I’m 29

Every year, on my birthday, I write an update on what happened in my life in the preceding twelve months. I’ve done this since my eighteenth birthday, so if you’re interested you can see how my life and views have changed over the last decade.

Of course, if you’re not interested, I’ll be back to my normal articles which are less self-indulgent next week.

In this post, I’ll go over what has happened in my life this last year, plans for the future and how my views on life have changed.

My Life Last Year

In terms of public projects, this last year was relatively quiet. No new languages learned. No racing through MIT exams.

My only public project was a small one: trying to level-up my Korean on five hours per week. I’m now in the middle of the final month of this project. I’ll save a full write-up for later, but it has been a mixed success. I’ve definitely improved my Korean language abilities, but it hasn’t reached the level of spontaneous engagement I have in Chinese or Spanish.

Professionally, most of the year was spent mixed between unsexy business development and preparation for writing a new book. The book, if all goes well, will be my full-time project next year.

From a public-blogging standpoint, there hasn’t been too much to say.

Personally, however, this year has been a pretty important one. I got engaged to my girlfriend of three years (and close friend of eleven years), Zoey. We now live together in Vancouver. Previously, I had been going to stay with her in Winnipeg, for a few months at a time, before she was able to move here.

I don’t write about my intimate relationships much on this blog. Part of that is the desire to maintain some separation between my public and private persona. Contrary to the share-everything-authenticity crowd, I do think those are two different things and trying to merge them completely is itself a weird kind of inauthenticity.

It suffices to say that getting engaged to my best friend has been one of the happiest moments of my life.

My Plans for Next Year

My next year, if all goes well, will be devoted full-time to writing a book. I hesitate to share too much on that point, if only because writing a book through a traditional publisher is such a long process, that it often disappoints audiences when the book itself won’t be available for a couple years.

That said, writing a traditionally-published book is new territory for me. In the past, I’ve self-published everything. This affords a lot of flexibility and control, but it also allow for a certain amount of complacency. I’m hoping that by pushing myself I can get to a new standard in my writing and understanding of the topics I talk about.

With a book project taking on most of my time next year, I won’t be taking on any other large professional projects. I’ve found taking on multiple goals simultaneously is the easiest way to not make much progress on any of them. Focus, however difficult, is powerful.

Long-Term Plans for the Future

Although I only have one project planned to try to accomplish for next year, I do have large visions of what I’d like to accomplish in the bigger picture. Some of these plans are still in the idea phase, and will need to wait until my current projects wrap up before I can work on them. Others require longer incubation, so I might have someone on my team work on them as I work on my writing.

Here are a few of those ideas:

1. Setting up a Chinese-language presence.

One of the more interesting developments in this blog’s history has been the explosion of interest in my books, particularly Learn More, Study Less, in China. This, combined with my interest in learning Chinese, has made me more interested in the possibility of trying to establish more business in China.

This is a lot easier said than done. China is very restrictive on the internet, so getting set up is a lot trickier than simply hiring a translator. However, I’m hopeful that if the obstacles can be overcome, I might be able to write more directly to the people who enjoy my work in China.

2. Working on next-generation courses.

I’m proud of the work my team and I have been able to do in Rapid Learner and Top Performer. I think they teach important skills and many people have used them to get impressive results in their career, academics and personal life.

However, I’m fascinated with the future possibilities of the intersection between technology, education and self-improvement, and I don’t at all think we’re at the limit of that frontier. In particular, I think there’s room for improvement in terms of:

  • Evidence-based practice. Right now I lack the abilities and budget to do the kind of evidence-based assessments that would meet the criteria of scientific authority. However, inching closer to more direct experimentation on what works, in what situations and for whom, would be a big leap over the status-quo.
  • Entertainment and follow-through. The biggest challenge facing self-improvement is that it’s hard to do. I don’t suspect I can fix this problem on my own, but I think technology might be able to make courses work on multiple levels, so that serious students can get the real advice they need, but those more interested in passive consumption aren’t left behind.
  • Customization. Unlike books, technology has the possibility to deliver a more tailored message and advice, depending on the student. One of the biggest weaknesses I’ve seen with current offerings is that students who lack ability often also lack the introspective sense of which advice actually applies to them. An ideal system would be able to deliver the exact advice a student needs to solve their current problem, something only currently viable with one-on-one coaching.

Many of these are still outside of the current skills and scale of my business. But I hope if we can continue to increase revenue and hire more smart people, that we’ll be able to start solving some of these issues.

3. Long-Term Learning Goals

I have a number of things that I’m currently learning. Although, aside from Korean at the moment, none of them reaches the threshold of a formal project, I still have my sights on improvement in the long-term.

Here’s a few of the things I’m striving to get better at:

  • Chinese. Although in many of my past pursuits, I’ve lost interest once I’ve reached an adequate level, Chinese continues to fascinate me well past a thousand hours of practice. Some things I’d like to be able to do that I find difficult or impossible currently: read a book without any dictionary help, write articles similar to those I write in English and give speeches in Mandarin.
  • Cognitive Science. Given my upcoming book will be about learning, I’m using this as an excuse to dig deeper into much of the research that straddles the cognitive science learning project I’ve been working on.
  • Buddhism and non-Western philosophy. I hope to do a 10-day meditation retreat in the upcoming year. I’m currently reading the Majjhima Nikaya. There’s a lot of ideas in these veins that haven’t coalesced yet into a clear picture, but I think there’s a lot of fruitful concepts for rethinking some of the assumptions I have.
  • Art. In addition to my portrait drawing challenge, I’ve been working on painting, mostly in acrylic. I’m still very much at an amateur level, but with patience I’ll keep getting better. Given much of my regular work is highly on the analytical/verbal direction, I think working on artistic skills gives me a broader base of thinking.

Changes in Outlook

Since I’ve been writing this blog since I was seventeen, my views on life have grown as I have. I think this can sometimes be confusing, in part because writing is a static thing. Someone can read an article or ebook I wrote a decade ago today, and thus get the impression that they were both written by the same person, when in reality there’s a huge gulf between nineteen and twenty-nine year-old Scott.

Sometimes my opinions on things change dramatically, switching from one opinion to its opposite. When that happens, I do my best to document it, as I did with speed reading and other issues here.

However, most of the time the changes are more subtle, and harder to articulate in an essay.

The biggest change in my outlook is simply that many things which seemed crystal clear to me when I was younger, no longer do today. Ironically, this isn’t because I’ve learned less, but because I’ve learned more. When you’ve heard a few good arguments in a single direction, you can become convinced in them strongly. When you’ve heard many good arguments in many directions, including many that you never would have considered before, it becomes clear how difficult it is to know things, and how many possible explanations or ideas there are to fit the patterns of life and reality.

This softening of my views, also perhaps ironically, has also come with greater effectiveness. I’m better at accomplishing my goals in most domains than I used to be. Part of this is just the accumulation of practical knowledge. I understand business, relationships, health, life and habits more deeply now, so I make fewer mistakes. Part of it is the accumulation of past successes creates richer opportunities.

So, on the one hand, I’m less convinced in the rightness of my ideas, while also seeming to have more evidence for their rightness, personally. Life is weird that way.

I guess the biggest description I could offer for my change in beliefs is a bigger belief in plurality. The idea that there’s more than one right way to see things, more than one strategy that will be effective. This is challenging for a writer, because people like me to have strong opinions and advice that says “do X and not Y”, rather than the probably more true that, “X works for me, Y might also work, and there’s this complex list of trade-offs you’re not considering.”

Maybe all this is just the result of growing up.

Nonetheless, I’ll continue to do my best to share what I find with you. It may not be the only answer, or even maybe the right one, but I’m not sure we can ask for more from the people we want to learn from. Regardless of where I go, I hope you’ll continue the journey with me. Thanks again for being my reader.

Why You Should Be More Extreme

Trying too hard is stigmatized in our society. People don’t like it when someone goes too far when trying to accomplish something. This is unfortunate, because going too far is exactly what you need to do.

Case in point: I recently started tracking calories. No, I’m not fat. No, I don’t think I am. But as a formerly always-skinny guy who no longer can eat anything and never gain weight, I decided to be proactive about it. I wanted to know more about how much I eat and how much effort I need to exert to lose or maintain my weight.

Of course, everyone I’ve talked to who has seen me doing this thinks I’m crazy. “Why are you trying to lose weight?” “You should just try to eat ‘healthy’,” “Isn’t tracking everything you eat super annoying?”

To which the responses are: “To see how much effort it is to lose a few pounds,” “I do try to eat healthy, but I want more precision,” and “Yes, of course it’s super annoying.”

Then why do it? My answer is simple: going too extreme in the beginning of a new self-improvement task is a necessary part of calibration. The same people who skip this and aim for the “moderate” solution, perpetually fall short.

Why Starting Extreme Works Better

To achieve results in any goal, there’s an optimal effort range. Too little effort, and you’ll fail to see traction. Sometimes, if there’s some friction between where you are now and your goal, you may not make any progress at all. Even if that isn’t the case, the progress might be so slow as to be uninspiring or unacceptable.

Unfortunately, you don’t actually know where this effort range lies. It could be quite simple, and only a modest effort on your part will achieve the desired result. Or it could be so challenging as to be impossible for you, or completely impractical based on your other goals.

The first part of any self-improvement effort in a new domain is to figure out where that effort range lies. This isn’t something anyone can tell you, because it differs from person to person.

What’s the best way to find that ideal effort range?

One approach would be escalating moderation. Keep pushing harder and harder until you get results. Unfortunately this typically fails for two reasons: one motivational the other practical.

Why Moderation Fails: Reason #1 – Pushing Through Failures

Assume that the ideal effort range isn’t easily within reach. Which, let’s face it, is the most likely case because if the effort threshold were really low, you probably would have surmounted it with casual interest by now.

Now assume that you try to steadily ratchet up your effort and intensity until you reach the level that sustains improvement.

If you were trying to lose weight this could be: trying to walk more, to cutting out some junk food, all the way to a full-blown lifestyle change. If you were trying to learn a language it could be: spending a few minutes each day on DuoLingo, to taking a weekly class, all the way to going no-English for a period of time.

The problem is that, if the effort threshold is high, you’ll probably fail on the first few increments of moderation. That is, you aren’t trying hard enough to make the kind of results you feel are meaningful. The consequence of this is that each reassessment is brought on by failure.

Perhaps if we were all emotionless Vulcans, this wouldn’t be an issue. Except failing constantly is a good way to undermine your confidence and motivation for self-improvement. It’s hard to wholeheartedly throw yourself into something you feel won’t be successful.

Compare that with starting out more extreme. Now you’re much more likely to have the effort threshold within your starting project. Here you can do the opposite, tone down your efforts based on a history of overwhelming success. This, in contrast to pushing through failures, is much easier to do.

Why Moderation Fails: Reason #2 – Effort is Easiest in the Beginning

The second reason why this ratcheting approach isn’t often successful is because it’s easiest to apply a full force of effort in the beginning of a new goal or project.

There seem to be a few different reasons for this. The first comes from a selection effect. You naturally have different levels of enthusiasm for different goals percolating in your head at all times. When you finally trigger the forward action on one of those goals is when that goal has risen above the rest. Therefore, it’s at an unnatural high-point which, because of regression to the mean, will likely not last forever. Escalating moderation requires the opposite—that you put more effort in, long after a project has started.

The second is probably because of construal-level theory. When you think about a goal in the abstract, you aren’t seeing all the details. You imagine the broad swaths of positives, but often forget all the gritty negatives. Imagining being fit or fluent is romantic. Actually waking up and hitting the track or grinding through vocabulary acquisition is not.

All of this means that if you’re going to be applying maximal force, it had better come earlier in your efforts.

Limits to the Strategy

The two biggest critiques I can see to going extreme-first would be preventing burnout and building habits.

The first worry is that by going extreme-first, you risk burning yourself out and crashing, abandoning the project. My personal experience is that you can typically dial back the intensity when you see this happening. As long as you’re putting in sufficient effort to get results, this is often a more satisfying approach than pushing through failures caused by insufficient effort. My MIT Challenge worked this way, where I started out much harder than I actually needed and was able to dial it back later.

The second concern is that habits are best built with the slow-and-steady approach. Here my thoughts are more nuanced. Both strategies are good, but they serve different purposes and so you need to decide which is more useful to you in each situation. Habits are good at building long-term, autopilot behaviors. Extreme-first effort approaches are good for calibrating what level of intensity is needed to deliver results. Depending on the situation one may take precedence over the other.

Why is Trying Too Hard Stigmatized?

All of this raises an interesting question: why is trying hard looked down upon?

I have a couple theories, none of which are mutually exclusive:

Theory #1: People are Envious

People often have a competitive streak. When they see someone doing better for themselves, they feel worse about their own situation. As such, they want to discourage what they see as an attack on their own identity.
This is probably true in some cases, and it’s the most cited explanation by new try-hard achievers, but it’s probably false in most of them. My own experience is that the usual reaction is scorn or pity, not envy.

Theory #2: People Don’t Think This Works

In other words, people explicitly or implicitly reject the arguments I set forth above for why going overboard in the beginning might be an effective strategy. These people may genuinely feel like a more moderate approach would be more successful, and so they dislike the extreme lengths the person is undergoing.

I see some support for this idea. Particularly in areas where people often fail to have maintenance of their achievements afterwards. In both weight-loss and learning, there is often an intense period of accomplishment which can be undermined if long-term efforts aren’t made.

But if this is the case, then why attack the extreme initial measures instead of the lack of proper long-term follow-through?

Theory #3: High-Effort Raises Collective Expectations

The final theory I can think of isn’t envious of accomplishments or agnostic about the benefits, but feels dislike at the possibly rising standards of effort expected. What is considered a “normal” amount of effort is defined relatively. If everyone tries harder, then that becomes the new normal.

It’s certainly possible to get into an arms-race of ever escalating effort, especially when part of the goal is to signal to other people how much effort you’re putting into something. The net effect of this may be, that in order to not look lazy, you need to put in tons of effort.

Two examples where I’ve seen effort-expectation positive feedback cycles run out of control are modern parenting and working hours expectations in East Asia. It’s certainly a risk and so, perhaps, people are using collective norms to try to prevent these feedback loops from occurring.

All of this, of course has a simple solution. If you don’t like the stigma, you don’t need to talk about your extreme efforts. Work hard in private, and if anyone asks, you can downplay how hard you had to work at it.

Side note: This is already common, and it explains why many people’s first attempts are pegged far to the left on the efficiency-effort curve of where they should be. They think by seeing other’s blasé reaction to their own accomplishments that success is easy. It’s not, people just don’t want to be punished socially for appearing to try hard.

How Much Effort is Necessary?

Often the ideal efficiency of effort invested is much higher than people realize. I’m not alone in thinking that, for language learning, this occurs at near total-immersion. For many other projects it may not be maximally intense, but it still occurs near the upper range of your capabilities.

All of this means that going extreme doesn’t deserve the negative connotations it often receives. Starting strong and dialing back the intensity, in the case that a lesser effort will do the job just fine, is a much better overall strategy than trying to progressively push yourself harder when the previous investment failed.

What are your thoughts? Agree or disagree, share them in the comments below!

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