09 – Interest + Access = Meta-Learning

My most valuable resource is time.

Fact #1 – This resource cannot be paused, stored or saved. I have to spend this resource second by second.

Fact #2 – I don’t know how much of this resource I have been allocated.

Especially after getting a bit longer in the tooth, I am far more conscious about maximizing the beautiful resource that I have been given. It’s a gentle balance of neurotic obsession and present moment awareness.

What are my resource allocation goals?

1. Be a present Dad and Husband.

2. Be a solid provider for my family.

3. Prioritize physical health and mindfulness.

4. Commit to growth and learning.

5. Build something amazing.

6. Bring unlike disciplines together for exponential entrepreneurship.

7. Leverage my skills and network to make a difference.

8. Think about really exciting things that may or may not actually ever become anything.

Great quote on this idea … “Two things are required. One is a brain. And second is the willingness to spend long times in thinking, with a definite possibility that you come out with nothing.” (Hans Bethe from an interview in Creativity: Flow and The Psychology of Discovery and Invention M. Csikszentmihalyi)

9. Live in a space of want to and not have to.

10. Develop repeatable triggers for flow state.

Each of these presents an interesting discussion, but let’s focus on #4 for today … Commit to growth and learning.

At 40 years old, I’ve made my way through elementary school, middle school, high school and college.

I learned my ABC’s.

I figured out how to color within the lines.

I navigated my way through multiplication tables.

I learned the “Four P’s” of Marketing.

He aprendido espanol.

I could list a few more examples, but I’d rather jump to a more important question.

Have I ever really learned how to learn?

Some say that traditional education is a cumulative process, and through that process we learn how to learn. If I did, I can’t seem to recall a formal, repeatable process or methodology.

Well, actually, that process may look something like this:

1. Ignore directions and instructions on topics that I am not remotely interested in.

2. Make sure I really need to learn them.

3. Wait until the last possible minute.

4. Begin stuffing facts and figures into my brain.

5. Cross my fingers and hope it all stays in place until someone asks me to prove my worthiness.

Throughout school, I realized that I was missing actual interest in the subjects.

Only as I approached my mid-thirties, I started becoming fascinated with learning.

After reading Josh Waitzken’s book, The Art of Learning, I wanted to start learning how to learn.


Josh won his first National Chess Championship when he was just 9 years old. After winning the National Chess Championship seven other times, he transitioned to learning the art of Tai Chi Chuan eventually earning over twenty National Championships and multiple world championships.

Josh was also the inspiration for the book and movie Searching for Bobby Fischer.


A few key takeaways from the The Art of Learning:

On the keys to learning … “well-thought-out approach that inspires resilience, the ability to make connections between diverse pursuits, and day to day enjoyment of the process.”

On performance states … “if you are tense, with your fingers jammed in your ears and your whole body straining to fight off distraction, then you are in a Hard Zone that demands a cooperative world for you to function. Like a dry twig, you are brittle, ready to snap under pressure. The alternative is for you to be quietly, intensely focused, apparently relaxed with a serene look on your face … This Soft Zone is resilient, like a flexible blade of grass that can move with and survive hurricane force winds.”

For the athletes that I train at Crossfit Alpharetta, an example of the soft zone would be relaxing your jaw when you are attempting double unders. Calm translates from your jaw throughout the rest of your body.

On the beginner’s mind … “I think what initially struck me when I watched my first Tai Chi class, was that the goal was not winning, but, simply, being.”

Many people starting something new are immediately frustrated by the time it takes to acquire a new skill. Enjoyment of the process is critical. Resist the search for instant gratification.

On smaller circles … To paraphrase an example from Robert Pirsig’s Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, the main character, Phaedrus (a teacher) is working with a student in the major throws of writer’s block. Her assignment was a 500-word essay about her town. She was absolutely stumped and couldn’t write a thing. Phaedrus asks her to consider a single building in that town, and begin the story with the upper-left hand brick of the building. That is an example of smaller circles … sometimes the starting point is the most difficult hurdle.

On chunking … “Chunking relates to the minds ability to take lots of information, find a harmonizing/logically consistent strain, and put it together into one mental file that can be accessed as if it were a single piece of information.”

Keep note of this concept. I’ll refer to it later in the post.

On presence … “The secret is that everything is always on the line. The more present we are at practice, the more present we will be in competition, in the boardroom, at the exam, the operating table, the big stage … Presence must be like breathing.”

On stress and recovery … “Players who are able to relax in brief moments of inactivity are almost always the ones who end up coming through when the game is on the line … creating tiny havens for renewal … relaxation is a blink away from full awareness.”

Find ways to click the off switch when you see the opportunity, even if its only for a brief moment.

During my discovery of learning, I ran across the idea of meta-learning.

In 1979, Donald B. Maudsley described meta-learning as “the process by which learners become aware of and increasingly in control of habits of perception, inquiry, learning and growth that have been internalized.”

Six years later, John Biggs condensed the definition to “being aware of and taking control of one’s own learning”.

In 1985, I was nine. Not a chess champion or in control of my own learning.

The good news is that thirty-one years later, I have apparently embraced meta-learning.

I wish it hadn’t taken that long though.

It’s 2004. I am transported back to my hotel room in Sterling, VA. I was sent by my company to obtain a technical certification from CISCO called CCNA (Cisco Certified Network Associate). The goal of the course was to be able to design and troubleshoot networks using CISCO equipment.

At this point, I had transitioned from my inside sales role at Accu-Tech (remember Terry and the cable stretcher??) to a technical sales role for Graybar Electric. This was not my first technical certification exam and was certainly not my last. I thought I had a pretty good idea of what to expect. Man, was I wrong. After the first day of the program, I ran into a seemingly impossible road block of converting decimals into binary numbers and binary numbers to decimals.

Have you ever been in an environment where you felt so far behind that you didn’t know where to begin?

I was essentially in a room full of people speaking Old English (think Beowulf), while I was speaking Mandarin Chinese.

I was in trouble.

Day 1 ended at 5:30PM.

Most of the class was headed out to grab a few beers and blow off some steam. My evening agenda was slightly different.

Just like any daunting task, the hardest part is usually getting started. After a quick bite to eat, I decided that a helpful companion for this journey would be a 6-kit of Heineken (I was still in my twenties at the time). Let the classic all-nighter begin. Through sheer will power, the brute force of repeatedly slamming data into my skull, and hundreds of manual decimal to binary/binary to decimal conversions, I found myself in the wee hours of the morning able to barely claw on to the concepts enough to participate in class the next day.

Many of you may be thinking, why didn’t you read the syllabus and prepare ahead of time?

1. I wouldn’t have this story at my disposal.

2. This blog post is not about procrastination.

Although, procrastination is often the mother of necessity.

Did I pass the test? Yes.

Did I learn anything? Nope.

Tim Ferriss is an author, investor and podcast host that I’ve previously mentioned in 52 musings. In the middle of high school, Tim found himself in a similar, yet more precarious situation as an American student in a Japanese school with only a basic understanding of Japanese. Imagine trying to learn high school subjects sitting in a classroom in a foreign country in a foreign language.

Maybe that was the catalyst for his investigation into meta-learning?

Ferriss has long been an authority in meta-learning, in fact, his podcast, the The Tim Ferriss Show aims to deconstruct world class performance. In a recent episode, he breaks down a framework that he developed for meta-learning that he first showcased in his book The Four Hour Chef.

“It is possible to become world class at just about anything in six months or less. That’s based on everything I’ve done and everything I’ve seen. Armed with the right framework, you can seemingly perform miracles.” (Tim Ferriss from  The Four Hour Chef)

The framework Tim refers to is called DiSSS.


Take something complex and break it down into simple pieces. What are the minimum learnable units or bite size chunks? (sound familiar? See Josh Waitzken above).

Ferriss refers to these tools to deconstruct any skill:

1. Reducing – Using an example of learning languages, spend time on the most common words and phrases instead of learning everything.

2. Interviewing – Find an expert to interview. Be thoughtful in your approach and find a way to create a mutually beneficial engagement for you and the expert.


What is the minimal effective dose? Focus on achievable actions to get to your goals. If your goal is to become more fit, don’t assume going from zero activity to five days of high intensity training will work.


What is the best order to learn the material? When learning to tango, Ferriss developed the unique approach to learn the female role before learning the male role. This perspective helped him with balance and posture when he finally attempted the male role.


Ferriss writes, “No matter how good a plan is, how thorough a book is, or how sincere our intentions, humans are horrible at self-discipline”.

The key is to set stakes and real life consequences. One example of his that I liked was the idea of donating to what he calls an “anti-charity” or an organization that you can’t stand.

So, what if you aren’t actually bad at something?

What if you just approached it the wrong way?

What if you just haven’t applied the right process and energy?

Dive into that mission that you’ve been putting off.

Learn, grow and be great!


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