I was inspired to write this blog after hearing about and then successfully completing the famous “Learning How To Learn” Coursera course. ❤️
Sometimes it’s just better to, instead of doing, stop and ponder about the processes you use for self-improvement. To think about meta-cognition.
Sometimes taking a step back, looking at the thing from a broader perspective, can help you achieve your goals faster than if you were to start the journey immediately.
There are already plenty of good summaries of this course online — like this Medium post. But I want to tell you my own learning story and the way I understand the learning process itself.
A personal update: I recently landed a job at my dream company (Google DeepMind!) by following my own ML curriculum and using techniques I explained here in this blog. I’ll be working there as a Research Engineer starting December, 2021.
My learning story (a short version) 🚀
I understood that there is something wrong with the formal schooling system ever since I became more conscious of myself and the world around me. That roughly coincides with the start of my high-school period.
I understood that I have to take an alternative path and start doing things aside from school on my own initiative. I just felt that the stuff I was learning in school, as well as the approach itself, was suboptimal. I thought that I can do it much better.
My learning story does not start with a book 📚, noup. It starts with me working out on my own, without any supervision, after having trained various sports throughout my childhood, like basketball and eastern martial arts (karate, jiu-jitsu, kung-fu, etc.).
For me, it all started with “street workout” (pull-ups, dips, handstand, …). I’ve learned so much in the process. I’ve learned to create a program for myself, however bad it may be, and stick to it for a long time — I learned the art of discipline and planning.
But I was still young and I did many things the wrong way.
For example, I didn’t focus on nutrition not nearly enough, as I thought that only the training routine itself is important. My technique was also quite poor, especially the dips. I was training literally every day (sometimes more than once!) for months, failing to realize that taking a break is equally important. And so on and so forth.
But hey, that’s the process of learning, if you knew it from the get-go it wouldn’t be called learning, but rather execution.
So, I started with improving my physical body but the journey obviously didn’t end there. In the second year of high school, I started getting really bad grades in maths and German (mostly because I got bored to death). I started questioning myself, am I really that bad at this? Or am I just not investing enough time into it? I realized that I have to do something about it, and so I started self-studying maths and the German language.
Soon I was the best in my German class, as I’ve thoroughly read (I looked up every single word I didn’t know) 13 books in German. 😅 Did I forget to mention that I’m obsessive? 😂 That period ended up with me reading German Nobel prize winner Herman Hesse (whom I highly admire).
You don’t believe me?
Here is the image from my really old German dictionary, it’s actually a nice quality image it’s just that letters got semi-erased during the years:
Aside from this I also went, in the summer of 2013, to Regensburg, Germany to study German for 2 weeks, so that also helped. I have to thank my mum for this, otherwise, I wouldn’t even be aware of this possibility. Thanks mum! ❤️
Back then my language learning methods weren’t that good, but I’ve refined them along the way when I started learning other languages. A similar story goes for maths. “All of a sudden” I was one of the best students.
And so working out and learning languages is something that’s an important part of my life and those are my longest-lasting learning journeys. 15 years and counting!
Since then I’ve had a lot of both 1-shot and longer-lasting experiments:
- Bulking period— a 1-year bulking period where I went from 83 kg to 108 kg without getting fat and at the same time significantly increasing my overall strength. The only supervision I got was advice on the exact number of grams of macronutrients (proteins, carbs, fats) that I need to take on a daily basis (hint: it was a lot!). After that, I made my own nutrition program after doing some research (thinking of micros as well), and I stuck to it. It’s probably a story for a separate blog!
- Learning Android — after 3+ months of doing online courses, side projects, and publishing my first-ever Android app on Google Play Store (my friends helped me with design and data collection), I landed an Android dev internship in a German startup called Telocate!
- Competitive programming (algos & data structures)— after 9 months of preps (reading CS books, attending Algorithm course on my faculty, going through the “Cracking The Coding Interview” book, competing at Topcoder, etc.) I’ve landed a job at Microsoft, competed on Google HashCode, Microsoft BubbleCup, and various hackathons and datathons. (As a side note, I was studying electronics and we didn’t even have an algorithms course!!! We did have strong programming courses though.)
- ML summer camp —Managed to get accepted into a prestigious Serbian ML summer camp (PSI:ML) organized by Microsoft (before I started working at Microsoft). A year later I became a mentor and a lecturer on that very same ML summer camp, because of my strong engagement around the internal ML efforts at Microsoft.
- Learning various languages — I speak English, German, Spanish, Portuguese, and Serbian (native) [video]. I still have to improve all of those, especially Portuguese, but I can effectively communicate and have already effectively communicated in all of them. At this point, I’m thinking of writing a blog on this topic but it’s not my main focus nowadays (AI is). And I should also create a YouTube video.
Nowadays in 2019, I have a couple of learning journeys flowing in parallel.
- Strength training (my custom variation of power-lifting 😅)
- Language learning and exploring different cultures
- Tech (software engineering & ML)
- Business & finance (reading various books on these topics)
- Boosting my EQ (consciously pushing myself out of the comfort zone, practicing being positive and grateful)
I think that interleaving (learning multiple things in parallel or multiple topics from the same field) is both beneficial and also interesting to keep that brain (🧠) from getting bored to death. But you have to be extra careful to stay focused. I always have these tracks strictly sorted by their importance at any given moment (the above list is not sorted).
Going back even further into my past, ever since I was little I always had in my mind these 3 abstract areas I want to get better at, which I visualize like 3 geometrical spheres in my mind (I’m a visual learner). My mum planted those ideas in me when I was little. She was a big fan of the famous Serbian academic Vladeta Jerotić who was a proponent of this multichotomy. These areas are:
- 💪 The Physical body
- 🧠 The Intellectual body
- 🕯️ The Emotional/Spiritual Body
I didn’t quite understand them nor practice all of them back then, but as I was growing up I started focusing on them more and more. And every single thing I do broadly falls into one of these categories - that’s how I like to organize my self-improvement tracks.
We live in an era where we have to be accountable for our own education. We don’t have an excuse anymore. There is a bunch of amazing online resources which are often offered for free. Amazing MOOC platforms like Coursera, Udacity, Udemy. Amazing websites like Brilliant, Medium, etc., and amazing YouTube channels like 3Blue1Brown, MIT OpenCourseWare, etc.
Most of us don’t have the luxury of personal teachers or good public teachers in general, and effective personal AI assistants are still a “long way” into the future, but that shouldn’t discourage us from learning whatever we want.
Before I give you the actual 5 broadly applicable learning tips let me start with something I consider to be an essential skill.
How to go through any course or book 📚
The first thing I like to do is quick research in order to get the bigger picture of what the book/course is all about.
Let me use the concrete example of the “Learning How To Learn” course, and how I approached it.
Learning How to Learn: Powerful mental tools to help you master tough subjects | Coursera
This course gives you easy access to the invaluable learning techniques used by experts in art, music, literature…
Learning from an online course
I usually do a quick Google/YouTube search for the course summary or any talk where the authors are explaining what the course is all about. In this particular case, I went through the following resources:
- This Medium blog and its follow-up YouTube video.
- Barbara Oakley’s TEDx talk (she’s the main author of the course)
- Barbara Oakley’s talk at Google.
After that, I can better internalize what the course is about — I have a bigger picture. That combined with my previous learning experience and I understood the structure of what I am about to learn. It’s like laying the shelves first and now the only thing left to do is to fill the shelves with some quality information.
I do a similar thing for any course I take and with any other type of learning resource for that matter. Let me give you one more example!
Learning from a book
Take Tim Ferris’s book “The 4-Hour Workweek” as an example.
Before reading it I wanted to get the feel for how Tim thinks, how he talks, and how he walks. 😂
I usually proceed by watching a couple of YouTube reviews of the book. A couple of “third party” reviews and if possible a review by the author himself. Because the book is silent. To understand it better, it’s helpful to understand the author, how he thinks, and how he talks. Even the voice can help. It’s like you can later better extract the information from the book.
Nice! With those examples out of the way let me give you some learning tips!
5 tips to skyrocket your learning
1. Have an agile mindset 🧠
There are broadly speaking 2 types of people. People with an agile/growth mindset and people with a fixed mindset. It’s really a spectrum rather than a black & white picture. Even those who are more agile than others have a fixed mindset in certain aspects of life. But naturally, some people incline more towards one end of the spectrum or the other.
Those with an agile mindset believe that they can learn or become whatever they want. They are constantly self-improving and growing. The concept is also known as kaizen in Japanese culture. They know that with enough (smart) time invested they can get anywhere they want!
On the other hand, people with a fixed mindset only believe in talent. They believe that their intelligence and abilities are static traits that can’t be further developed or improved. They will get discouraged if they get into something new where they are not immediately as good as in some other aspects of their life. They’ll think they’re “not talented enough”.
You’ll hear them say “I can’t learn a new language I’m not a kid anymore”, or “I’ll never get fit/gain a lot of muscles because of my genetics”, or “I really suck at maths, I can’t learn it”, or “I’ll never get over my fear of public speaking”.
None of those are objectively true for most physically and mentally healthy people.
There is this awesome video on the topic by this fascinating woman Linda Rising, which I strongly recommend you watch:
Taking this agile idea a bit further, here is one contrarian belief that I hold.
I don’t believe in the concept of genius.
I believe that almost anybody can learn 5+ languages and that almost anybody can become a great mathematician. I think that we’re heavily wasting our potential (even the high performers among us!) mostly because of the highly suboptimal schooling system in which most of us spend at least 12 (8+4) years. That’s both sad and encouraging — because I know that we, as a human species, can do much better.
Don’t mistake this for me ignoring the power law, I think that power law is very real. I just believe that in a society where the schooling system is superior compared to the current one, the people we used to consider geniuses will be considered maybe a tiny bit above average (at best!). The baseline will shift!
All of the great mathematicians, scientists, artists, etc. spent their whole life learning and practicing. Take Tesla, Euler, Gauss, Mozart, Einstein, Warren Buffet, Arnold Schwarzenegger as an example — they all started their kaizen journey when they were still really really young. And they were very focused.
I also love the Polgar sisters story — I think it works well for my argument. What are the chances that a dad that deliberately started teaching his daughters chess when they were young would be a proud father of 3 world champions!?
Polgár and her two older sisters, Grandmaster Susan and International Master Sofia, were part of an educational experiment carried out by their father, László Polgár, in an attempt to prove that children could make exceptional achievements if trained in a specialist subject from a very early age. “Geniuses are made, not born,” was László’s thesis — Wikipedia article
Let me try to debunk a concrete excuse as similar arguments apply for anything you may want to learn:
I can’t learn a new language I’m too old/I’m not talented.
Well, you do speak your mother language perfectly don’t you? Proper accent and all, right? Almost everybody does.
Now they’ll say:
Young people are much better at learning languages.
Fairly sure this is also not true. I don’t have any research I can link right now, but for all practical purposes, it doesn’t even matter. You don’t need to be better than kids — you just need to be good enough.
But here is my strong belief. I think that adults are actually much better than kids at learning languages. Their “hardware” i.e. their brain is much more powerful. It’s the mental barriers like the fear that are preventing them from learning effectively and efficiently. None of these is a hard constraint. My experience and the experience of many poly/hyperglots seem to be in accord with this one.
One of the main reasons, I believe, for why the elderly learn harder is because the social context is different. Nobody will consider some kid a lunatic if he/she starts saying some sentences out loud just because he/she likes the way they sound. They play with the language. They imitate, even in public. Most adults are too afraid to do this, so they stagnate.
I just need 3 more months and then I’ll start speaking with native speakers.
Again, fear. Also, when kids make mistakes everybody will try to correct them because they know that they won’t hurt their feelings. That’s a potent supervisory signal right there!
It’s more complicated with adults. But the good news is — there are no hard constraints! You just have to create an immersive experience for yourself.
Sing along with songs on YouTube and you’ll improve your vocab, pronunciation, and listening skills. As soon as you start learning start meeting natives and speak with them. Give yourself a reason to learn the language, make friends, or find something interesting about that particular culture. Switch the language on your mobile phone to your target language!
I “learned” Portuguese in less than 3 months. Not because I’m super smart or something, but because I already spoke Spanish and I insisted on talking Portuguese while I was in Brazil. Sometimes some of them wanted to switch to English but it’s mostly because they just want to help you out. You just need to make it clear that you actually want to learn their language!
I created an immersive experience for myself. If you don’t do it, nobody will. You’re (probably) not a kid anymore.
Listen, bottom line, if you believe that you can’t learn, do or become something you’re totally right, but not objectively right. Unless you are born with some type of obvious defect you pretty much have everything you need to succeed.
This is the mindset I’d love you to have. Think about all of this.
2. Set your goals and plan out your learning journey 🏁
Now that you have the correct mindset in place, you are ready to learn anything that you make a plan for!
The learning journey should almost always consist of these parts:
- Define a goal — Examples: “I want to be able to squat 150 kg”, or “I want to learn Mandarin”. At every point in time, you should know your goals. If you don’t, take 2 hours off and write them down. I’m serious, this is really important. You should remind yourself every day of what your goals are and make it a habit. I do this all the time. Your goals should become a part of your family. 👪
- Do your research — Get the feeling for the structure of the thing you’re trying to learn, gather the resources and do basic research. This part is also a must, don’t just jump into learning without first understanding the bigger picture. It took me maybe 2 days to understand everything around Barbara’s learning course on Coursera and the same amount of time to prepare for Tim Ferriss’s book. It’s the same procedure for everything. Be it learning a new programming language or starting a new strength program.
- Make a deadline — After doing the research you will have a clue for the complexity that lies ahead. Nobody can make perfect predictions, just give it your best try! Once I set the deadline, I like to divide my goal into more easily manageable chunks. The 2-3 month periods work like a charm for me, or you can divide your journey into a number of sessions (depending on what makes more sense for the specific goal you have at hand).
- Prioritize and execute— You have your goal and you did some basic research so that you have an understanding of the complexity and structure of your journey. Prioritize which subareas you’ll manage first and start executing!
It’s hard to give specific advice for everything that’s out there. But every single learning quest will pretty much have these 4 steps in common.
Let me make these a bit less abstract! Down below is a concrete example of my current strength training program (session-based). The focus is on deep squat and bench press. I hit the gym every second day (rest days are super important!). And every 2 training sessions I increase the weight by only 2.5 kg. It’s that simple! 😅 Progressive overload goes a long way. You just need some power of will.
You can find a 3-minute timelapse of my squat routine (120 kg) in this YouTube video (this was the first YouTube video I ever made!). And you can also find snippets from my handstand routine in this video.
And this is another program (time-based) back from 2017 when I was preparing for a software engineer role at big tech companies (Microsoft, Facebook, Google, etc.) :
This just shows the first 3 months of my preps. I continued doing this and 9 months later I landed a job at Microsoft (even though my official education was more focused on EE/electronics).
The content here doesn’t even matter that much (it’s written in a mix of Serbian Cyrillic and English, don’t ask me why 😅). Bottom line is, you can see the months in the leftmost column (October, November, December), and every day when I worked towards this goal is marked down. I’ve also scribbled some milestones and notes (the power of marginalia 😍).
Extra tip: Write your plan on a piece of paper (or on a calendar), and hang it on your bedroom door! Fill it in as your journey progresses. Like the 2 examples above. That way you’ll constantly be reminded of where you’re heading to.
With this plan in place, you’ll “only” need a couple more things. You’ll need perseverance but you’ll also need flexibility at the same time.
There is a reason behind every single word I said. If you’re only perseverant, then, when you hit the wall you’ll start pushing it harder and harder, and eventually, when you see you’re not making any progress you’ll either give up or worse, you’ll continue pushing without any results.
That’s why you also need to be flexible. I call that intelligent perseverance. When you hit the wall you initially don’t know it, and after pushing long enough you eventually understand that you have to adapt and change your strategy. You’ll hit a lot of walls during your learning/self-improvement journey. Learning is not a linear thing, moreover, it’s highly nonlinear.
Finally, there is no such willpower that won’t get drained if you don’t enjoy your journey. Trust me on this one. You can go on for some time maybe even a couple of years (I know I tried), but in the end, you’ll give up if you don’t proactively seek ways to “entertain” yourself with the same passion with which you’re trying to achieve your goals.
And this leads us to the following 2 sections!
3. Value both the focused and diffuse modes 🕯️
Let’s first get the terminology out of the way, briefly:
- The focused state is when you concentrate really hard on a certain problem (like when you’re trying to solve a math problem).
- The diffuse state is when you let your mind freely wander be it in an awake state or in a sleep state. That’s when your brain is making new links and improving. The “Eureka” moments come in this state.
Both states require some attention.
For the focused state, you want to make sure you have a healthy work environment. By that I mean no distractions, or maybe some music that helps you focus. Also, try to work outside of the place where you sleep and rest.
As for the diffuse state — that’s something I considered less important for a long long time. I used to feel unproductive when I’m in a diffuse state (the Coursera course really helped me a lot with this one). But if you don’t value it you’ll have a lot of burnouts — talking about being unproductive…
There are different activities that can induce the diffuse mode. Here are some of them in no particular order:
- Physical activities: walking/running, gym, dancing, etc.
- Sleep: the usual night sleep, power naps, lucid dreams, micro dreams
- Taking a hot/cold shower, etc.
It’s crucially important that you give the diffuse mode equal importance in your life. Some of these are a must like sleep. You could theoretically omit the other ones 😜, but I wouldn’t recommend it.
You really learn to appreciate the diffuse state once you had many semi-burnouts — as I did for example. This one really stuck with me after finishing the course. Make it a habit to integrate these activities after every work session you do.
Experiment with different activities and find what works best for you.
- Experiment with micro dreams. Great minds you heard of like Richard Feynman, Thomas Edison, Salvador Dali, and others, all experimented with dreams. They experimented with “micro dreams”. That’s when you, for a brief moment, fall asleep, and you touch that sweet spot between being awake and asleep. I think that Salvador Dali used to get into this state by sitting in his chair with keys in his hand and as soon as he fell asleep he’d wake up because the keys have hit the ground. (J.K. Rowling got the idea for the famous Harry Potter series while being in a half-asleep state on a train)
- Do you know what’s lucid dreaming? It’s when you get conscious of your dreams. I’ve occasionally had them. They are (usually) a great experience where you can sometimes, during your dreaming experience, vividly see in colors and hear sounds and music. It is shown that people who practice certain skills, while being lucid, get better at those while awake. I won’t get into the details of how do you purposefully get into this state in this blog. It’s enough for now that you know that they exist. Do your own research!
- Experiment with walking. Many great minds like Nikola Tesla, Charles Dickens, and others did it. It works! It can also induce certain types of meditative/diffuse states. A perfect thing after an intensive work session.
4. Focus on the process, not on the end goal 🏃
Why is this important? Well, you’ll avoid a lot of unnecessary stress, to say the least. This, together with the diffuse mode, will help you stick with your plan. Remember that it all takes time, so have patience!
I still struggle with this. I catch myself wanting to be somewhere where I know I’ll maybe get to in 6 months, 1 or 10 years. This is an especially strong demotivator for people that are clear with their goals, who understand the complexity of getting there, and are naturally impatient like me for example.
One more thing I want you to understand is that starting is always hard — even for those high-performing folks who seem to have it really easy. You just get into a habit of ignoring that initial visceral pain!
A practical piece of advice to help you get started: One really useful technique you could use is the so-called “Pomodoro” technique. You just tell yourself: “I don’t have to finish my task in this learning session I just want to invest X minutes into doing this.” Where X is traditionally 25 minutes, but feel free to experiment. I usually do this if I’m having problems starting, normally I don’t use it.
And last but not least!
5. Be proactive in your learning 💥
At this point, you have the correct mindset, a goal, and a plan of how to get there. You equally value the focused and diffuse states, and you’re using tricks such as focusing on the process so that your journey is more enjoyable!
The last step is to make those focused moments as productive as possible.
First, try to make your learning environment distraction-free as much as you can. You can at least turn the sound of your mobile off. Me, I’m learning in the same room where I sleep which is not ideal but is the best thing I’ve currently got. But. It’s quiet, there are literally no distractions and that’s awesome!
It’s usually recommended to have a separate space where you learn and work, and a separate space where you only rest. But it seems this is working for me, I sleep like a baby, so why change it if it’s not broken? 🤓
With your distractions minimized, you need to know a couple more things. The common pitfalls when learning a new subject. A lot of people tend to just reread the material or just look at the solution and think that if they understand the solution they will know how to find one themselves. More “advanced” learners will even highlight something that stood out.
(For those with a computer science background: there is a parallel here with NP-hard problems. Once you have a solution you’re able to verify it’s correct in polynomial time. But in order to find the solution itself well? Well, you know the story — computational intractability and stuff. That’s why you want to work on finding the solution yourself!)
The thing is — it’s scientifically proven that rereading is the worst learning technique. Poor retention. You have to be proactive in your learning.
Instead of rereading (and I know that this is hard that’s why most people don’t do it) try recalling what you learned. Take 30 seconds off and summarize the most important concepts you’ve learned. That will go a long way! Sketch down a mind map (of the most important concepts you’ve learned) if you’re a visual person or recall it out loud.
Write a blog on the topic you’re learning, create a project when applicable, explain it to others or pretend to do so. You’ll avoid the illusion of competence this way, where you think you know something, when actually — you don’t. Be creative, create metaphors and analogies along the way.
The famous one that helped me during my EE studies is the analogy between water and current. The electric potential (voltage is the potential difference) is the water on higher ground and the current is the water itself.
A personal update: this blog was written in 2019. In 2020 I started my YouTube channel, The AI Epiphany, where I’m explaining various AI related concepts. That’s an example of being proactive in learning — everything I wrote in this blog is the stuff I practice myself! Also I use my GitHub to explain stuff to others!
Well if you stuck with me all the way until here, congrats!
This blog is obviously very personal, and I hope that me writing about all of this in public will be useful to some of you.
You are now officially ready to achieve whatever you set your mind to! You just have to make sure you set your mind to amazing things and that you take full responsibility for your own education. Also, remember to have patience it took me 10+ years to get to this point!
Let me wrap up this blog with one of my favorite quotes:
“I have never let my schooling interfere with my education” — Mark Twain.
If there is something you would like me to write about — write it down in the comment section or send me a DM. I’d be glad to write more about maths, ML, deep learning, software, landing a job in a big tech company, preparing for ML summer camps, electronics (I actually officially studied this beast), etc., anything that could help you.
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Much love ❤️