Last week, I asked readers to send me their questions about learning, life, or… anything really. I got over one hundred replies! Here are a few I’d like to share:
“What are your morning and evening routines?”
I don’t have anything fancy in terms of routines.
My mornings, these days, usually start at seven. I have coffee, my wife and I get our son ready for daycare, and I go to the office. My evenings are usually dinner and family time until my son goes to bed, then I watch a television show with my wife and read a bit before going to sleep.
As a meta-point, I’m somewhat against the idea of focusing too much on routines. While good habits are important, they’re not a magic sauce for getting results. People with wildly different habits can reach similar levels of success. In contrast, others who have identical routines can have totally different outcomes.
Perhaps that isn’t the motivation behind your question. Still, it’s worth stating because sometimes people overanalyze things like routines and under analyze more direct contributors to someone’s outcomes (e.g. what projects they work on, what skills and assets they possess, etc.).
“How do you balance growth with sustainability? I recently started a full time job, in addition to a rigorous virtual conservatory (16+ hours a week) in addition to part time work and an increasingly busy creative freelance career. After two months of near-burnout I left the virtual conservatory. Did I make the right choice?”
Burnout isn’t good. It sounds like you made the right choice to me.
Doing a ton of things and being hyper-busy is one of the most overrated ideas to infect productivity writing. If this is what “productivity” means, then I’m hardly the person to be offering advice. I take quite a bit of vacation time, and my working hours are pretty reasonable.
To me, the aim of productivity is to get bigger outcomes for fewer inputs, including time. Even when you need to pour tons of time into one pursuit, that’s often best handled by being able to drastically cut other kinds of competing work.
“What’s in your opinion, the best theory so far on how to sustain motivation?”
I believe motivation is a (somewhat) rational signal about the value of your activity. To feel motivated, the project needs to be high value with high certainty.
On top of that there are experiential concerns. A project can be frustrating because there are problem-solving steps with large, unbounded problem spaces that don’t allow tractable progress. Emotional issues arising because of people you need to work with or the intrinsic interestingness (or lack thereof) of the subject can also affect the motivational “costs” of pursuing it.
This rationalistic perspective doesn’t suggest a simple “hack” you can do to improve your motivation. But I think it does help diagnose why motivation can succeed or fail. The answer is to design projects that have a high expected value, that you have confidence you can achieve, and design them to minimize the friction you experience when pursuing them.
When it comes to projects with low value, low confidence, and lots of friction, I’m not sure there’s a way to motivate yourself to pursue them. In part because without fixing those underlying problems, I’m not sure you should motivate yourself to do them.
“I have a question for you. I am an older student (39 years old) and have encountered a lot of pushback when I tell people I want to get a PhD in quantum physics because I’m told math skills peak in one’s 20s. I know there’s evidence that the age of receiving the Fields Medal has increased, but is there any neuroscience or other evidence that you are aware of disproving this thesis?”
Fluid intelligence probably does peak a little younger, but I think the idea that there are massive declines in fluid intelligence is overstated. You’re probably roughly as intelligent as you were at 18 for most of your adult life. Fluid intelligence mostly seems to decline in very old age, and even then, there is considerable variability.
Put another way, I don’t think the difference in intelligence level between yourself at 20, and 39 even reaches the top ten factors that will influence your success in getting a Ph.D.
I suspect the skew to younger success in fields like math is less due to the advantage of young people, but their comparative lack of disadvantage. Math doesn’t need the huge knowledge base required in, say, history. Productivity probably declines after one’s youth for non-cognitive reasons. Ambition may be lower, you may have more family/admin responsibilities, etc.
If you have the energy to pursue a Ph.D., I wouldn’t let age stop you.
“What are you most glad that you stopped doing?”
Social media, particularly Twitter. Every now and then, I get glimpses of it from links in blog posts. I forget how angry and toxic a place it is.
“Are there any tips you have on how Ultralearning’s methodology can be applied at scale to an organization? I work at a software R&D centre.”
I think it’s up to organizations to give people the means to become better at their work. The major barriers to ultralearning are (a) a lack of good resources and (b) a lack of credible signals that these skills matter within the organization.
People want to invest in learning, but they often aren’t sure which skills are worth investing in, nor whether those investments will be recognized. Employers can solve both of those problems.
“How do you judge expertise? It seems like most fake news detection is done on a case-by-case basis. Is there an algorithm for evaluating experts?”
Expertise is a social phenomenon.
To be an expert means that other experts of the same “type” recognize you as such. This is a social mechanism that does pretty well because, relative to the standards of a discipline, other experts are much harder to bs than lay audiences. But it often fails because the standard itself isn’t tied to any objective result. Hence, you can have “experts” that make pretty bad predictions, like political pundits or many supposed foreign policy experts during the lead-up to the Iraq War.
I think it is useful to measure performance against some kind of real-world benchmark, but it seems clear to me that this isn’t what we generally mean when we say someone is an expert.
“I have 2 little kids- 3 and 7 years old. I want them to be good learners and develop a passion for learning from childhood. How do I get them to do that?”
My little one is only two, so I don’t have a lot of first-hand experience here.
My overall philosophy is that the best thing you can do is embody what you try to teach. It’s hard to encourage kids to be lifelong learners if you aren’t one yourself. So my focus would be on improving my own self-education and then trying to share that with my kids.
“I would like to know your opinion on when you should build a skill versus when you should delegate it and focus on someone else doing it.”
I don’t think there’s a general answer. My model of the situation is that whenever the skill you’re learning is highly integrated with the main value you provide through an activity, learning is better than delegation. However, delegation usually works better when the new skill is decoupled from your performance.
For me, research is an example of an integrated activity. I experimented with having a researcher help with essays. While he did a great job, the knowledge wasn’t my knowledge. I couldn’t assimilate it easily it to come up with new ideas or better advice.
This is additionally complicated by the opportunity cost of time investment and the level of expertise you need to acquire to recoup that cost. Learning everything myself made more sense when I started out because my effective wage rate was low. The opportunity cost of, say, learning programming to the $25/hour level of expertise was low. But if I wanted to get my skills to a $200/hour level, then the costs of difficulty and time needed to learn the skill become much steeper, and it’s less worthwhile.
All of this economic analysis omits the intrinsic dimension of things. I like learning Chinese, but it patently fails this cost-benefit calculation, so I’m forced to admit it’s just a hobby. The same is probably true of my doodling.
“What are your thoughts about spirituality and the meaning of life?”
I tend to think there is no meaning of life, only meanings in life. I think the idea that you can stand outside of life and ask what it is “for” is a category error. Instead of a meaning for life, as a whole, there are meanings in life—good relationships, work that helps people, creative accomplishment, novel experiences and intellectual understandings.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m not making the claim that life is pointless or that there are no meanings greater than ourselves. I think it’s a mistake to imagine some vantage point that stands above our lives and evaluates them. But such a vantage point is not actually possible to experience. The most we can do is reflect back on our memories and assign them meaning, which isn’t exactly the same question.
Thus, I tend to think the “meaning of life” is a problematic philosophical question owing to this cognitive illusion. I think a better question is how you can have more plentiful meanings in your life. It may seem less profound because the answer tends to be less surprising: help people, have good relationships, fulfill creative and intellectual ambitions, be a good person, etc.
“How has your relationship with productivity changed over time?”
Theoretically, I think I’m less interested in systems than I used to be. Part of this is simply because my work has shifted from checking off a lot of relatively easy tasks that nonetheless need to be done, to mostly working on really hard things (all the straightforward work got delegated away).
“If you could design an education system, what would it look like?”
My thoughts on the education system have bounced around a lot.
I like academic topics. I think the world would be a better place if people knew more of them.
Yet I also think our current system is enormously wasteful. People invest enormous energy and cost into acquiring academic skills that have minimal relevance to their eventual work. They do so for the near-mandatory signals of intellectual ability and work ethic. This vocationalism also tends to undercut genuine interest as students grind through coursework to pass courses and exams that they don’t care about.
I think, in a perfect world, education would be nearly free. It would be delivered online and allow participation via voluntary communities of those interested in the subjects. Work skills would be mainly learned via apprenticeship processes. Necessary book learning could be provided through cheap testing/certification methods. In such a world, anyone could learn any skill they want to free of charge, only paying when they need tutoring or testing certification.
Yet I’m also pessimistic about such a world coming about. It’s not that this is economically or pedagogically impossible. It’s that we’ve gotten into a bad signaling equilibrium where doing well in a traditional, four-year academic program is considered the only way to get started professionally. Most professional licensing organizations exacerbate the problem by also requiring those credentials.
Given that my vision is somewhat utopian, I’m happy to settle for self-directed learning of the kind I espouse in Ultralearning for now. It’s harder than it should be due to a lack of institutional support. Still, it’s definitely doable for someone who actually cares about educating themselves.
Thanks to everyone who asked a question. Hopefully, we can do it again sometime!