How To Be Better at Everything

This is probably the most important article I will ever write on this blog. I wanted to title it at first: How to focus, but I thought it wouldn’t catch as much your attention than the current title.

Here, I want to introduce the concept of present moment. This by far is the most important concept I learned across all fields. The best book you could find on it in my opinion is The Power of Now by Eckhart Tolle. We are present when we stop thinking about the past and about the future, and we totally inhabit the moment. We feel still and peaceful with sharp senses, free of the noise of the inner dialogue. It can also be called a state of Being instead of a state of Doing.

Why being present is important? If you want to achieve high performance in any field, whether it’s data science, basketball or painting, you need to be present. All your attention needs to be focused in the Now to be at your peak performance. Even when you’re planning for the future, let’s say a business plan, you’re doing it in the Now.

However, in our modern society, being present is rare. Instead of fully pouring ourselves into every act we do, we usually are scattered. We have our smartphones next to us when we work, and at the slightest feel of boredom, we check our phones, usually frantically scrolling through our social media. Powerful technology requires powerful self-discipline in its usage, otherwise we are at the mercy of the negative consequences of it, such as shorter attention spans, or depression and loneliness.

Thinkers such as Cal Newport advocate to quit social media altogether, whereas other such Luke Krogh advocate to master social media. However, both agree on the negative consequences if social media is passively consumed. Luke advises users to reverse the dynamics and to become producers of content instead of consumers of content, whereas Cal gives the more radical advice of leaving altogether the platform. My view is one that is more moderate: stay on social media as mostly a content producer but still limit your time on the platform because being a producer doesn’t protect you from the incessant checking of your social media feed.

Cultivating your presence is the secret to be better at everything you do. Pour yourself into every act you do and forget momentarily that past and future exist. This simple advice improved my life not only in my learning experience but also all others: health, social life and happiness.

Speed Reading

We live in incredible times where all the world knowledge is only one google click away. Most knowledge takes the form of words on a page. Therefore, reading is the skill to sharpen. If you could multiply your reading speed by two, three or even ten, you could in theory multiply your accomplishments by the same factor.

Most of us after learning how to read in primary school didn’t pay much attention to how we were reading. But like any skill, it can be optimized. In fact, two simple techniques are at the core of speed reading theory.

Stop subvocalizing

We learned reading by saying the words aloud. That’s how teachers could verify if we were reading correctly. However, through that process, we also seeded the habit of subvocalizing when we read. To subvocalize while reading is to utter with the lips silently or with barely audible sound the words we encounter on the page. One way to check if you are subvocalizing is to notice your mouth or tongue movements while you’re reading: are they moving or completely still? Subvocalization slows us down when we read.

We do not need at all to have the sounds of the words in our mind in order to understand what we read. For instance, when we encounter punctuation, we do not pronounce it each time we see it. For the same reason, when we see the word “red”, we do not need to pronounce it in order to understand it. By simply looking at the words without subvocalization can increase drastically our reading speed.

Use a pointer

We also initially read by using our finger as a pointer. It helped us to focus on where we were in the text. Then we are told to stop that habit as we get older. This, however, is a habit that should have been kept for two reasons. The first reason is to reduce reading regression. Reading regression occurs when you go back to previously read lines because you lost track of where you were on the page or because you forgot what you just read. The second reason is that by having a pointer, you have a concrete visual sign to control your speed. If you want to increase your reading speed, simply move your finger quicker across the page.

Using the two previous techniques will improve your reading speed without decreasing your comprehension. And as you practice, it will get easier and easier. I wish you all a happy reading.

Nobel Laureates Hobbies

I’m currently reading Range by David Epstein. In the book, the author argues in favor of generalists over specialists in the current world. In particular, one passage struck me:

Compared to other scientists, Nobel laureates are at least twenty-two times more likely to partake as an amateur actor, dancer, magician, or some other type of performer.

In today’s world where Adam Smith’s division of labor is taken as an universal truth, Epstein offers a refreshing perspective. The previous quote suggests is that hobbies instead of distracting you from your main profession, actually reinforces it.

My hypothesis is that they create mental bridges among the seemingly different fields. Examples could be the use of the mathematical concept of Golden Ratio in art composition, the introduction of minimalist design at Apple, or the intersection of entrepreneurship and public speaking. Therefore, by creating the appropriate mental bridges, the second apparently non-related field actually helps the first one, and vice-versa.

Tim Ferriss, in the recent video “Should You Specialize or Be a Generalist?” talks about the specialist/generalist dilemma. His answer is to be a specialized generalist, where you master a handful of skills that are rarely combined, and precisely because of that, will give you a competitive advantage.

In our modern economy where specialization is advocated, a lot of generalists feel out of place. Instead of discarding your hobbies, finding the synergies between them and your main activity might make you grow even more than your specialist friend.

Urgency + Focus = Learning

In this podcast extract, Joe Rogan is conversing about learning with Andrew Huberman, a neurobiologist at Stanford Medical School. As pointed out in the clip, as we get older, we generally lose the fast-learning ability we had when we were kids. That is precisely when Rogan asks Huberman: “Say if you’re a 35-year-old man or woman, and want to learn a new skill, what is the best way to accept these new patterns?”

Huberman points to two factors to attain significant brain plasticity. First, you need to induce a sense of urgency that leads to the release of norepinephrine. This hormone will make you feel agitated like you need to get up and do something. Second, you must apply intense focus to fight that urge, leading to the release of acetylcholine, the neurotransmitter that combined with norepinephrine induce brain growth.

The previous two factors deeply resonate with my understanding of how learning works. I believe that as kids learning is essential because it is directly connected with survival. As adults however, learning new skills becomes secondary as the tendency is to use the pool of knowledge already accumulated. We enter an energy conservation phase.

Therefore, to learn, we need to actively factor in urgency and intense focus. A lot of modern concepts are actually built to simulate these. For example, deadlines create urgency. The word can be decomposed into the words “dead” and “line”, you could imagine that if you did not finish the task before the date, you are basically dead. This kicks-off the primal part of your brain, that wants to survive and learn.

The ability to focus deeply is more than just glazing on a cake, it’s at the core of how us humans adapt and thrive in an ever-more complex world.

The Best Way To Learn is To Teach

“Fake it till you make it”, you might have heard as advice in order to succeed.

In learning, the biggest mistake people make is rote learning. According to Wikipedia,

Rote learning is a memorization technique based on repetition. The idea is that one will be able to quickly recall the meaning of the material the more one repeats it.

A person who rote-learns has the information stored in memory but that information is not connected to anything else. In other words, that data is useless. A typical example of rote-learning is the student re-reading textbooks over and over until the information falsely feels familiar. Rote-learning not only is not efficient, but it is also not fun. Memorizing solutions to typical exercises is alike to memorizing a list of grocery items: rigid, colorless, and static.

When you learn, you want to avoid rote learning like the plague. What you want instead is active learning. In active learning, you connect new information to the web of knowledge you already possess. You create the bridges for that new knowledge to stick and to last.

How do you achieve then active learning? Teach it. I agree that it seems paradoxical at first to teach a topic that precisely you want to learn. But momentarily taking the position of a teacher can do wonders. By trying to explain the topic to somebody else, it allows you to see the gaps in your own understanding. The steps are the following:

  1. Explain the topic aloud as if you are a teacher in that subject.
  2. Note the parts that were unclear in your explanation.
  3. Focus on those parts and fill the gaps in your understanding.

Iterate the three steps above until you’re satisfied with your understanding. To practice, if you don’t have somebody else to give you feedback, you can simply record yourself while you’re explaining the topic you’re learning.

The beauty of the act of teaching a subject you’re trying to learn is that it automatically switches you to active learning. You will find yourself using vivid descriptions and relatable experiences to explain your topic, accelerating your learning process and making it fun, as it should be.

Welcome!

I want to warmly welcome you to my blog. This blog is dedicated to the topic of learning, in particular how to learn faster and better. The idea originated from my countless readings of Cal Newport and Scott H. Young blogs which are dedicated to the topics of deep work and fast learning respectively. Having read them for more than ten years, I’ve always admired them for their unique and impactful thoughts, but I also had in the back of my mind the idea that I also had original thoughts and methods that I developed through the years in order to make learning easier and faster.

My name is Victor Lu, I’m currently a Quantitative Researcher at a Financial firm. My work experience has been rooted in Data Science and the Financial Markets industry. In terms of education, I graduated from a Master in Financial Engineering from UC Berkeley in 2020 and from a Master in Applied Mathematics from CentraleSupelec in 2017.

The topic of learning is really dear to me because it is a skill that I had to learn. When I was younger, I had a lot of difficulties learning. In primary school, I had to spend half a year more than other students in order to learn to read. In middle school, in the overall class ranking, I was second to last. Then, I was around 15 years old, I decided that I wanted to change, I wanted to learn how to learn better. At that time, I bought countless books dedicated to learning, I searched the Web in order to find valuable resources and I asked top students how they were doing it. And, after some time, it worked! Within one year, I was ranked in the top 5 of my class and within two years, I was ranked first of my class. Then, I was admitted to a top-tier Engineering college in France and then was admitted to the top Financial Engineering program at UC Berkeley.

In this blog, I want to share the methods and principles that I discovered that allowed not only to do that but also to make learning any topic more efficient. I’m continually tuning my learning methods and learning from the latest developments in the field. I certainly do not have all the answers related to learning but I want this site to be a valuable place to start and explore on the topic of learning.

I hope that you will enjoy reading the articles on this site and I wish you all a wonderful journey into the world of fast learning.