Choose the steepest path

When I was younger, I was always told that once I had a shiny diploma, my life would be easy. So I worked hard and got my master’s degree (actually not one but three). But my life didn’t change much, it was pretty much the same. I was actually even working more than before.

I realized a shift in my thinking recently. Where you currently are doesn’t matter. Your position, diploma, level of wealth are irrelevant. Being born in a wealthy family is nothing to be proud of. What’s more interesting is where you’re going. What is your growth?

Like a mountain climber looking to efficiently reach the summit, you want to look at the “slope” of your decisions. For instance, sometimes you might have seen companies offering unpaid internships. When I first heard of those, it sounded completely ridiculous to me. But after thought, depending on the growth possibilities and skills acquisition, it might be the most sensible choice.

Facing boredom

I’m someone who gets bored quickly. I’m like the person who buys the latest iPhone, enjoys it for a day and then returns to his daily boredom. In the previous article, I wrote about how nowadays most of us give in to scrolling social media when boredom shows its unbearable face.

Boredom often arises when you’re doing tasks that are not challenging enough, creative enough, meaningful enough or varied enough. What is the opposite of boredom? In terms of energetic state, we want to be like our cavemen ancestors when life was all about survival. When you have snakes, lions and bears surrounding you, every act you do dictates life or death. Life was surely never boring nor bland.

Increase your challenges

I remember yesterday I started to feel boredom, my days felt quite similar one day unto the next. That’s when I decided to add volatility to my day. Nassim Taleb in his book Antifragile, writes extensively on the subject. Put simply, he argues that as humans we need volatility or shocks in order to grow, otherwise we simply atrophy.

Therefore, consciously make your day more exciting. Increase the challenges and face them. In my case, here are three of the challenges I created: competing in a data science competition, mastering Chinese and 1.5x heavier weights at the gym.

The curse of your phone

Social media and focus

For a long time, I didn’t have a social media account, I didn’t use Facebook nor Instagram nor Twitter. When my friends saw the benefits of being on social media, I didn’t see any, I didn’t see the point of taking pictures of your food and sharing that online.

Last year, I made the jump. I created my Facebook and then my Instagram account. I did that because I realized that one of the reasons I was not on social media was because I was afraid of other people’s judgment. Is my life cool enough compared to others? Will people approve of my photos (by liking my posts)? At first, I was completely stifled by the platform, timidly posting photos, but then I kind of got used to it and became a typical regular user.

There are a lot of different axes we can dissect the impact of social media. However, in this post, I want to discuss one in particular: your ability to focus. So now one-year in social media made me realize that my ability to focus for interrupted periods of time suffered. When I’m working, I realized that at the first glimpse of boredom, my hand in a Pavlovian way reaches for my phone systematically. Did somebody message me? Followed my account? Liked my content? Shared a story? Social media, I realize made me weak in face of boredom. Instead of embracing the natural and necessary moments of boredom that arise in hard work, it made me avoid them and scatter my focus. It made my monkey mind even more chaotic.

Regaining your focus

After this realization, I needed to claim back my ability to concentrate deeply. Because it became a habit to constantly check social media. I had to break that pattern. One way I found to do that is to baby-step my way into it. If before, I was able to focus for one-hour non-stop. Now I will first set the timer for let’s say 20 minutes, and focus without any distractions for that time. If during the 20 minutes, I checked my phone for notifications, I will not count it as a success. After each session, I will take a 5 to 10 minutes break and restart. After successfully completed several sessions of a fixed duration, I would then gradually increase the duration of the sessions.

The duration of the sessions is also highly dependent on your energy level. In times of the day when I will more energized, I would usually stretch myself into longer sessions and inversely when I felt that my energy was low. The confidence of successfully completing consecutive sessions tend to give me the “feeling productive” dopamine that make me push myself further in the hard work at hand.

Controlling technology

Technology is both a blessing and a curse. In the book Flash Boys, I remember reading a passage about Russian coders and why they were the best in Wall Street in the 2000’s. Most of them learned coding through punched cards. Because the process was very long and tedious, they had to think very thoroughly before making the card. i.e. what would be to write a line of code nowadays. And precisely because the technology was so scarce, they had to be excellent in the coding process. Nowadays, technology is insanely abundant. Each one of us has access to previously unimaginable computing power, and because it is so readily available, most of us do not care about it. Imagine, we had to pay $10,000 to use a computer for an hour, how much more attention will we pay? How much more efficient will we be in that hour? I will leave you with a quote from Cal Newport in his latest book Digital Minimalism.

The key to living well in a high tech world is to spend much less time using technology.

Cal Newport

On doing hard things and cold showers

Difficulty is what wakes up the genius.

Nassim Nicholas Taleb, Antifragile

A task is difficult when given the status quo, the task requires a level of skills that is higher than what one’s currently is capable of. To complete the task, we need to build the makeshift ladder that will shift us from point A to point B.

However, as Cal Newport, the author of Deep Work, calls attention to, there is a difference between hard work and hard to do work. Doing hard work is doing things that are above our current level of competence and make us grow. Conversely, hard to do work is work that is hard but does not make you grow. The frontier between the two is debatable but nonetheless provides a useful dichotomy to classify work. An example could be working on a project with your smartphone distracting you (hard to do work) versus thinking intensely without distraction (hard work).

Embracing hard work daily makes you grow. But sometimes the discomfort that arises from hard work makes you procrastinate. A method that I’ve stumbled upon in a mentoring I was doing helped me internalize moving towards hard work. The method is cold showers. Except Wim Hof, cold showers make most people cringe. Why do cold showers when we have the luxury of comfortable warm showers? The benefits of cold showers are plenty, such as an energy boost, builds your mental toughness, and improves circulation.

Cold showers are hard work. The process is difficult and it makes you grow. By doing them daily, I noticed that I was more willing to take on hard work and challenge myself. Understanding the value of hard work is one thing, the other one is to actually do it every day.

How to be better at everything

This is probably the most important article I will ever write on this blog. I wanted to title it at first: How to focus, but I thought it wouldn’t catch as much your attention than the current title.

Here, I want to introduce the concept of present moment. This by far is the most important concept I learned across all fields. The best book you could find on it in my opinion is The Power of Now by Eckhart Tolle. We are present when we stop thinking about the past and about the future, and we totally inhabit the moment. We feel still and peaceful with sharp senses, free of the noise of the inner dialogue. It can also be called a state of Being instead of a state of Doing.

Why being present is important? If you want to achieve high performance in any field, whether it’s data science, basketball or painting, you need to be present. All your attention needs to be focused in the Now to be at your peak performance. Even when you’re planning for the future, let’s say a business plan, you’re doing it in the Now.

However, in our modern society, being present is rare. Instead of fully pouring ourselves into every act we do, we usually are scattered. We have our smartphones next to us when we work, and at the slightest feel of boredom, we check our phones, usually frantically scrolling through our social media. Powerful technology requires powerful self-discipline in its usage, otherwise we are at the mercy of the negative consequences of it, such as shorter attention spans, or depression and loneliness.

Thinkers such as Cal Newport advocate to quit social media altogether, whereas other such Luke Krogh advocate to master social media. However, both agree on the negative consequences if social media is passively consumed. Luke advises users to reverse the dynamics and to become producers of content instead of consumers of content, whereas Cal gives the more radical advice of leaving altogether the platform. My view is one that is more moderate: stay on social media as mostly a content producer but still limit your time on the platform because being a producer doesn’t protect you from the incessant checking of your social media feed.

Cultivating your presence is the secret to be better at everything you do. Pour yourself into every act you do and forget momentarily that past and future exist. This simple advice improved my life not only in my learning experience but also all others: health, social life and happiness.

Speed reading

We live in incredible times where all the world knowledge is only one google click away. Most knowledge takes the form of words on a page. Therefore, reading is the skill to sharpen. If you could multiply your reading speed by two, three or even ten, you could in theory multiply your accomplishments by the same factor.

Most of us after learning how to read in primary school didn’t pay much attention to how we were reading. But like any skill, it can be optimized. In fact, two simple techniques are at the core of speed reading theory.

Stop subvocalizing

We learned reading by saying the words aloud. That’s how teachers could verify if we were reading correctly. However, through that process, we also seeded the habit of subvocalizing when we read. To subvocalize while reading is to utter with the lips silently or with barely audible sound the words we encounter on the page. One way to check if you are subvocalizing is to notice your mouth or tongue movements while you’re reading: are they moving or completely still? Subvocalization slows us down when we read.

We do not need at all to have the sounds of the words in our mind in order to understand what we read. For instance, when we encounter punctuation, we do not pronounce it each time we see it. For the same reason, when we see the word “red”, we do not need to pronounce it in order to understand it. By simply looking at the words without subvocalization can increase drastically our reading speed.

Use a pointer

We also initially read by using our finger as a pointer. It helped us to focus on where we were in the text. Then we are told to stop that habit as we get older. This, however, is a habit that should have been kept for two reasons. The first reason is to reduce reading regression. Reading regression occurs when you go back to previously read lines because you lost track of where you were on the page or because you forgot what you just read. The second reason is that by having a pointer, you have a concrete visual sign to control your speed. If you want to increase your reading speed, simply move your finger quicker across the page.

Using the two previous techniques will improve your reading speed without decreasing your comprehension. And as you practice, it will get easier and easier. I wish you all a happy reading.

Nobel laureates have a lot of hobbies

I’m currently reading Range by David Epstein. In the book, the author argues in favor of generalists over specialists in the current world. In particular, one passage struck me:

Compared to other scientists, Nobel laureates are at least twenty-two times more likely to partake as an amateur actor, dancer, magician, or some other type of performer.

In today’s world where Adam Smith’s division of labor is taken as an universal truth, Epstein offers a refreshing perspective. The previous quote suggests is that hobbies instead of distracting you from your main profession, actually reinforces it.

My hypothesis is that they create mental bridges among the seemingly different fields. Examples could be the use of the mathematical concept of Golden Ratio in art composition, the introduction of minimalist design at Apple, or the intersection of entrepreneurship and public speaking. Therefore, by creating the appropriate mental bridges, the second apparently non-related field actually helps the first one, and vice-versa.

Tim Ferriss, in the recent video “Should You Specialize or Be a Generalist?” talks about the specialist/generalist dilemma. His answer is to be a specialized generalist, where you master a handful of skills that are rarely combined, and precisely because of that, will give you a competitive advantage.

In our modern economy where specialization is advocated, a lot of generalists feel out of place. Instead of discarding your hobbies, finding the synergies between them and your main activity might make you grow even more than your specialist friend.

Urgency + Focus = Learning

In this podcast extract, Joe Rogan is conversing about learning with Andrew Huberman, a neurobiologist at Stanford Medical School. As pointed out in the clip, as we get older, we generally lose the fast-learning ability we had when we were kids. That is precisely when Rogan asks Huberman: “Say if you’re a 35-year-old man or woman, and want to learn a new skill, what is the best way to accept these new patterns?”

Huberman points to two factors to attain significant brain plasticity. First, you need to induce a sense of urgency that leads to the release of norepinephrine. This hormone will make you feel agitated like you need to get up and do something. Second, you must apply intense focus to fight that urge, leading to the release of acetylcholine, the neurotransmitter that combined with norepinephrine induce brain growth.

The previous two factors deeply resonate with my understanding of how learning works. I believe that as kids learning is essential because it is directly connected with survival. As adults however, learning new skills becomes secondary as the tendency is to use the pool of knowledge already accumulated. We enter an energy conservation phase.

Therefore, to learn, we need to actively factor in urgency and intense focus. A lot of modern concepts are actually built to simulate these. For example, deadlines create urgency. The word can be decomposed into the words “dead” and “line”, you could imagine that if you did not finish the task before the date, you are basically dead. This kicks-off the primal part of your brain, that wants to survive and learn.

The ability to focus deeply is more than just glazing on a cake, it’s at the core of how us humans adapt and thrive in an ever-more complex world.

The best way to learn is to teach

“Fake it till you make it”, you might have heard as advice in order to succeed.

In learning, the biggest mistake people make is rote learning. According to Wikipedia,

Rote learning is a memorization technique based on repetition. The idea is that one will be able to quickly recall the meaning of the material the more one repeats it.

A person who rote-learns has the information stored in memory but that information is not connected to anything else. In other words, that data is useless. A typical example of rote-learning is the student re-reading textbooks over and over until the information falsely feels familiar. Rote-learning not only is not efficient, but it is also not fun. Memorizing solutions to typical exercises is alike to memorizing a list of grocery items: rigid, colorless, and static.

When you learn, you want to avoid rote learning like the plague. What you want instead is active learning. In active learning, you connect new information to the web of knowledge you already possess. You create the bridges for that new knowledge to stick and to last.

How do you achieve then active learning? Teach it. I agree that it seems paradoxical at first to teach a topic that precisely you want to learn. But momentarily taking the position of a teacher can do wonders. By trying to explain the topic to somebody else, it allows you to see the gaps in your own understanding. The steps are the following:

  1. Explain the topic aloud as if you are a teacher in that subject.
  2. Note the parts that were unclear in your explanation.
  3. Focus on those parts and fill the gaps in your understanding.

Iterate the three steps above until you’re satisfied with your understanding. To practice, if you don’t have somebody else to give you feedback, you can simply record yourself while you’re explaining the topic you’re learning.

The beauty of the act of teaching a subject you’re trying to learn is that it automatically switches you to active learning. You will find yourself using vivid descriptions and relatable experiences to explain your topic, accelerating your learning process and making it fun, as it should be.

Welcome!

I want to warmly welcome you to my blog. This blog is dedicated to the topic of learning, in particular how to learn faster and better. The idea originated from my countless readings of Cal Newport and Scott H. Young blogs which are dedicated to the topics of deep work and fast learning respectively. Having read them for more than ten years, I’ve always admired them for their unique and impactful thoughts, but I also had in the back of my mind the idea that I also had original thoughts and methods that I developed through the years in order to make learning easier and faster.

My name is Victor Lu, I’m currently a Quantitative Researcher at a Financial firm. My work experience has been rooted in Data Science and the Financial Markets industry. In terms of education, I graduated from a Master in Financial Engineering from UC Berkeley in 2020 and from a Master in Applied Mathematics from CentraleSupelec in 2017.

The topic of learning is really dear to me because it is a skill that I had to learn. When I was younger, I had a lot of difficulties learning. In primary school, I had to spend half a year more than other students in order to learn to read. In middle school, in the overall class ranking, I was second to last. Then, I was around 15 years old, I decided that I wanted to change, I wanted to learn how to learn better. At that time, I bought countless books dedicated to learning, I searched the Web in order to find valuable resources and I asked top students how they were doing it. And, after some time, it worked! Within one year, I was ranked in the top 5 of my class and within two years, I was ranked first of my class. Then, I was admitted to a top-tier Engineering college in France and then was admitted to the top Financial Engineering program at UC Berkeley.

In this blog, I want to share the methods and principles that I discovered that allowed not only to do that but also to make learning any topic more efficient. I’m continually tuning my learning methods and learning from the latest developments in the field. I certainly do not have all the answers related to learning but I want this site to be a valuable place to start and explore on the topic of learning.

I hope that you will enjoy reading the articles on this site and I wish you all a wonderful journey into the world of fast learning.