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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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Courtesy of Crumbs & Whiskers
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Animals
Inside Crumbs & Whiskers, the Bicoastal Cat Cafe That's Saving Kitties' Lives
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Courtesy of Crumbs & Whiskers

It took a backpacking trip to Thailand and a bit of serendipity for Kanchan Singh to realize her life goal of saving cats while serving lattes. “I met these two guys on the road [in 2014], and we became friends,” Singh tells Mental Floss about Crumbs & Whiskers, the bicoastal cat cafe she founded in Washington, D.C. in 2015 which, in addition to selling coffee and snacks, fosters adoptable felines from shelters. “They soon noticed that I was feeding every stray dog and cat in sight," and quickly picked up on the fact that their traveling companion was crazy about all things furry and fluffy.

On Singh’s final day in Thailand, which happened to be her birthday, her friends surprised her with a celebratory trip to a cat cafe in the city of Chiang Mai. “I remember walking in there being like, ‘This is the coolest, most amazing, weirdest thing I’ve ever done,'” Singh recalls. “I just connected with it so much on a spiritual level.”

Singh informed her friends that she planned to return to the U.S., quit her corporate consulting job, and open up her own cat cafe in the nation’s capital. They thought she was joking. But three years and two storefronts later, the joke is on everyone except for Singh—and the kitties she and her team have helped to rescue.

A customer pets cats while drinking coffee at the flagship Washington, D.C. location of cat cafe Crumbs & Whiskers.
A customer pets cats while drinking coffee at the flagship Washington, D.C. location of cat cafe Crumbs & Whiskers.
Courtesy of Crumbs & Whiskers

Washington, D.C. customers stroke a furry feline while enjoying coffee at cat cafe Crumbs & Whiskers.
Washington, D.C. customers stroke a furry feline while enjoying coffee at Crumbs & Whiskers.
Courtesy of Crumbs & Whiskers

Crumbs & Whiskers—which, in addition to its flagship D.C. location, also has a Los Angeles outpost—keeps a running count of the cats they've saved from risk of euthanasia and those who have been adopted. At press time, those numbers were 776 and 388, respectively, between the brand’s two locations.

Prices and services vary between establishments, but customers can typically expect to shell out anywhere from $6.50 to $35 to enjoy coffee time with cats (food and drinks are prepared off-site for health and safety reasons), activities like cat yoga sessions, or, in D.C., an entire day of coworking with—you guessed it—cats. Patrons can also participate in the occasional promotion or campaign, ranging from Black Friday fundraisers for shelter kitties to writing an ex-flame's name inside a litter box around Valentine's Day (where the cats will then do their business).

Cat cafes have existed in Asia for nearly 20 years, with the world’s first known one, Cat Flower Garden, opening in Taipei, Taiwan in 1998. The trend gained traction in Japan during the mid 2000s, and quickly spread across Asia. But when Singh visited Chiang Mai, the cat cafe craze—while alive and thriving in Thailand—had not yet hit the U.S. "Why does Thailand get this, but not the U.S.?" Singh remembers thinking.

Once she arrived back home in D.C., Singh set her sights on founding the nation’s first official cat cafe, launching a successful Kickstarter campaign that helped her secure a two-story space in the city’s Georgetown neighborhood. Ultimately, though, she was beat to the punch by the Cat Town Cafe in Oakland, California, which opened to the public in 2014, followed shortly after by establishments like New York City’s Meow Parlour.

LA customers at cat cafe Crumbs & Whiskers
LA customers at cat cafe Crumbs & Whiskers
Courtesy of Crumbs & Whiskers

Still, Crumbs & Whiskers—which officially launched in D.C. in the summer of 2015—was among the nation’s first wave of businesses (and the District's first) to offer customers the chance to enjoy feline companionship with a side of java, along with the opportunity to maybe even save a tiny life. Ultimately, the altruistic concept proved to be so successful that Singh, sensing a market for a similar storefront in Los Angeles, opened up a second location there in the fall of 2016. "I always felt like what L.A. is, culturally, just fits with the type of person that would go to a cat café," she says.

Someday, Singh hopes to bring Crumbs & Whiskers to Chicago and New York, and “for cat cafes as a concept, as an industry, to grow,” she says. “I think that it would be great for this to be the future of adoptions and animal rescues.” Until then, you can learn more about Crumbs & Whiskers (and the animals they rescue) by stopping by if you're in D.C. and LA, or by visiting their website.

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entertainment
15 Inconceivable Facts About The Princess Bride
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MGM

It's no wonder The Princess Bride is such a beloved film: It's action-packed but still lighthearted, sweet but not saccharine, silly but still smart—and, of course, endlessly quotable. Fortunately, in 2012, the movie's leading man Cary Elwes was inspired to write a behind-the-scenes book about the making of the movie in honor of its 25th anniversary, for which he interviewed nearly all of the key cast and crew (sadly, André the Giant, who played Fezzik, passed away in 1993).

Pulling from the impressively detailed text of As You Wish: Inconceivable Tales from the Making of The Princess Bride and various interviews Elwes and others have given over the years, we rounded up a series of fun facts and anecdotes sure to delight any fan of the film, which was released 30 years ago today.

1. IT WAS WRITTEN FOR THE AUTHOR'S DAUGHTERS.

William Goldman, who wrote the novel The Princess Bride in 1973 and penned the screenplay, told Entertainment Weekly that, "I had two little daughters, I think they were 7 and 4 at the time, and I said, 'I’ll write you a story. What do you want it to be about?' One of them said 'a princess' and the other one said 'a bride.' I said, 'That’ll be the title.'"

2. BOTH THE DIRECTOR AND THE LEADING MAN ALREADY KNEW AND LOVED THE STORY BEFORE FILMING EVEN BEGAN.

Cary Elwes' stepfather had given him Goldman's book in 1975, when the future actor was just 13 years old. Rob Reiner, who directed the movie, first read the book in his 20s when Goldman gave it to his father. It quickly became Reiner's favorite book of all time, and he had long wanted to turn it into a movie—but he had no idea that many before him had tried and failed.

3. FOR A LONG TIME, NO ONE WAS ABLE TO MAKE THE MOVIE.

At one point or another, Robert Redford, Norman Jewison, John Boorman, and François Truffaut all tried to get the book made into a movie, but due to a series of unrelated incidents—"green-lighters" getting fired, production houses closing—it languished for years. (In one of these proto-Princess Brides, a then-unknown Arnold Schwarzenegger was supposed to play Fezzik.) 

After several false starts, Goldman bought back the rights to the book. The movie only got made because Reiner had built up so much good will with movies like This is Spinal Tap and The Sure Thing that the studio, 20th Century Foxoffered to make any project of his choice.

4. MANDY PATINKIN FELT A PERSONAL CONNECTION TO THE CHARACTER OF INIGO MONTOYA.

Andre the Giant, Mandy Patinkin and Wallace Shawn in The Princess Bride (1987).
MGM

"The moment I read the script, I loved the part of Inigo Montoya," Patinkin told Entertainment Weekly. "That character just spoke to me profoundly. I had lost my own father—he died at 53 years old from pancreatic cancer in 1972. I didn’t think about it consciously, but I think that there was a part of me that thought, If I get that man in black, my father will come back. I talked to my dad all the time during filming, and it was very healing for me."

5. ANDRÉ THE GIANT COULD REALLY, REALLY DRINK.

Three bottles of cognac and 12 bottles of wine reportedly made him just a little tipsy. When the cast would go out for dinner, André—who, according to Robin Wright, ordered four appetizers and five entrees—would drink out of a 40-ounce beer pitcher filled with a mix of liquors, a concoction he called "The American."

6. ANDRÉ HAD AN UNCONVENTIONAL METHOD FOR LEARNING HIS LINES.

Reiner and Goldman met André, then a famous wrestler, at a bar in Paris. "I brought him up to the hotel room to audition him. He read this three-page scene, and I couldn’t understand one word he said," Reiner recalled. "I go, ‘Oh my God, what am I going to do? He’s perfect physically for the part, but I can’t understand him!’ So I recorded his entire part on tape, exactly how I wanted him to do it, and he studied the tape. He got pretty good!"

7. WILLIAM GOLDMAN WAS INCREDIBLY NERVOUS ON THE SET.

Of all the projects he’d written and worked on—which included the Academy Award-winning Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid—Goldman loved The Princess Bride best of all. This manifested itself as extreme nervousness about the project. Reiner invited Goldman to be on set for the duration of the filming—which Goldman did not want to do, saying, “I don’t like being on set. If you’re a screenwriter, it’s boring”—but on the first day, he proved to be a slight nuisance. The first couple takes were plagued by a barely-audible chanting, which turned out to be Goldman praying things would go well. And when Wright's character's dress caught on fire, he panicked, yelling, "Oh my god! Her dress is on fire!"—even though Goldman himself had written that into the script.

8. WALLACE SHAWN WAS BRILLIANT, BUT ALWAYS ON EDGE.

Wallace Shawn and Robin Wright in The Princess Bride (1987)
MGM

Shawn, who played Vizzini the Sicilian, really is, like his character, a man of "dizzying intellect." He has a history degree from Harvard and studied philosophy and economics at Oxford. In fact, on a day off from filming The Princess Bride, Shawn went to Oxford to give a guest lecture on British and American literature. But Shawn was inconsolably nervous for the entirety of filming.

After learning from his agent that Reiner had originally wanted Danny DeVito for the part, Shawn was wracked with insecurity, perpetually convinced that he was going to be fired after every bad take. "Danny is inimitable," Shawn said. "Each scene we did, I pictured how he would have done it and I knew I could never possibly have done it the way he could have done it," he said.

9. THE DUEL BETWEEN WESTLEY AND INIGO WAS EXCRUCIATINGLY RESEARCHED AND REHEARSED.

Goldman spent months researching 17th-century swordfighting manuals to craft Westley and Inigo's duel; all the references the characters make to specific moves and styles are completely accurate. Then Elwes and Patinkin, neither of whom had much (if any) fencing experience, spent more months training to perfect it—right- and left-handed.

"I knew that my job was to become the world’s greatest sword fighter," Patinkin recalled in Elwes's book. "I trained for about two months in New York and then we went to London and Cary and I trained every day that we weren’t shooting for four months. There were no stuntmen involved in any of the sword fights, except for one flip in the air.” Even after months of pre-shooting training, the fencing instructors came to set and, when there were a few free minutes, would pull Elwes and Patinkin aside to work on the choreography for the scene, which was intentionally one of the last to be shot.

10. IT WAS ELWES'S IDEA TO DIVE HEADFIRST INTO THE "QUICKSAND."

That particular Fire Swamp stunt was accomplished by having a trap door underneath a layer of sand, below which there was foam padding for the actors to fall onto. Originally, the direction called for Westley to jump in feet-first after Buttercup, but Elwes argued this wasn't particularly heroic. Switching up the direction was a risky move—if the trap door wasn't opened at exactly the right instant, Elwes risked banging his head—or even breaking his neck. After the stunt double successfully executed the dive, Elwes himself tried it, and nailed it perfectly on the first take.

11. MIRACLE MAX REALLY WAS THAT FUNNY—AND YOU'RE NOT EVEN SEEING HIS BEST STUFF.

Billy Crystal brought two photos for his makeup artist, Peter Montagna, to draw inspiration from when creating Miracle Max: Crystal’s grandmother and Casey Stengel. As for the acting, Elwes wrote in his book, "For three days straight and 10 hours a day, Billy improvised 13th-century period jokes, never saying the same thing or the same line twice." Unfortunately for viewers, many of the improvised jokes were not fit for a family-friendly film. Only the cast and crew knows how funny his more crude Miracle Max takes were, but judging from the fact that Patinkin bruised a rib trying to stifle his laughter, as he recounts in the book, they were probably pretty good.

12. BILLY CRYSTAL AND CAROL KANE, WHO PLAYED HIS WIFE, INVENTED AN ENTIRE BACKSTORY.

Carol Kane and Billy Crystal in The Princess Bride (1987)
MGM

"Billy came over to my apartment in Los Angeles and we took the book and underlined things and made up a little more backstory for ourselves," Kane said. "We added our own twists and turns and stuff that would amuse us, because there’s supposed to be a long history—who knows how many hundreds of years Max and Valerie have been together?" How has that pair not gotten a spin-off film yet? 

13. ELWES FILMED MANY OF HIS SCENES WITH A BROKEN TOE.

Six weeks into production, André convinced Elwes to go for a spin on the ATV that was used to transport the larger man to and from filming locations because he didn’t fit in the van. Almost immediately, the vehicle hit a rocky patch and Elwes got his foot stuck between two mechanisms in the vehicle, breaking his big toe. The young actor tried to hide the injury from his director, but, of course, Reiner quickly found out. He didn't find a new Westley, as Elwes feared he might, but they did have to work some movie magic to allow Elwes to limp around in many of the scenes undetected.

14. ONE PARTICULAR ON-SCREEN INJURY WASN'T FAKED.

As soon as Westley recognizes Count Rugen as the six-fingered man, the script calls for the Count to knock our hero unconscious with the butt of his sword. In filming, Christopher Guest, who played Rugen, was naturally reluctant to really hit Elwes for fear of hurting him. Unfortunately, this reticence was reading on screen and take after take failed to look convincing. Finally, Elwes suggested Guest just go for, at least tap him on the head to get the reaction timing right. The tap came a little too hard, however, and Elwes was knocked legitimately unconscious; he later awoke in the hospital emergency room. It's that take, with Elwes actually passing out, that appears in the film.

15. ONE OF THE FINAL SCENES NEVER MADE IT INTO THE FINAL FILM.

In an alternate ending that was eventually cut, Fred Savage—who plays the initially reluctant audience to Peter Falk's reading of The Princess Bride—goes to his window after his grandfather has left and sees Fezzik, Inigo, Westley, and Buttercup all on their white horses.

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