10x Learning

In Zero to One, Peter Thiel claims that in order to establish a new monopoly (his argument that monopolies are a good thing for both the owner and society is beyond the scope of this post), a startup needs to improve upon an important dimension by 10 times. For example, Google’s search engine was probably 10 times better than other options at the time.

If our domain is education, and we want to establish a better means of learning a particular topic, the claim is that we want a 10x improvement in order to scale out to a majority of our target audience.

Learning rate. In the last post, I claimed that the rate of learning is a plateau-filled slow climb that can crush motivation. Attempts to circumvent this fact, like small wins (which zoom in on the learning graph but can’t trick us forever) and gamification (which is inspired by examples that get to hand-pick their challenges), don’t work. Could we, like the brain downloading programs from the Matrix, improve the learning rate by 10 times? Shorten a plateau that would normally take 10 hours of dedicated learning into one? Perhaps in particularly degenerate cases with very high extraneous cognitive load (like beginning French by reading the original Deleuze), but normally there are just too many bits of knowledge to acquire and synthesize. Even a spaced repetition system that optimizes the order and frequency of review would, by my guess, be at most a 2-3x improvement in the rate. Of course that 2-3x can have a huge impact, so let’s consider other forms of measuring learning.

Time of persistence. If learning something that is entirely voluntary, like a class to improve your home cooking, the amount of time persisted will be a good approximation of how motivating that learning method is. And if “10,000 hours” really is the most important part of mastery, then time of persistence (along with hours of learning per day) is the most important metric of learning.

Of course, I don’t actually believe that number of hours alone is important. I think of some of the podcasts I tried for learning Chinese, where they started and ended with friendly chit-chat in English–clearly that time was not improving my Chinese. Don’t forget that it was originally 10,000 hours of deliberate practice that K. Anders Ericsson claimed produced masters.

Quality of results. In my career field, software engineering, there is much discussion and debate about the “10x engineer”. In any field, one must define what qualifies as 10x quality. 10x engineers have been defined pretty well: their presence in a company increases productivity by 10 times over an average engineer. That is probably a combination of their speed in producing a working system, code that is reliable and easy to maintain, and tools and practices that enable their whole time to be more productive. A more difficult question that we must an answer for learning is what produces a 10x engineer (or other 10x quality role). You can see a deluge of attempts to answer that on Quora. The fact that 10x quality isn’t average suggests that it consists of skills of that may be misunderstood (the benefits of strongly typed languages), counterintuitive (red-green-refactor in test-driven development), unsexy (knowing the ins and outs of the Linux kernel), or have very long plateaus that cause most to drop out (higher order abstractions in Haskell).

Logically we can’t have a scalable system that makes everyone 10x better than average, but if we can train the average person in 10x practices, we have an overall much more productive society.

Quantity of results. Maybe quality is too hard to measure: think about art. But the one who produces 10 times more paintings is probably going to be better (not to mention have more to hang on the wall). Consider this (already cited too often) anecdote from Art and Fear:

The ceramics teacher announced on opening day that he was dividing the class into two groups. All those on the left side of the studio, he said, would be graded solely on the quantity of work they produced, all those on the right solely on its quality. His procedure was simple: on the final day of class he would bring in his bathroom scales and weigh the work of the “quantity” group: fifty pound of pots rated an “A”, forty pounds a “B”, and so on. Those being graded on “quality”, however, needed to produce only one pot — albeit a perfect one — to get an “A”. Well, came grading time and a curious fact emerged: the works of highest quality were all produced by the group being graded for quantity. It seems that while the “quantity” group was busily churning out piles of work – and learning from their mistakes — the “quality” group had sat theorizing about perfection, and in the end had little more to show for their efforts than grandiose theories and a pile of dead clay.

Number of competitive wins. In elite athletics, a major industry goes into shaving fractions of a second (see this in-depth discussion on the minute effects of beet juice). Does the 10x metric still make sense there? It does if you count number of competitions won (or competitive earnings). In high school, I was certainly no athlete, but I was really into math competitions. My high school math team did practice tests on nearly a daily basis and a dozen competitions per year. If you told me I could have the highest score 10 times more often, I would have eagerly given you my (admittedly scant) savings. I was already pretty good, so that would have translated to merely a few extra points per test on average.

I think 10x is a great rallying cry for improving learning experiences, but it’s worth figuring out what is realistic and meaningful for your domain. Once you’ve picked one exploit it as much as possible. If it’s 10x competitive wins, then let your users compete on a daily basis. For 10x quantity of results or time of persistence, encourage a simple repeatable activity and showcase it in a growing gallery (see 180 Websites in 180 Days or Give it 100). If you believe you have the secret to 10x quality, promote the skills that resist learning by finding new ways to practice them or by using expert endorsements to emphasize their importance (see Ramit Sethi’s writing and courses such as Big Wins Manifesto).

I’d love to talk to anyone designing a learning plan–even if it’s just for yourself–to decide which metric to focus on and which strategies to use. Send me an email with your goal!