Filmed on Wednesday September 14, 02011

Timothy Ferriss

Accelerated Learning in Accelerated Times

Timothy Ferriss is author of the bestsellers The 4-Hour Workweek and The 4-Hour Body.

As the times accelerate and we face ever more kaleidoscopic careers, a crucial meta-skill is the ability to learn new skills extremely rapidly, extremely well. That practice has no better exemplar and proponent than Timothy Ferriss, author of The 4-Hour Body: An Uncommon Guide to Rapid-Fat Loss, Incredible Sex, and Becoming Superhuman. Not surprisingly, he has made himself adept at compelling presentations, this one prepared especially for the Long Now audience.

Learning to learn fast

To acquire "the meta-skill of acquiring skills," Ferriss recommends approaching any subject with some contrarian analysis: "What if I try the opposite of best practices?" Some conventional wisdom---"children learn languages faster than adults" (no they don't)---can be discarded. Some conventional techniques can be accelerated radically. For instance, don't study Italian in class for a year before your big Italy trip; just book your flight a week early and spend that week cramming the language where it's spoken. You can be fluent in any language with mastery of just 1,200 words.

That's what Ferriss calls the "minimum effective dose" for learning a language. The equivalent with any skill or goal is worth identifying. A regular 5 minutes of kettlebell swinging can tone the body rapidly; 30 grams of protein within 30 minutes of waking makes your slow-carb diet effective; just 20,000 "early evangelists" for your book in its first 2 weeks guarantees it becomes a best seller.

With any skill, "solve for extremes and anomalies." Look at who's best and how they do it, but especially look for those who are surprisingly good---the wispy girl who can deadlift 405 pounds---because they're doing it with technique rather than genes, and technique is learnable.

How do you manage the self-discipline to bear down on learning a skill? Ferriss suggests you begin by treating your new regime as a trial (vowing permanence can be discouraging)--- give it 2 weeks or 5 serious sessions. By that point early rewards from the discipline will keep you going. You have to measure to detect the rewards ("What gets measured gets managed"--Peter Drucker), and score-keeping lets you make your progress a competitive game with others---which becomes its own motivation. Make public bets about your specific goals, where you'll pay painfully if you fail. "Loss aversion" is a surprisingly powerful incentive.

You can get profound effects in an amazingly short time, Ferriss concluded. "Doing the unthinkable is easier than you think."

PS: A collection of all of these summaries of the SALT talks is available on the Kindle for $3. Foreword by Brian Eno.

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