The Index Card Summary of “Ultralearning”

Anyone in the working world today knows that life-long learning isn’t just an option anymore; it’s a necessity. From “new math” to new job categories, technology and bleeding-edge research will continue to keep any working person on their toes, lest we become irrelevant. (We all have that elder relative still using yahoo mail or, *gasp*, AOL…) Fast changes in tech mean we need to be fast to adapt, too. We need to be able to learn new skills pretty quickly. We need to be, in the words of Scott Young, “ultralearners”.

Building on the Deep Work concepts of intensity of time investment and focus, “Ultralearning: Master Hard Skills, Outsmart the Competition, and Accelerate Your Career” goes into the an arsenal of tactics that, when deployed, can rapidly accelerate skill acquisition. These are boiled down below into five key steps.

  1. Make a plan
  2. Learn in context
  3. Drive retention
  4. Collect feedback
  5. Experiment

1. Make a plan

It is hard to learn in a targeted way without a specific goal in mind. Equally, it is hard to retain what you’ve learned if you don’t have a plan for exercising your knowledge. Thus, efficient learning requires you to have a clear picture of why you want to learn a skill, what your learning plan will consist of, an approach for how you will learn, and a plan for when you will exercise and maintain the skill once it is developed.

2. Learn in context

Young advocates for “directness,” or learning tied closely to the context you want to use it in. This method ensures that your learning will directly translate to real-life application.

3. Drive retention

Retention requires over-learning the most critical aspects of a skill, and then repeating exposure over time to make it stick. This will initially demand sustained focus, followed by re-enforcement with drilling and retrieval practice. Near-term learning is honed through drilling specific aspects that will aid performance. Long-term learning is enhanced by practicing retrieval of information, rather than passive review.

4. Collect feedback

Feedback can be outcomes-based, informational, or corrective. Outcomes, like a grade on a test, and informational feedback, like an error message when coding, fail to give corrective feedback on how to fix the problem. Regardless of which type of feedback you can access, strive to get immediate feedback, ideally via direct practice.

5. Experiment

Mastery requires originality, not just proficiency. Try experimenting with your techniques for learning, your style of application, and the resources or materials you draw on to find what works best for you.

Is ultralearning actually something new?

You might be wondering, how is this any different from what others, from Cal Newport in Deep Work to Malcolm Gladwell in Outliers, have been saying for years?

I think the emphasis on contextual learning combined with a detailed review of tactics places Young more in the realm of data-driven coach than thought leader. Contextualized learning has been trending in the education world, because it is linked to stronger learning outcomes and is seen as a mechanism for making youth and adults alike more work and future-ready than traditional classroom models. As someone who brute-forced her way through many a high school class, I wish I’d taken more care to optimize how I was learning as much as I optimized how much I was learning.

The Index Card Summary of “Wait: the Art and Science of Delay”

There is a famous military mantra that “slow is smooth, and smooth is fast”. Frank Partnoy, author of Wait: The Art and Science of Delay, thoughtfully unpacks the benefits of taking one’s time and the contexts in which it is most important.

The Index Card Summary

Partnoy’s key takeaways boil down to three points:

  1. We should wait as long as possible to act, to ensure we have the maximum possible information.

  2. To be able to wait as long as possible, you need to be able to execute quickly.

  3. Doing things quickly comes with a cost to quality, which you can mitigate by becoming and expert.

Partnoy provides the reasoning, methods, and frameworks for taking on the challenging task of slowing down to achieve better results.

1. Why wait?

Because it is optimal. Partnoy posits that humans are hardwired to react quickly, as part of our inbuilt fight or flight instincts. Modern society taps into this wiring, tempting us to react instantly to its many demands. Yet we are often better off resisting both our biology and our technology. Waiting as long as possible ensures that you have the maximum possible information available to inform your next decision.

2. Making time to wait means executing quickly

In the ideal world, you would spend much less time executing and re-executing. You would optimize outcomes by minimizing execution time. OODA is an effective framework for developing a strategy without reacting too hastily.

The Observe, Orient, Decide, Act (OODA) framework requires the decision-maker to observe the changing environment and process the disorder occurring before deciding how to act. One can act fast without necessarily acting first. Act too quickly, and you may provoke a problem that would have otherwise gone away. Further, if you spend too much time acting (e.g. building a presentation), you have less time to observe (e.g. calibrate the actual project needs and goals).

3. To keep quality high during fast execution, become an expert

Novices and experts are two extremes on the experience spectrum. Whereas experts can act quickly based on the muscle memory of prior experience, novices may be better off not acting at all. For example, time pressure does not impact grandmaster chess players in the way it impacts novice chess players. Under time constraints, grandmasters make few mistakes whereas novices make many.

However, there are times when even experts should wait. Importantly, novel circumstance can still arise in one’s sphere of expertise. Medical professionals face this challenge often.

The considered take

Partnoy is one of the few voices in the modern world telling us to wait. We’re in an era of high-speed internet, one-click orders, two-day shipping, high-frequency trading….the list goes on. Partnoy counters our culture by making the case that waiting is optimal.

I appreciate that Partnoy makes the important distinction that artful delay and procrastination are not the same thing. This means that you need to define what “waiting as long as possible” means in your own context. In many businesses, on time is late and early is ontime. So, for example, waiting until the final hour to submit an application online, and then hitting a computer glitch, could leave you out of luck.

Partnoy also underscores that rushing when you are not an expert will not produce good results — making it all the more important to accurately assess where you are at in a skill set and allocate execution time accordingly. So how does one become an expert? A few ideas:

  1. Spend a lot of time thinking through how to do something in a deliberate manner, so that when the time arrives, you can execute quickly.

  2. Use checklists, which can force you to pause, be more systematic, and reduce errors. 

  3. Pursue deliberate practice so that you are trained in the skill you care about.

As Partnoy summed it up, the essence of modern intelligence may be knowing when to think and act quickly and when to think and act slowly.

The Index Card Summary of “The First 90 Days”

For those who just started new jobs this past summer or fall, you may be closing in on the end of your first quarter. As someone who came from a liberal arts background and spent college summers working at non-profits or on my own initiatives, I recall my first corporate job being something altogether different than any setting or challenge I had encountered to date. Standing on the threshold of my first office, I realized that the system I was joining was a whole new kettle of fish. Whether you’re joining a new sector or a new company, the way you prepare and get smart for a new role is distinct to the business context and requires some focused, diligent attention. This summary walks through the key actions for leading your own transition.

Michael Watkins’ The First 90 Days: Proven Strategies for Getting Up to Speed Faster and Smarter gives guidance on how to position yourself for success in a new role. While the target audience is new managers, he identifies challenges common to all new employees and provides a structure for recognizing and addressing the types of challenges that come with differing organizational contexts.

First off, why 90 days? The author posits that the first quarter is a good time to get judged, as people’s impressions and perceptions are starting to solidify. The faster you can get up to speed and move from a “transition” period to having ongoing positive impact, the better. Watkins recommends taking the following steps.

The index-card summary

  1. Out with the old assumptions and habits, in with the new skills

  2. Understand your business context

  3. Manage up: show your boss you can achieve their priorities

  4. Collaborate with your team

  5. Identify influencers

The detail

  1. Out with the old assumptions and habits, in with the new skills

    Leave behind old assumptions and habits tied to your old role. A new company has its own culture, dynamics, and norms. Focus on attuning your mindset and your skillset to your new role. Recognize that you will need to perform at a higher standard than your last role.

    To begin, construct a learning agenda in which you identify competencies to upgrade and skills to gain. Develop a learning schedule in which you summarize your learning needs. Then, figure out the best way to learn, including questions that you need to ask. Create a support network with mentors to support your transition.

  2. Understand your business context

    Identifying the business context you are operating in will aid you in identifying what will be valued in terms of activities and outcomes. Common business situations include Startup, Turnaround, Accelerated Growth, Realignment, and Sustaining Success — or STARS. Each situation will have a different emphasis on learning vs. doing, offense vs. defense, etc. and, thus, will differ in what must be done to secure an “early win”.

  3. Manage up: show your boss you can achieve their priorities

    You will need to establish credibility with your new boss. This means taking on your boss’ objectives and definitions of success as your own. You can then define goals relevant to your role and find opportunities to demonstrate your ability to achieve success by pursuing a few early wins.

    As you identify a path forward, it is your responsibility to keep your boss posted and ensure that expectations are communicated. No surprises is the best policy in working with your boss. You must also adapt to your boss’ style rather than assuming you can change them. Your relationship with your boss is your responsibility. By aligning on your priorities and defining your strategy, you can create a shared vision and establish a clear direction of progress.

  4. Collaborate with your team

    You must align you strategy and vision with your teammates. Assess their strengths and weaknesses, in a non-judgemental fashion. Establish the right structure for speed and effectiveness. Identify personal and team timelines for analysis and action planning. Don’t make decisions before you are ready.

    Develop a common language of communication. This will speed up action and remove misunderstandings.

  5. Identify influencers

    In an ideal scenario, you win the respect of people whom your boss respects. Beyond your immediate teammates, identify and understand the influence of indirect stakeholders, who may impact your goals.

The quick take

I like that this book focuses on what is in your control, and the importance of being proactive as well as receptive to the new environment. It’s worth underscoring that the most important thing you control is your mindset. What I am less convinced by are the tactical tips about quickly identifying all facets of success and converting them into an action plan. Watkins makes it all sound easy. The reality is, it isn’t always easy. In a new work environment, particularly the large ones, I’ve often found my senses on overload, not knowing what’s true vs. what’s marketing, and finding advice from different veterans inconsistent or even at odds. In the end we all have to make our own foundations by choosing how we define success in the context of our careers, beyond just a single job.

A word from our readers: the addendum edition

This week we’ve aggregated the musings and factoids of our readers from past posts.

America’s success is Japan’s ikigai

After reading our Index Card Summary of “So Good They Can’t Ignore You”, one reader likened the American Success (TM) model to the slightly more sophisticated Japanese idea of ikigai, which adds societal need into the equation of success.

So now before you quite your job to start your Yelp for people app, ask yourself the critical question – does the world need it?

Working people! Make some ambient noise!

On the topic of focus, we covered a music platform populated by music writing software that knows how to get you on the right wavelength: brain.fm. A reader shared that once you’ve picked the right music, it’s handy to choose the right volume – which happens to be 60 decibels for ambient noise. This is why coffee shops are an ideal work environment for creative people – like satirical bloggers!

We’re all Spider-Man deep down

In our re-branding of the solar system from ancient gods to modern ones, we heard a compelling argument that Earth should really be renamed Spider-Man, because Spider-Man is the Every-man that we all want to be and would be if we could…because deep down, we all want to be from Queens.

Cheers to our readers for the thoughtful feedback!

 

 

 

The Index Card Summary of “Deep Work”

Does it ever feel like your brain is overheating from fragmenting attention between too many things, flitting back and forth between tasks, with sometimes little progress to show for it? Well you’re not alone, and Cal Newport is going to be our Dr. Phil of attention, helping us to improve our quality of work and quality of life. The following summary of Deep Work walks through his advice on how to build our ability to engage deeply with our activities.

 

The Premise

Newport argues that in the modern economy there will be three types of winners: 1) those with access to capital, 2) those that are the best in their fields, and 3) those who work well with increasingly complex machines. The most viable route to economic success for must of us will be Path #3.

To work well with ever-evolving machines, you must be a great learner who can do deep work, i.e. focus intensely. Fun fact: intense focus triggers the same brain cells repeatedly and builds up myelin, which bulks up that neural pathway. Sort of like body building for your brain.

 Deliberate practice of a task bulks up the myelin in the related neural pathways
Deliberate practice of a task bulks up the myelin in the related neural pathways

The approach

1) The measure of deep work is time spent x intensity of focus. That’s what you want to maximize!

2) Deep work can be done bimodally (days to months as a time); rhythmically (several blocks of time each day); or like a journalist (whenever you can squeeze time in on the go)

Note on Technique: for those with less control over your schedule and less recent practice with deep work, the Pomodoro Technique may work best for blocking off deep work sessions followed by shallow work sessions or breaks. For example, 40 minutes of deep work followed by 20 minutes of shallow work 6 times a day can still achieve the target of 4 total hours of deep work per day. These shallow work periods may end up as over-flow buffers initially as you train yourself up to longer, unbroken periods of time.

You need to have 10 consecutive unbroken deep periods of a given time increment, as short as 10 minutes, before you start building up to longer periods.

3) Set up a systematized ritual – create a time bound, distraction free environment with all the right materials and enough food/energy

4) Avoid frequent task switching, as this leaves “attention residue”, a state of semi-attention as you’re still thinking about the last task when you start a new one

5) Choose to work on “the wildly important”

6) Collaborate with others in a way where you still break off for independent deep work

 

Pitfalls and solutions

1) Switching to an easier thought task – avoid this by structuring the path forward

2) Looping, i.e. reviewing what you know already – avoid this by consolidating gains upon which to build

3) Shallow activities – cut these out without excessive apology

4) E-mail – lay out a ‘path to closure’ to open-ended e-mails by laying out all steps to completion in one fell swoop

Note on E-mail: we’ve all rattled off quick replies that we know will generate three or more back-and-forths. Nip this in the bud by laying out everything you know will be discussed, including your availability for meetings requested, or any further information you will need. Add “no reply expected” or “I will consider your reply a confirmation” to minimize future e-mail traffic.

The path forward laid out by Newport is a call to action, with the knowledge that this means dragging our brains kicking and screaming. Our brains are seekers of distraction yet, paradoxically, convey the most satisfaction to us when we hit the “flow state” associated with deep work. Like eating your greens or hitting the gym, your body and mind will thank you for the deep work exercise you put it through. So pull out that weekly schedule or that Pomodoro timer, block out that time or set that target daily hours tally. You can start sculpting that focused mind today. (I say this having written this post with only one coffee break and two 5 minute side chats in between. We’re all a work in progress 🙂