Tag Archives: Learning

Mindstorms: Children, Computers, And Powerful Ideas by Seymour Papert


  1. How computers and computational thinking can make us more efficient and effective learners. “This book is about how computers can be carriers of powerful ideas and of the seeds of cultural change, how they can help people form new relationships with knowledge that cuts across the traditional lines separating humanities from sciences and knowledge of the self from both of these. It is about using computers to challenge current beliefs about who can understand what and at what age…Thus this book is really about how a culture, a way of thinking, an idea comes to inhabit a young mind.”

Key Takeaways

  1. Piaget’s great insight was that knowledge is not delivered from teacher to learner; rather, children are constantly constructing knowledge through their everyday interactions with people and objects around them. Seymour’s constructionism theory adds a second type of construction, arguing that children construct knowledge most effectively when they are actively engaged in constructing things in the world. As children construct things in the world, they construct new ideas and theories in their minds, which motivates them to construct new things in the world, and on and on.
  2. Seymour provocatively argued for “projects over problems.” Of course, Seymour understood the importance of problem solving. But he believed that people learn to solve problems (and learn new concepts and strategies) most effectively while they are actively engaged in meaningful projects. Too often, schools start by teaching concepts to students, and only then give students a chance to work on projects. Seymour argued that it is best for children to learn new ideas through working on projects, not before working on projects.
  3. Slowly I began to formulate what I still consider the fundamental fact about learning: Anything is easy if you can assimilate it to your collection of models. If you can’t, anything can be painfully difficult.
  4. The understanding of learning must be genetic. It must refer to the genesis of knowledge. What an individual can learn, and how he learns it, depends on what models he has available. This raises, recursively, the question of how he learned these models. Thus the “laws of learning” must be about how intellectual structures grow out of one another and about how, in the process, they acquire both logical and emotional form.
  5. In this book I discuss ways in which the computer presence could contribute to mental processes not only instrumentally but in more essential, conceptual ways, influencing how people think even when they are far removed from physical contact with a computer (just as the gears shaped my understanding of algebra although they were not physically present in the math class).
  6. Two fundamental ideas run through this book. The first is that it is possible to design computers so that learning to communicate with them can be a natural process, more like learning French by living in France than like trying to learn it through the unnatural process of American foreign-language instruction in classrooms. Second, learning to communicate with a computer may change the way other learning takes place. The computer can be a mathematics-speaking and an alphabetic-speaking entity. We are learning how to make computers with which children love to communicate. When this communication occurs, children learn mathematics as a living language.
  7. Like other builders, children appropriate to their own use materials they find about them, most saliently the models and metaphors suggested by the surrounding culture.
  8. I began to see how children who had learned to program computers could use very concrete computer models to think about thinking and to learn about learning and, in doing so, enhance their powers as psychologists and as epistemologists.
  9. The question to ask about the program is not whether it is right or wrong, but if it is fixable. If this way of looking at intellectual products were generalized to how the larger culture thinks about knowledge and its acquisition, we all might be less intimidated by our fears of “being wrong.” This potential influence of the computer on changing our notion of a black and white version of our successes and failures is an example of using the computer as an “object-to-think-with.”
  10. Plato wrote over his door, “let only geometers enter.” Times have changed. Most of those who now seek to enter Plato’s intellectual world neither know mathematics nor sense the least contradiction in their disregard for his injunction. Our culture’s schizophrenic split between “humanities” and “science” supports their sense of security. Plato was a philosopher, and philosophy belongs to the humanities as surely as mathematics belongs to the sciences. This great divide is thoroughly built into our language, our worldview, our social organization, our educational system, and, most recently, even our theories of neurophysiology. It is self-perpetuating: The more the culture is divided, the more each side builds separation into its new growth. I have already suggested that the computer may serve as a force to break down the line between the “two cultures.”
  11. Our children grow up in a culture permeated with the idea that there are “smart people” and “dumb people.” The social construction of the individual is as a bundle of aptitudes. There are people who are “good at math” and people who “can’t do math.” Everything is set up for children to attribute their first unsuccessful or unpleasant learning experiences to their own disabilities. As a result, children perceive failure as relegating them either to the group of “dumb people” or, more often, to a group of people “dumb at x” (where, as we have pointed out, x often equals mathematics). Within this framework children will define themselves in terms of their limitations, and this definition will be consolidated and reinforced throughout their lives. Only rarely does some exceptional event lead people to reorganize their intellectual self-image in such a way as to open up new perspectives on what is learnable.
  12. In retrospect, we know that the road that led from nineteenth-century transportation was quite different. The invention of the automobile and the airplane did not come from a detailed study of how their predecessors, such as horse-drawn carriages, worked or did not work. Yet, this is the model for contemporary educational research.
  13. The analogy of the dance class without music or dance floor is a serious one. Our education culture gives mathematics learners scarce resources for making sense of what they are learning. As a result our children are forced to follow the very worst model for learning mathematics. This is the model of rote learning, where material is treated as meaningless; it is a dissociated model. Some of our difficulties in teaching a more culturally integrable mathematics have been due to an objective problem: Before we had computers there were very few good points of contact between what is most fundamental and engaging in mathematics and anything firmly planted in everyday life. But the computer—a mathematics-speaking being in the midst of the everyday life of the home, school, and workplace—is able to provide such links. The challenge to education is to find ways to exploit them.
  14. First, there was the continuity principle: The mathematics must be continuous with well-established personal knowledge from which it can inherit a sense of warmth and value as well as “cognitive” competence. Then there was the power principle: It must empower the learner to perform personally meaningful projects that could not be done without it. Finally there was a principle of cultural resonance: The topic must make sense in terms of a larger social context.

What I got out of it

  1. Some of the examples are a bit outdated at this point, but the principles remain the same. Breaking ideas down into their smallest, simplest units is a great way to proceed. Think of learning as an iterative game to be played and improved upon, not something that is right/wrong, static.

How to Take Smart Notes: One Simple Technique to Boost Writing, Learning and Thinking – for Students, Academics and Nonfiction Book Writers by Sonke Ahrens


  1. To sum it up: The quality of a paper and the ease with which it is written depends more than anything on what you have done in writing before you even made a decision on the topic. But if that is true (and I wholeheartedly believe it is), and the key to successful writing lies in the preparation, it also means that the vast majority of self-help books and study guides can only help you to close the barn door correctly and according to official rules – not just a moment, but many months after the horse has already escaped…And if I were forced to boil it down to a single bullet point, it would be this: We need a reliable and simple external structure to think in that compensates for the limitations of our brains. See more at http://takesmartnotes.com

Key Takeaways

  1. Environment and Structure
    1. What does make a significant difference along the whole intelligence spectrum is something else: how much self-discipline or self-control one uses to approach the tasks at hand. Luckily, this is not the whole story. We know today that self-control and self-discipline have much more to do with our environment than with ourselves (cf. Thaler, 2015, ch. 2) – and the environment can be changed. Nobody needs willpower not to eat a chocolate bar when there isn’t one around. And nobody needs willpower to do something they wanted to do anyway. Every task that is interesting, meaningful and well-defined will be done, because there is no conflict between long- and short-term interests. Having a meaningful and well-defined task beats willpower every time. Not having willpower, but not having to use willpower indicates that you set yourself up for success. This is where the organisation of writing and note-taking comes into play.
    2. Good structure allows you to do that, to move seamlessly from one task to another – without threatening the whole arrangement or losing sight of the bigger picture. Having a clear structure to work in is completely different from making plans about something. If you make a plan, you impose a structure on yourself; it makes you inflexible. To keep going according to plan, you have to push yourself and employ willpower. This is not only demotivating, but also unsuitable for an open-ended process like research, thinking or studying in general, where we have to adjust our next steps with every new insight, understanding or achievement – which we ideally have on a regular basis and not just as an exception. Even though planning is often at odds with the very idea of research and learning, it is the mantra of most study guides and self-help books on academic writing. How do you plan for insight, which, by definition, cannot be anticipated? It is a huge misunderstanding that the only alternative to planning is aimless messing around. The challenge is to structure one’s workflow in a way that insight and new ideas can become the driving forces that push us forward.
      1. The best way to deal with complexity is to keep things as simple as possible and to follow a few basic principles. The simplicity of the structure allows complexity to build up where we want it: on the content level. There is quite extensive empirical and logical research on this phenomenon (for an overview: cf. Sull and Eisenhardt, 2015). Taking smart notes is as simple as it gets.
    3. Luhmann was able to focus on the important things right in front of him, pick up quickly where he left off and stay in control of the process because the structure of his work allowed him to do this. If we work in an environment that is flexible enough to accommodate our work rhythm, we don’t need to struggle with resistance. Studies on highly successful people have proven again and again that success is not the result of strong willpower and the ability to overcome resistance, but rather the result of smart working environments that avoid resistance in the first place (cf. Neal et al. 2012; Painter et al. 2002; Hearn et al. 1998). Instead of struggling with adverse dynamics, highly productive people deflect resistance, very much like judo champions. This is not just about having the right mindset, it is also about having the right workflow. It is the way Luhmann and his slip-box worked together that allowed him to move freely and flexibly between different tasks and levels of thinking. It is about having the right tools and knowing how to use them – and very few understand that you need both.
    4. Assemble notes and bring them into order, turn these notes into a draft, review it and you are done.
  2. The Process
    1. Writing notes accompanies the main work and, done right, it helps with it. Writing is, without dispute, the best facilitator for thinking, reading, learning, understanding and generating ideas we have. Notes build up while you think, read, understand and generate ideas, because you have to have a pen in your hand if you want to think, read, understand and generate ideas properly anyway. If you want to learn something for the long run, you have to write it down. If you want to really understand something, you have to translate it into your own words. Thinking takes place as much on paper as in your own head. “Notes on paper, or on a computer screen […] do not make contemporary physics or other kinds of intellectual endeavour easier, they make it possible,” neuroscientist Neil Levy concludes in the introduction to the Oxford Handbook of Neuroethics, summarizing decades of research. Neuroscientists, psychologists and other experts on thinking have very different ideas about how our brains work, but, as Levy writes: “no matter how internal processes are implemented, (you) need to understand the extent to which the mind is reliant upon external scaffolding.” (2011, 270)
    2. Make permanent notes. Now turn to your slip-box. Go through the notes you made in step one or two (ideally once a day and before you forget what you meant) and think about how they relate to what is relevant for your own research, thinking or interests. This can soon be done by looking into the slip-box – it only contains what interests you anyway. The idea is not to collect, but to develop ideas, arguments and discussions. Does the new information contradict, correct, support or add to what you already have (in the slip-box or on your mind)? Can you combine ideas to generate something new? What questions are triggered by them?    Write exactly one note for each idea and write as if you were writing for someone else: Use full sentences, disclose your sources, make references and try to be as precise, clear and brief as possible. Throw away the fleeting notes from step one and put the literature notes from step two into your reference system. You can forget about them now. All that matters is going into the slip-box.
    3. We constantly encounter interesting ideas along the way and only a fraction of them are useful for the particular paper we started reading it for. Why let them go to waste? Make a note and add it to your slip-box. It improves it. Every idea adds to what can become a critical mass that turns a mere collection of ideas into an idea-generator. A typical work day will contain many, if not all, of these steps: You read and take notes. You build connections within the slip-box, which in itself will spark new ideas. You write them down and add them to the discussion. You write on your paper, notice a hole in the argument and have another look in the file system for the missing link. You follow up on a footnote, go back to research and might add a fitting quote to one of your papers in the making.
    4. The whole workflow becomes complicated: There is the technique of underlining important sentences (sometimes in different colours or shapes), commenting in the margins of a text, writing excerpts, employing reading methods with acronyms like SQ3R[8] or SQ4R,[9] writing a journal, brainstorming a topic or following multi-step question sheets – and then there are, of course, the one thousand and twelve apps and programs that are supposed to help with learning and writing. Few of these techniques are particularly complicated in themselves, but they are usually used without any regard to the actual workflow, which then quickly becomes a mess. As nothing really fits together, working within this arrangement becomes extremely complicated indeed and difficult to get anything done. And if you stumble upon one idea and think that it might connect to another idea, what do you do when you employ all these different techniques? Go through all your books to find the right underlined sentence? Reread all your journals and excerpts? And what do you do then? Write an excerpt about it? Where do you save it and how does this help to make new connections? Every little step suddenly turns into its own project without bringing the whole much further forward. Adding another promising technique to it, then, would make things only worse.
    5. That is why the slip-box is not introduced as another technique, but as a crucial element in an overarching workflow that is stripped of everything that could distract from what is important. Good tools do not add features and more options to what we already have, but help to reduce distractions from the main work, which here is thinking. The slip-box provides an external scaffold to think in and helps with those tasks our brains are not very good at, most of all objective storage of information. That is pretty much it. To have an undistracted brain to think with and a reliable collection of notes to think in is pretty much all we need. Everything else is just clutter.
    6. We need four tools:
      1. Something to write with and something to write on (pen and paper will do)
      2. A reference management system (the best programs are free)
      3. The slip-box (the best program is free)
      4. An editor (whatever works best for you: very good ones are free)
      5. More is unnecessary, less is impossible.
        1. Some suggestions: Zotero, takesmartnotes.com, Zettelkasten, zettelkasten.danielluedecke.de
    7. This book is based on another assumption: Studying does not prepare students for independent research. It is independent research.
    8. We tend to think that big transformations have to start with an equally big idea. But more often than not, it is the simplicity of an idea that makes it so powerful (and often overlooked in the beginning).
    9. The slip-box is the shipping container of the academic world. Instead of having different storage for different ideas, everything goes into the same slip-box and is standardised into the same format. Instead of focusing on the in-between steps and trying to make a science out of underlining systems, reading techniques or excerpt writing, everything is streamlined towards one thing only: insight that can be published. The biggest advantage compared to a top-down storage system organised by topics is that the slip-box becomes more and more valuable the more it grows, instead of getting messy and confusing. If you sort by topic, you are faced with the dilemma of either adding more and more notes to one topic, which makes them increasingly hard to find, or adding more and more topics and subtopics to it, which only shifts the mess to another level. The first system is designed to find things you deliberately search for, putting all the responsibility on your brain. The slip-box is designed to present you with ideas you have already forgotten, allowing your brain to focus on thinking instead of remembering.
    10. Even though the slip-box, being organised bottom-up, does not face the trade-off problem between too many or too few topics, it too can lose its value when notes are added to it indiscriminately. It can only play out its strengths when we aim for a critical mass, which depends not only on the number of notes, but also their quality and the way they are handled. To achieve a critical mass, it is crucial to distinguish clearly between three types of notes:
      1. Fleeting notes, which are only reminders of information, can be written in any kind of way and will end up in the trash within a day or two.
      2. Permanent notes, which will never be thrown away and contain the necessary information in themselves in a permanently understandable way. They are always stored in the same way in the same place, either in the reference system or, written as if for print, in the slip-box.
      3. Project notes, which are only relevant to one particular project. They are kept within a project-specific folder and can be discarded or archived after the project is finished. Only if the notes of these three categories are kept separated it will be possible to build a critical mass of ideas within the slip-box. One of the major reasons for not getting much writing or publishing done lies in the confusion of these categories.
    11. Every question that emerges out of our slip-box will naturally and handily come with material to work with. If we look into our slip-box to see where clusters have built up, we not only see possible topics, but topics we have already worked on – even if we were not able to see it up front. The idea that nobody ever starts from scratch suddenly becomes very concrete. If we take it seriously and work accordingly, we literally never have to start from scratch again.
    12. You may remember from school the difference between an exergonic and an endergonic reaction. In the first case, you constantly need to add energy to keep the process going. In the second case, the reaction, once triggered, continues by itself and even releases energy. The dynamics of work are not so different. Sometimes we feel like our work is draining our energy and we can only move forward if we put more and more energy into it. But sometimes it is the opposite. Once we get into the workflow, it is as if the work itself gains momentum, pulling us along and sometimes even energizing us. This is the kind of dynamic we are looking for. A good workflow can easily turn into a virtuous circle, where the positive experience motivates us to take on the next task with ease, which helps us to get better at what we are doing, which in return makes it more likely for us to enjoy the work, and so on. But if we feel constantly stuck in our work, we will become demotivated and much more likely to procrastinate, leaving us with fewer positive or even bad experiences like missed deadlines.
    13. Feedback loops are not only crucial for the dynamics of motivation, but also the key element to any learning process. Nothing motivates us more than the experience of becoming better at what we do. And the only chance to improve in something is getting timely and concrete feedback. Seeking feedback, not avoiding it, is the first virtue of anyone who wants to learn, or in the more general terms of psychologist Carol Dweck, to grow.
    14. Our brains work not that differently in terms of interconnectedness. Psychologists used to think of the brain as a limited storage space that slowly fills up and makes it more difficult to learn late in life. But we know today that the more connected information we already have, the easier it is to learn, because new information can dock to that information. Yes, our ability to learn isolated facts is indeed limited and probably decreases with age. But if facts are not kept isolated nor learned in an isolated fashion, but hang together in a network of ideas, or “latticework of mental models” (Munger, 1994), it becomes easier to make sense of new information.
    15. Oshin Vartanian compared and analysed the daily workflows of Nobel Prize winners and other eminent scientists and concluded that it is not a relentless focus, but flexible focus that distinguishes them. “Specifically, the problem-solving behavior of eminent scientists can alternate between extraordinary levels of focus on specific concepts and playful exploration of ideas.
    16. The moment we stop making plans is the moment we start to learn. It is a matter of practice to become good at generating insight and write good texts by choosing and moving flexibly between the most important and promising tasks, judged by nothing else than the circumstances of the given situation.
    17. Things we understand are connected, either through rules, theories, narratives, pure logic, mental models or explanations. And deliberately building these kinds of meaningful connections is what the slip-box is all about.
    18. Every step is accompanied by questions like: How does this fact fit into my idea of …? How can this phenomenon be explained by that theory? Are these two ideas contradictory or do they complement each other? Isn’t this argument similar to that one? Haven’t I heard this before? And above all: What does x mean for y? These questions not only increase our understanding, but facilitate learning as well. Once we make a meaningful connection to an idea or fact, it is difficult not to remember it when we think about what it is connected with.
    19. It is safe to argue that a reliable and standardised working environment is less taxing on our attention, concentration and willpower, or, if you like, ego.
    20. Breaks are much more than just opportunities to recover. They are crucial for learning. They allow the brain to process information, move it into long-term memory and prepare it for new information. If we don’t give ourselves a break in between work sessions, be it out of eagerness or fear of forgetting what we were doing, it can have a detrimental effect on our efforts. To have a walk even a nap supports learning and thinking.
    21. If you understand what you read and translate it into the different context of your own thinking, materialised in the slip-box, you cannot help but transform the findings and thoughts of others into something that is new and your own. It works both ways: The series of notes in the slip-box develops into arguments, which are shaped by the theories, ideas and mental models you have in your head. And the theories, ideas and mental models in your head are also shaped by the things you read.
    22. “I always have a slip of paper at hand, on which I note down the ideas of certain pages. On the backside I write down the bibliographic details. After finishing the book I go through my notes and think how these notes might be relevant for already written notes in the slip-box. It means that I always read with an eye towards possible connections in the slip-box.”
    23. Without a clear purpose for the notes, taking them will feel more like a chore than an important step within a bigger project.
    24. Here, everything is about building up a critical mass of useful notes in the slip-box, which gives us a clear idea of how to read and how to take literature notes.
    25. While selectivity is the key to smart note-taking, it is equally important to be selective in a smart way. Unfortunately, our brains are not very smart in selecting information by default. While we should seek out dis-confirming arguments and facts that challenge our way of thinking, we are naturally drawn to everything that makes us feel good, which is everything that confirms what we already believe we know. The very moment we decide on a hypothesis, our brains automatically go into search mode, scanning our surroundings for supporting data, which is neither a good way to learn nor research. Worse, we are usually not even aware of this confirmation bias (or myside bias). The classic role model would be Charles Darwin. He forced himself to write down (and therefore elaborate on) the arguments that were the most critical of his theories. “I had […] during many years followed a golden rule, namely, that whenever a published fact, a new observation or thought came across me, which was opposed to my general results, to make a memorandum of it without fail and at once; for I had found by experience that such facts and thoughts were far more apt to escape from the memory than favorable ones. Owing to this habit, very few objections were raised against my views, which I had not at least noticed and attempted to answer.” 
    26. Writing brief accounts on the main ideas of a text instead of collecting quotes.
    27. Putting notes into the slip-box, however, is like investing and reaping the rewards of compounded interest (which would in this example almost pay for the whole flat). And likewise, the sum of the slip-box content is worth much more than the sum of the notes. More notes mean more possible connections, more ideas, more synergy between different projects and therefore a much higher degree of productivity.
    28. Add a note to the slip-box either behind the note you directly refer to or, if you do not follow up on a specific note, just behind the last note in the slip-box. Number it consecutively. The Zettelkasten numbers the notes automatically. “New note” will just add a note with a new number. If you click “New note sequence,” the new note will be registered at the same time as the note that follows the note currently active on the screen. But you can always add notes “behind” other notes anytime later. Each note can follow multiple other notes and therefore be part of different note sequences. 2.    Add links to other notes or links on other notes to your new note. 3.    Make sure it can be found from the index; add an entry in the index if necessary or refer to it from a note that is connected to the index. 4.    Build a Latticework of Mental Models
    29. Because the slip-box is not intended to be an encyclopaedia, but a tool to think with, we don’t need to worry about completeness.
    30. Keywords should always be assigned with an eye towards the topics you are working on or interested in, never by looking at the note in isolation.
    31. The beauty of this approach is that we co-evolve with our slip-boxes: we build the same connections in our heads while we deliberately develop them in our slip-box – and make it easier to remember the facts as they now have a latticework we can attach them to. If we practice learning not as a pure accumulation of knowledge, but as an attempt to build up a latticework of theories and mental models to which information can stick, we enter a virtuous circle where learning facilitates learning.
  3. Learning, Thinking, & Retrieval
    1. Without these tools and reference points, no professional reading or understanding would be possible. We would read every text in the same way: like a novel. But with the learned ability of spotting patterns, we can enter the circle of virtuosity: Reading becomes easier, we grasp the gist quicker, can read more in less time, and can more easily spot patterns and improve our understanding of them.
    2. The ability to spot patterns, to question the frames used and detect the distinctions made by others, is the precondition to thinking critically and looking behind the assertions of a text or a talk. Being able to re-frame questions, assertions and information is even more important than having an extensive knowledge, because without this ability, we wouldn’t be able to put our knowledge to use.
    3. Developing arguments and ideas bottom-up instead of top-down is the first and most important step to opening ourselves up for insight. We should be able to focus on the most insightful ideas we encounter and welcome the most surprising turns of events without jeopardizing our progress or, even better, because it brings our project forward.
    4. It becomes easier to seek out dis-confirming data with practice and can become quite addictive. The experience of how one piece of information can change the whole perspective on a certain problem is exciting.
    5. ‘Have the courage to use your own understanding,’ is therefore the motto of the Enlightenment.” (Kant 1784)
    6. Only the actual attempt to retrieve information will clearly show us if we have learned something or not.
    7. When we try to answer a question before we know how to, we will later remember the answer better, even if our attempt failed (Arnold and McDermott 2013). If we put effort into the attempt of retrieving information, we are much more likely to remember it in the long run, even if we fail to retrieve it without help in the end (Roediger and Karpicke 2006). Even without any feedback, we will be better off if we try to remember something ourselves (Jang et al. 2012). The empirical data is pretty unambiguous, but these learning strategies do not necessarily feel right.
    8. It is not surprising, therefore, that the best-researched and most successful learning method is elaboration. It is very similar to what we do when we take smart notes and combine them with others, which is the opposite of mere re-viewing (Stein et al. 1984) Elaboration means nothing other than really thinking about the meaning of what we read, how it could inform different questions and topics and how it could be combined with other knowledge.
    9. One difference stood out as critical: The ability to think beyond the given frames of a text (Lonka 2003, 155f). Experienced academic readers usually read a text with questions in mind and try to relate it to other possible approaches, while inexperienced readers tend to adopt the question of a text and the frames of the argument and take it as a given. What good readers can do is spot the limitations of a particular approach and see what is not mentioned in the text.
    10. Richard Feynman once had a visitor in his office, a historian who wanted to interview him. When he spotted Feynman’s notebooks, he said how delighted he was to see such “wonderful records of Feynman’s thinking.” “No, no!” Feynman protested. “They aren’t a record of my thinking process. They are my thinking process. I actually did the work on the paper.” “Well,” the historian said, “the work was done in your head, but the record of it is still here.” “No, it’s not a record, not really. It’s working. You have to work on paper, and this is the paper.”
    11. If we instead focus on “retrieval strength,” we instantly start to think strategically about what kind of cues should trigger the retrieval of a memory.
    12. What does help for true, useful learning is to connect a piece of information to as many meaningful contexts as possible, which is what we do when we connect our notes in the slip-box with other notes. Making these connections deliberately means building up a self-supporting network of interconnected ideas and facts that work reciprocally as cues for each other. Learned right, which means understanding, which means connecting in a meaningful way to previous knowledge, information almost cannot be forgotten anymore and will be reliably retrieved if triggered by the right cues. Moreover, this new learned knowledge can provide more possible connections for new information. If you focus your time and energy on understanding, you cannot help but learn.
    13. Being experienced with a problem and intimately familiar with the tools and devices we work with, ideally to the point of virtuosity, is the precondition for discovering their inherent possibilities, writes Ludwik Fleck, a historian of science
    14. Steven Johnson, who wrote an insightful book about how people in science and in general come up with genuine new ideas, calls it the “slow hunch.” As a precondition to make use of this intuition, he emphasises the importance of experimental spaces where ideas can freely mingle
    15. Studies on creativity with engineers show that the ability to find not only creative, but functional and working solutions for technical problems is equal to the ability to make abstractions. The better an engineer is at abstracting from a specific problem, the better and more pragmatic his solutions will be – even for the very problem he abstracted from (Gassmann and Zeschky, 2008, 103). Abstraction is also the key to analyse and compare concepts, to make analogies and to combine ideas; this is especially true when it comes to interdisciplinary work (Goldstone and Wilensky 2008).
    16. One of the most famous figures to illustrate this skill is the mathematician Abraham Wald (Mangel and Samaniego 1984). During World War II, he was asked to help the Royal Air Force find the areas on their planes that were most often hit by bullets so they could cover them with more armour. But instead of counting the bullet holes on the returned planes, he recommended armouring the spots where none of the planes had taken any hits. The RAF forgot to take into account what was not there to see: All the planes that didn’t make it back. The RAF fell for a common error in thinking called survivorship bias (Taleb 2005). The other planes didn’t make it back because they were hit where they should have had extra protection, like the fuel tank. The returning planes could only show what was less relevant.
    17. IAnother key point: Try working on different manuscripts at the same time. While the slip-box is already helpful to get one project done, its real strength comes into play when we start working on multiple projects at the same time. The slip-box is in some way what the chemical industry calls “verbund.” This is a setup in which the inevitable by-product of one production line becomes the resource for another, which again produces by-products that can be used in other processes and so on, until a network of production lines becomes so efficiently intertwined that there is no chance of an isolated factory competing with it anymore. This is advantageous not only because we make progress on the next papers or books while we are still working on the current one, but also because it allows us to switch to other projects whenever we get stuck or bored. Remember: Luhmann’s answer to the question of how one person could be so productive was that he never forced himself to do anything and only did what came easily to him. “When I am stuck for one moment, I leave it and do something else.” When he was asked what else he did when he was stuck, his answer was: “Well, writing other books. I always work on different manuscripts at the same time.
    18. There is one exception, though: we most certainly act according to our intention if we happen to intend to do exactly what we used to do before. It is really easy to predict the behaviour of people in the long run. In all likelihood, we will do in a month, a year or two years from now exactly what we have done before: eat as many chocolates as before, go to the gym as often as before, and get ourselves into the same kinds of arguments with our partners as before. To put it differently, good intentions don’t last very long, usually. We have the best chance to change our behaviour over the long term if we start with a realistic idea about the difficulties of behavioural change
    19. Change is possible when the solution appears to be simple.

What I got out of it

  1. Feel like somebody was explaining my system to me! This is a bit more rigorous, but much of how I take notes, recall info, fit them into my latticework, helps with ideation, recall, and creativity – exactly like this structure outlines!

The Art of Doing Science and Engineering: Learning to Learn by Richard Hamming

“After more thought I decided that since I was trying to teach “style” of thinking in science and engineering, and “style” is an art, I should therefore copy the methods of teaching used for the other arts – once the fundamentals have been learned. How to be a great painters cannot be taught in words; one learns by trying many different approaches that seem to surround the subject. Art teachers usually let the advanced student paint, and then make suggestions on how they would have done it, or what might also be tried, more or less as the points arise in the student’s head – which is where the learning is supposed to occur! In this series of lectures, I try to communicate to students what cannot be said in words – the essence of style in science and engineering. I have adopted a loose organization with some repetition since this often occurs in the lectures. There are, therefore, digressions and stories – with some told in two different places – all in the somewhat rambling, informal style typical of lectures. I have used the “story” approach, often emphasizing the initial part of the discovery, because I firmly believe in Pasteur’s remark, “Luck favors the prepared mind.” In this way I can illustrate how the individual’s preparation before encountering the problem can often lead to recognition, formulation, and solution. Great results in science and engineering are “bunched” in the same person too often for success to be a matter of random luck. Teachers should prepare the student for the student’s future, not for the teacher’s past…Therefore, style of thinking is the center of this course. The subtitle of the book, Learning to Learn, is the main solution I offer to help students cope with the rapid changes they will have to endure in their fields. The course centers around how to look at and think about knowledge, and it supplies some historical perspective that might be useful. This course is mainly personal experiences I have had and digested, at least to some extent. Naturally one tends to remember one’s successes and forget lesser events, but I recount a number of my spectacular failures as clear examples of what to avoid. I have found that the personal story is far, far more effective than the impersonal one; hence there is necessarily an aura of “bragging” in the book that is unavoidable. Let me repeat what I earlier indicated. Apparently an “art” – which almost by definition cannot be put into words – is probably best communicated by approaching it from many sides and doing so repeatedly, hoping thereby students will finally mater enough of the art, or if you wish, style, to significantly increase their future contributions to society. A totally different description of the course is: it covers all kinds of things that could not find their proper place in the standard curriculum.”

PS – The book is expensive and hard to find but here is a PDF copy of the book and if you’re more of an auditory learner, here are Hamming’s “Learning to Learn” lectures

Jonathan Livingston Seagull by Richard Bach


  1. The story of Jonathan Seagull, the seagull who dared to be different and push the limits of flight, learning about himself, mastery, and perfection

Key Takeaways

  1. And then a hundred other lives until we begin to learn that there is such a thing as perfection, and another hundred again to get the idea that our purpose for living is to find that  for us now, o show it forth. The same rule holds for us now, of course: we choose our next world through what we learn in this one. Learn nothing, and the next world is the same as this one, a ll the same limitations and lead weights to overcome.
  2. No, Jonathan, there is no such place. Heaven is not a place, and it is not a time. Heaven is being perfect…Perfect speed my son, is being there
  3. You can go to any place and to any time that you wish to go, the Elder said. I’ve gone everywhere and everywhen I can think of. He looked across the sea. It’s strange. The gulls who scorn perfection for the sake of travel go nowhere, slowly. Those who put aside travel for the sake of perfection go anywhere, instantly. Remember, Jonathan, heaven isn’t a place or a time, because place and time are so very meaningless
  4. To fly as fast as thought, to anywhere that is, you must begin by knowing that you have already arrived. The trick, according to Chiang, was for Jonathan to stop seeing himself as trapped inside a limited body that had a forty-two-inch wingspan and performance that could be plotted on a chart. The trick was to know that his true nature lived, as perfect as an unwritten number, everywhere at once across space and time
  5. I wonder about that, Jon, said Sullivan, standing near. You have less fear of learning than any gull I’ve seen in ten thousand years. The Flock fell silent, and Jonathan fidgeted in embarrassment. We can start working with time if you wish, Chiang said, till you can fly the past and the future. And then you will be ready to begin the most difficult, the most powerful, and the most fun of all. You will be ready to begin to fly up and know the meaning of kindness and love.
  6. For in spite of his lonely past, Jonathan Seagull was born to be an instructor, and his own way of demonstrating love was to give something of the truth that he had seen to a gull who asked only a chance to see truth for himself.
  7. Each of us is in truth an idea of the Great Gull, an unlimited idea of freedom, Jonathan would say in the evenings on the beach, and precision flying is a step toward expressing our real nature. Everything that limits us we have to put aside…Break the chains of your thought, and you break the chains of your body too
  8. He spoke of very simple things – that it is right for a gull to fly, that freedom is the very nature of his being, that whatever stands against that freedom must be set aside, be it ritual or superstition or limitation in any form. Set aside, came a voice from the multitude, even if it be the Law of the Flock? The only true law is that which leads to freedom, Jonathan would said. There is no other.

What I got out of it

  1. Has been 15 years since the last time I read this book and it hit me even more this time. Go live, do, practice, aim for perfection, freedom, and truth. It is the most fulfilling way to live and will open up dimensions that you couldn’t even imagine before

Range: Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World by David Epstein


  1. Epstein discusses the pros and cons of specialization vs. generalization and which environments/tasks/situations each is helpful in and why

Key Takeaways

  1. Tiger vs. Roger
    1. Begins with a comparison of Tiger Woods and Roger Federer. Tiger singularly focused and was hell-bent on breaking all records and being the best in the world whereas Roger played every sport and his highest aspiration in tennis was to some day, maybe, playing Wimbledon.  
    2. There has been increasing evidence that a broader range of experiences and sports which delays specializing in any one field or sport actually improves performance.  It takes time and delays initial success but developing a broader range of expertise makes you better off in the long run.
    3. The most effective learning is in fact slow and seems inefficient but it helps you make connections and deeply ingrain the lessons. 
    4. The danger with becoming too specialized is that you become a man with a hammer where everything looks like a nail. Rather, all you need to do is stand up and look at the field right next to you to find your solution 
    5. The challenge is maintaining an interdisciplinary mindset breath and range in a world that demands and rewards high specialization. However, in our ever increasingly complex and fast-moving world, there is an increased need for people with “range” – those who are multidisciplinary and can see problems and solutions from many different angles 
  2. Kind vs. Unkind Environments
    1. Early specialization is effective in what is called kind environments – those in which feedback loops are quick or instantaneous, the results are quite binary, and it is easy to pick up on patterns. Golf or chess are two examples of kind environments
    2. Unkind environments represent most of the world – the rules are unclear, feedback is slow or nonexistent, and it is hard to find the connections or patterns. In these domains, a broad range of experiences help with making connections and improving your pattern recognition 
  3. Flow & Deep learning
    1. A desirable difficulty is a scenario in which you don’t feel confident that you’re learning anything but you actually are interweaving different scenarios and options. It’s more effective than studying in blocks. You may not feel as confident, but when it comes to show time, you’ll be more prepared.  
    2. Deep learning is difficult and takes time and often very frustrating but it is the most effective form of learning. We should focus on these interwoven skills which are flexible and serve as scaffolding for later knowledge and skills.  
    3. The most complex skills take time and it is not easy to see or judge your rate of improvement or learning 
    4. The best problem solvers first spend time trying to figure out what type of problem they are even looking to solve and only then develop the strategy and tactics to solve it 
    5. Transfer is a mode of broad thinking which allows you to take the skills and knowledge you already have and efficiently and effectively apply it to new scenarios. This type of skill and knowledge takes a long time to build but it compounds on itself as it allows you to progress in many more domains.  Johannes Kepler was a master at this since there was no previous knowledge for him to build off of so he used analogies from far-flung domains in order to think through the forces acting on the planets and why they seem to move and act the way they do. He used the ideas of spirits, force, motion, magnetism, attraction, movement, light, smells, and more in order to finally arrive at his final conclusion. This reasoning by analogy to make the new familiar or the familiar new by combining it and thinking about it in a new light. It allows us to think through things we’ve never experienced before or see things which are invisible.  In today’s increasingly complex and fast-moving world, thinking by analogy is increasingly important as we are facing more novel situations than we ever have.
    6. Match quality – the match between what you do and your talents and proclivities. Switching is difficult and a short term sacrifice but over time it is the best route as you improve your match quality. Switchers are winners and too much grit is harmful in this way if you stay too long in an area which doesn’t suit you. It is amazing how often people who excel don’t have long-term plans but instead take each opportunity to learn about themselves, grow, add value, and make the most of each opportunity as it comes. They switch often and over time this increases their match quality and gets them in a position to learn a lot quickly and excel. Rather than a grand plan find little experiments that you can test and iterate and learn from rapidly. This is how people learn from practice rather than theory and is far more effective than trying to think your way into who you think you are – do and then think. Don’t promise or plan anything for the future. instead, live in the moment and make the most of the opportunities given you 
  4. Lateral Thinking With Withered Technology
    1. Shigeru Miyamoto, the brains behind Nintendo’s smash hits, used an idea called “lateral thinking with withered technology.” He combined cheap, simple, readily accessible, reliable technology rather than be in an arms race with having games and gadgets that only used the newest tech. This allowed them to produce things cheaply, making their goods very popular and allowed them to combine disparate technologies and ideas into something new and innovative.  He purposefully retreated from the cutting edge and found new innovative uses for old cheap ideas which had been proven and we’re familiar to people 
  5. Experts
    1. Knowledge is a double-edged sword since it could help you do some things but it can also make you blind to certain solutions. This is where outside-in thinking really helps – where you take solutions, ideas, processes, etc. from other disciplines and apply it to your own 
    2. Expertise can become dangerous when you see every problem as a nail. A broad range of knowledge across several people who can collaborate makes for the best teams and predictors. Specialized experts can be an invaluable resource but you must recognize that they can have blinders on. Use them for facts, not opinion. The best teams exhibit active open mindedness. They view their own thoughts and beliefs as hypotheses to be tested and not facts which they must use to convince others. Instead, They seek to disconfirm their beliefs and prove themselves wrong. This is not a natural mindset for people but it is far more effective. Science curious rather than science knowledge. Not what you think but how you think
    3. Hedgehogs see things linearly and causally relative to the field in which they are experts in but foxes see the world for what it is – complex and messy and interwoven. Being a fox isn’t as satisfying, doesn’t make headlines, causes for much doubt, but it is more correct
    4. The most effective leaders and thinkers are paradoxical. They acknowledge the complexity of the situation and how little they know simply doing the best that they can as new information becomes available and dropping tools that are no longer helpful rather than sticking to something simply because they are comfortable or familiar with it. “The old man knows the rules the wise man knows the exceptions,” and you have to know when you’re dealing with an exception 
    5. The best teams have porous boundaries so that people with different skills can easily communicate, learn from one another, and break their own ideas.  Make sure to schedule in free time in order to let people’s imaginations run free. Give them time to pursue their own interests, even if the immediate benefit isn’t clear 

What I got out of it

  1. “Kind” vs. “Unkind” environments has a huge impact on how you approach a field. Most of the world is “unkind” where feedback loops are slow (or nonexistent), learning is tedious and unclear, and pattern recognition is very difficult. Since most of the world operates in this fashion, it makes sense to have “range” – to be a broad based, multi-disciplinary thinker. Look to find ways to get out of your own bubble – read, do things, meet with people who you normally wouldn’t overlap with. This process is slower and the benefits aren’t immediately clear, but don’t let this deter you. It is far more effective in the long run.

Effortless Mastery by Kenny Werner

I have come to the point where I have simply decided that effortlessness would be my prime consideration, that anything not played from an effortless place is not worth playing. I don’t get my technique from studying technique. I get it from letting my hands and arms find their way without my interference. In doing so, I have unwittingly connected with the wisdom of the ancients. As I now read the writings of the great sages, I realize that I am on the same path, having the experiences they describe. Effortlessness allows us to become our own teachers, paving the way to mastery. If you get nothing else from this book, hopefully you’ll at least walk away with the realization that effort gets in the way of great playing. Effort and/or lack of preparation blocks true mastery.

The Autobiography of Charles Darwin by Charles Darwin

  1. The life and accomplishments of Darwin through his own eyes
Key Takeaways
  1. I have attempted to write the following account of myself, as if I were a dead man in another world looking back at my own life. Nor have I found this difficult, for life is nearly over with me. I have taken no pains about my style of writing.
  2. The passion for collecting which leads a man to be a systematic naturalist, a virtuoso, or a miser, was very strong in me, and was clearly innate, as none of my sisters or brother ever had this taste.
  3. I have heard my father and elder sister say that I had, as a very young boy, a strong taste for long solitary walks; but what I thought about I know not. I often became quite absorbed, and once, whilst returning to school on the summit of the old fortifications round Shrewsbury, which had been converted into a public foot-path with no parapet on one side, I walked off and fell to the ground, but the height was only seven or eight feet. Nevertheless the number of thoughts which passed through my mind during this very short, but sudden and wholly unexpected fall, was astonishing, and seem hardly compatible with what physiologists have, I believe, proved about each thought requiring quite an appreciable amount of time.
  4. The school as a means of education to me was simply a blank. During my whole life I have been singularly incapable of mastering any language. Much attention was paid to learning by heart the lessons of the previous day; this I could effect with great facility, learning forty or fifty lines of Virgil or Homer, whilst I was in morning chapel; but this exercise was utterly useless, for every verse was forgotten in forty-eight hours.
  5. I believe that I was considered by all my masters and by my father as a very ordinary boy, rather below the common standard in intellect. To my deep mortification my father once said to me, “You care for nothing but shooting, dogs, and rat-catching, and you will be a disgrace to yourself and all your family.” But my father, who was the kindest man I ever knew and whose memory I love with all my heart, must have been angry and somewhat unjust when he used such words.
  6. Looking back as well as I can at my character during my school life, the only qualities which at this period promised well for the future, were, that I had strong and diversified tastes, much zeal for whatever interested me, and a keen pleasure in understanding any complex subject or thing. I was taught Euclid by a private tutor, and I distinctly remember the intense satisfaction which the clear geometrical proofs gave me.
    1. NOTE: recipe for learning
  7. I had many friends amongst the schoolboys, whom I loved dearly, and I think that my disposition was then very affectionate.
  8. With respect to science, I continued collecting minerals with much zeal, but quite unscientifically—all that I cared about was a new-named mineral, and I hardly attempted to classify them.
  9. This was the best part of my education at school, for it showed me practically the meaning of experimental science.
  10. I was sent there to commence them. But soon after this period I became convinced from various small circumstances that my father would leave me property enough to subsist on with some comfort, though I never imagined that I should be so rich a man as I am; but my belief was sufficient to check any strenuous efforts to learn medicine.
  11. I also attended on two occasions the operating theatre in the hospital at Edinburgh, and saw two very bad operations, one on a child, but I rushed away before they were completed. Nor did I ever attend again, for hardly any inducement would have been strong enough to make me do so; this being long before the blessed days of chloroform. The two cases fairly haunted me for many a long year.
  12. My zeal was so great that I used to place my shooting-boots open by my bed-side when I went to bed, so as not to lose half a minute in putting them on in the morning; and on one occasion I reached a distant part of the Maer estate, on the 20th of August for black-game shooting, before I could see: I then toiled on with the game-keeper the whole day through thick heath and young Scotch firs.
  13. After having spent two sessions in Edinburgh, my father perceived, or he heard from my sisters, that I did not like the thought of being a physician, so he proposed that I should become a clergyman.
  14. Considering how fiercely I have been attacked by the orthodox, it seems ludicrous that I once intended to be a clergyman.
  15. But I am glad to think that I had many other friends of a widely different nature.
  16. But no pursuit at Cambridge was followed with nearly so much eagerness or gave me so much pleasure as collecting beetles. It was the mere passion for collecting, for I did not dissect them, and rarely compared their external characters with published descriptions, but got them named anyhow. I will give a proof of my zeal: one day, on tearing off some old bark, I saw two rare beetles, and seized one in each hand; then I saw a third and new kind, which I could not bear to lose, so that I popped the one which I held in my right hand into my mouth. Alas! it ejected some intensely acrid fluid, which burnt my tongue so that I was forced to spit the beetle out, which was lost, as was the third one.
  17. I have not as yet mentioned a circumstance which influenced my whole career more than any other. This was my friendship with Professor Henslow. Before coming up to Cambridge, I had heard of him from my brother as a man who knew every branch of science, and I was accordingly prepared to reverence him. He kept open house once every week when all undergraduates, and some older members of the University, who were attached to science, used to meet in the evening. I soon got, through Fox, an invitation, and went there regularly. Before long I became well acquainted with Henslow, and during the latter half of my time at Cambridge took long walks with him on most days; so that I was called by some of the dons “the man who walks with Henslow;” and in the evening I was very often asked to join his family dinner. His knowledge was great in botany, entomology, chemistry, mineralogy, and geology. His strongest taste was to draw conclusions from long-continued minute observations. His judgment was excellent, and his whole mind well balanced; but I do not suppose that any one would say that he possessed much original genius. He was deeply religious, and so orthodox that he told me one day he should be grieved if a single word of the Thirty-nine Articles were altered. His moral qualities were in every way admirable. He was free from every tinge of vanity or other petty feeling; and I never saw a man who thought so little about himself or his own concerns. His temper was imperturbably good, with the most winning and courteous manners; yet, as I have seen, he could be roused by any bad action to the warmest indignation and prompt action.
  18. Looking back, I infer that there must have been something in me a little superior to the common run of youths, otherwise the above-mentioned men, so much older than me and higher in academical position, would never have allowed me to associate with them. Certainly I was not aware of any such superiority, and I remember one of my sporting friends, Turner, who saw me at work with my beetles, saying that I should some day be a Fellow of the Royal Society, and the notion seemed to me preposterous.
  19. During my last year at Cambridge, I read with care and profound interest Humboldt’s ‘Personal Narrative.’ This work, and Sir J. Herschel’s ‘Introduction to the Study of Natural Philosophy,’ stirred up in me a burning zeal to add even the most humble contribution to the noble structure of Natural Science. No one or a dozen other books influenced me nearly so much as these two.
  20. These gravel-beds belong in fact to the glacial period, and in after years I found in them broken arctic shells. But I was then utterly astonished at Sedgwick not being delighted at so wonderful a fact as a tropical shell being found near the surface in the middle of England. Nothing before had ever made me thoroughly realise, though I had read various scientific books, that science consists in grouping facts so that general laws or conclusions may be drawn from them.
  21. We had several quarrels; for instance, early in the voyage at Bahia, in Brazil, he defended and praised slavery, which I abominated
  22. The voyage of the “Beagle” has been by far the most important event in my life, and has determined my whole career; yet it depended on so small a circumstance as my uncle offering to drive me thirty miles to Shrewsbury, which few uncles would have done, and on such a trifle as the shape of my nose. I have always felt that I owe to the voyage the first real training or education of my mind; I was led to attend closely to several branches of natural history, and thus my powers of observation were improved, though they were always fairly developed.
  23. During some part of the day I wrote my Journal, and took much pains in describing carefully and vividly all that I had seen; and this was good practice.
  24. The above various special studies were, however, of no importance compared with the habit of energetic industry and of concentrated attention to whatever I was engaged in, which I then acquired. Everything about which I thought or read was made to bear directly on what I had seen or was likely to see; and this habit of mind was continued during the five years of the voyage. I feel sure that it was this training which has enabled me to do whatever I have done in science.
  25. Looking backwards, I can now perceive how my love for science gradually preponderated over every other taste. During the first two years my old passion for shooting survived in nearly full force, and I shot myself all the birds and animals for my collection; but gradually I gave up my gun more and more, and finally altogether, to my servant, as shooting interfered with my work, more especially with making out the geological structure of a country. I discovered, though unconsciously and insensibly, that the pleasure of observing and reasoning was a much higher one than that of skill and sport.
  26. As far as I can judge of myself, I worked to the utmost during the voyage from the mere pleasure of investigation, and from my strong desire to add a few facts to the great mass of facts in Natural Science.
  27. I think that I can say with truth that in after years, though I cared in the highest degree for the approbation of such men as Lyell and Hooker, who were my friends, I did not care much about the general public. I do not mean to say that a favourable review or a large sale of my books did not please me greatly, but the pleasure was a fleeting one, and I am sure that I have never turned one inch out of my course to gain fame.
  28. In July I opened my first note-book for facts in relation to the Origin of Species, about which I had long reflected, and never ceased working for the next twenty years.
  29. Because no other explanation was possible under our then state of knowledge, I argued in favour of sea-action; and my error has been a good lesson to me never to trust in science to the principle of exclusion.
  30. No other work of mine was begun in so deductive a spirit as this, for the whole theory was thought out on the west coast of South America, before I had seen a true coral reef. I had therefore only to verify and extend my views by a careful examination of living reefs.
  31. This excursion interested me greatly, and it was the last time I was ever strong enough to climb mountains or to take long walks such as are necessary for geological work.
  32. I saw more of Lyell than of any other man, both before and after my marriage. His mind was characterised, as it appeared to me, by clearness, caution, sound judgment, and a good deal of originality. When I made any remark to him on Geology, he never rested until he saw the whole case clearly, and often made me see it more clearly than I had done before. He would advance all possible objections to my suggestion, and even after these were exhausted would long remain dubious. A second characteristic was his hearty sympathy with the work of other scientific men.
  33. “What a good thing it would be if every scientific man was to die when sixty years old, as afterwards he would be sure to oppose all new doctrines.”
  34. His knowledge was extraordinarily great, and much died with him, owing to his excessive fear of ever making a mistake.
  35. —reminds me of Buckle whom I once met at Hensleigh Wedgwood’s. I was very glad to learn from him his system of collecting facts. He told me that he bought all the books which he read, and made a full index, to each, of the facts which he thought might prove serviceable to him, and that he could always remember in what book he had read anything, for his memory was wonderful. I asked him how at first he could judge what facts would be serviceable, and he answered that he did not know, but that a sort of instinct guided him. From this habit of making indices, he was enabled to give the astonishing number of references on all sorts of subjects, which may be found in his ‘History of Civilisation.’
  36. During the first part of our residence we went a little into society, and received a few friends here; but my health almost always suffered from the excitement, violent shivering and vomiting attacks being thus brought on. I have therefore been compelled for many years to give up all dinner-parties; and this has been somewhat of a deprivation to me, as such parties always put me into high spirits. From the same cause I have been able to invite here very few scientific acquaintances.
  37. My chief enjoyment and sole employment throughout life has been scientific work; and the excitement from such work makes me for the time forget, or drives quite away, my daily discomfort.
  38. I record in a little diary, which I have always kept, that my three geological books (‘Coral Reefs’ included) consumed four and a half years’ steady work;
  39. To understand the structure of my new Cirripede I had to examine and dissect many of the common forms; and this gradually led me on to take up the whole group. I worked steadily on this subject for the next eight years, and ultimately published two thick volumes
  40. From September 1854 I devoted my whole time to arranging my huge pile of notes, to observing, and to experimenting in relation to the transmutation of species. During the voyage of the “Beagle” I had been deeply impressed by discovering in the Pampean formation great fossil animals covered with armour like that on the existing armadillos; secondly, by the manner in which closely allied animals replace one another in proceeding southwards over the Continent; and thirdly, by the South American character of most of the productions of the Galapagos archipelago, and more especially by the manner in which they differ slightly on each island of the group; none of the islands appearing to be very ancient in a geological sense. It was evident that such facts as these, as well as many others, could only be explained on the supposition that species gradually become modified; and the subject haunted me. But it was equally evident that neither the action of the surrounding conditions, nor the will of the organisms (especially in the case of plants) could account for the innumerable cases in which organisms of every kind are beautifully adapted to their habits of life—for instance, a woodpecker or a tree-frog to climb trees, or a seed for dispersal by hooks or plumes.
  41. soon perceived that selection was the keystone of man’s success in making useful races of animals and plants. But how selection could be applied to organisms living in a state of nature remained for some time a mystery to me. In October 1838, that is, fifteen months after I had begun my systematic enquiry, I happened to read for amusement ‘Malthus on Population,’ and being well prepared to appreciate the struggle for existence which everywhere goes on from long-continued observation of the habits of animals and plants, it at once struck me that under these circumstances favourable variations would tend to be preserved, and unfavourable ones to be destroyed. The result of this would be the formation of new species. Here then I had at last got a theory by which to work; but I was so anxious to avoid prejudice, that I determined not for some time to write even the briefest sketch of it. In June 1842 I first allowed myself the satisfaction of writing a very brief abstract of my theory in pencil in 35 pages; and this was enlarged during the summer of 1844 into one of 230 pages, which I had fairly copied out and still possess.
  42. But at that time I overlooked one problem of great importance; and it is astonishing to me, except on the principle of Columbus and his egg, how I could have overlooked it and its solution. This problem is the tendency in organic beings descended from the same stock to diverge in character as they become modified. That they have diverged greatly is obvious from the manner in which species of all kinds can be classed under genera, genera under families, families under sub-orders and so forth; and I can remember the very spot in the road, whilst in my carriage, when to my joy the solution occurred to me; and this was long after I had come to Down. The solution, as I believe, is that the modified offspring of all dominant and increasing forms tend to become adapted to many and highly diversified places in the economy of nature.
  43. The success of the ‘Origin’ may, I think, be attributed in large part to my having long before written two condensed sketches, and to my having finally abstracted a much larger manuscript, which was itself an abstract. By this means I was enabled to select the more striking facts and conclusions. I had, also, during many years followed a golden rule, namely, that whenever a published fact, a new observation or thought came across me, which was opposed to my general results, to make a memorandum of it without fail and at once; for I had found by experience that such facts and thoughts were far more apt to escape from the memory than favourable ones. Owing to this habit, very few objections were raised against my views which I had not at least noticed and attempted to answer.
  44. I gained much by my delay in publishing from about 1839, when the theory was clearly conceived, to 1859; and I lost nothing by it, for I cared very little whether men attributed most originality to me or Wallace; and his essay no doubt aided in the reception of the theory.
  45. Whenever I have found out that I have blundered, or that my work has been imperfect, and when I have been contemptuously criticised, and even when I have been overpraised, so that I have felt mortified, it has been my greatest comfort to say hundreds of times to myself that “I have worked as hard and as well as I could, and no man can do more than this.”
  46. An unverified hypothesis is of little or no value; but if anyone should hereafter be led to make observations by which some such hypothesis could be established, I shall have done good service, as an astonishing number of isolated facts can be thus connected together and rendered intelligible.
  47. My ‘Descent of Man’ was published in February, 1871. As soon as I had become, in the year 1837 or 1838, convinced that species were mutable productions, I could not avoid the belief that man must come under the same law. Accordingly I collected notes on the subject for my own satisfaction, and not for a long time with any intention of publishing. Although in the ‘Origin of Species’ the derivation of any particular species is never discussed, yet I thought it best, in order that no honourable man should accuse me of concealing my views, to add that by the work “light would be thrown on the origin of man and his history.” It would have been useless and injurious to the success of the book to have paraded, without giving any evidence, my conviction with respect to his origin.
  48. During subsequent years, whenever I had leisure, I pursued my experiments, and my book on ‘Insectivorous Plants’ was published in July 1875—that is, sixteen years after my first observations. The delay in this case, as with all my other books, has been a great advantage to me; for a man after a long interval can criticise his own work, almost as well as if it were that of another person.
What I got out of it
  1. So many nuggets but Darwin’s recipe for learning is gold: concentrated self-study, keeping of a diary/journal, keeping indexed notes of relevant material, seeking to test and destroy beloved concepts by immediately scribbling down ‘unfavorable’ evidence/results and thinking through why this may be right, and learning lessons by heart

A Few Lessons From Sherlock Holmes by Peter Bevelin

  1. Bevelin takes quotes and examples from Sherlock Holmes as examples of several tools and techniques to improve thinking and decision making
Key Takeaways
  1. Observation and inference
    1. See things for what they are and report them truthfully
    2. Beware of first impressions – appearances can be deceiving
    3. More is missed by not looking than not knowing
    4. It is not the amount of information that counts by the relevant one
    5. Sometimes it helps to shift perspective
    6. The value of experience is not in seeing much but seeing wisely
    7. “By doing it many times over till it is done perfectly – for it is worth doing.”
    8. Checklist routines for critical factors to help
    9. Look as diligently for what is missing for what is there
  2. Deduction
    1. Reasoning backwards, working back from observations/effects to causes
    2. Use the simplest means first
  3. Analogies
    1. You cannot judge the relevance of an isolated fact. Experience has taught me, and must have taught you, that the most trivial, commonplace and seemingly irrelevant facts have a way of suddenly assuming a crucial importance by connecting, explaining or filling in the detail of later discoveries
    2. That process…starts upon the supposition that when you have eliminated all which is impossible, then whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth. It may well be that several explanations remain, in which case one tries test after test until one or other of them has a convincing amount of support
  4. Test your theory
    1. If it disagrees with the facts, it is wrong
    2. There is nothing more deceptive than an obvious fact
  5. Patience
    1. Distance gives perspective – sometimes we need to remove ourselves from the problem and get a fresh perspective
  6. Put self in other’s shoes
    1. If we could see the world the way others see it, we easier understand why they do what they do
    2. Don’t make the world fit your tools and use the right tool for the job
  7. Criticize self
    1. Have you tried to find evidence against what you believe? Why might we be wrong? What have we overlooked? What (new) information or evidence is needed to make us change our mind?
    2. When we meet a fact which contradicts a prevailing theory, we must accept the fact and abandon the theory, even when the theory is supported by great names and generally accepted
  8. Learn from mistakes
    1. Update your beliefs in light of new information
    2. For one’s own training it is better to make an incorrect diagnosis than none at all – if you call yourself to account afterwards
  9. Know your limits
    1. Don’t think about how to get things done, instead ask whether they’re worth doing in the first place
    2. A lot of misery comes from what we allow ourselves to get dragged into
What I got out of it
  1. Really good, short read on some key characteristics necessary for deep thinking and better decision making

Peak: Secrets from the New Science of Expertise by Anders Ericsson and Robert Pool

  1. An exciting and inspiring book which lays out a detailed process for how you can effectively improve and push past your potential in anything you want to undertake
Key Takeaways
  1. Mozart had something called perfect pitch but it is not some magical gift, rather he acquired it through extensive training and a very flexible and adaptable brain. We all are born with this gift to some degree. The brain can rewire itself based on the inputs it receives, though some of this flexibility disappears over time. This is an incredible thing! There are no predetermined limits and teaching and learning now becomes about reaching your full potential
  2. Ray Allen on people saying he was born with a beautiful jump shot – “Do not undermine the work I put in every day. Not most days. Every day.” Hard work alone does not lead to improvement. The right kind of practice over a long enough period of time leads to improvement – deliberate practice. Genetics of course plays a role, even to the amount somebody can sustain deliberate practice
  3. Principles of deliberate practice are the same regardless of which field you apply them in – harnessing the adaptability of the mind and body to incrementally do what you never were able to do before. Deliberate practice is all about creating efficient mental structures to help you deal with increasing amounts of information and better detect patterns
  4. Normal route of practice takes you to automaticity and at this point you stop improving unless deliberate practice is utilized
  5. Purposeful practice – having clear goals and a specific way to get there. Baby steps. Not as effective as deliberate practice. You must be willing to go outside of your comfort zone.
  6. Full focus and immediate feedback are two other key components of effective practice.
  7. When you come up against obstacles and things which push you out of your comfort zone, it’s important to try new techniques rather than bumping up against the same wall every time. Teachers, coaches and mentors are crucial at this juncture.
  8. Maintaining motivation, whether from intrinsic or extrinsic means, is important to long term success
  9. Creating mental structures to deal with large amounts of information (chunking) is crucial. Meaning aids memory
  10. As younger brains are more malleable, the earlier training starts, the more profound effect it will have
  11. Deliberate practice, unlike other types of practice, looks to push you beyond your potential by getting you out of homeostasis and forcing your brain and body to adapt
  12. There is no such thing as developing a general skill. You must train with specific movements, goals, outcomes, etc in mind
  13. Through training, experts have simply built extremely refined and specialized mental structures which help them absorb much more information than amateurs and this lets them focus on the truly important details. They can see patterns others cannot see as quickly
  14. Clear and effective mental representations help you recognize mistakes and correct them more quickly. Reducing the number of times you commit the same mistake is an important part of improving quickly 
  15. Skill and mental representations form a virtuous cycle. As one gets better, so does the other and on and on
  16. Solitary practice, sleep and afternoon naps are key differentiators between the good and the great. Both groups found the practice daunting, tiring and often not much fun. There are no shortcuts to greatness in any field no matter how talented you are
  17. A clear set of guidelines as to what constitutes superior performance and a good teacher who pushes you past your comfort zone is the difference between purposeful and deliberate practice. Informed and guided practice
  18. Subjective fields (wine experts, business managers, consultants…) are prone to biases and many “experts” in these fields are actually not when tested on objective criteria
  19. Conversing with experts in any field is helpful to try to understand how they approach their skill, training, obstacles and more. Understanding the differences between yourself and a superior performer in these ways is a great way to start your progress
  20. Knowledge vs skills. Must be able to act on your knowledge and this is part of what separates deliberate practice from other techniques. Author believes it will be necessary to replace knowledge-based training programs with skill-based programs in most fields in order to see drastic improvement
  21. It is much more effective to go 100% for a short time than 70% for longer
  22. 1 hour per day of full focus on whatever you want to improve is the minimum
  23. For children, it is important for sports or other skills to start out as fun and a game
  24. The author dispels the notion of savants and evidences that even those with great natural ability refine their skills through long, difficult, deliberate practice
  25. 3 F’s of improvement – focus, feedback, fix it
What I got out of it
  1. Ericsson’s findings are so exciting because it means that with the right mindset and training regiment, you can reach and push beyond your potential in any given field. Innate talent will only get you so far

The Art of Learning by Josh Waitzkin

Great read on how to apply universal learning techniques to any endeavor. You must learn the fundamentals so thoroughly that they become ingrained, allowing the brain to fully focus on minute details which help separate you from the rest of the competition – making “smaller circles”