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Psychological research has demonstrated that human beings are particularly susceptible to what are called framing effects. These are differences in the way we respond to a situation, based on how it is framed for us, rather than on its substance.

To take a particularly striking example, American physicians were presented with the following scenario:

“The U.S. is preparing for the outbreak of an unusual Asian disease, which is expected to kill 600 people. Two alternative programs to combat the disease have been proposed. Assume that the exact scientific estimates of the consequences of the programs are as follows: If program A is adopted, 200 people will be saved. If program B is adopted, there is a one-third probability that 600 people will be saved and a two-thirds probability that no people will be saved. Which of the two programs would you favor?”

To which physicians overwhelmingly preferred the former, less risky option. However, consider this slightly modified scenario:

“The U.S. is preparing for the outbreak of an unusual Asian disease, which is expected to kill 600 people. Two alternative programs to combat the disease have been proposed. Assume that the exact scientific estimates of the consequences of the programs are as follows: If program C is adopted, 400 people will die. If program D is adopted, there is a one-third probability that nobody will die and a two-thirds probability that 600 people will die. Which of the two programs would you favor?”

Now the response was inverted. Most physicians preferred the second...

This month we read Godel, Escher, Bach by Douglas Hofstadter

This is a fantastically weird and wonderful book. At one level, the book is about a parallel between three people: Johann Sebastian Bach, Kurt Godel and M.C. Escher, in particular how their work in music, math and art manages to loop back on itself and express a kind of self-referentiality. On another level, however, this book is really a hypothesis about the human mind itself, that selves and souls can come out from inanimate matter the same way that M.C. Escher’s hands draw themselves or Godel’s creates math that proves that it cannot be proven.

Gödel, Escher, Bach is a wonderful exploration of fascinating ideas at the heart of cognitive science: meaning, reduction, recursion, and much more.

If you would like to stream audio on your browser, click here listen on Soundcloud. If you’d like to read the transcript, you may do so here.

Here are some of the highlights from this month’s review. First off, we establish what Douglas Hofstadter is referring to when he talks about a “strange loop”; it’s perhaps easiest to refer to the visual artist M.C. Escher to explain this very sophisticated concept:

An example would be [his images] of the drawing hands where he has drawn two pictures of hands which are holding pencils and drawing themselves. Other ones Escher has includes birds which turn...

One of my favorite early lessons in entrepreneurship was the idea of working “on” your business instead of merely working “in” your business.

To see the distinction, imagine running a restaurant. Here, working “in” the business is clear. Make delicious food. Offer great service to your customers. Keep the place clean and inviting. Being able to cook and host is often a motivation for many to start a restaurant.

Running a restaurant is a lot more than cooking and waiting tables. It’s business strategy, marketing, cost accounting and pricing. Working “on” the restaurant means thinking one layer above to examine what processes the business itself consists of and how you can improve them.

Many restaurateurs fail because they can’t think at that higher abstract level. They intimately understand the food and service dimensions. But they struggle because they can’t see the processes and systems that result in high-quality food, new customers and steady profits.

There is a pattern of thinking here, though, that’s a lot more general than just about business success. This is the idea of a basic level of understanding and a “meta” level, which takes as its objects the very elements of thinking in the basic level itself. I believe there’s reason to believe that much of what we deem “intelligence”, as opposed to mere calculation, involves this kind of “meta” leap in conceptual understanding.

“Aha!” Moments When Discovering the Meta

I can attribute one of the biggest changes in my own life to one of these moments of discovering a hidden...

Last month we read Average Is Over by Tyler Cowen. In this eye-opening book, renowned economist and bestselling author Tyler Cowen explains that high earners are taking ever more advantage of machine intelligence in data analysis and achieving ever-better results.

Meanwhile, low earners who haven’t committed to learning, to making the most of new technologies, have poor prospects. Nearly every business sector relies less and less on manual labor, and this fact is forever changing the world of work and wages. A steady, secure life somewhere in the middle—average—is over.

If you’d like to read the transcript, you may do so here.

Here are some of the highlights from this month’s review. First off, we start with a look at how technology trends (automation, outsourcing, and what I call, “clustering”) and how they will change your career path in the future.

How should you be planning your own personal development so that you can take advantage of these trends rather than have them take advantage of you?

This is a popular topic, it seems like every day you see a new opinion piece about robots taking all of our jobs… I think a lot of these pieces exaggerate the facts. Personally I think that although the advancements in deep learning and neural nets are impressive, I don’t think we’re on an imminent path and there’s going to...

Almost all human accomplishments are, directly or indirectly, judged in competition with others. This is most directly true in domains such as sports or entertainment, where awards and trophies go to some, and not others.

What matters here isn’t absolute performance, but relative performance. Absolute performance can often go up and up, yet because it rises with competitors as well, the standards of what counts rise in lockstep. Before Roger Bannister, running a four-minute mile was thought nigh-impossible. Now it happens regularly. The standards get raised, so what determines success as a runner goes up with it.

Even in domains that aren’t directly competitive, there is still a broader, implicit kind of competition. Singular accomplishments are judged on their impressiveness, indirectly, through a complex comparison with other kinds of accomplishments. Learning to speak another language fluently is moderately impressive in North America, where monolingualism is common. But learning to speak several was common amongst the educated elite a few centuries ago in Europe. Thus the friend that speaks a couple languages fluently impresses more in modern America than it would have in seventeenth century France.

I’d argue that even the most private, resistant-to-comparison situations tend to have subtle, unconscious competitive layers. Consider romantic relationships. Only the most crass compete in competitions over who gets the most dates or has the best spouse. Yet, I believe a lot of relationship happiness comes from beliefs as to whether we have a good spouse (in terms of looks, personality, faithfulness).

Since competition, direct or indirect,...

As someone who writes advice for a living, I’m always interested in the ways advice works, how it gets distorted and what the typical advice-receiver can do about it.

Recently, I came across some research that suggests a new way advice-givers aren’t being totally honest with you: paternalistic advice bias.

Here’s the abstract, from the journal article:

“Despite the near universality of the maxim that one should treat others as one ought to be treated, even well-intended advisers often advise others to act differently than they choose for themselves. We review several psychological factors that contribute to biased advice. Absent pecuniary motives to the contrary, advice tends to be paternalistically biased in favor of caution. Policies that would intuitively promote quality advice — such as making advisers accountable, taking advice from advisers who value the relationship, or having advisers disclose potential conflicts of interest — can perversely lower the quality of advice.”

Biased Advice Leads to Excess Caution

The idea here makes intuitive sense. An advice-giver, whether its someone giving advice in the form of a blog article, or a friend or mentor suggesting a course of action, is not merely transmitting what they know from their own experience.

Instead, there’s a subtle cost-benefit calculation that has to be done when giving advice. And here, there’s a big problem: the flaw of bad advice. If you give someone advice that ends up going disastrously wrong, you might get blamed for that. And the blame, reputationally speaking, might be worse than the benefit of helping...

How much can the brain store?

We all know how much our computers and phones can store, if only because we occasionally get the pings of messages telling us we’ve taken too many photos or downloaded too many apps or movies and something has to be deleted to store more.

The brain doesn’t seem to be like this. While we do forget things, this seems to be more a matter of decay from disuse than being actively “pushed out” by new knowledge.

On the other hand, the brain is still subject to the same laws of the universe that govern everything else. It can’t possibly store infinite amounts of data, as that would be physically impossible.

So how much can you actually learn?

Some Upper-Bounds on Memory

A good first attack on this kind of problem would be to look at the potential upper bounds of human memory, based on the laws of physics. These will be wildly too high, mostly because the brain is a living organism and not an idealized information storage medium, but they should give some starting points for thinking about it.

The brain is typically 350-450 cubic centimeters. The maximum possible information you can cram into a volume that size is defined by the Bousso bound, which ends up calculating to roughly 10^70 bits of information. However, in order to get this amount of information, your brain would become a black hole… so let’s try to reduce this bound further.

If we look, somewhat more modestly at the amount of information...

One idea I’ve been pondering over lately is to what extent reading about self-improvement is a complement versus a substitute for taking self-improvement action.

Complements and substitutes are terms that come from economics. A complement to a product is something you buy more of when you buy the product. Think popcorn and movies. The more movies you go to, the more likely you are to buy popcorn (at least here in North America). Wine and fine dining. Cars and gasoline. These are all complements.

The standard view of self-improvement writing, whether it’s fitness books, cookbooks, business books or popular psychology is that it should assist with personal development. That is to say, the more books you read, the more likely you are to actually work on improving yourself.

The alternative view, of course, is that reading isn’t a complement but a substitute.

Substitutes, again from economics, are products that compete with each other. When you go to the movie theater, each movie acts as a partial substitute of the others. If you go to see one, you forego the other. Similarly, Italian wines and French wines are substitutes, as is gasoline from different gas stations.

Here the theory is that what we really want out of personal development, both in active efforts and passive consumption, is that good feeling that we’re doing something to improve our situation. It’s an anxiety-reducing effect that the...

We often reason through analogies. When something is confusing, we can try to tie it back to something we understand better.

Very often, this process it at the heart of scientific understanding. Charles Darwin formed his famous theory of evolution through natural selection by forming an analogy with artificial selection, the process of human intervention to create new breeds of dogs, cats and corn.

However, sometimes this process backfires. An analogy which seems productive ends up giving misleading impressions. The solar-system model of the atom (Bohr model), in which electrons orbit the nucleus, was such a theory. It predicted that electrons would be constantly accelerating, and thus should emit light continuously until they fell into the nucleus. A better analogy, with wave functions and probabilistic clouds, took root instead.

Given this double-edged sword of analogical reasoning, let’s turn to one about learning itself: is the brain like a muscle?

Measuring the Analogy

Obviously the brain is not literally a muscle. It’s made of neurons and glial cells, not muscle fibers. So on this level, the two can’t possibly be equated. But what about in its function?

Here it really depends on what features you want to compare. Muscles can change and improve, and so can the brain. Muscles seem to experience fatigue with use, and although the brain may turn out to be more complicated, I definitely feel tired after solving math problems all day, and I bet you do too.

However, since two different things can be compared in an unlimited number of ways,...


This month we read Daniel Everett’s Don’t Sleep There Snakes: Life & Language in the Amazonian Jungle. This book is a memoir of the famed linguist and anthropologist Daniel Everett and his journey into the Pirahã tribe in the Amazonian jungle. 

Normally I invite a guest to discuss this topic but this time I’m going to try something a little different and just share with you what I thought the big ideas were in this book. I’m looking for feedback on this type of format. Do you like it? Would you prefer having a guest? Let me know what you think.

If you would rather read the transcript, click here.

Here are some of the highlights from this month’s review…

The first idea I want to talk about is language learning. I think anyone who wants to learn a language can learn a lot from Daniel Everett’s case. Clearly learning the Pirahã is an incredible accomplishment in language learning; it’s something that has only been accomplished by a few people and it’s fraught with many difficulties.

There’s no language in common, you don’t have the ability to just pick up a book, you know, Pirahã 101, and just read through it. There’s the difficulties of living in the jungle and having to deal with cultural differences. Perhaps even situations where the people who are trying to teach...

I’m working on a new book about ultralearning, the style of aggressive self-education in the MIT Challenge and Year Without English, and I’d like your help.

One of my goals in the book is to feature stories and examples of excellent self-directed learning. To do that, I’m not only hunting down contemporary examples of people taking on interesting learning challenges like my own, but also historical examples of famous autodidacts.

The best stories and examples tend to be the less well-known, which presents me with a tricky position—the best examples to fill the book are necessarily going to be those I’m going to have the hardest time finding out about!

As a result, I’d like to enlist your help in suggesting people I should research further. In particular, if you know any examples of:

  • People who have engaged in learning challenges, or otherwise accomplished something impressive by virtue of being mostly self-taught.
  • Historical autodidacts or people who had unique strategies for their own self-education.

Luckily my research has already brought me into contact with many of these people and I’ve waded through a dozen or more biographies and profiles already. However, with your help I’m hoping I might get introduced to some people who I wouldn’t have otherwise considered.

To save some time, here’s a few historical autodidacts/impressive learners I’ve already researched or plan on researching in more detail:

There’s a skill I’ve noticed some people possess which, for lack of a better term, I’ll call the ability to figure things out.

Some people are really good at figuring things out. Give them an ambiguous problem and they’ll investigate, try things out, push through frustration and solve it.

Other people are terrible at figuring things out. The slightest hiccup or stall and they give up in protest, or repeat the same failed action again and again, hoping this time it will give the desired result.

What Makes Someone Good at Figuring Things Out?

It’s hard to pick a single example that definitively says whether or not a person has this quality, because some people are good at figuring out some things and not others. Someone may know to turn on and off a computer to fix a glitch, but would be lost if you told them to move to a new city and make friends.

Figuring things out doesn’t simply reduce to ability, although more ability certainly makes it easier to figure things out. I’ve met people, for instance, whose proficiency with a language was objectively higher than mine or Vat’s who would have balked at the idea of relying solely on that language when we did our year without English. Similarly, I’ve met hackers whose knowledge of programming was rudimentary, but could fix problems much better than those with a masters degree.

Similarly, the ability to figure things out isn’t simply a function of intelligence. Some intelligent people naturally display the persistence, resourcefulness...

Ben Franklin was an incredible writer. In addition to his role in writing the United States Constitution, he was also a bestselling author, with his Poor Richard’s Almanac selling in the tens of thousands per year.

Writing and changing minds being so important to his success in life, it’s worth asking how he managed to develop the skill of persuasive writing. Here, I found an interesting tidbit from his autobiography, when he had written a letter debating a childhood friend, his father critiqued his rhetoric:

“I fell far short in elegance of expression, in method and in perspicuity, of which he convinced me by several instances. I saw the justice of his remark, and thence grew more attentive to the manner in writing, and determined to endeavor at improvement.”

Following this, he set upon a plan to improve his writing:

“With this view, I took some of the papers, and, making short hints of the sentiment in each sentence, laid them by a few days, and then, without looking at the book, try’d to compleat the papers again, by expressing each hinted sentiment at length, and as fully as it had been expressed before, in any suitable words that should come to hand.”

In other words, he used active recall to practice the skill of persuasive writing. By providing himself the hint of the ideas and then rewriting without looking at the source material, he could check not only his memory of the original argument, but also see how his words matched...

Vat Jaiswal and I discuss Predictably Irrational by Dan Ariely.

In this newly revised and expanded edition of the groundbreaking New York Times bestseller, Dan Ariely refutes the common assumption that we behave in fundamentally rational ways. From drinking coffee to losing weight, from buying a car to choosing a romantic partner, we consistently overpay, underestimate, and procrastinate. Yet these misguided behaviors are neither random nor senseless. They’re systematic and predictable—making us predictably irrational.

If you would rather read the full transcript, click here.

Below are some of the highlights:

…some tactics for self-imposed restrictions…

Scott: The first [tactic] I want to talk about which I thought was very interesting is something that you have deliberately designed your environment to try to overcome is the one on self-control and procrastination. 

In this chapter he talked about one of the deviations from rationality is that if you give people more constraints, in particular you give them the ability to hinder their own progress, in they might actually do better. I wanted to talk about this in the context of what you do, Vat.

You are somewhat interesting in our group of friends because you have a lot of self-imposed constraints that a lot of others would be like, why are you doing that!? But they are really effective so maybe you can talk about your own experience with that.


In one week, I’m going to be reopening my course on how to learn effectively, Rapid Learner. This is a course for students, professionals and lifelong learners to manage their limited time available for learning and get the most accomplished.

Before I open registration, I’m going to be sharing a free four-part lesson series, highlighting some of the key ideas from the course. The remaining three lessons will only be sent to my newsletter subscribers, so if you’d like to get the other lessons as they appear, be sure to subscribe:

Stress and Guilt

These are two emotions familiar to most students. The first is the most obvious, stress. That feeling you get when you have looming deadlines or important exams that you feel unprepared for. Stress can cause you to hate subjects you would otherwise love, mess up your health and relationships and make you feel miserable.

The other emotion, guilt, is also common, particularly when the threat of deadlines and failures has been taken away. This is the feeling you have when you know you should be learning something, but you’re wasting time instead. It’s the nagging feeling you have when you procrastinate or the itch on the back of your mind that something that should be getting...

One of the most common problems with language learning is forgetting. You spend months or years to build some knowledge of a language, only to find a few years later that you’re unable to speak it very well.

There’s a few ways you can deal with this. One is to simply accept that forgetting is a price paid as part of learning, with the silver lining that relearning tends to be faster. If you forget the language, you can brush up again with a shorter period of practice than originally.

Another way to deal with the problem is to be proactive—establish a regular maintenance schedule, like I did with the languages I learned. I found this helped a lot to prevent backsliding, but it’s not perfect. More, it can be annoying to keep practicing a language you don’t plan to use, if you want to move onto doing other things.

One theory suggests that if you learn a language to fluency, you won’t forget it. That forgetting only occurs because you were at an intermediate level. Reach fluency once, it’s said, and you can speak the language forever.

Does Being Fluent Prevent Forgetting?

I’m not convinced by this theory, but I suspect it has two grains of truth. The simplest explanation is that when you’re fluent, there’s so much more to forget that you can forget a lot and still have retained functionality. By this account, fluency offers no added protection to the decay of memory, it’s simply a greater volume to forget.


Kalid Azad and I discuss August’s book, Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman.

This is the autobiography of the Nobel-prize winning physicist, Richard Feynman. As I make the case at the start of the video, the benefit of reading biographies is that you get to see how someone very accomplished lived and thought in ways different from you. I find this a lot more effective than reading books expounding the virtues of creativity, curiosity or  courage–you actually get to see how someone who embodied those characteristics lived in concrete terms.

If you would rather read the transcript, click here.

Below are some of the highlights:

…on The Feynman Technique:

Scott: One of the first stories I really like was in his later years and he finds this paper and he can’t make heads or tails of it and at the time, it’s actually his sister who says “you’re saying this because you didn’t discover it.”

This is a small example but it made a profound impact on me. It was the story that led me to develop what I call The Feynman Technique which is basically the idea that if you can’t explain it yourself, maybe you don’t really understand it.

Going through things and explaining them to yourself is always a better way to understand something.

Kalid: It’s one of...

Every year, on my birthday, I write an update on what happened in my life in the preceding twelve months. I’ve done this since my eighteenth birthday, so if you’re interested you can see how my life and views have changed over the last decade.

Of course, if you’re not interested, I’ll be back to my normal articles which are less self-indulgent next week.

In this post, I’ll go over what has happened in my life this last year, plans for the future and how my views on life have changed.

My Life Last Year

In terms of public projects, this last year was relatively quiet. No new languages learned. No racing through MIT exams.

My only public project was a small one: trying to level-up my Korean on five hours per week. I’m now in the middle of the final month of this project. I’ll save a full write-up for later, but it has been a mixed success. I’ve definitely improved my Korean language abilities, but it hasn’t reached the level of spontaneous engagement I have in Chinese or Spanish.

Professionally, most of the year was spent mixed between unsexy business development and preparation for writing a new book. The book, if all goes well, will be my full-time project next year.

From a public-blogging standpoint, there hasn’t been too much to say.

Personally, however, this year has been a pretty important one. I got engaged to my girlfriend of three years (and close...

Trying too hard is stigmatized in our society. People don’t like it when someone goes too far when trying to accomplish something. This is unfortunate, because going too far is exactly what you need to do.

Case in point: I recently started tracking calories. No, I’m not fat. No, I don’t think I am. But as a formerly always-skinny guy who no longer can eat anything and never gain weight, I decided to be proactive about it. I wanted to know more about how much I eat and how much effort I need to exert to lose or maintain my weight.

Of course, everyone I’ve talked to who has seen me doing this thinks I’m crazy. “Why are you trying to lose weight?” “You should just try to eat ‘healthy’,” “Isn’t tracking everything you eat super annoying?”

To which the responses are: “To see how much effort it is to lose a few pounds,” “I do try to eat healthy, but I want more precision,” and “Yes, of course it’s super annoying.”

Then why do it? My answer is simple: going too extreme in the beginning of a new self-improvement task is a necessary part of calibration. The same people who skip this and aim for the “moderate” solution, perpetually fall short.

Why Starting Extreme Works Better

To achieve results in any goal, there’s an optimal effort range. Too little effort, and you’ll fail to see traction. Sometimes, if there’s some friction between where you are now and your goal, you may not make any...