learning six new words. Those who are more ambitious or perhaps already have a familiarity with the language can learn the writing but the priority would be on the pronunciation and the tones. The remaining 40 minutes of each hour long class would then be spent translating aloud English sentences into Chinese sentences. Crucially the English sentences would, in addition, to being written with correct English grammar, would also be written with Chinese grammar. This would indirectly help familiarize students with the structures as well simplify the translation process.

    As an example students would spend twenty minutes learning the following six words in Chinese: today, library, I, go, university, possessive (i.e. ’s)

    They would then, in front of the class, be asked to translate aloud the following: Today I went to my university’s library. [Today] [I] [go] [I] [possessive] [university] [possesive] [library]

    Where the first sentence is the meaning in correct English grammar and the second in correct Chinese grammar. Their partner would then upon hearing the Chinese translation be asked to translate the sentence back into English. In this way students would spend most of their time on the two highest leverage language learning activities: learning vocab and practicing conversations.

    I should add that the other guiding philosophy to my way of teaching is repetition and so a lot of time will be spent revising words that have been learnt. And in fact, in addition to specific hours spent revising old vocab a lot of the vocab will naturally come up in the sentence structure practice. Finally, each day there will be about an hour of optional, it would take place in an extended break between lessons, of culture lessons where students could get exposure to famous Chinese singers or films etc. In practice this would just involve watching videos on YouTube etc. Ultimately the more interested you are in the culture the more motivated you are likely to be to want to study the language. This is especially important if a student is going to spend several months living with locals. The number of my Tsinghua classmateswho had never heard of famous actors like Angelababy or famous singers like Jay Chou was truly astonishing to me.

    Finally in choosing the vocabulary to learn I decided to be very adjective and verb heavy and very noun light. The reasoning being verbs and adjectives are much more important when it comes to constructing sentences, making friends and having daily conversations then nouns.

    Aggressive Novelty

    This is a fun piece about a new life philosophy that I’ve developed for myself called ‘Aggressive Novelty.’ All it involves is a) developing awareness of my interests and habits and then b) systematically introducing new influences, preferably those that are very different from my current set

    Some advise exercise, and others, repose. Some counsel travel, and others, retreat. Some praise solitude, and others, gaiety. No doubt all these may play their part according to the individual temperament. But the element which is constant and common in all of them is Change.

    Change is the master key. A man can wear out a particular part of his mind by continually using it and tiring it, just int he same way he can wear out the elbows of his coat. There is, however, this difference between the living cells of the brain and inanimate articles:… the tired parts of the mind can be rested and strengthened, not merely by rest, but by using other parts. It is not enough merely to switch off the lights which play upon the main and ordinary field of interest; a new field of interest must be illuminated.

    It is no use saying to the tired ‘mental muscles’… ‘I will lie down and think of nothing.’ The mind keeps busy just the same. If it has been weighing and measuring, it goes on weighing and measuring. If it has been worrying, it goes on worrying. It is only when new cells are called into activity, when new starts become the lord of the ascendant, that relief, repose, refreshment are afforded.
    — Winston Churchill

    There are two schools of thought on what form the new influences should take. One is a form of sampling. The other is to choose less things but really let them move into your heart. Although I like sampling a lot, I prefer the latter. Part of my reasoning relates to my experience lifting weights. For several years I had the ambition of getting a bigger body but it was only after I completely immersed myself in the culture that I found I became consistent at getting myself to the gym. Part of that process for me was, willingly, watching endless hours of body building documentaries. Listening and absorbing the mindsets of top body builders like Kai Greene and Ronnie Coleman, even just watching them train is more than just a burst of short-term inspiration, it’s a long-run change in who I am as a person.

    Whilst at Tsinghua, a friend and I made our own body building documentary of my Chinese friend Tung, who is probably one of the biggest guys I have ever seen in my life. I asked him what he felt was important for a beginner and he said that the type of person who trains say three times a week for forty-five minutes, something that is more than sufficient in the long-run, is fundamentally a completely different person to the guy just starting out. Therefore if you try to as a beginner to immediately go straight to the 3x a week you will fail. Why? Because you are not that person yet. So Tung’s suggestion is to for three months make lifting/body building your life. Go to the gym five/six times a week, don’t just get in and out but talk to the other guys and absorb their mindsights, watch documentaries, even buy fancy gym clothes so you look good when you go. The objective here is not temporary short-term gains of a quick six pack but instead shocking your mind and body into a whole new way of thinking and living.

    drdetulkfnjlia_small.jpg

    CATEGORIES OF HABIT/INTERESTS

    So anyway these are list of categories that I think pretty comprehensively cover my interests and current habits.

    This include: types of friends, languages, music taste, favourite TV shows, favourite films, habitual thinking, style of thinking, my main ideas/pet theories, favourite sports to both watch, do and play, favourite thinkers and favourite books.

    As an example right now my favourite music genre wise is probably

    • Korean Hip Hop – esp. Jay Park (박재범), Verbal Jint (버벌진트), Bumkey (범키), Swings (스윙스)
    • CPOP – esp. Jay Chou (周杰伦), Rainie Yang (杨丞琳)
    • American Hip Hop – esp. Drake
    • KPOP – esp. Rain (비), Ballads like Baek Ji Young’s (백지영), KPOP girl groups like SNSD (소녀시대), AOA (에이오에이), Red Velvet (레드벨벳)
    Red-Velvet-Be-Natural-2.jpg

    In the future I want to pro-actively get into music that isn’t East Asian or American mainstream like house music or maybe music from Arabia or India.

    Another example might be currently a lot of my thinking is influenced by Silicon Valley culture and in particular the ‘disrupt’ mindsight. Exposing myself to how artists thing about similar problems of doing something new I think might be really interesting.

    BENEFITS OF AGGRESSIVE NOVELTY

    I think there are three main benefits of the ‘Aggressive Novelty’ approach to life.

    1 Greater creativity

    As outlined in Steven Johnson’s book ‘Where Good Ideas Come From’ creativity can be thought of as a the simple result of diverse influence bashing together. By pro-actively and periodically introducing new influences I will become more creative!

    2 Transfer

    There are so many things in life that are beyond our control. I think many old people get worn down by their particular culture’s societal hierarchy, what is deemed high status and what is not. And perhaps most pervasive is the sense of what is possible and what is not. In my own small way, as a recent university graduate I’ve noticed a seismic difference in the feeling of possibility that other graduates friends and I have compared to first year students that I’ve become friends with. I find the more I hang out around them the more I stay hopeful and full of possibilities.

    I think that is why immigrants in all societies tend to do much better. They are not constrained by the collective cultural memory of what is possible and not possible to achieve. As an example, I was recently discussing with a friend how I would be very willing to live in the poorest areas of Beijing (a city I don’t know very well) but very unwilling to live in a similar part of London (a city I have lived in all my life). With London I would feel that I would be forever shackled by the feeling that I am not going to escape this place whereas in Beijing I would feel a sense of adventure and not such feeling of being trapped. Although there are lots of universals across different cultures the differences can still feel liberating.

    For example I used to think that East Asian men could never have an amazing body but people like Youtube star Mike Chang and Frank Yang have forced me to change my assumptions.

    ‘Running an ultramarathon can’t be good for you. I can’t imagine how it’s possibly good for your body,’ I said. I wasn’t biting on endurance. Running wasn’t my thing and it never has been. Brian MacKenzie laughed: ‘Good for you physically? No. But you’ll recover. And I assure you: if you run 50K or 100 miles, when you finish,you won’t be the same person who started.’ I thought for a minute and that’s when I bit. I’d seen a strange ripple effect dozens of times in the world of strength but for some reasons I’d never connected the dots with endurance. Perhaps just as you haven’t connected the dots with some subjects in this book. After all, in a knowledge economy, what’s the value of deadlifting more or losing 2% body fat? Or hitting a home run? In a word: transfer. The physical changes were incredible, but the curious side effects (the mental improvements) were the strongest incentives to continue… This book is a Trojan Horse full of unexpected transfers.’ Tim Ferriss

    3 Life extension

    Finally, I noticed that the year I was in Beijing the first month felt much longer, and my brain is packed with emotionally-charged memories, however I remember the final three or four months all sort of merged into one, one week indistinguishable from the next. My basic idea then is if I can consistently introduce ‘aggressive novelty’ then I in effect (although of course not literally) extend my life. As Einstein said, ‘time is relative!’ Of course this can get pretty exhausting so right now I’ve settled on one new thing every 3 months or so. My latest new habits include joining a Sci-Fi book club, starting to watch DOTA and LOL competitions as well as starting to meditate. The latter is something I’ve wanted to try for a long time but doing it consistently is really difficult so right now I am just doing 3 minutes a day after I shower to build the habit and then once that is established I’ll slowly increase the amount of time. .

    Also it’s fun!

    Do not go gentle into that good night, Old age should burn and rave at close of day; Rage, rage against the dying of the light

    How To Be Successful

    Compared to other areas of human expertise ‘success advice’ seems to be a relatively unhelpful body of knowledge which is surprising because being successful is something that we are all so interested in. In fact, my pet theory re: giving advice is that it is a just a socially acceptable way to show off and it is not really about genuinely helping others replicate their success but even that cynical perspective doesn’t explain why the advice that is offered (no matter what the true motives) doesn’t make replicating success much easier. There seem to be two explanations: the first is that people don’t really follow the advice or second they follow the advice but it’s not very useful. I’m not sure which is true, probably a combination of both. One thing I have been struck by is the number of successful people who advocate taking risks and following ones passions even though it is against what almost everyone I know does. The obvious explanation is that these successful people are suffering from sample selection bias where it worked out for them and so they have their perspectives skewed by this but I find this hard to believe given the large number of extremely smart people who have given this advice. I think part of the problem is that there are three fundamentally different ways to be successful in life and the belief systems and approaches that each require are extremely different, maybe even opposed.

    1. Competitive success
    2. Creative success
    3. Corporate success

    I shall try and discuss each of the three types and suggest the type of thinking required to succeed at each.

    1. COMPETITIVE SUCCESS

    Example

    • Sports

    Properties

    • Success is inherently zero-sum and defined as beating someone else.
    • Extreme power law in returns – Michael Jordan the greatest basketball player ever is worth $1bn, Lebron James the greatest player today is worth $300m, but the 500th best player in the world doesn’t even play in the NBA.
    • Success is largely a function of execution not creativity. Messi is a very creative player but he’s not doing anything fundamentally new on a football pitch.
    • Success = talent + hard work.

    Advice/expertise

    • How to deal with failure/losing – being resilient etc.
    • Being very competitive – motivation is external i.e. beating someone else.
    • Importance of work ethic (over talent).
    • Need to develop self-confidence, self-belief.
    • Selflessness of putting the team ahead of the individual.

    2. CREATIVE SUCCESS

    Example

    • Startups, Music

    Properties

    • Success is still zero-sum but rather than beating someone it’s about doing something completely new.
    • Similar extreme power law in returns – but harder to tell if on path to success. Einstein was a patents clerk, Airbnb’s Brian Chesky was heavily in debt and unemployed.
    • Success is largely a function of doing something radically new.
    • Success = basic competence + radically new insight

    Advice/expertise

    • Courageous about risk-taking – dealing with lack of external signs of progress/success.
    • Need a passion/mission to motivate hard work.
    • You only need to be right once. The failures/experiments dont’ matter.
    • Okay to be weird/do weird things – it increases the probability do something new.

    3. CORPORATE SUCCESS

    Example

    • Education qualifications, corporate life

    Properties

    • Much less extreme power law of returns but still very competitive. Larger number of successful people – e.g. 100,000 best lawyer in the world and you are still a very well-paid partner.
    • Success is about avoiding major negatives e.g. personality problems, bad qualifications, lack of work experience.
    • People should be well-rounded – smart, sociable, team work etc.
    • Success = education + work experience + soft skills – big problems

    Advice/expertise (usually from parents)

    • Work hard so you can play hard outside work.
    • Play the game – office politics, how to win friends and influence people etc.
    • Don’t take any major risks/deviations from the standard path or risk losing the corporate route (you don’t want any gaps on your CV).
    • Grow up/be realistic/take responsibility.

    CONCLUSION

    The, albeit uncomfortable, conclusion of all this is I think that it is extremely difficult to pursue more than one type of success at a time. In fact, I might even go as far to argue that each person is only has a realistic chance (at most) of one type of success. If you really, want to become that Olympic gold medal winning gymnast you are not going to be able to study sufficiently to do well in school and maintain the insurance option of being a corporate success. Similarly, the very competitive people that do well in sports tend to not do well as founders because extremely competitive people tend to copy others and fail to do anything truly creative (just think about all the dismissive things that YC’s Paul Graham and Paypal’s Peter Thiel have said about extroverted, but low conviction MBAs). Similarly, the exact qualities that helped investor Michael Burry who has Asperger’s, a glass eye and refuses to communicate with anyone except via email see what others could not and successful short the sub-prime mortgage market would at the same time made it very difficult for him to succeed in a large bureaucratic organisation. I think this explains why there is such a large disconnect between the advice that someone like investor Vinod Khosla gives and most peoples’ Mum. It’s not that the advice is bad but that it’s just not relevant to the type of success that most people are trying to pursue.The scary implication of all this, of course, is that the path I have chosen/have had chosen for me is the ‘creative success’ route where the extreme power law in returns means a very high chance of failure.