Author, learning expert, venture capitalist, human guinea pig, and poster boy for the “lifehacker” culture: Tim Ferriss is all this and more. In May 2013 he was the keynote speaker and most sought-after mentor at Mastermind Talks, a high-priced Toronto event that brought together Canadian and U.S. entrepreneurs with top-rank experts for two days of conversation, confessions and one-to-one networking.
Ferriss devoted most of his talk to learning how to learn, a personal journey he chronicled in his most recent book, The 4-Hour Chef: The Simple Path to Cooking Like a Pro, Learning Anything, and Living the Good Life. A brick-thick how-to tome overflowing with unconventional cooking advice, The 4-Hour Chef is really about how anyone can become an expert at anything, if they wish to do so. Ferriss calls it “accelerated learning for accelerated growth.” It’s a “must” skill for any entrepreneur who wants to overcome the challenges of today’s fast-changing markets.
At 36, Ferriss is a young man in a hurry. He has mastered the arts of kickboxing, the tango, and Japanese horse archery. He has experimented with “smart drugs” to improve his brain power and memory, and founded (and later sold) his own online nutritional supplements company, BrainQuicken. His previous books, The 4-Hour Workweek and The 4-Hour Body, were both No. 1 best-sellers on the New York Times list.
Are there skills you would like to learn, such as financial analysis, or technical knowhow, or Mandarin, or even swimming? Ferriss believes anyone can master these subjects, in less time than you’d expect.
“Think about a skill or experience you would like to get better at,” he says. “This Saturday, take a device-free day, and pursue one of these activities.”
He has worked with “smart drugs” to improve his memory, and studied true savants to learn how they master new subject matter. He noted that Daniel Tammet, a UK-based math genius, memorized the value of “pi” to more than 22,000 decimal places, and learned to speak Icelandic in a week. “His method is to ask very good questions,” Ferriss says. “People like him question the obvious; they question best practices.” When Ferriss wanted to learn the tango, for instance, he learned the woman’s part first—a clever role reversal that propelled him to the national semifinals of an Argentine tango competition.
Ferriss says his guiding tenet from success is this: “Do the opposite of what everyone else is saying, doing or selling.” He noted that in writing The 4-Hour Chef, he visited a Chicago restaurant that has changed the rules of the restaurant game. “They got rid of reservations,” he says. “They sold seats like a season of the opera, and they sold out in 10 second.” The result: “No more empty seats.”
To help other people learn faster and more effectively, Ferriss developed a system he calls DSSS. Each letter represents a separate step in the process:
D stands for deconstruction: To learn a new skill, first deconstruct what happened when you or other people failed at it in the past. Identify why you (or they) failed. “The objective becomes, avoid these failure points the next five times you do that skill,” says Ferriss. “After you do it right five times, it becomes a habit.”
S is for Selection: Using a standard 80-20 analysis, Ferriss identifies the 20% of the subject matter that will most likely take him 80% of the way to competency. When learning how to swim competitively, for instance, he identified that the key move would be to learn to swim with more of his body underwater; when learning the guitar, he studied how to play songs using just four chords. “Choose the fewest inputs to have the maximum effective outputs.”
S is for Sequencing: Be creative about re-ordering the way you learn things. As mentioned, he decided to learn the female steps in tango, which are less complicated than the male role yet helped him understand the cues that lead to a winning dance partnership. Through his studies, Ferriss has become friends with Josh Waitzkin, the chess prodigy whose childhood successes inspired the movie Searching for Bobby Fischer; Waitzkin learned to play competitive chess by studying not the conventional chess openings, but endgames. Playing out situations such as king and pawn versus lone king taught Waitzkin more about “board control” and the dynamics of the individual chess pieces than the traditional process of studying the annotated games of the great chess masters.
The final S is for Stake: Contrive an outcome where you have to use your new skills. “Why do people quit diets?” Ferriss asks. “Because there are no consequences. It’s extremely effective to build incentives for the behavioral change you want in your life, or whatever skills you want to acquire.” He suggests creating your own consequences, such as entering a tango competition or a swim meet, or cooking a meal for 40 people. He also recommends using stickk.com, a website where people commit publicly to a goal, and create their own “stakes” by putting a sum of money into escrow. If you don’t hit your target, the money will go to the “anti-charity” of your choice, a cause you really don’t want to be associated with, which should provide the motivation you need to meet your goals.
Ferriss’s overall theme is to keep things simple; in fact, he keeps a sign on the wall in his home that says “Simplify.” He hangs a knife over that sign to symbolize the need to cut away all the strings or complications that prevent you from getting to the results you want. “Simplify wherever possible,” Ferriss concluded. “If the solution you have in your mind is complicated, it’s probably not the right solution.”
Next he will utilize the 80/20 rule to select which blocks make up the 20% of subject matter that will take him 80% of the way to competency. He must then sequence in which order to learn those blocks and finally setup stakes to create consequences, make sure he follows the program, and tests his growing facility. Perhaps in this case it would be entering a martial arts tournament.
Ferriss also points out that it is important to track your data so you can figure out points of failure and measure your progress. This broad overview of skill acquisition can apply to nearly any subject.
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Rick Spence is president of Canadian Entrepreneur Communications, a Toronto-based business writer, speaker and consultant dedicated to entrepreneurship and helping businesses grow.