Why Learning Actively Leads to Wellbeing


With a few notable exceptions, I did not enjoy schooling. Primary school almost knocked the joy out of learning for me. Almost, thankfully. Because my desire to learn won over some bumpy teaching experiences.

I am not alone in this. We enter life filled with curiosity and soon have our hand straight up from the desire to learn. Good luck plays a part in helping us keep that fire burning over the years. 

When I first came to the U.S. I was working with children, and I am still reminded of how enjoyable it was to explore new topics together. Never once have I been afraid of coming across someone who would surprise me with substance and inventiveness.

Scott Barry Kaufman discussed this very topic with Tim Ferriss in his excellent podcast this week. They talked about accelerated learning, peak performance, and living a good life. Kaufman’s work has been focused on studying the science of high performance. Ferriss, who authored three books — The 4-Hour Workweek, The 4-Hour Body, and The 4-Hour Chef — centers on experiments in lifestyle design.

Learning new things is one of the pillars of satisfying life. Referenced early in the podcast are Randy Pausch, who taught at Carnegie Mellon, and the 10,000 hours of practice rule for mastery introduced by Malcolm Gladwell in Outliers (synopsis here.)

Why 10,000?

Kaufman and Ferriss are aligned in debunking it along similar philosophies vs. others:

you can go up the learning curve really fast, and it’s not just because of talent, but because of all these other factors of knowing how to learn.

The role of inspiration, the role of active learning strategies, and things of that nature.

In other words, it’s not just about talent. It is possible to accelerate learning by using certain techniques.

Techniques for learning

Ferriss mentions:

a number of factors and they have a lot of interplay… inspiration, drive, intrinsic motivation, reward, and punishment, and extrinsic motivation, punishment, and reward

When explaining the things that he did, going from not knowing how to do something like swimming to mastering it, he highlights some techniques:

Look at assumptions

For example, examining best practices more closely and using experiments to find methods that work better for you.

Asking “what if?” questions helps here, as in what if I had to eliminate this? what if I did the opposite of this?

Experimenting is a good way to debunk myths and challenge assumptions successfully especially when looking at larger goals — like learning a new language — that might seem a bit daunting.

Find people to emulate

Ferriss says that the best performers are not always the best teachers particularly because they have been doing it for thirty or forty years.

So you want to find someone who had made the most progress in a period of say 6 months or 12 months. See who has done something you want to do over a defined period of time, then reach out to them.

A tip to find those people is to search for “controversial” such and such — i.e. coach — on Google.

An example close to home, is asking someone who is a native English speaker to take the TOEFL test#, they might flunk it. I actually studied for it, and know it is hard. I had to break down the learning process and consciously think about it because I learned English later in life.

Use feedback – both self-generated, and from others

For the self-generated feedback, Ferriss says:

spot trends and associations in what you do, write things down, and know what you are trying to measure

As for accepting the feedback of others, he says:

get the why, not just the how

Which makes perfect sense. I will add that you should be picking people who care enough to give you useful data points, as in based on what you are measuring and decide how to filter the feedback.

Accelerating learning

Ferriss says:

you can become fluent in any language in six months… the vast majority of people can

And I know this to be true, even in shorter times if you are already bilingual. What he’s talking about is accelerating through the slow slug of starting to learn something as depicted in the learning curve below.

Learning curve

Clearly, learning a language is a lifelong pursuit — think about how much reading and writing accomplished authors continue to do. Using good techniques can speed the process up. The philosophy of Ferriss’ entire body of work is based on this concept, to get people through to the hockey stick, so that they can

get to the top 5% of the population in 6-12 months

Kathy Sierra talks about how to design products for the context and to make it easy for them to get through the first steps in the path in order to motivate people to stick with learning. Part of her new book Badass: Making Users Awesome is a step by step tutorial to get someone from zero to meaningful in as painless a way as possible.

Adults can learn languages faster than children, says Ferriss. Based on everything he’s seen and read.

The reason they typically don’t is because they have mortgages, and jobs, and obligations… and it’s an option whether they choose to study or not.

Children have no choice and no other obligations. One data point I would like to offer here is that a child’s brain is also in a different stage of development#, where languages get plugged into it as the more sophisticated cortical levels of the brain are forming.

When it comes to examining peak performance, says Ferriss:

it is very dangerous to focus on averages and exclude outliers.

It is good to conduct research and identify examples that are out of the norm.

Using technology for learning

Technology can help scale learning. Two tools Ferriss mentioned specifically for the study of languages because he has been involved with the companies as investor are:

  • Duolingo — a free language tool for the Web, iPhone, iPad, Android, and Windows Phone. I used it briefly to work on French, however found the system a little buggy. I do believe in the power of digital tool as a complement to our desire to learn, so will give it another try
  • No Red Ink — a tool that helps students improve grammar/writing skills using their personal interests, adaptive learning, tutorials, & color-coded heat maps – the ability to create content that appeals to the interest of students is a good value proposition

A couple of months back at a Google #firestarters event on creativity in a constrained world I also learned about the work of Dr. Louise Waters, Superintendent & CEO, Leadership Public Schools (@Leadps). At the event, she talked about how the Oakland School District managed to help students help themselves to their eduction with the help of an ExitTicket, and app that provides personalized intervention and differentiation for every student, every class. Some of the things she said resonate with this conversation:

“Constraints help you think: Instead of doing more (remediation), what can we do with less? (using students clicking)”

“We needed a faster solution, in the moment feedback to build their confidence.”

Living a good life

Creative people have messy minds, says Kaufman:

because they have visibility to inhabit seemingly contradictory traits in one. Creative people are good at quickly switching between different personality dimensions.

Which brings the conversation to the idea of wanting to maximize life. And having good reflection and following feedback wards people who are naturally wired for achievement to also embrace conscious appreciation of how far they have come.

In addition to achievement, the pillars of a good life, says Kaufman, are engagement as in living in the present, meaning, and (conscious) appreciation. Together, they convey a deeper sense of wellbeing.

The whole beautiful minds podcast is worth a listen.


[image courtesy Tim Ferriss]

Conversation Agent – Valeria Maltoni