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How to Learn Fast: Clever Tips from Tim Ferriss

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Tim Ferriss is a New York Times best-selling author, widely known for his book The Four-Hour Work Week. Not only has he cracked the secrets of productivity, he's figured out how to learn things super quickly! Mental Floss' own Chetan Nandakumar managed to snag a few minutes with him.

We're interested in this notion of rapid learning. What sort of things have you been able to  master?

Things like Argentine tango, for example. I went from my first class to the world championships in Argentina in about five and half to 6 months, something like that. What else? Yabusame.

Yabu-what?

Yabusame is Japanese horseback archery. I learned it for a pilot with the History channel. These Yabusame riders will generally train 10 "“ 20 years before real competition where they are galloping full speed on a horse with no hands, shooting at three targets.The most dangerous part is you are flying on this horse galloping full speed. There are roughly three foot poles on either side of the horse every four feet or so and those can be made out of iron. If you fall off the horse you could hit those or get trampled by the horse itself. In any case, I had five days to prepare. I ended up doing my final test with two targets instead of three, but I ended up hitting both targets.

I've also read that you became a National Chinese Kickboxing Champion in almost no time. But your learning method isn't just limited to extreme sports, right?

Sure. I have studied probably a dozen or so more esoteric languages like Gaelic Irish, and languages of many different varieties including Japanese, Mandarin Chinese, German, and Spanish.

Are there some overarching principles that apply across domains?

The first is that material is more important than method. There is a focus and over focus on methodologies of learning. What's most important is the material and the sequence of the material. So, for example, when I learned Japanese, I was forced to develop my own approach. If you can use the Ministry of Education word frequency studies and identify the most frequently used words in both conversation and in written language, there are 2000 words. If you group those properly and sequence them you can achieve conversation fluency in three or four months, in some cases faster.

Point two is association, basically the power of associative memorization. Since you have this pre-existing base as an adult of idiomatic English, idiomatic expressions, and inclusive grammatical knowledge, you can associate that with your new language through translation or association. That association applies to physical activity as well. For example, I was an all American wrestler in high school in 1995.  So I might look at how wrestling principles could potentially apply to tango. You actually find that certain basic physiological principles apply whether that is related to posture or the male lead.

The third important thing is self-observation, which is critically important. It's something I did none of for a very long time until I realized how important it was. With tango for example, I recorded almost every lesson that I did.  We are talking about hundreds of lessons and hundreds of training sessions. In tango a dance partner cannot tell you what you look like as they are dancing. They just don't have the necessary vantage point, so what I found is that I thought I was dancing really well two and a half months into practice and then I saw a video of myself -- my posture was horrendous and I also had my knees further apart than I should have which was extremely unattractive! I looked really, really bad. So I started recording all of my sessions and I created a critical shorthand. If I saw a new move I could say, "Ah! this looks like the left foot open, but it's with a slight, like 90 degree rotation of the upper torso."

Your rapid learning approach seems to require a lot of analysis and self-observation. Can anyone do this?

I have an unusual level of focus when I decide that I want to learn a particular skill, but many other people do the same thing. I know people who have gone from nowhere to the Boston Marathon in a span of a year and it requires that same level of analysis.

Are there any limits to what someone can learn?

I think there are certain genetic limits to what you can achieve in a given field.  So if you look at the national level of swimmers in a swimming competition, you will find that the higher you go the more homogenous the body types are. When you get to the finals in the Olympics everybody looks pretty much the same.  They are all like 6' 1" pretty much built for optimal hydrodynamics. For that reason I would only be able to reach a certain level in that field.

Has your approach been influenced by findings from neuroscience and psychology?

4hrWell, there are a few. Like if you start learning a language for example, with a box of high frequency placards ordered from A to Z, people will then be learning from A to Z. Unfortunately that type of learning often times create a serial dependency -- if I ask you what letter of the alphabet is K, you will have to go A, B, C, D, E, "¦ etc. You will have to go through each alphabet in order to recall. If I am using a textbook, the vocabulary for a given lesson is in a particular order and you are susceptible to the same problem. So I will always randomize everything. And all of this has been studied extensively in laboratories. They are very fond of doing serial versus randomized testing, because it is relatively easier to measure.

Any thoughts on education in schools? Do you have any insight in how we could better structure our education system?

Education systems should first and foremost educate students how to learn and not just teach specific subjects. While the latter is obviously important, the former is of paramount importance because you enable the student to be able to acquire knowledge and skills beyond what can be presented in the classroom. The main problems plaguing the US public educational system are political and legal as opposed to based on curriculum.

To rapidly learn more about Tim Ferriss, click here.

Got any leads for who we should interview next? Drop them in the comments. And if we end up one, we'll be sure to include your name in the next piece!

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8 of the Weirdest Gallup Polls
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Born in Jefferson, Iowa on November 18, 1901, George Gallup studied journalism and psychology, focusing on how to measure readers’ interest in newspaper and magazine content. In 1935, he founded the American Institute of Public Opinion to scientifically measure public opinions on topics such as government spending, criminal justice, and presidential candidates. Although he died in 1984, The Gallup Poll continues his legacy of trying to determine and report the will of the people in an unbiased, independent way. To celebrate his day of birth, we compiled a list of some of the weirdest, funniest Gallup polls over the years.

1. THREE IN FOUR AMERICANS BELIEVE IN THE PARANORMAL (2005)

According to this Gallup poll, 75 percent of Americans have at least one paranormal belief. Specifically, 41 percent believe in extrasensory perception (ESP), 37 percent believe in haunted houses, and 21 percent believe in witches. What about channeling spirits, you might ask? Only 9 percent of Americans believe that it’s possible to channel a spirit so that it takes temporary control of one's body. Interestingly, believing in paranormal phenomena was relatively similar across people of different genders, races, ages, and education levels.

2. ONE IN FIVE AMERICANS THINK THE SUN REVOLVES AROUND THE EARTH (1999)

In this poll, Gallup tried to determine the popularity of heliocentric versus geocentric views. While 79 percent of Americans correctly stated that the Earth revolves around the sun, 18 percent think the sun revolves around the Earth. Three percent chose to remain indifferent, saying they had no opinion either way.

3. 22 PERCENT OF AMERICANS ARE HESITANT TO SUPPORT A MORMON (2011)

Gallup first measured anti-Mormon sentiment back in 1967, and it was still an issue in 2011, a year before Mormon Mitt Romney ran for president. Approximately 22 percent of Americans said they would not vote for a Mormon presidential candidate, even if that candidate belonged to their preferred political party. Strangely, Americans’ bias against Mormons has remained stable since the 1960s, despite decreasing bias against African Americans, Catholics, Jews, and women.

4. MISSISSIPPIANS GO TO CHURCH THE MOST; VERMONTERS THE LEAST (2010)

This 2010 poll amusingly confirms the stereotype that southerners are more religious than the rest of the country. Although 42 percent of all Americans attend church regularly (which Gallup defines as weekly or almost weekly), there are large variations based on geography. For example, 63 percent of people in Mississippi attend church regularly, followed by 58 percent in Alabama and 56 percent in South Carolina, Louisiana, and Utah. Rounding out the lowest levels of church attendance, on the other hand, were Vermont, where 23 percent of residents attend church regularly, New Hampshire, at 26 percent, and Maine at 27 percent.

5. ONE IN FOUR AMERICANS DON’T KNOW WHICH COUNTRY AMERICA GAINED INDEPENDENCE FROM (1999)

Although 76 percent of Americans knew that the United States gained independence from Great Britain as a result of the Revolutionary War, 24 percent weren’t so sure. Two percent thought the correct answer was France, 3 percent said a different country (such as Mexico, China, or Russia), and 19 percent had no opinion. Certain groups of people who consider themselves patriotic, including men, older people, and white people (according to Gallup polls), were more likely to know that America gained its independence from Great Britain.

6. ONE THIRD OF AMERICANS BELIEVE IN GHOSTS (2000)

This Halloween-themed Gallup poll asked Americans about their habits and behavior on the last day of October. Predictably, two-thirds of Americans reported that someone in their house planned to give candy to trick-or-treaters and more than three-quarters of parents with kids reported that their kids would wear a costume. More surprisingly, 31 percent of American adults claimed to believe in ghosts, an increase from 1978, when only 11 percent of American adults admitted to a belief in ghosts.

7. 5 PERCENT OF WORKING MILLENNIALS THRIVE IN ALL FIVE ELEMENTS OF WELL-BEING (2016)

This recent Gallup poll is funny in a sad way, as it sheds light on the tragicomic life of a millennial. In this poll, well-being is defined as having purpose, social support, manageable finances, a strong community, and good physical health. Sadly, only 5 percent of working millennials—defined as people born between 1980 and 1996—were thriving in these five indicators of well-being. To counter this lack of well-being, Gallup’s report recommends that managers promote work-life balance and improve their communication with millennial employees.

8. THE WORLD IS BECOMING SLIGHTLY MORE NEGATIVE (2014)

If you seem to feel more stress, sadness, anxiety, and pain than ever before, Gallup has the proof that it’s not all in your head. According to the company’s worldwide negative experience index, negative feelings such as stress, sadness, and anger have increased since 2007. Unsurprisingly, people living in war-torn, dangerous parts of the word—Iraq, Iran, Egypt, Syria, and Sierra Leone—reported the highest levels of negative emotions.

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11 Times Mickey Mouse Was Banned
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Despite being one of the world’s most recognizable and beloved characters, it hasn’t always been smooth sailing for Mickey Mouse, who turns 89 years old today. A number of countries—and even U.S. states—have banned the cartoon rodent at one time or another for reasons both big and small.

1. In 1930, Ohio banned a cartoon called “The Shindig” because Clarabelle Cow was shown reading Three Weeks by Elinor Glyn, the premier romance novelist of the time. Check it out (1:05) and let us know if you’re scandalized:

2. With movies on 10-foot screen being a relatively new thing in Romania in 1935, the government decided to ban Mickey Mouse, concerned that children would be terrified of a monstrous rodent.

3. In 1929, a German censor banned a Mickey Mouse short called “The Barnyard Battle.” The reason? An army of cats wearing pickelhauben, the pointed helmets worn by German military in the 19th and 20th centuries: "The wearing of German military helmets by an army of cats which oppose a militia of mice is offensive to national dignity. Permission to exhibit this production in Germany is refused.”

4. The German dislike for Mickey Mouse continued into the mid-'30s, with one German newspaper wondering why such a small and dirty animal would be idolized by children across the world: "Mickey Mouse is the most miserable ideal ever revealed ... Healthy emotions tell every independent young man and every honorable youth that the dirty and filth-covered vermin, the greatest bacteria carrier in the animal kingdom, cannot be the ideal type of animal.” Mickey was originally banned from Nazi Germany, but eventually the mouse's popularity won out.

5. In 2014, Iran's Organization for Supporting Manufacturers and Consumers announced a ban on school supplies and stationery products featuring “demoralizing images,” including that of Disney characters such as Mickey Mouse, Winnie the Pooh, Sleeping Beauty, and characters from Toy Story.

6. In 1954, East Germany banned Mickey Mouse comics, claiming that Mickey was an “anti-Red rebel.”

7. In 1937, a Mickey Mouse adventure was so similar to real events in Yugoslavia that the comic strip was banned. State police say the comic strip depicted a “Puritan-like revolt” that was a danger to the “Boy King,” Peter II of Yugoslavia, who was just 14 at the time. A journalist who wrote about the ban was consequently escorted out of the country.

8. Though Mussolini banned many cartoons and American influences from Italy in 1938, Mickey Mouse flew under the radar. It’s been said that Mussolini’s children were such Mickey Mouse fans that they were able to convince him to keep the rodent around.

9. Mickey and his friends were banned from the 1988 Seoul Olympics in a roundabout way. As they do with many major sporting events, including the Super Bowl, Disney had contacted American favorites to win in each event to ask them to say the famous “I’m going to Disneyland!” line if they won. When American swimmer Matt Biondi won the 100-meter freestyle, he dutifully complied with the request. After a complaint from the East Germans, the tape was pulled and given to the International Olympic Committee.

10. In 1993, Mickey was banned from a place he shouldn't have been in the first place: Seattle liquor stores. As a wonderful opening sentence from the Associated Press explained, "Mickey Mouse, the Easter Bunny and teddy bears have no business selling booze, the Washington State Liquor Control Board has decided." A handful of stores had painted Mickey and other characters as part of a promotion. A Disney VP said Mickey was "a nondrinker."

11. Let's end with another strike against The Shindig (see #1) and Clarabelle’s bulging udder. Less than a year after the Shindig ban, the Motion Picture Producers and Directors of America announced that they had received a massive number of complaints about the engorged cow udders in various Mickey Mouse cartoons.

From then on, according to a 1931 article in Time magazine, “Cows in Mickey Mouse ... pictures in the future will have small or invisible udders quite unlike the gargantuan organ whose antics of late have shocked some and convulsed others. In a recent picture the udder, besides flying violently to left and right or stretching far out behind when the cow was in motion, heaved with its panting with the cow stood still.”

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