Rapid Learning Tips from Tim Ferriss

Tim Ferriss speaking about his learning experience at SXSWedu

Tim Ferriss is a writer, investor, podcaster, and martial arts master. But above all else, he says he considers himself a teacher. When speaking with long-time friend and DonorsChoose founder Charles Best at SXSWedu, he was quick to brag about the many skills, languages, and behaviours he has learned that help him to stay at the top of his game.

Tim has written a number of guidebooks for being awesome, including Tools of Titans and The 4-Hour Workweek. Through his books and podcasts, he has shared his approaches and methodologies to achieve rapid and effective learning. He has identified four elements that are essential for mastering new skills quickly, which can be applied to virtually any subject matter.

  1. Deconstruct the learning units
    In project management, we create a Work Breakdown Structure to identify discrete project components and decide what should come first. So it is with learning: you need to start from the ground and build your way up.
  2. Select the learning units that offer the biggest payoff
    Ferriss lives by the 80/20 rule, and says that learning 20% of the subject matter will bring you 80% of the way to mastery in any given subject. For example, you don’t need to know all the terminology for the endocrine system in order to get by in Spanish. Find the areas of learning that will be the most applicable and go from there.
  3. Find the path of least resistance
    Going back to the project management analogy: the most important part of building a project plan is finding the sequence of events that is the most efficient: meaning less time and less effort required. When learning ballroom dancing, Ferriss learned to follow before he learned to lead. There’s nothing wrong with taking the easy route, if you can find it.
  4. Set high stakes to motivate yourself
    Human psychology plays a big role in fostering change. Intrinsic and extrinsic motivation can be used to support and drive personal accountability and achieve desired goals. If you’re struggling to motivate yourself, Ferriss suggested sending $100 to a friend and telling them to donate it to cause you hate (say, the Westboro Baptist Church) if you don’t achieve your goal within the prescribed time. Talk about high stakes!

By thinking differently about the process of learning, Ferriss has shed the traditional methods of teaching. He often hears that it takes a lifetime to learn a language and scoffs at the idea. “If I can learn 100 new vocabulary words a day, multiplied over a month, I am 80% of the way to mastery.”

Ferriss continuously points to high performers as examples of the potential we all have in us if we are motivated and disciplined. His session was highly controversial, prompting actual heckles from members of the audience who were concerned about students with special needs, but his message was clear: by understanding how to learn and think differently, the ability to learn is exponentially improved over time. Learning becomes habit, and habits are hard to break.


Author: Kate Salmon

Communications specialist and general word nerd from Toronto, Ontario. Upon learning that I could still get a degree in rhetoric in the 21st century, I went to the University of Waterloo to do precisely that. Now I'm continuing my learning journey at Learnography, a non-profit education consulting organization that really practices its principles of continuous development. With a great team of former educators who are dedicated to creating transformative learning experiences, we are changing the face of corporate training.

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