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!

August 27, 2009 - 5:00am
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