“How do we learn?” That’s the question the field of meta-learning is obsessed with. As you’d expect, there are a lot of potential answers and a lot of trails you could follow. You can move up the chain of abstraction—and end up immersed in epistemology—or down the chain of abstraction—landing on things like enculturation and dialogic learning.
I wanted to move down the chain. I’d intended to do a survey of the latticework of ideas and theories associated with learning. But that’s well beyond the scope of this series—and perhaps beyond the scope of a single mind. So instead, I want to narrow the focus a little. And that narrowing begins, as several of my meaningful life changes have, with Tim Ferriss.
In the The 4-Hour Chef, Ferriss lays out his process for his most celebrated ability; getting to competence in as fast a time as possible. Ferriss’ ability to deconstruct and rapidly learn is the keystone of his reputation and in his third book he describes two acronyms that help him do it so well: DiSSS and CaFE.
DiSSS stands for deconstruct, select, sequence, and stakes. Cliff notes: you break a skill or topic down to its constituent parts, choose the most important parts (using an 80/20 analysis), figure out the best order to learn them in, and then put yourself on death ground with the imposition of an artificial deadline or constraint.
CaFE stands for compression, frequency and encoding. Cliff notes: distill a topic down to it’s essence (Ferriss uses “one-pagers”), revisit it often enough to promote absorption, and ensure that what you’re trying to learn is attached to some sort of mental or emotional hook that aids recall.
DiSSS and CaFE are Ferriss’ answer to the question, “How do I learn X, fast?” There are others. For example, Richard Feynman used a very simple process to assess the gaps in his knowledge and fill them in. He’d pull out a blank notepad, write a topic at the top, then proceed to explain it as if he had an audience of people with no prior knowledge of the topic at hand. This approach was based on two of Feynman’s fundamental principles. The first is the idea that you don’t truly understand a topic if you can’t explain it to a ten-year old (or a laymen—accounts differ). The second is his idea that “What I cannot create I do not understand.” Essentially, Feynman’s rather questionable realisation was that if you can’t explicitly state it, you don’t know it that well.
Ferriss’ and Feynman’s approaches are both good answers to “How do I learn X, fast?” But they both fall under the same branch of meta-learning strategies. There are three branches overall. The first two—bottom-up and top-down—are concerned with hierarchical, organised domains. The third—rhizomatic—is concerned with network-like, decentralised domains. We’re going to look at each in turn, but for now, consider the differences between the three diagrams: