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Acquiring the Skill of Meta-Learning

Tim Ferriss at SXSWi

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Tim Ferriss & Meta-Learning

Ever wish you could learn a new skill without the lengthy amount of time it takes to
become a pro? Tim Ferriss, king of accelerated learning and author of the New York
Times best sellers, The 4-Hour Chef, and The 4-Hour Workweek, presented a session at
SXSW Interactive, Acquiring the Skill of Meta-Learning. Ferriss sussed out his
advice and learning model for quickly and successfully acquiring knowledge. I believe
you can become world-class in any skill in 6 months or less, stated Ferriss. So how do
you do it? Ferriss first recommended these three aspects:
1. Have optimism
2. Have baselines Understand your strengths and weaknesses
3. Replicate outliers and anomalies
Ferriss also broke down the framework for accelerated learning that he likes to call:

1. Deconstruction. Ferriss states that most skills are overwhelming and in order to
successfully acquire new skills quickly, you need to break them down into pieces, or
units. Then ask yourself, Why have I failed at this skill, or why might I fail? and study
those potentials failures so that you can avoid them.
2. Selection. Ferris explains that finding the minimum effective dose to successfully
acquiring a new skill is the step of selection. You want to use very few tools and be
good at those tools, he said. Ferriss gave the example of the boys from The Axis of
Awesome who created a YouTube video called, 4 Chord Song. In the video, the guys
sing a medley of 36 different hit songs, all of which use same 4 chords, emphasizing the
fact that you really only need 4 chords total to become a super star.
3. Sequencing. Ferris tells you to ask yourself, What if I did the opposite of best
practices? What if I did the reverse? and by switching up the order in which you learn
a skill, you will become more fluent and efficient in it. Ferriss stated that in order for
him to fully learn and understand Tango, he studied the female's role first. Changing the
sequence of when you need vs. want to learn a particular skill is also vital. The worst
time to learn a skill is when you need it, says Ferriss. Want to learn how to flip food in
a skillet? Don't try it while you're in the midst of cooking a feast, practice with a cold
skillet and some dried beans while you're watching TV. If you spill the beans, no harm
done, because you're not actually cooking! Want to learn how to become a pro at
chopping food? Don't try while you're elbow deep in onions with sharp knife to boot,
use a lettuce knife to practice the motion of cutting while you're listening to music.
Learning skills in an opposite or reverse manner, and when they're not needed will help
you succeed.
4. Stakes. Ferris says that most people fail with their New Year's resolutions because
there aren't any consequences to failing them. Giving yourself real consequences will
accelerate your desire and passion to learning the skill. He gave stickk.com as an
example and tool that forces people to deal with consequences of an unaccomplished
goal. On stickk, a user creates a goal, sets the stakes (typically in the form of money)
and chooses an anti-charity which will reap the benefits of the money if the goal isn't
accomplished. So far, 195,000+ goals have been accomplished.
5. Simplify. Ferris quoted author, Antoine de Saint-Exupery, stating, Perfection is
achieved, not when there is nothing more to add, but when there is nothing left to take
away. Ferris says you should try to focus on just one subject at a time. Saying yes to
too many things is a problem. Have one to two to-dos and accomplish those.
What do you think of Tim Ferriss' meta-learning tactics? Have you tried these yourself?
Do share!

Metalearning, The Four Hour Chef, and

Instructional Design
by Connie Malamed


My ears perked up when I heard the word

metalearning in an interview with the author of The Four Hour Chef, a new book by
Tim Ferriss. I was curious how metalearningroughly defined as learning how to learn
related to a cook book.
I wondered if the author had devised a new speed learning model based on experience
that could be applied to instructional design.
As it turns out, the author learns to cook as a way to demonstrate his methods for
accelerated learning. He claims his approach can overcome the dreariness of slow
learning we often experience when acquiring new knowledge and skills.
This is not an academic tome, but rather an informal, conversational and circular read. If
you prefer a linear narrative, you wont find it here. The author jumps from one
experience or anecdote to another, which certainly keeps things lively. Still, I did
wonder whether an editor was involved in Amazons first foray into book publishing
(rather than facilitating self-publishing).

The DiSSS Method for Accelerating

Over the years, Ferriss has constructed a quick-learning methodology, known as DiSSS,
that hes used to learn languages, tango dancing and other pursuits. The acronym comes
from his technique: Deconstruction, Selection, Sequencing and Stakes. (The i just
helps with acronym pronunciation and mnemonics.) Below youll see what each
learning phase entails.
1. Deconstruction is similar to chunking but it goes further. During
deconstruction, you identify the minimal units that are required to
become competent at a set of knowledge or skills. The author calls
these Lego blocks.

Some deconstruction approaches that Ferriss finds helpful include: viewing the
subject from a variety of perspectives, looking at what successful outliers are
doing, probing the minds of experts through interviews, and finding simple
commonalities in a domain that can serve as a key to accelerate learning. One
important point: when interviewing experts, take in the explicit knowledge, but
watch keenly for their implicit expertise (what they can not verbalize).
2. Selection is based on the Pareto Principle, which states that for
many events, 80% of the effects come from 20% of the causes. In
terms of metalearning, identify which 20% of learning units will give
you 80% of your desired outcomes. Its a matter of distilling and
simplifying to the fewest moving pieces. Selection demonstrates a
concept trumpeted throughout the bookthe Minimal Effective Dose
(MED). This is encapsulated as, The lowest volume, the lowest
frequency, the fewest changes that get us our desired result.
3. Sequencing is the familiar act of organizing content or in this case,
the learnable units, into a logical flow.
4. Stakes requires you to construct consequences that will enforce
sticking with the program. Its a way to remain committed when the
original fire of motivation begins to dwindle.

Second Set of Principles: CaFE

You didnt think it was that simple, did you? There is a secondary set of principles that
are part of this method. Here goes:

Compression: Find a way to squeeze the minimal learnable units

into a one-page study aid or cheat sheet. The author recommends
two types: the Prescriptive One-Pager lists rules or principles that help
you generate real-world examples. The Practice One-Pager lists realworld examples to practice, which helps you learn the principles
Frequency: Plan a study/practice schedule that provides the
frequency needed to gain competency.
Encoding: Find ways to associate the knowledge and skills with what
you already know.

10 Applications to Instructional
Youve probably found that many of the methods in the DiSSS approach are familiar to
instructional design. One great difference is that DiSSS is completely learner-centered.
The learner has the control, creates his or her personal program, and devises
consequences for failure to follow through. For anyone with high motivation, this is an
intriguing approach to try.
But what about workplace employees? The ones who take compliance training and
other courses that are required for their jobs? If we could accelerate learning for the
masses, imagine how appreciative they would be. Here is what I think instructional
designers can borrow from this method with good results:
1. Find ways to give learners more power
2. Include audience members in analysis and design
3. Reduce content to its minimal moving parts
4. Stop and look at the goals and objectives from a variety of
5. Turn content on its head; start at the end and work your way
6. Speak to experts who gained mastery in nontraditional ways
7. Observe experts for their implicit knowledge
8. Consider which 20% of skills will provide 80% of the desired outcomes

9. Distill, distill, distill

10.Provide study and performance support in simple one-pagers

The Four Hour Chef reminds readers that there are always setbacks and plateaus during
learning, particularly accelerated learning. When people are aware that this is part of the
process, it can help them maintain motivation. Do we ever talk to learners about how
they learn? We should.
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