January 1, 2010
June 5, 2009
I’ll be back to posting, I suspect, this time next week. Or the week after at the latest. I may share some links and little tidbits in the meantime. Between seventy hour weeks and a newly developed cold, I am quite out of it.
I do have some interesting posts coming up, though, so stay tuned!
May 29, 2009
I expect this will be a recurring theme. Today, however, I only have three mindset hacks to offer.
believing you can grow means you will
I’m still reading Carol Dweck’s book, Mindset: The New Psychology of Success, which is all about this. I’ve covered the basics in an earlier post, but here’s another quick run down. In Carol Dweck’s research she has found people are divided between two mindsets about their abilities and traits. What I suspect is the more common mindset, she called the “fixed” mindset, because it supposes abilities and traits are fixed and unchangeable. You’re smart or you aren’t. You can imagine how, believing you can’t change, you can’t improve on your ability, the incentive would be to hide your failure rather than improve. That’s just what happens. On the other hand, some people believe they can improve with practice and effort. Interestingly, simply having this belief enabled people to perform better in many, many arenas of life. In one study referenced in the book, college students were tracked during what is known to be peak season for depression and stress on college campuses. Unfortunately, I can not remember or the exact details at the moment, and as I don’t have access to scholarly journals, couldn’t view it anyway, but here’s the gist: One group of students was in, or had been put in, the fixed mindset. The other group was either in, or had been put in, the growth mindset. Both groups experienced as much depression and stress during the course of the study, however when depressed or stressed, the growth mindset group tried harder. Students in the fixed mindset, on the other hand, confronted with stress and depression, ceased to put effort into their schoolwork and many other things. The key point to observe here is that simply the belief in their ability to improve by being challenged and expending effort actually made itself true. More on how this matters in the third mindset hack.
thinking about concrete actions cures procrastination
I first read about this here, where you will find a much more in depth explanation. The gist is this: two groups of students were given a set of simple tasks such as opening a bank account and whatnot. One group was told to think about the task in the abstract; it’s relation to their lives as a whole, to society, whatever – so long as it’s abstract. The other group was told to think of the specific actions required to accomplish the tasks. Even though both groups were paid for their participation in the study upon completion of the tasks, the participants in the second group finished much sooner. In fact, some of the students told to think of the task in the abstract did not even complete the task in the allotted time at all.
remind yourself what’s important
This is an informal experiment of mine, which I invite you to try for yourself. I have set up reminders for myself around the time I wake up, when I go to my lunch break, and when I get off work. Their sole purpose being to keep in the forefront of my mind these simple principles I have learned that, both according to research and personal experience, can have profound impacts on your actions. Also, I think it’s just as valid to remind yourself of your principles, and in fact, I think this could be just as useful for autodidacts. Currently I’m only trying this with the two concepts above, phrased in a way that hits home for me. Choose what you will for yourself. Every so often I will update with how this is working for me, until I come to a conclusion. I hope some of you will try it, I would like to see how it works for others, as well.
update on reading the art of learning
I’m nearly done reading The Art of Learning, which I still think is an excellent book. However, I do think it warrants some caveats. This book isn’t for everyone. It’s got a decidedly eastern feel to it, which is fine for me personally, as a zen buddhist. While I believe the concepts explained to be valid for everyone, and I’m sure many people would find this an enjoyable read, it’s not presented in a way everyone will be comfortable with. This is a shame, because there’s much value to what’s said. The other complaint I have is that the book is focused on competitive pursuits. Much of what’s presented can be adapted to the solo autodidact, but it’s not always obvious how. In short, it’s a great book, and I highly recommend it, but only buy it knowing what you’re getting.
May 25, 2009
I’m going to temporarily cut the posting schedule back to once a week, next real post will be next friday. This is because I just don’t have as much to share as I expected, and I’m busy enough as it is with work. Also, I prefer more fully developed posts, and I think they’ll be more valuable to all of you. I may share some links and quotes randomly in the mean time, but don’t expect major updates except for every friday, until I’m off work for the summer.
May 23, 2009
A common theme is developing, so I thought I’d point it out. The lessons I’m sharing are from my own mistakes, entirely. In this case, the mistake was neglecting to fully grok the trig functions and identities while trying to learn calculus. Now, whether you choose to fully understand trig before you work on calculus, you absolutely do need to be able to work with the functions a bit, and be aware of some identities. This is what I meant my mundane in the title. There will inevitably be tidbits you don’t want to study for their own sake, but need to understand for something else you’re trying to learn.
Memorize it. Use flash cards, mnemonics (these have always worked great for me.), whatever you need to. There are a few reasons, as I see it, to do this:
- To prevent frustration. Frustration is inevitable when teaching yourself, but you don’t want to go looking for it. Too much frustration caused by jumping in over your head is, I suspect, one of the major reasons people give up on teaching themselves.
- To enable you to move forward quicker. Instead of stopping and reading a full on trigonometry book, I’m memorizing the identities necessary to manipulate equations enough for calculus. Since I’ll now be able to effortlessly recall these values, problems that would have required groping around in the dark before will now merely be challenging. You need to build up islands of techniques and facts, to use as tools in understanding the big picture.
- To support intuition. As I think of intuitive insight, it works like this: You build up the aforementioned islands of techniques and facts. Having internalized these techniques and facts makes higher level patterns that were incomprehensible before, just jump out at you. But you absolutely have to learn those mundane, seemingly irrelevant facts first.
It’s a balancing act. Rote memorization is not learning, our generation is well aware of this. Perhaps, though, rote memorization of mundane facts is the quickest way to mastery of higher level concepts.
A final note: I had this post written up yesterday, when it was scheduled to be posted. In fact, it was a much better post then. Unfortunately I lost internet while writing, the better content wasn’t saved, and I couldn’t post. The bulk of it’s still here, but I apologize for the delay and lower quality.
May 18, 2009
The Downward Spiral
Today’s post is inspired both by the current state of my own autodidactic adventures, and chapter six in The Art of Learning , “The Downward Spiral.” This quote from it should give you an idea what it’s about:
“In every discipline, the ability to be clearheaded, present, cool under fire is much of what separates the best from the mediocre. In competition, the dynamic is often painfully transparent. If one player is serenely present while the other is being ripped apart by internal issues, the outcome is already clear. The prey is no longer objective, makes compounding mistakes, and the predator moves in for the kill.”
Starting around the time of my so-so post last friday, I began a downward spiral myself. The concept is that one error can throw you off emotionally, and causing more errors. This is paramount to any autodidact. If you lose your momentum, your rhythm, it can be paralyzingly demoralizing. Often, in fact, I think it costs people the pursuit of entire subjects or the pursuit of knowledge for knowledge’s sake itself. In a world where so much of the emphasis related to learning and education is on gaining credentials to get a job, it is easy to think lowly of your desire to feed your natural curiosity. Combine this with the inevitable ups and downs of teaching yourself while working and maintaining the rest of your life, and you’ve got a recipe for disaster.
The answer? Unfortunately, there is no profound life changing answer to this one. It’s a true, but tired cliché: just keep going. Don’t dwell on mishaps. Look at the problems you encounter as learning opportunities (because they are), and learn how you can structure your routine and habits better to avoid the same problems in the future.
A Few Notes
I am currently focusing on the psychological, rather than technical and practical, aspects of teaching yourself. There are a few reasons for this:
- After my first two posts, I had ran out of explicit knowledge about the learning process as a whole. There are many, many short and sweet techniques I could, and will, share with you. For now I am trying to convert my implicit knowledge about the process of learning as a whole into explicit knowledge I can share with everyone. In the mean time expect posts like this, and pointers on some specific tools you can use.
- The psychological aspect of teaching yourself is very likely more important than anything else. If you don’t believe you can learn from challenging yourself, you won’t even try. If you give up when you hit difficulties, you won’t make it far at all. Teaching yourself is chock full of difficulties, ones that teach you so much. There are many other examples, but I’m not going to get into them right now.
- I am working seventy hours a week right now. I’m writing this blog because I want to share valuable, practical knowledge about how to teach yourself. That implies, however, that teaching myself is very important to me. It’s a higher priority than this blog. I study first, and think about posts second. I think any other approach would be hypocritical.
Secondly, if anyone has any suggestions for a post topic, comment and let me know. I’ll do what I can with the suggestions, but make no promise that I’ll post on it if you suggest it. It would be terribly useful, however, to know what difficulties other people encounter in the course of teaching themselves. I’m sure much of what I’ve encountered everyone does, but I also suspect there are difficulties I’ve not run into. I’d like to provide whatever help I can for whatever problems you’re having.
Last of all, like I said, I’m working seventy hours a week right now. I’m out of town, and spending a lot of time on errands just to keep going. My life comes first, and the blog second, so I’m not editing these posts to perfection. This is a conscious choice, one I would hope for most of you to make. Living and learning come before everything else.
May 15, 2009
In the first few chapters I was made aware of research I have read about in a few places, but never looked into much. The short and sweet of it is that people fall along a continuum between two implicit theories of intelligence. The first being that intelligence is a fixed attribute. You’re smart or you aren’t. The second being that with practice and exposure to challenges, an individual can grow. Let’s ignore which idea is actually true for now, and think about the implications. If you think your intelligence is fixed, you won’t try to get smarter, and challenges will seem uninteresting because they are merely an opportunity to fail. On the other hand, if challenges are an opportunity to grow, they will be embraced. Such a simple difference in implicit beliefs (you could consciously agree conscious is not fixed but actually live otherwise) will over time lead to huge differences in how much each person learns.
From personal experience I’d say I started out with on the fixed side of the continuum and have been for years slowly tending to embrace challenges. As a kid I was told many times how smart I was, which emphasizes the fixed theory of intelligence. For a long time this held me back because I would try to look right, instead of becoming right. Now, instead, I’m (more than before, at least) embracing challenges. I can not emphasize enough how much this has changed the feel and ease of learning for me.
I’m just a few pages in to chapter five, “The Soft Zone: ‘Lose Yourself'” right now, which so far seems to be referencing the concept of flow, which I became aware of because of this ted talk, by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. Finding the idea intriguing, I read his book, Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience. I can’t cite research, but I believe with no doubts that the state of flow is absolutely essential to effective learning. If you aren’t enjoying your learning, you are definitely doing something wrong.
Related to this, I’ve just started reading Mindset: The New Psychology of Success, a book on the same subject by the researcher responsible for this finding, Carol Dweck. I’ll post more specifics about this book and the theory as I read it, but from the what I’ve read it promises to be a great and useful book.
Now for the second part of the title: be honest about your shortcomings. Admit to yourself and others when you don’t know something, or when you’ve made a mistake. If you don’t, you won’t see where you can improve. People won’t challenge you. You have to take responsibility and be honest in order to teach yourself. That’s what I’m doing here: I delayed preparing for this post. That’s why it’s not as well thought out as previous ones, and I apologize for that. I’ll have better and more in depth posts about both of these books, and the ideas I’ve referenced later.
May 13, 2009
One deceptively slight change to the naive autodidact algorithm can make a huge difference. It’s actually not a radically different algorithm, but the productivity gain is immense. Also, using this approach will feel a lot better.
Instead of looking up whatever you need to in the process of your studying, do an initial pass through the content to find out what you don’t understand. Make an outline, and for each item you don’t understand, make a heading. For each bit you don’t understand in its explanation, add a subheading. Keep doing this until everything you encounter is already something you understand, or in your outline. Don’t study now; just look for unfamiliar concepts. You are writing your syllabus.
The next step is to look at the items at the lowest level (indented the furthest) of your outline. Which concept appears the most at this level? Put it first on your list of concepts to study. Keep building the rest of your list the same way. This is not a perfectly optimal ordering; someone who knows the subject might be able to come up with a better, or more interesting, one. On the other hand, if you had someone who knew the subject and was willing to teach you, you very likely wouldn’t be trying to teach yourself. It is, however, a relatively efficient way to order what you study.
Why is this better? Simply put, you’ve cut out most of the frustration and inefficiency. Instead of trying to start studying from where you want to be, where, by definition, there are many unfamiliar concepts, you can now start closer to what you already understand. You won’t have to stop constantly to look up unfamiliar concepts. You’ll also feel more accomplished because you’ll be getting more done. In short, you’ll be closer to flow, which I consider to be essential to learning.
May 11, 2009
I have been trying to teach myself things all my life. Something I’ve often done, out of impatience or lack of humility, is to overlook prerequisites. I’ll be reading something, run across a term I don’t understand and think “well I’m smart, i can just skip looking that up.”
THAT’S WRONG. I don’t care how smart you are, or how cool you think you are. You can’t skip it. No one can.
I suspect that this is the main reason people don’t think they can teach themselves anything they choose, that they don’t know where to start, that they will run into many concepts they don’t understand. This shouldn’t surprise you: isn’t the point to run into things you don’t understand, and then learn them? Nonetheless, it is a problem; if you can’t understand most of the concepts or terms in some text, you won’t be able to learn much from it directly. Indirectly, however, you can use it as a source to find out what you need to know.
Here’s an example that most of you can probably relate to, even if silly and artificial: say you wanted to learn algebra (suppress those bad memories!) of the highschool variety, but you didn’t even know arithmetic yet. You’d look at whatever resource you were using, a textbook, a wikipedia article, what have you, and you’d see all these symbols you didn’t understand. The key is to look at these unknown symbols as a tool you can use to find out what you need to know instead of an obstacle preventing you from learning any algebra. So you’d see some plus signs, some fractions, letters, and numbers. Each one you find you don’t understand, you put on a list to look up later.
Most of these are things you won’t be able to look up directly. For example, google ignores symbols and punctuation. There aren’t many good resources, currently, for this process. you’ll mainly have to ask people. More about this in a later post. For now, the point is just to find resources, look through them, and collect a list of what you don’t know. When you go to look up each of these things, you’ll encounter more things you don’t understand. Repeat this until you’ve found everything you need to learn in order to get back to where you wanted to start. Then start learning them.
I call this the naive autodidact algorithm (or the stupidest way to teach yourself that will work). It will definitely work; that should be obvious to anyone. But it will also be painfully slow. I’ll write about how we can improve on this later.
One last thing: I have no illusions of already being a polished writer. I’m not. But part of the whole purpose of this approach and mindset I’m sharing is to not be afraid to fail, to accept criticism, and to improve based on it. I’ll be looking over my own work and trying to improve myself, but if you see ways I could improve, feel free to share. This is a learning process for me, too. I’m teaching myself how to teach you to teach yourself anything. =]
(I apologize for this being posted late: I had some personal drama and no internet until recently, but I swear it was all written on time!)
May 9, 2009
i’ve decided, for the start, i’ll be doing regular posts mondays and fridays, with updates as i see fit in between. also, you can follow me on twitter, where i put up quite a few links of what i’m reading and finding interesting. among many other things. that is all for now!