Tim Ferriss in The 4-Hour Chef on Learning

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The science behind learning has always intrigued me. This afternoon, I finished reading through Tim Ferriss’ The 4-Hour Chef section on meta-learning. On Scribd, you can download the first seventy pages of the book.

Here are the most important points:

“Meta-Learning: META is where you’ll learn to mimic the world’s fastest learners.

Deconstruction: What are the minimal learnable units, the LEGO blocks, I should be starting with?

Selection: Which 20% of the blocks should I focus on for 80% or more of the outcome I want?

Sequencing: In what order should I learn the blocks?

Stakes: How do I set up stakes to create real consequences and guarantee I follow the program?”

On deconstruction: “Deconstruction is best thought of as exploration. This is where we throw a lot on the wall to see what sticks, where we flip things upside down and look at what the outliers are doing differently (and what they’re not doing at all). First and foremost, it is where we answer the question: how do I break this amorphous “skill” into small, manageable pieces?”

Learning Japanese: “There are 1,945 characters in the language, some with as many 15 strokes. But there are 214 radicals. They provide clues to both meaning and pronunciation, killing two birds with one stone. Radicals are also always written in one order: left to right and top to bottom. This all turns an impossible task—learning 1,945 characters—into one that some people can complete in less than two months.”

As you may remember conjugating verbs in school, it’s boring as hell. Ferriss writes: “By memorizing a few verbs in a few tenses, you get access to all verbs. It opens up the entire language in a matter of 1–2 weeks.”

On selection: “The lowest volume, the lowest frequency, the fewest changes that get us our desired result is what I label the minimal effective dose (MED). The 80/20 rule is Pareto’s Law is the principle or concept that you can get 80% of your desired outcomes from 20% of the activities or inputs can be applied everywhere in cooking.”

On sequencing: “The most world-famous black belts, often world-class athletes, teach a hodgepodge of random techniques. Daily classes are submissions du jour that leave students to assemble the puzzle themselves. Some succeed, but the vast majority fail. At the very least, students plateau for months or years at a time. There is no system, no clear progression. Dave had what other coaches didn’t: a logical sequence.”

On stakes: “If you were to sum up the last 50 years of behavioral psychology in two words, it would be: ‘logic fails.’”

“No matter how good a plan is, how thorough a book is, or how sincere our intentions, humans are horrible at self-discipline. No one is immune. The smartest, richest, and most dedicated people abandon commitments with disgusting regularity. 

Answer me this: would you work harder to earn $100 or avoid losing $100? The smiley optimist says the former, but if research from the Center for Experimental Social Science at New York University is any indication, fear of loss is the home-run winner.” [Emphasis mine]

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3 Comments on “Tim Ferriss in The 4-Hour Chef on Learning”

  1. Devin says:

    Hi Nikhil,
    Thanks for pulling these key points together. I read that section of the book a while back and made some notes with the idea of fleshing it out into an article or post, and just realized I never got around to it. Say what you want about Timothy Ferriss, one thing you can’t deny is that he’s a smart guy, and he knows how to learn things efficiently. I really think that the approach found in the Four-Hour Chef could be applied to all kinds of learning, especially in maths, sciences, and languages.

    Reading your post makes me realize that I’ve subconsciously been using some of his approaches while tutoring high school students in math and physics, for example. It’s really useful to break a unit or section down into building blocks, whether they’re equations, concepts, or definitions, or the relationships between them. And the minimal effective dose concept is powerful and practical as well, especially when juggling multiple classes and subjects in both high school and post-secondary.

    Anyway, I just stumbled upon your Learning Rev site and blog through Twitter. Look forward to reading more from you in the future!

    P.S. Some of the recipes in that book are delicious.

  2. Sujaykumar Bhad says:

    Excellent. I always thought that I am dumb (To certain extent I am!) and product of underprivileged indian education system which prevents me from learning anything “new”. But, when I read about “Deconstruction” and “Stakes” – now I know where my greatest human foibles are.

  3. Nice sum up. While I never really loved 4HC, I checked out Josh Kaufman’s latest attempt at rapid-skill acquisition, The First 20 Hours, and really think he nails it there. Uses essentially the same 20/80 approach, but distills it down to an actionable checklist that can be applied to whatever subject (guitar, programming, etc.). Great stuff.


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