What are your “Big Projects”?

One thing that has become clear to me as I get older and raise a family is that human beings need a bigger purpose in life. We need big goals and big dreams that we can endlessly pursue. Without this, we inevitably stagnate and decline.

You can clearly see our need for a higher purpose throughout society. You see this in the great religious traditions that provide followers with meaning, structure, and direction. You see this in the advice of successful and influential people such as Jordan Peterson that encourage people to “aim high”. You see this in the success of industry titans like Steve Jobs or Elon Musk, who propelled their workers and themselves to great heights using a big vision and persistence in reiterating it at every step of the journey.

Clearly, there are many ways of working toward big goals and there are many goals you can work toward. I want to focus on one technique that I’ll call “The Big Project”.

Characteristics of the Big Project

The Big Project is a significant project that provides you with a platform to learn many new things. A good Big Project should have a few defining characteristics.

  • It is Ambitious. The project will be ideally working towards a broad, lofty, and exciting goal. As Peter Drucker says in his book “The Effective Executive“: “Aim high, aim for something that will make a difference, rather than for something that is “safe” and easy to do.” (pg. 111)
  • It Matters to You. The goals of The Big Project should be aligned with your personal values and beliefs, and propel you toward an outcome you care about. If you don’t care about the Big Project, you won’t stick with it. Similarly, you want The Big Project to be building skills that are actually relevant to you.
  • It Matters to Others: The Big Project should have some tangible real-world relevance to others, rather than just being a “toy” project for you.
  • It has Identifiable Milestones and Subtasks: Although the project should be large in scope with no clear “project complete” criterion, you should still be able to complete well-defined subtasks along the way to help you stay motivated and ensure the project is meeting your goals. These subtasks should be achievable, but also provide room for growth. You want a challenge, but not so much difficulty that you get overwhelmed and demotivated.
  • It is flexible and adaptable: A good Big Project should be flexible and adaptable, and allow for changes and adjustments as needed. This can help you stay on track and achieve your goals even if unexpected challenges or roadblocks arise.

Why Pursue a Big Project?

First and foremost, working on a Big Project is satisfying. It can provide excitement and some sense of meaning if you are thoughtful about what you choose to work on. It can boost your confidence and self-esteem, and provide a sense of accomplishment.

The Big Project takes advantage of the power of compounding, as the philosophy is to consistently build something over a long period of time. Through the magic of compounding, you may reach heights you didn’t expect and couldn’t achieve if you only worked on quick and shallow projects.

The Big Project also provides focus. With a clear overarching goal that inspires you, you will less likely be led astray by activities that don’t propel you toward that vision. You also become less likely to fall into the trap of never-ending planning, because it becomes much more clear what you should work on.


The Big Project can take many forms, depending on your goals and interests. Some more common Big Projects would include raising a family or living your life in accordance with a particular religious moral code. Both of these things are Big Projects in my life and many others.

In my professional life, one of my main Big Projects is my website, which includes Articles on efficient learning, spaced repetition, productivity, programming, and data science, as well as Download Mark’s Brain, which is a full stack web application that I built for sharing notes and flash cards, synced with my personal collections in Anki and Roam Research.

Together, this Big Project meets all the characteristics required.

First of all, It’s ambitious and large in scope: there is no limit to articles I can write and articles and books I can learn and take notes on. I also have long-term ambitions for Download Mark’s Brain to develop it into a collaborative flashcard development site with the lofty goal of converting all of human knowledge into testable Q+A format.

Furthermore, it matters to me personally for many reasons:

  • Writing is a skill I want to develop and it also clarifies my thinking and learning
  • I want to develop my skills in the myriad of programming patterns and technologies involved in developing a full-stack application
  • I want to grow and maintain my personal knowledge management system
  • I want to maintain a consistent and fast-paced learning / reading cadence
  • I want to eventually build a self-sustaining business

It also matters to anyone else that benefits from my writing and shared notes and flashcards, it is easy to create clear milestones and subtasks, and there is great flexibility in the direction I can take the project.


I challenge you to find at least one Big Project in your life. Whether it’s raising a family, living according to a particular moral code, or working towards a professional goal, a big project can be a powerful tool for your well-being, development, and growth.

The Triple-Pass Method to Remember What you Learn, Forever

You read books. You watch videos. You listen to podcasts. There is a firehose of high-quality information available at your fingertips.

But how much do you actually get out of your media consumption? How much do you remember? For a long time, my answer was “not a whole lot”. I was often shocked at how few key points I could recall from material I had read only days or weeks earlier.

To me, this is unacceptable. Why bother doing so much reading if I’m just going to forget it all? Sure, if reading for entertainment, then no big deal. But most of the material I spend my time on is highly relevant to my professional and personal life. I want this knowledge to compound.

I’ve spent years experimenting, testing, and tweaking systems to get more value out of the media I consume and remember key points forever. I’ve eventually landed on a solution that I want to share with you: the “triple-pass” system. Using this system, I’m confident I’m getting everything I can out of my reading, and not a moment is wasted.

High-level Overview of the Triple-Pass System

At the highest level, the triple-pass system consists of the following stages:

  • First Pass: Active Media Consumption. Take notes and highlight important points from the media you consume (e.g. books, articles, videos).
  • Second Pass: Consolidate and Summarize Notes. Export notes and highlights from the first pass to a central note-taking system, then review, refine, and consolidate. This pass produces what Tiago Forte calls your “second brain“: an external system storing your knowledge in a format that can be easily searched and retrieved for use.
  • Third Pass: Commit to Long-Term Memory using Spaced Repetition. Add the most important parts of your notes from the second pass to a spaced repetition system. This stores the information efficiently in your long-term memory so you can access it in-the-moment when needed.

I go into each of these three stages in more detail below, including the technologies I use at each stage.

First Pass: Active Media Consumption

At this stage, you consume the media that you want to absorb. The key feature about this stage is that it is active media consumption, i.e. highlighting and taking notes as you read.

Here are some tips for getting the most out of the first pass:

  • Err on the side of more highlighting rather than less. It’s good to have a lot of context in your highlights. You can always eliminate things that are redundant or unnecessary in the second pass.
  • Highlight chapter titles. Titles provide useful context for organizing your notes and understanding the broader picture for an excerpt.
  • Prioritize the new, useful, and the interesting. There is no need for anything useless and uninteresting to exist in your knowledge base. Also, avoid including things you already know well.
  • Look for scaffolding. Keep an eye out for material that provides a “platform” to tackle more advanced concepts. For example, I always highlight definitions of important terms I’m unfamiliar with. I also like information about people, places, or things, since I can use these as context to learn related topics faster.

Technology I use for the First Pass

The tools I use at this stage vary depending on the type of media I’m consuming. There are two main criteria: i) the tool must allow me to record highlights and notes digitally, and ii) the tool must allow me to export materials to my note taking system (Roam) with little effort.

  • Books: Usually I purchase books on Kindle, which has excellent highlighting. I then use Readwise to automatically sync highlights to Evernote, and can copy and paste from Evernote to Roam (apparently Readwise now has a direct export to Roam, so it looks like I can cut out the Evernote middleman). For physical books, I use the Readwise mobile application, which has an OCR feature that lets you take a picture of the page you are reading and highlight it.
  • Articles / Blogs: I try to read all articles and blog posts on Instapaper, which allows me to highlight and take notes on articles. Again, Readwise allows me to import these notes into Evernote, which I copy / paste into Roam.
  • PDFs: At the moment I don’t have a good solution for PDFs. Since I can’t highlight them easily, I’ll often just take notes directly to Roam as I read, with the PDF open in one window and Roam open in another.
  • Videos: Typically I’ll sit at my computer when watching videos. So, I keep Roam open while watching the video and take notes, with timestamps. Here’s an example of video notes I put together for a Jeff Bezos Lecture on innovation.
  • Podcasts: I do listen to some podcasts (especially Conversations with Tyler), although I haven’t found a great tool for taking podcast notes. I usually listen to podcasts when I’m on the go, so note taking in the browser is typically not possible. Usually, if there’s a podcast that I listen to that’s really good, I’ll just revisit it and take notes while I listen at my computer desk.

Second Pass: Consolidate and Summarize Notes

In this pass, edit the highlights and notes that you’ve exported to your note-taking system. Activities here can include:

  • Deleting irrelevant or redundant notes
  • Summarizing excerpts into key points, while keeping some direct quotes from the material that is notable or quote-worthy
  • Reformulating material into your own words
  • Bold-facing the most important points so your notes are “glanceable”
  • Creating commentary on the material, expanding on points that you liked, critiquing points you disagreed with, filling in missing arguments, creating connections to other material in your knowledge base, or creating a high-level “book-review” style summary
  • Marking particularly important material for long-term memory

A key advantage of the second pass is it produces a valuable digital asset that you can draw on the rest of your life: you now have a searchable, quick-to-read summary of what you have read. The knowledge is now part of your “second brain” for easy access and connection to your existing knowledge.

Yet another advantage of this second pass is that the act of editing helps you absorb the material. This is because it requires elaboration and recall, which are both well-known to foster learning and memory.

Technology I use for the Second Pass

My note taking tool of choice is Roam. It is a fantastic piece of software, although it’s difficult to explain its value in words (you really just have to try it). I recommend looking into it if you are not already heavily invested in an existing note taking app. I find it allows me to easily make connections between knowledge, and its incredible functionality has led me to ditch Evernote, Asana, and 90% of Google Drive.

Third Pass: Commit to Long-Term Memory Using Spaced Repetition

In this third and final pass, add material material flagged “long-term memory” in the second pass to a spaced repetition system.

Spaced repetition is reviewing material at increasing intervals of time, allowing you to remember material with minimal effort. I won’t go into more detail here, but I highly recommend this overview by Gwern Branwen. You can also subscribe to my Spaced Repetition Newsletter.

The advantage of this third pass is access to your knowledge in the moment, when it matters, without any external note taking tools. This is useful for the many situations where it’s not feasible to consult your notes. For example: job interviews, meetings, or creative work where speed of thought is important and you need lots of in-memory scaffolding to make progress.

One nice feature of this third pass is you’ve thoroughly vetted the material in the first two passes. This means you’ll be less likely to add things you don’t need to your spaced repetition system, and you’ll only add information you understand (see rule 1 of flashcard knowledge construction: do not learn what you do not understand).

Technology I use for the Third Pass

Personally, I use Anki, which is probably the most popular spaced repetition software tool today. Some examples of other options include Mnemosyne, SuperMemo or even paper flashcards if you’re a technophobe.

Examples of the Triple-Pass System in Action

To get a feel for what the end result of this system looks like, here are a couple of examples:

This Seems like a lot of Work…

It’s true that using this system will almost certainly mean you’ll take more time to consume media. Compared to just passively reading a book, the highlighting, summarizing, and spaced repetition all add time.

But before you dismiss it, ask yourself a couple questions.

First: are you a genius that effortlessly absorbs the materials you consume? I don’t mean this sarcastically. People like this exist, like Tyler Cowen. If yes, there’s no real benefit to you from this system. It would just slow you down.

Second: why are you consuming the media in the first place? Is it something you really want to remember? If the answer is yes, then I believe using a system like this is a no-brainer.

Yes, it takes some extra time. But if you are consuming high-quality material relevant to your life, the benefits of that extra 10-30% of effort is well worth it.

For access to my shared Anki deck and Roam Research notes knowledge base as well as regular updates on tips and ideas about spaced repetition and improving your learning productivity, join “Download Mark’s Brain”.

Roam Notes on “The Checklist Manifesto” by Atul Gawande

  • Title:: The Checklist Manifesto: How to get Things Right
  • Author:: [[Atul Gawande]]
  • Reading Status:: [[complete]]
  • Review Status:: [[complete]]
  • Tags:: #Productivity #organization #process #Management #coordination #checklists #planning
  • Roam Notes URL:: link
  • Anki Tag:: atul_gawande_checklist_manifesto
  • Anki Deck Link:: link
  • Overview

    • [[Atul Gawande]] is a famous surgeon, writer, and public health researcher. This book is an ode to simple checklists as an extremely powerful tool to aid process and quality improvement, especially in situations where there is a lot of [[complexity]] and [[coordination]] required. The author became interested in checklists as a tool in his surgical practice, and the book points to many examples of how checklists improve [[efficiency]] and [[safety]] in a variety of situations.
    • A common theme in the book is the fallibility of human beings and the importance of acknowledging these shortcomings. The author points to examples where excellent surgeons and other professionals have made serious and "obvious" errors. It’s easy to dismiss these errors by blaming the person committing them as incompetent or lazy, but the fact is, without proper systems, these mistakes will happen regardless of how well trained or skilled a person is. Properly designed checklists can provide a crucial safeguard.
  • Excerpts

    • Three Different Levels of Complexity for Problems in the World (pg. 49) #complexity #[[problem solving]] #Ankified
      • Simple: there is a recipe. Sometimes there are a few basic techniques to learn. But once mastered, following the recipe bring a high likelihood of success. #[[simple problems]]
      • Complicated: Can sometimes be broken down into a series of simple problems, but there is no straightforward recipe. Success often requires multiple people, multiple teams, and specialized expertise. Unanticipated difficulties are frequent. Timing and coordination are serious concerns. E.g. sending man to the moon. #[[complicated problems]]
      • Complex: Problems where the solution is not repeatable, and outcomes remain highly uncertain. Expertise is valuable but not sufficient. E.g. raising a child. [[complex problems]]
      • This distinction was developed by [[Brenda Zimmerman]] of [[York University]] and [[Sholom Glouberman]] of [[University of Toronto]] in their study of the science of complexity.
      • Note that many problems in engineering and operating a business are simple or complicated, and thus can be aided by [[checklists]].
    • How Skyscraper Engineers Build Checklists (pp. 62, 70) #engineering #coordination
      • Since every building is a new creature with its own particularities, every building checklist is new, too. It is drawn up by a group of people representing each of the sixteen trades. Then the whole checklist is sent to the subcontractors and other independent experts so they can double-check that everything is correct, that nothing has been missed.
      • They rely on one set of checklists to make sure the simple steps are not missed or skipped and in another set to make sure that everyone talks through and resolves all the hard and unexpected problems.
      • The biggest cause of serious error in this business is a failure of [[communication]] #Ankified
      • [[Mark’s Notes]]: This almost magical process ensures that the knowledge of hundreds or thousands is used in the right place at the right time in the right way.
    • Why Dictating from the Top Fails in Complex Situations (pg. 79) #micromanaging #decentralization #centralization #complexity #Management #[[central planning]]
      • under conditions of true complexity – where the knowledge required exceeds that of any individual and unpredictability reigns – efforts to dictate every step from the center will fail. People need room to act and adapt. Yet they cannot succeed as isolated individuals, either – that is anarchy. Instead, they require a seemingly contradictory mix of [[freedom]] and [[expectation]] – expectation to coordinate, for example, and also to measure progress toward common goals. #leadership
      • [[Mark’s Notes]]: The example in the book is the [[Katrina disaster]]. [[FEMA]] tried to centrally control everything. In contrast, [[Walmart]] helped the community very effectively – its leadership sent a clear message to do what’s right, and do what you can to help these people in trouble.
        • Also, the skyscraper builders understand this, and learned to codify this type of [[decentralization]] in [[checklists]]. They have checklists for simple tasks, combined with checklists to make sure everyone is coordinating and communicating with each other. There must be judgement, but judgement must be aided / enhanced by procedure.
    • Good Checklists Versus Bad Checklists (pg. 120) #checklists #[[how to make checklists]]
      • Bad [[checklists]] are vague and imprecise. They are too long; they are hard to use; they are impractical. They are made by desk jockeys with no awareness of the situations in which they are to be deployed. They treat the people using the tools as dumb and try to spell out every single step. They turn people’s brains off rather than turn them on.
      • Good checklists, on the other hand, are precise. They are efficient, to the point, and easy to use even in the most difficult situations. They do not try to spell out everything – a checklist cannot fly a plane. Instead, they provide reminders of only the most critical and important steps – the ones that even the highly skilled professionals using them could miss. Good checklists are, above all, practical.
    • The Most Common Obstacle to Effective Teams (pg. 163) #coordination #teamwork #communication #Ankified
      • The most common obstacle to effective teams, it turns out, is not the occasional fire-breathing, scalpel-flinging, terror-inducing surgeon, though some do exist … No, the more familiar and widely dangerous issue is a kind of silent disengagement, the consequence of specialized technicians sticking narrowly to their domains. ‘That’s not my problem’ is possibly the worst thing people can think, whether they are starting an operation, taxiing an airplane full of passengers down a runway, or building a thousand-foot-tall skyscraper.
    • Key Decisions to Make when Building Checklists (pp. 123-124) #checklists #[[how to make checklists]]
      • Define a clear pause point (point at which the checklist is supposed to be used)
      • Decide on whether you want a DO-CONFIRM checklist or READ-DO checklist.
        • DO-CONFIRM – team members perform a job from memory and experience, often separately. But then they stop. They pause to run the check-list and confirm that everything that was supposed to be done was done.
        • READ-DO – people carry out the tasks as they check them off – more like a recipe
      • Test it: “no matter how careful we might be, no matter how much thought we might put in, the checklist has to be tested in the real world, which is inevitably more complicated than expected” #testing
        • [[Mark’s Notes]]: Sometimes, testing is not easy to do. That’s why they have simulations in aviation and the author tried a similar test for surgery with his surgical team and a dummy.
    • How Not to Respond to Failure (pp. 185-186) #failure #Systems #fallibility
      • We are all plagued by failures – by missed subtleties, overlooked knowledge, and outright errors. For the most part, we have imagined that little can be done beyond working harder and harder to catch the problems and clean up after them. We are not in the habit of thinking the way army pilots did as they looked upon their shiny new Model 299 bomber – a machine so complex no one was sure human beings could fly it. They too could have decided just to ‘try harder’ or to dismiss a crash as the failings of a ‘weak’ pilot. Instead they chose to accept their fallibilities. They recognized the simplicity and power of using a checklist. #Ankified
        • [[Mark’s Notes]]: It is such a common sentiment to blame failure on people’s abilities or motivations.

Roam Notes on “The Effective Executive” by Peter Drucker

  • Title:: The Effective Executive: The Definitive Guide to Getting the Right Things Done
  • Author:: [[Peter Drucker]]
  • Reading Status:: #Complete
  • Recommended By:: [[Tim Ferriss]]
  • URL::
  • Review Status:: [[third pass]]
  • Tags:: #[[Business]] #[[Productivity]] #[[Management]] #[[Time Management]] #[[Effective Executives]] #Book #shared
  • Roam Notes URL::
  • Anki Tag:: drucker_effective_executive
  • Anki Deck Link::
  • Notes

    • What is Expected of Executives? (pp. 1, 2, 7) #[[Effectiveness]] #execution
      • To be effective is the job of the executive. “To effect” and “to execute” are, after all, near-synonyms. Whether he works in a business or in a hospital, in a government agency or in a labor union, in a university or in the army, the executive is, first of all, expected to get the right things done. And this is simply that he is expected to be effective…
      • [[Intelligence]], [[imagination]], and [[knowledge]] are essential [[resources]], but only [[effectiveness]] converts them into [[results]]. By themselves, they only set limits to what can be attained.
      • Knowledge work is not defined by quantity. Neither is [[knowledge work]] defined by its costs. Knowledge work is defined by its [[results]].
    • Four Major Realities Over Which the Executive has Essentially no [[control]] (pp. 10-17)
      • Every one of them is built into the organization and into the executive’s day and work. He has no choice but to “cooperate with the inevitable.” But every one of these realities exerts pressure toward [[nonresults]] and [[nonperformance]].
        1. Executive’s [[time]] tends to belong to everybody else. Everybody can move in on his time, and everybody does (e.g. bosses, customers, city administration official).
        2. Executives are forced to keep on “[[operating]]” unless they take positive [[action]] to change the reality in which they live and work.
        3. He is within an organization. This means that he is effective only if and when other people make use of what he contributes. #[[Working with Teams]] #[[knowledge translation]]
        4. The executive is within an organization. He sees the inside—the organization—as close and immediate reality. He sees the outside only through thick and distorting lenses, if at all. #environment #bias
      • Mark’s notes:
        • 3 – [[knowledge translation]] is everywhere. Everyone specializes and there is this constant issue of communicating information to other groups that aren’t specialists. Without doing this effectively, the specialization is useless. “Each has to be able to use what the other produces.” #[[communication]] #[[Specialization]]
        • 4 – “The problem is rather that the important and relevant outside events are often [[qualitative]] and not capable of [[quantification]]. They are not yet “[[facts]].”” There might be an insight here about quantitative being systematically overrated. If it’s quantifiable, its being collected, which means systems are in place to collect it, which means people tend to understand its value and it’s more likely to be overrated. It follows that for unique [[insight]] or [[competitive advantage]], you need to use qualitative or use quantitative data in a way no one is currently using it. #[[Personal Ideas]]
    • The Five Practices of [[Effective Executives]] (pp 23-25)
      • They know where their [[time]] goes. They work systematically at managing the little of their time that can be brought under their control. #[[Time Management]]
      • They focus on outward [[contribution]]. They gear efforts to [[results]] rather than to [[work]]. They start out with the question, “What results are expected of me?” rather than with the work to be done, let alone with its techniques and tools. #[[outcomes]]
      • They build on strengths – their own [[strengths]], the strengths of their superiors, colleagues, subordinates, and on the strengths of in the situation i.e.. What they can do. They do not build on [[weakness]]. They do not start out with things they cannot do. #[[comparative advantage]]
      • They concentrate on the few major areas where superior [[performance]] will produce outstanding [[results]]. They force themselves to set priorities and stay with their priority decisions. #[[focus]]
      • **They make effective decisions. **They know that this is, above all, a matter of [[system]] – of the right steps in the right sequence. Making many [[decisions]] fast means to make the wrong decisions. What is needed are few, but fundamental [[decisions]]. #[[decision making]]
      • Mark’s Notes:
        • These practices form the basis of the book. Note that there is no “effective [[personality]]”. [[Peter Drucker]] has come across people of all [[personality types]] who are extremely effective.
        • Note that point 5 is in disagreement with advice I’ve heard from [[Patrick Collison]] and others in Silicon Valley where the [[speed]] and [[frequency]] of [[decision making]] is actually very important. However, they do add the caveat that [[decisions]] that are 1) higher [[impact]] and 2) tougher to reverse should be given more thought.
    • On the Scarcity Properties of Time (pg. 25-26) #[[time]] #[[Time Management]] #scarcity
      • Effective executives know that [[time]] is the limiting factor. The [[output]] limits of any [[process]] are set by the scarcest resource. In the process we call “accomplishment,” this is time.
      • Time is also a unique resource. Of the other major resources, [[money]] is actually quite plentiful. We long ago should have learned that it is the [[demand]] for [[capital]], rather than the [[supply]] thereof, which sets the limit to [[economic growth]] and activity. People—the third limiting resource—one can hire, though one can rarely hire enough good people. But one cannot rent, hire, buy, or otherwise obtain more time. #[[To Ankify]]
      • The [[supply]] of [[time]] is totally [[inelastic]]. No matter how high the [[demand]], the supply will not go up. There is no price for it and no [[marginal utility]] curve for it. Moreover, time is totally perishable and cannot be stored. Yesterday’s time is gone forever and will never come back. Time is, therefore, always in exceedingly short supply.
      • Time is totally irreplaceable. Within limits we can substitute one resource for another, copper for aluminum, for instance. We can substitute capital for human labor. We can use more knowledge or more brawn. But there is no substitute for [[time]]. Everything requires time. It is the one truly universal condition. All work takes place in time and uses up time. Yet most people take for granted this unique, irreplaceable, and necessary resource. Nothing else, perhaps, distinguishes effective executives as much as their tender loving care of time.”
      • Mark’s Notes: He goes on to note that people are terrible at estimating how much time has elapsed. It is therefore essential to track how much time you spend on things, and not just rely on memory. Make sure the record is made in “real” time, rather than later on from memory. Run a log on yourself for 3-4 weeks at a stretch twice a year (minimum), then rethink and rework the schedule. #[[time tracking]]
    • Instead of Starting with their Tasks, Effective Executives Start with This (3 Step Process) (pg. 25) #[[Time Management]] #[[time tracking]]
      • Effective executives, in my observation, do not start with their [[tasks]]. They start with their [[time]]. And they do not start out with [[planning]]. They start by finding out where their time actually goes. Then they attempt to manage their time and to cut back unproductive demands on their time. Finally they consolidate their “discretionary” time into the largest possible continuing units. This three-step process:
        • recording time,
        • managing time, and
        • consolidating time
      • is the foundation of executive effectiveness.
    • Things to Ask Employees in a Knowledge Work Firm on a Regular Basis (pp. 30-31) #Hiring #Management #[[performance reviews]]
      • Wherever [[knowledge workers]] perform well in large organizations, senior executives take time out, on a regular schedule, to sit down with them, sometimes all the way down to green juniors, and ask: “What should we at the head of this organization know about your work? What do you want to tell me regarding this organization? Where do you see opportunities we do not exploit? Where do you see dangers to which we are still blind? And, all together, what do you want to know from me about the organization?"
      • Mark’s Notes: An excellent [[leadership]] course I took with [[Linton Sellen]] offers advice that differs somewhat – Linton said the appropriate way to do this is for C mangers to query their B subordinates, and then C’s should tell B’s to do the same with their subordinate A’s and report back, and so on. C going directly to A undermines B’s [[authority]]. I’m believe Linton’s advice is better.
    • Why People Decisions are Time Consuming (pp. 33-34) #[[labour]] #[[Hiring]] #Management #[[people decisions]]
      • People-decisions are time-consuming, for the simple reason that the Lord did not create people as “resources” for the organization. They do not come in the proper size and shape for the tasks that have to be done in organization — and they cannot be machined down or recast for these tasks . People are always “almost fits” at best. To get the work done with people (and no other resource is available) therefore requires lots of [[time]], [[thought]], and [[judgment]]. #[[To Ankify]]
    • Script to Send Potential Meeting Participants from Attending Meeting if it is a Waste of their Time (pg. 39) #[[email scripts]] #meetings #attendance
      • “I have asked [Messrs Smith, Jones, and Robinson] to meet with me [Wednesday at 3] in [the fourth floor conference room] to discuss budget. Please come if you think that you need the information or want to take part in the discussion. But you will in any event receive right away a full summary of the discussion and of any decisions reached, together with a request for your comments.”
      • Mark’s Notes: This was a script used by a manager to make sure no-one felt left out and had the opportunity to attend. The manager invited all of these people to the meetings because of the culture in the company of being “in the know”. This message prevents people from wasting their time, while still making sure no one feels left out.
    • On the Risk of Cutting Back Tasks (pg. 40) #Delegation
      • There is not much risk that an executive will cut back too much. We usually tend to overrate rather than underrate our importance and to conclude that far too many things can only be done by ourselves. Even very effective executives still do a great many unnecessary, unproductive things.
    • Three big benefits of focusing on [[contribution]] (rather than [[effort]]) (pg. 70)
      • The focus on contribution counteracts one of the basic problems of the executive: the confusion and chaos of events and their failure to indicate by themselves which is meaningful and which is merely “noise.” The [[focus]] on [[contribution]] imposes an organizing principle. It imposes relevance on events.
      • Focusing on [[contribution]] turns one of the inherent weaknesses of the executive’s situation—his dependence on other people, his being within the organization—into a source of strength. It creates a team. #[[Team Building]]
      • Finally, focusing on [[contribution]] fights the temptation to stay within the organization. It leads the executive—especially the top-level man—to lift his eyes from the inside of efforts, work, and relationships, to the outside; that is, to the [[results]] of the organization. It makes him try hard to have direct contact with the outside—whether [[markets]] and [[customers]], patients in a community, or the various “publics” which are the outside of a government agency.” #[[outcomes]]
    • How to tell if a job is impossible, undoable man-killer (pg. 79) #Hiring #nonperformance #[[Evaluating People]]
      • The rule is simple: Any job that has defeated two or three men in succession, even though each had performed well in his previous assignments, must be assumed unfit for human beings. It must be redesigned.
      • Mark’s Notes: Interesting to keep in mind that jobs like this exist. Jobs are not created by an all-knowing God. Rather, they are created by fallible human beings. It’s an important insight that job may be poorly designed / impossible.
    • Why effective executives try to be themselves (pg. 97) #authenticity #[[comparative advantage]]
      • All in all, the effective executive tries to be himself; he does not pretend to be someone else. He looks at his own performance and at his own results and tries to discern a pattern. “What are the things,” he asks, “that I seem to be able to do with relative ease, while they come rather hard to other people?
      • Mark’s Notes: It would be useful to ask yourself this question on a weekly basis by adding this to your [[Weekly Planning]]. Have a document about what you do with ease that is hard for other people, and review it regularly.
    • The “Secret” of those people who “do so many things” (pp. 100, 103) #focus #concentration #Prioritizing #Productivity
      • If there is any one “secret” of effectiveness, it is concentration. Effective executives do first things first and they do one thing at a time. #[[To Ankify]]
      • This is the “secret” of those people who “do so many things” and apparently so many difficult things. They do only one at a time. As a result, they need much less [[time]] in the end than the rest of us.
      • The people who get nothing done often work a great deal harder. In the first place, they underestimate the time for any one task. They always expect that everything will go right. Yet, as every executive knows, nothing ever goes right.
    • On the Danger of Succumbing to Pressure for Decision-Making (pg. 109) #pressure #[[decision making]] #focus #priorities
      • If the pressures rather than the executive are allowed to make the decision, the important tasks will predictably be sacrificed. Typically, there will then be no time for the most time-consuming part of any task, the conversion of decision into action
      • Another predictable result of leaving control of priorities to the pressures is that the work of top management does not get done at all. That is always postponable work, for it does not try to solve yesterday’s crises but to make a different tomorrow. And the pressures always favor yesterday.
    • Setting priorities is easy…this on the other hand…. (pp. 109-110) #[[Prioritizing]] #focus
      • The job is, however, not to set [[priorities]]. That is easy. Everybody can do it. The reason why so few executives concentrate is the difficulty of setting “[[posteriorities]]”—that is, deciding what tasks not to tackle—and of sticking to the decision. #[[To Ankify]]
      • Most executives have learned that what one postpones, one actually abandons. A good many of them suspect that there is nothing less desirable than to take up later a project one has postponed when it first came up. #procrastination
    • Truly Important Rules for Identifying Priorities (4) (pg. 111) #[[priorities]] #Prioritizing
      • [[Courage]] rather than [[analysis]] dictates the truly important rules for identifying priorities:
        • Pick the future as against the past;
        • **Focus on **[[opportunity]] rather than on problem;
        • Choose your own direction—rather than climb on the bandwagon; and
        • Aim high, aim for something that will make a difference, rather than for something that is “safe” and easy to do.
    • The Elements of the Effective Decision Process (pp. 122-123) #[[decision making]] #Process #[[To Ankify]]
      • They are:
        1. The clear realization that the problem was [[generic]] and could only be solved through a decision which established a [[rule]], a [[principle]];
          • Ask “Is this generic situation or is an exception?” “Is this something that underlies a great many occurrences?” Four types of occurrences: truly generic (individual occurrence is only a symptom), unique for the individual institution but actually generic (e.g. mergers, happen all the time, but only once for an individual company), truly unique event (rare), early manifestation of a new generic problem. Effective decision-makers always assume initially the problem is generic, and they are not content with treating the symptom alone. #[[5 whys]] #[[diagnosing problems]]
        2. The definition of the [[specifications]] which the answer to the problem had to satisfy, that is, of the “[[boundary conditions]]”;
          • [[boundary conditions]] usually determined by asking “What is the minimum needed to resolve this problem?” (most difficult step, apparently)
        3. The thinking through what is “right,” that is, the solution which will fully satisfy the [[specifications]] before attention is given to the compromises, adaptations, and concessions needed to make the decision acceptable; #optics #politics
          • “It is fruitless and a waste of time to worry about what is acceptable and what one had better not say so as not to evoke resistance. The things one worries about never happen. And objections and difficulties no one thought about suddenly turn out to be almost insurmountable obstacles. One gains nothing in other words by starting out with the question: “What is acceptable?”
        4. The building into the decision of the action to carry it out; #action #Delegation #execution #Responsibility
          • “no decision has been made unless carrying it out in specific steps has become someone’s work assignment and responsibility.”
        5. The “[[feedback]]” which tests the validity and effectiveness of the decision against the actual course of events.
          • “[[military organizations]] learned long ago that futility is the lot of most [[orders]] and organized the [[feedback]] to check on the [[execution]] of the order. They learned long ago that to go oneself and look is the only reliable feedback.” “Unless [the decision maker] accepts, as a matter of course, that he had better go out and look at the scene of action, he will be increasingly divorced from [[reality]].”
    • Most books on decision-making tell the reader: “First find the facts”. Instead, do this. (pg. 143) #[[decision making]] #[[scientific method]] #[[To Ankify]]
      • Most books on decision-making tell the reader: “First find the facts.” But executives who make effective decisions know that one does not start with [[facts]]. One starts with [[opinions]]. These are, of course, nothing but untested [[hypotheses]] and, as such, worthless unless tested against reality. To determine what is a fact requires first a decision on the criteria of relevance, especially on the appropriate [[measurement]]. This is the hinge of the effective decision, and usually its most controversial aspect.
      • Finally, the effective decision does not, as so many texts on decision-making proclaim, flow from a consensus on the [[facts]]. The understanding that underlies the right decision grows out of the clash and conflict of divergent opinions and out of the serious consideration of competing alternatives.
      • To get the [[facts]] first is impossible. There are no facts unless one has a criterion of [[relevance]]. [[Events]] by themselves are not facts.
      • Mark’s Notes: This is similar to the [[scientific method]] – you always start out with untested [[hypotheses]] (opinions) as the only starting point. But, can’t isolated facts be hypothesis generating? Yes, but you still ultimately start with a hypothesis. Drucker goes on to point out that, as in the scientific method, effective executives encourage opinions, but also insist on having people think through what is the corresponding “[[experiment]]” i.e. how do you test the opinion against reality and what would the [[facts]] have to be to support the [[opinion]]. [[Disagreement]] and [[conflict]] are important, because it helps ensure that you don’t just make a hypothesis and then only look for facts that support it, disregarding everything else.
    • Three main reasons for insisting on disagreement in the decision-making process. (pp. 149-152) #disagreement #decisions #reason #argument #debate
      • It is, first, the only safeguard against the decision-maker’s becoming the prisoner of the organization. Everybody always wants something from the decision-maker…The only way to break out of the prison of special pleading and preconceived notions is to make sure of argued, documented, thought-through disagreements.
      • Second, [[disagreement]] alone can provide alternatives to a decision. And a decision without an alternative is a desperate gambler’s throw, no matter how carefully thought through it might be.
      • **Above all, **[[disagreement]] is needed to stimulate the [[imagination]]…Imagination of the first order is, I admit, not in abundant supply. But neither is it as scarce as is commonly believed. Imagination needs to be challenged and stimulated, however, or else it remains latent and unused. Disagreement, especially if forced to be reasoned, thought through, documented, is the most effective stimulus we know.
      • Mark’s Notes: This is probably why people like [[Tyler Cowen]] emphasize how valuable it is do articulate and argue opinions you disagree with. It’s an extremely valuable [[mental exercise]]. #[[articulating positions you disagree with]]
    • Before you think about who is right and who is wrong, do this. (pg. 154) #[[listening]] #judgment
      • The effective executive is concerned first with [[understanding]]. Only then does he even think about who is right and who is wrong.
        • Mark’s Notes: This is similar to the advice from [[Stephen Covey]] – seek first to understand, then to be understood.
    • Why effective decision-makers don’t hedge bets (pp 157-158) #[[hedging]] #[[risk]] #[[decisions]]
      • The surgeon who only takes out half the tonsils or half the appendix risks as much infection or shock as if he did the whole job. And he has not cured the condition, has indeed made it worse. He either operates or he doesn’t. Similarly, the effective decision-maker either acts or he doesn’t act. He does not take half-action. This is the one thing that is always wrong, and the one sure way not to satisfy the minimum [[specifications]], the [[minimum boundary conditions]].
      • The decision is now ready to be made. The [[specifications]] have been thought through, the [[alternatives]] explored, the [[risks]] and gains weighed. Everything is known. Indeed, it is always reasonably clear by now what course of action must be taken. At this point the decision does indeed almost “make itself.”
      • And it is at this point that most decisions are lost. It becomes suddenly quite obvious that the decision is not going to be pleasant, is not going to be [[popular]], is not going to be easy. It becomes clear that a decision requires [[courage]] as much as it requires [[judgment]]. There is no inherent reason why medicines should taste horrible—but effective ones usually do. Similarly, there is no inherent reason why decisions should be distasteful—but most effective ones are.
      • One thing the effective executive will not do at this point. He will not give in to the cry, “Let’s make another study.” This is the coward’s way—and all the coward achieves is to die a thousand deaths where the brave man dies but one. #research #procrastination #timidity #courage
    • The one area in which [[weakness]] in itself is of importance and relevance (pp 166) #[[To Ankify]]
      • The last question (ii) is the only one which is not primarily concerned with strengths. [[Subordinates]], especially bright, young, and ambitious ones, tend to mold themselves after a forceful boss. There is, therefore, nothing more corrupting and more destructive in an organization than a forceful but basically corrupt executive. Such a man might well operate effectively on his own; even within an organization, he might be tolerable if denied all power over others. But in a position of power within an organization, he destroys. Here, therefore, is the one area in which weakness in itself is of importance and relevance. #integrity #corruption #Hiring #character
      • By themselves, [[character]] and [[integrity]] do not accomplish anything. But their absence faults everything else. Here, therefore, is the one area where weakness is a disqualification by itself rather than a limitation on [[performance]] capacity and strength.
    • Why being an effective executive is good for you (for reasons unrelated to compensation / promotion (pg. 166)
      • The knowledge worker demands economic rewards too. Their absence is a deterrent. But their presence is not enough. He needs [[opportunity]], he needs [[achievement]], he needs [[fulfillment]], he needs [[values]]. Only by making himself an effective executive can the knowledge-worker obtain these satisfactions.

Roam Notes on David Perell Podcast: Tyler Cowen’s Production Function

  • "Author::" [[David Perell]] [[Tyler Cowen]]
  • "Source::" https://www.perell.com/podcast/tyler-cowen-production-function
  • "Recommended By::" [[David Perell]]
  • "Tags:: " #Productivity #podcast #writing
  • Expansion of David Perell’s Show Notes

  • [[Modesty]] signals high value.
  • 2:40 – What [[Tyler Cowen]] considers his compounding advantage.
    • Start early and keep going for many years. Many stop learning and self-improvement as they get older.
    • Why do people stop learning and self-improvement? Starting early you give up a normal childhood, which isn’t necessarily bad but many don’t want to do it. Once you reach a certain age (e.g. 45) you can take paths that have high income but low growth / learning (e.g. [[Consulting]])**, so why go the extra mile? **
  • 5:56 – Why being born as an intelligent person is not as important as developing knowledge. #intelligence #knowledge
    • A good lesson is there are many smarter people than you. Figuring out you’re pretty smart, but not that smart is actually a good combination.
  • 8:23 – How [[Tyler Cowen]] maximizes the value of his [[consumption]] and minimizes the drawbacks.
    • A lot of the value of [[consumption]] is [[memory]] or [[anticipation]]. You can cut consumption of bad things by 2/3, but still get most of the benefit (e.g. eating dessert).
  • 9:19 – What draws [[Tyler Cowen]] to the people he likes spending time with, and what he likes best about their friendship.
    • Advantages of people in [[Silicon Valley]]:** super smart but not necessarily highly educated so they don’t just believe what everyone else does. **They think outside the box. They’re thinkers as well as people that have had to do things and pass [[reality]] tests. The only test most academics face is "can I publish this piece?"
  • 12:33 – Why [[Tyler Cowen]] feels that the way he has lived his life has meant has not given anything up.
  • 15:35 – How the fundamentals of productivity came intuitively to [[Tyler Cowen]].
    • He writes every day, with the exception of 10-15 days a year. If you write every day, you don’t have to worry about how much you’ve written, it’s going to add up. The regularity also pushes you along a learning curve so you’ll get more done. #writing
    • One thing he does is lay out arguments of views he disagrees with. You understand them better, sympathize with them more, and sometimes you change your mind. It makes you stupider to repeat views you agree with / are familiar with. #writing #Thinking
  • 17:41 – Why [[Tyler Cowen]] writes in his particular style not by choice, but by necessity.
    • There’s a beauty / clarity choice in [[writing]]. He’s not good at the beautiful prose type of writing. He focuses on clarity.
  • 22:19 – Why the things in [[Tyler Cowen]]’s life that bind his [[output]] aren’t what you think.
    • Big binding factors: [[ideas]], time spent writing / thinking, and time spent talking to people (which helps him come up with ideas).
  • 24:06 – How to develop new [[ideas]] while staying focused on the subject and not getting tangled.
    • Just keep [[writing]] and re-writing. A book will typically be reworked 10 times. Effort and application – there are no tricks.
  • 27:36 – Why [[Tyler Cowen]] sees [[art]] as one of the most important and beneficial things you can spend your [[time]] and [[money]] on.
    • You make your home special, learn other cultures, learn other points of review, develop judgement skills useful in other areas.
  • 32:41 – What writers can learn about inspiration and consistency from [[musicians]] and [[visual artists]].
    • Many [[artists]] tend to work in bursts. That’s not how he writes. Some writers are like that.
    • The half-life of ideas is very short. Be selfish, maximize your personal learning and your impact now. Don’t worry about [[legacy]]. Take [[Gary Becker]] – one of the top [[economics]] Nobel laureates. Nobody reads him now.
  • 37:16 – Why [[Peter Thiel]] has impacted [[Tyler Cowen]] so deeply and why Tyler believes he’s one of the greatest thinkers of our time.
    • He understands the [[humanities]] so well. [[Tyler Cowen]] sees him as a top thinker in this area.
    • He has the best [[bullshit]] detector of anyone he’s ever spoken with. He gets when people are bluffing. He’s probably the best selector of [[talent]], and to do that well you need to have a deep understanding of things that at least correlate with the [[humanities]]. #Hiring
    • He takes the [[humanities]] seriously, and takes a deeply [[moral]] perspective. This is looked down upon and discouraged in a lot of [[academia]]. He takes [[religion]] seriously, takes input from a variety of sources, has real-world experience with companies, fluency in two languages ([[English]] and [[German]]).
  • 40:30 – How [[Tyler Cowen]] is able to extract more from his [[reading]] than other people do.
    • He has [[hyperlexia]]
    • Talks about [[Norway]], some major figures there and why he has read up on major figures in the country.
    • Also talks about prepping for [[Margaret Atwood]]
  • 45:44 – How understanding most other people’s [[intelligence]] is higher than his in most fields gave [[Tyler Cowen]] an edge over other thinkers.
  • 49:00 – Why [[Tyler Cowen]] sees a new visibility of [[talent]] in people and how he is using this visibility.
    • He’s bullish on [[Craig Palsson]], @marketpower on [[Twitter]]. He wants to be out there, determined, focus, and caring about getting things right. The emphasis on [[writing]] is commonly a big plus – it’s a sign of clear thinking.
    • [[David Perell]] sees his advantage as someone that takes action quickly. [[Tyler Cowen]] adds that successful people have an honest "what am I good at" [[metarationality]].
  • 55:24 – How [[Tyler Cowen]] constructs his [[interviews]] to maximize the freedom of his guests to speak freely on what they love.
    • His interview style likely doesn’t apply to most others, unless you read a lot.
    • He doesn’t [[probe]], because people repeat a lot and get defensive.
  • 1:00:03 – How to develop skills as a teacher and where [[Tyler Cowen]] believes the strengths of a good teacher lie. #Teaching
    • Student evaluations aren’t that helpful.
    • He gets better by just teaching a lot.
  • 1:03:34 – Why the novelty and beauty of visiting other cultures excites [[Tyler Cowen]] so much. #travel
  • 1:07:18 – How [[Tyler Cowen]] makes the most out of his travels. #travel
    • It wasn’t until he saw a large number of places did he start to love [[travel]]. The first place he went outside of the US was Oxford, England. He didn’t get much out of it, didn’t really enjoy it that much.
  • As you get older and more successful, it’s harder to get critical [[feedback]] from people. Hang out with critical people and hope you can get benefits. It’s hard to do this. If you are around people that are above you in the hierarchy, you should be critical too. #aging
  • He hasn’t seen anyone better than [[Patrick Collison]] at quickly learning new [[concepts]], by an order of magnitude.
  • 1:13:32 – Why sitting in a suboptimal seat at a concert may give you worse sound but a better understanding of the [[music]]. #concerts #[[live music]]
    • Mentions going to [[The Village Vanguard]] randomly, because you know whatever is there will be good.
  • 1:16:55 – Why knowledge workers are often not motivated to improve their [[skills]]. #[[knowledge work]]
    • Some of it is a fault in the market, because it’s hard to recognize talent. That’s why [[Tyler Cowen]] is writing a new book on spotting talent. You can do things to improve, but there is not always a return because the market doesn’t recognize it. If you’re better at spotting [[talent]], it makes more sense to invest in it.
    • You need a somewhat long [[time-horizon]]
    • You don’t really need [[discipline]]. It can be a form of entertainment or [[procrastination]] to improve your skills. Discipline and [[Conscientiousness]] are more ambiguous than we realize.
  • "The more you know, the more you can order things into coherent thoughts." Learning begets [[learning]]. True of reading, true of travel, true of food. #chunking #Thinking #skills
  • 1:20:48 – Why [[Tyler Cowen]] still responds to every [[Email]] and loves it.
    • He finds time for this because of what he doesn’t do: he hardly watches [[TV]], **his social life is basically the same as his intellectual life **- his social life is geared towards thinking, discussing, exploring ideas. With no TV, you end up with a lot of [[time]]. #[[unproductive internet activities]]
    • Isn’t [[email]] a low leverage use of his time? **He learns a lot from people that email him, and has filtered his audience so it’s mostly smart people. **He does this by being "sufficiently weird". He’s not even sure it’s highly leveraged. He met [[Patrick Collison]] that way. He doesn’t care if it’s highly leveraged if he’s learning from it. #[[Audience Building]]

Why Learning By Teaching Works and How to Use It

Insights from Learning by Teaching Human Pupils and Teachable Agents: The Importance of Recursive Feedback by Sandra Okita and Daniel Schwartz.

Special thank-you to Andy Matuschak for pointing me to this paper.

You can download Roam Research Notes and an Anki flashcard deck I created for this research paper here.

Brief Overview of the Okita and Schwartz Paper

You have probably heard the advice that you should teach something if you really want to understand it. But does it really work, and if so, how?

Okita and Schwartz provide an extremely readable primer on the research behind Learning by Teaching and why it is so effective as a learning strategy.

They also explore a little-known benefit of learning by teaching called “recursive feedback” – feedback from watching your pupils use what you taught them. Using two separate experiments, Okita and Schwartz find that this special kind of feedback significantly improves teacher learning.

In this post, I summarize key insights from the paper on why learning by teaching works, and conclude with some thoughts on specific strategies for learning by teaching to improve your learning.

Why Learning by Teaching Works

Okita and Schwartz divide the learning by teaching process into three distinct phases: preparation (the teacher’s preparations to teach), teaching (the actual act of teaching), and observation (when the teacher receives recursive feedback by seeing the student apply what they learned from the teacher). It turns out that each of these phases contribute to the teacher’s learning.


Preparing to teach students helps teachers learn due to three main forces:

  • Motivation: Preparation introduces strong emotions and motivation to truly understand the material and do it justice. This includes a sense of responsibility, the anticipation of a public performance, and a desire to avoid embarrassment or “looking stupid”.
  • Generation: Preparing to teach involves a “generation effect“. The generation effect means that you remember information better when you generate it from your mind rather than passively reading it. Preparing to teach is generative because you have to frequently retrieve and elaborate on information from your memory as you think about how you are going to teach your students.
  • Meta-cognitive vigilance: Meta-cognition refers to an awareness of your own thoughts. It turns out that preparing to teach generates this kind of awareness through the teacher’s self-explaining and self-generated questions as they anticipate the needs and questions of their pupils. This, in turn, helps teachers identify areas where they have conflicting knowledge or incomplete understanding.


Three main aspects of this phase helps teachers learn:

  • Explanation. The act of teaching involves explaining ideas to others. This leads to “explanation effects” that occur from explaining ideas rather than just receiving them.
  • Question answering. Students often have questions of their teachers, which can reveal gaps in the teachers understanding or encourage the teacher to extend their understanding. In fact, Okita and Schwartz cite a study by Roscoe and Chi (2007) that found “tutees’ questions were responsible for about two-thirds of tutors’ reflective knowledge-building activity”.
  • Physiological arousal. Anyone that has experienced public speaking knows that it is a very stimulating activity that focuses your mind. As you might expect, this kind of arousal and attention improves learning.


In this phase, the teacher receives recursive feedback by watching the student apply what they learned. You might think it’s obvious that feedback improves learning, but it turns out that’s not always the case.

For example, direct feedback, where a student tells a teacher directly how well they did, can be counterproductive because people often take this kind of feedback personally, leading to “self-handicapping, learned hopelessness, or social comparison”. When this happens, the recipient of the feedback tends to adopt attitudes like, “well, I guess I’m not the kind of person who’s good at math“. As a result, they give up or opt for an easier subject. As much as we all like to believe we would receive feedback objectively and use it to our advantage, our egos often get involved, whether we like it or not.

Thankfully, recursive feedback side-steps this issue. Since the teacher is not directly receiving feedback from the student, their egos are uninvolved. Instead, they see for themselves what worked and what didn’t. No one explicitly tells them, “this is where you need to improve, this is what you did wrong”. Okita and Schwartz note that this “creates an ego-protective buffer, because the pupil rather than the tutor takes the immediate responsibility for being wrong”.

I also believe recursive feedback helps build empathy skills. A lack of empathy, in my opinion, is often a major barrier to learning and self-improvement. Think of how many people you have encountered in schools or workplaces that have tried to explain something to you, but assume an unreasonable amount of knowledge, leave out critical bits of information, or explain things in ways that are otherwise unhelpful (e.g. using tons of jargon you’re unfamiliar with)? Often these people are very intelligent, and would be far more effective if they gained some empathy.

How can we use these lessons about Learning by Teaching to improve our own learning?

The main lesson I took away from the Okita and Schwartz paper is that Learning by Teaching is not just folk wisdom. It works. So, as learners, we should try to use it wherever we can. Here are some ideas:

  • Develop a course or become a tutor. If there is a topic you really want to master, and you have enough time and resources, you can run an online or in-person course. In addition to the learning benefits, you can make some side income.
  • Observe your students. To take advantage of recursive feedback, you need to be able to see your students apply their knowledge. Use tests, presentations, or projects to see what your students learned.
  • Keep it interactive. Interaction with your students means more questions from them and, as a result, more learning for you. Okita and Schwartz note “Tutoring sessions should be arranged to limit the natural tendency of tutors to slip into didactics, which can eliminate opportunities for pupils to ask questions“. Students will often ask useful questions that help you better understand the material.
  • Write online. Writing online is a form of teaching, whether it’s blog posts, twitter, email newsletters, or something else. It also provides ample opportunity to receive valuable feedback about your work.
  • Develop a smart and interesting following. The quality of pupil questions impacts teacher learning. This means that, if you have an email list or a blog, or some other kind of online following, you learning would benefit from attracting high-quality people. Check out David Perell’s work on writing online, where he emphasizes the importance of writing for intelligent readers and leveraging their feedback to improve yourself.
  • Encourage your students to keep in touch about the projects they work on and how they applied the knowledge you taught them. Your students will appreciate this, and you’ll also get valuable recursive feedback.
  • Build things and watch people use what you’ve built. Okita and Schwartz point out that recursive feedback applies to areas other than Learning by Teaching. For example, producing products, tools, crafts, art, and then getting recursive feedback by observing how your “customer” uses it. One application of this idea that comes to mind is Agile software methodology, which relies on building software quickly, getting feedback on it as soon as possible, and constantly iterating and improving based on that feedback. If you produce something that others consume, you’ll gain by watching them use it.

Notes on Developing Transformative Tools for Thought

Occasionally, special tools come along that amplify our minds, enabling new kinds of thought not otherwise possible. Computers, writing, speaking, and the printing press are all examples of these “Tools for Thought” that surge human potential. 

This essay from Andy Matuschak and Michael Nielsen explores whether we can accelerate the development of these kind of tools. They also provide a taste of potential tools for thought with their prototype “mnemonic medium”, an interactive post on quantum mechanics called “Quantum Country” with embedded flashcards combined with a spaced repetition system delivered through email follow-ups. 

Their essay is a must-read for anyone interested in spaced-repetition or productive learning. There are several points I found thought-provoking. I believe each of these insights indicate a need for a new Tool for Thought for flashcard development and sharing.

Spaced repetition creates exponential returns to studying

Based on Quantum Country user data, Matuschak and Nielsen estimate that devoting only 50% more time to spaced repetition after reading the essay resulted in users recalling the key points for months or years. 

In other words, relatively small investments in spaced repetition after reading an article produces outsized results – more evidence to place on top of the mountain of research suggesting spaced repetition works. 

Good flashcard development is difficult

Matuschak and Nielsen note that it takes a surprising amount of skill and time to build quality flashcards, especially for abstract concepts. This is probably a big reason why most people fail to adopt spaced-repetition tools like Anki. Since flashcard development is a skill that you develop over much time and effort, new users tend to add cards in a way that inevitably leads to frustration and failure. 

This may partially explain the efficacy of Quantum Country: the authors are experts in both quantum mechanics and flashcard development – a rare but essential combination of skills for their essay to work. 

Flashcards written by others can be useable

Some people the spaced repetition community don’t believe in using flashcards created by others, and with good reason. They’re often poorly written. They’re idiosyncratic. They’re missing crucial contextual information that you lack as someone who hasn’t read the original source material. I used to be one of these non-believers.

But the effectiveness of the Quantum Country essay suggests that shared flashcards can work well. This has benefits of saving users of the burden of flash card creation, as well as preventing new user frustration from poor flashcard building skills and poor domain knowledge.

Matuschak and Nielsen hypothesize that the quality of their flashcards is what makes this work. I agree, but I have a few more hypotheses: 

  • Their flashcards are introduced in a logical progression as users read the essay. In contrast, shared decks in Anki shuffle cards randomly and are not encoded with dependency information.
  • Their flashcards are clearly connected to a source (i.e. the essay), providing important context for the user.
  • Users learn the material before they review flashcards. This is in line with the common wisdom that flashcards don’t work if you don’t already understand the material – they are a tool for retention, not learning. Aside: is this common wisdom true? I’m not so sure. Socrates taught using Q and A, so why can’t you teach a subject entirely with flashcards? If it is possible, what are the prerequisites to making it work? 

Elaborative encoding

Matuschak and Nielsen note elaborative encoding as another learning tool shown to be extremely powerful in promoting memory. Essentially, it means connecting new ideas you want to remember with old ideas you know well, providing a fast path in your brain to new information. 

Remember this concept while developing your flashcards. Whenever you add a new card, think about what you already know well and how you can connect this to the new knowledge.

A New Tool for Thought?

Matuschak and Nielsen’s article has renewed my interest in a tool for thought idea I’ve been pondering for quite a while: a platform for collaborative flashcards development and sharing. I believe such a tool, if properly developed, can address the issues that limit the use of spaced repetition:

  • Spaced repetition practitioners currently need to develop their own flashcards, which requires a significant amount of time, domain expertise, and flashcard-building skill. There needs to be a place where experts can create shared flashcards, and there should be a proper incentive structure encouraging creators to improve these flashcards over time.
  • Flashcards are not clearly connected to original sources. Spaced repetition practitioners should be able to pull up pre-built flashcards for a source document they are working through. 
  • Current tools do not provide information that link flashcards together (other than knowing two flashcards are part of the same deck, or have the same tag). At the very least, flashcards should have a notion of “depends on” or “prerequisite to”. This would make shared decks more useful by showing the intended progression of knowledge. It would also aid elaborative encoding (e.g. examining cards you’ve reviewed and linking them up to cards “nearby” in a knowledge graph)

I strongly believe a tool like this needs to exist, as you may have guessed if you noticed the Download my Brain feature I built for this site that provides a platform for sharing my personal Anki decks. I have started work on a more generic tool for collaborative flashcard construction and sharing and will keep you posted once I have something ready for production. 

Thanks to Andy Matuschak and Michael Nielsen for the inspiration to follow this path.

The Hidden Power of Compounding (and 4 Ideas for Harnessing it)

Ways to take advantage of this powerful and often-overlooked force for improvement 

Ever wonder how successful people reach such heights? Think of a wildly successful person you admire. How did they get there? 

The typical answers are hard work, innate gifts (personality, natural ability) and luck. These factors play a role, but the most important factor is left out: they leverage the power of compounding.

What is Compounding?

For compounding to occur, only two things are required:

  • Growth: Something must be growing by some percentage each year
  • Time: The growth process happens over multiple years

You’ve probably heard of a specific type of compounding: compound interest. In this context, compounding means that growing your money by some percentage every year eventually snowballs into huge results if you give it enough time. 

For example, say you are able to earn 7% per year on your money. That doesn’t sound like a lot: if you invest $1000, that’s $70 in a year. Seems pretty modest.

Yes, you’ll earn $70 in year one, but in year 2 you earn $70 (7% of $1000) plus 7% on the $70 of additional money in your account that grew from year 1. As time passes, that 7% per year pumps out bigger and bigger piles of cash:

  • In Year 10: You’ve doubled the size of your account ($1,967)
  • In Year 20: You’ve quadrupled the size of your account ($3,870)
  • In Year 30: Your account is now almost 8 times your original investment of $1,000 ($7,612)

One lesson from this exercise is to save and invest some of your money. Your future self will thank you. 

Another lesson is the earlier you start, the better. More years means more opportunity for exponential growth. 

But there’s an interesting corollary to this exercise that is less obvious, and much more exciting: compounding isn’t just something that happens to your bank account – it applies to many other areas of life. 

“We’re all sort of blundering fools, but if you just get some rate of improvement and let it keep compounding, you can do pretty well…You always want to be on some sort of curve where you’re compounding.”

– Tyler Cowen, on David Perell’s Podcast

All you need for compounding is growth and time – there is nothing about dollars or bank accounts mentioned in that definition. If you can get some percentage growth rate in some area of interest every year, you’ll eventually reach heights you never dreamed possible.

Think about some area where you want to excel. As an example, let’s say you’re in sales. If you improved at sales 10% every year, you would be twice as good in 7 years, four times as good in 15 years ten times as good in 25 years, and seventeen times as good in 30 years. In any given year, you’re not making tremendous improvements, but over time persistence leads to tremendous outcomes.

Also, keep in mind that although 10% growth is a great rate for a bank account, who’s to say this is a good rate of growth for your sales career? Maybe a reasonable growth rate is much higher. If that’s the case, you can expect much more dramatic results. 

I believe this is how extraordinary people like Elon Musk reach rarefied heights: achieving a high growth rate in an area (e.g. managing a private space company) through intense focus and then relentlessly persisting to maintain that high growth rate over many years.

4 Ideas for Better Compounding

There are lots of ways you can compound in an area you want to improve. Look for anything that 1) gives you growth by some percentage or 2) helps you maintain that growth over multiple years. Some of the obvious ideas here include reading, taking lessons, attending talks, working with a mentor, and just simply doing work in the area you want to compound.

That being said, I have a few other tips that can both increase your percentage growth rate (ideas #2 and #3) and ensure you stick to it over the years (ideas #1 and #4). 

Idea #1 – Have a plan

The key to compounding is consistent, focused effort over multiple years. It’s hard to do that without being clear about where you want to improve. If you don’t have clear goals, you’ll forget them or lose discipline, stifling your compounding efforts.

So, I recommend writing down the areas you would like to compound over time. Check back on this list regularly (I check weekly) and make sure that every year you’re making some effort to improve your abilities by some percentage.

For example, here’s a list of areas I’m personally focused on compounding over time:

  • Data science
    • Statistics / math
    • Programming
  • Communication
    • Writing
    • Speaking
    • Sales / persuasion
  • Managing teams / project management
  • Personal brand / developing followers on my blog and email list
  • Health
  • Relationships
  • Cooking
  • Drumming

I keep a Google document of this list and keep track of specific things that I am doing within each category to propel myself forward. 

Idea #2 – Use spaced repetition

You’ve probably had this experience: you read a book or take a course and you want to retain it and apply as much as you can. Inevitably, the precious knowledge slowly exits your mind and 6 months later it feels like you didn’t learn anything in the first place.

Spaced repetition is a solution to this problem.

Spaced repetition is quizzing yourself on knowledge in increasing intervals of time. It’s extremely effective and time efficient. I have flashcards in my spaced repetition system that I just answered that I will not be quizzed on again in 2 years. This spacing allows you to hold tens of thousands of flashcards in your mind while only reviewing tens of flashcards a day. 

For more information about the science behind spaced repetition, check out this great summary by Gwern Branwen.

I have been a long-time user of spaced-repetition tools for committing things to long-term memory. During my university years, I wrote cards in Supermemo for all of my courses, and it was the secret weapon to my performance. Today, I use Anki, and it continues to be a key tool for compounding my knowledge in data science and retaining the vast amount of information required for success in the field.

I’m so excited about spaced repetition, I even have a feature on my website that I built to share my data science Anki decks with the world, organized by source: Download my Brain! I’m also running a Spaced Repetition Newsletter that will provide the latest news and links related to Anki, tips on using Anki, and ideas related to spaced repetition and productive learning.

Idea #3 – Keep a commonplace book

A commonplace book is a place where you store wisdom or interesting things you’ve read or heard from others, or have thought about yourself.  I’ve written previously about the benefits of keeping a commonplace book and a summary of my personal commonplace book system that involves a spaced-repetition-esque component (I wrote code to email myself 5 randomly selected commonplace book notes from my collection). Lots of others have written about them as well (here is a good article from Ryan Holiday, which is where I first heard about this idea). 

A commonplace book is similar to spaced repetition in that it’s a tool to help you retain more of the important things that you learn. It also provides you with a body of material you can draw from, which is particularly valuable if you are a writer. 

I personally use my commonplace book system to hold long-form wisdom that doesn’t lend itself well to flash card quizzing.

Idea #4 – Use commitment contracts

Once you have a plan for compounding in your improvement areas, you need to follow-through with that plan. Over the years I’ve tried many strategies to help deal with this issue of staying motivated and sticking to a plan, and the most effective tool I’ve found are commitment contracts. I’ve used commitment contracts to read and write more than I ever have in the past, despite being busier than ever with a full time job and a 3-year-old at home.

Commitment contracts are agreements where you commit to doing something, and failing leads to actual consequences. For example, I have a commitment contract to spend a minimum number of hours each week on various areas of interest. I track my time during the week, report back each week, and if I’m below my target I’m penalized $5. 

I have found this surprisingly effective, especially considering the low stakes. It doesn’t take much of a penalty to provide enough motivation to follow through with your targets. I think this may be tapping into our inherent loss-aversion: we are irrationally repulsed by a loss, much more than the size of the loss would indicate. Of course, you can make your failure penalties higher if you want, but I personally don’t find it necessary. 

The specific tool that I use for commitment contracts is StickK. I highly recommend it. 


I think these tips will help you out, but the most important point to remember is compounding only requires two things: growth and time. Growth ensures you make progress, and time is what allows you to reach heights you never thought possible. In any given year, you may not be making huge improvements, but over time your persistence leads to huge outcomes.

If you want to commit this article to long-term memory, download the Anki deck I put together for it here.

I made a speech based on this blog post that you can find here:

This is a speech version of this post from my local Toastmasters group

Spaced Repetition for Efficient Learning by Gwern Branwen

If you’re interested in spaced repetition and haven’t read it yet, Gwern Branwen’s essay is a fantastic review, including research into the benefits of testing, what spaces repetition is used for, software, and other observations. There are lots of resources here for people that want to know the research behind why spaced repetition works, including many studies on the effects of testing and the effects of spacing your learning. 

Here are a few points I found most interesting in Gwern’s essay:

People underestimate the benefits of spaced repetition: Gwern references fascinating research on how students and teachers grossly underestimate how much better spaced repetition is compared to cramming for learning. 

Spaced repetition as a tool for maintenance of knowledge, not gaining new knowledge: According to some of the research referenced in the essay, spaced repetition doesn’t teach you new skills or abilities. Rather, it just helps you maintain existing skills.

  • Skills like gymnastics and music performance raise an important point about the testing effect and spaced repetition: they are for the maintenance of memories or skills, they do not increase it beyond what was already learned. If one is a gifted amateur when one starts reviewing, one remains a gifted amateur.” 
  • I’m resistant to this idea that you can’t learn using flashcards. I agree if new flashcards are thrown at you randomly, then yes that is a very inefficient way to learn. But what if flashcards are presented to you in a specific order when you are learning them, and “advanced” cards are not shown to you until you’ve learned the prerequisite “beginner” cards? I don’t know the research on this, but this strikes me as potentially a better way to learn than reading, if the cards are formulated properly.  To my knowledge, none of the spaced repetition tools out there (e.g. Supermemo, Anki) allow for this kind of “card dependency” – if you know of a tool that does this, let me know.

Tradeoff between lookup time and mental space: A key question that you have to ask yourself when using spaced repetition is what information should I add to my spaced repetition system? Why add anything at all to it when you can just look it up on the internet?

  • The answer is that lookup costs can be large, especially for information that you use a lot. Often when you want to apply your knowledge, there isn’t enough time to look it up, or the time to look-up impedes your thinking. An extreme example of this would be trying to recall an important piece of knowledge in a job interview – good luck pulling out your phone in front of the interviewer to get the right answer.
  • To figure out what to add, you have to strike a balance with the tradeoff between lookup costs and the cost of adding the item to your spaced repetition system and reviewing it. Gwern provides a 5 minute rule as a criteria for deciding what to add: if you think you’ll spend over 5 minutes over your lifetime looking something up or not having the knowledge in your head will wind up somehow costing you more than 5 minutes, then it’s worth it to add it to spaced repetition.

Idea – dynamically generated cards: Gwern offers some interesting ideas about the possibility of dynamically generated cards. For example, having a card that teaches multiplication by randomly generating numbers to multiply. Similar ideas apply to chess, go, programming, grammar, and more.

How to Make Decisions: A Mental Framework and 5 Common Failures

Whether you like it or not, you are faced with a barrage of decisions every day. Human beings are essentially decision machines, and the quality of your life hinges on these choices you make. The better you are at it, the better your life will be.

Some decisions are low stakes. Sometimes, the stakes are tremendous. What should I let my kids do? Where should I invest? Should I switch jobs? Should I ride my bike or take a car? Should I move to that neighbourhood? Should I reach out to the family member I haven’t talked to in ages? Should I cross the street? 

It’s valuable to have a mental decision framework that guides you to increase your decision quality and decrease the stress of the process. It’s also valuable to be aware of some common decision-making traps to avoid. 

The Framework

The mental framework I use for making decisions looks like this:

As you can probably tell, this mental framework is heavily influenced by economics (specifically, cost-benefit analysis which is a decision framework used by economists). 

At the highest level, making a decision in this framework involves 3 steps:

  1. Estimate the benefits
  2. Estimate the costs
  3. If the benefits outweigh the costs, do it. If not, don’t. When you’re choosing between multiple courses of action, pick the one with the highest benefit-to-cost ratio 

Steps #1 and #2 each break down into understanding two sub-components: probability and impact.

  • Probability is the chance of the chance the benefit or cost happens
  • Impact is how good the benefit is or how bad the cost is if it happens

Higher probability or higher impact means you should place more weight on that benefit or cost. 

Most of us probably use a similar framework in our heads without even knowing it, but spelling it out like this helps clarify tough decisions and exposes hidden flaws in our decision-making.

5 Common Decision-Making Failures 

This model may seem simple at first glance, but it’s deceptively tough to apply. This is because we’re human beings, not computers or all-knowing gods. We will never come close to applying this decision-making model perfectly. But even though we’ll never reach perfection, there are many ways to improve. 

Here are five common failures you can keep an eye out for.

Common Failure #1: Loss aversion

Loss aversion means that we tend to hate losses much more than we love gains. As a result of this tendency, you irrationally underestimate benefits and overestimate costs in your decision-making. 

This leads to particularly skewed decisions when considering benefits that are huge, but low probability (in other words, high payoff but a chance of a “loss”). 

For example, say you’re applying for a big grant and you estimate your probability of getting it is less than 5%. Many would instantly choose to not write the grant without giving a second thought because the chances are slim. It’s true that winning the grant is unlikely, the payoff is huge. Applying might still be worthwhile and shouldn’t be dismissed without consideration. 

Or consider Elon Musk. When he started SpaceX, he didn’t say “well, the chance of building a profitable, successful space company is low, so let’s just forget it”. Instead, he thought “the probability of success with this company is only about 10 percent, but the upside if I’m successful is tremendous so I’m going to try”. 

Always remember that the emotional toll of losing is often irrationally high and doesn’t represent the actual cost of losing.

Common Failure #2: Not valuing your time

I remember in university, there was occasionally a “free pancake day”. Students would line up out the door for them, waiting about an hour in line to get these “free” pancakes. 

The pancakes are only “free” if you don’t value your time, which is a huge mistake. 

I personally believe you should value your time at least as high as your equivalent hourly salary at work. You may disagree with that number, but the point is that it’s absolutely worth something. This was one of the key takeaways from my economics background and probably the best piece of advice I can give.

Common Failure #3: Focusing only on money and measurable things

We often ignore benefits or costs that are not monetary, and in general we have a difficult time considering things that are not easy to measure. Here are some difficult-to-measure areas where there are often huge costs or benefits:

  • Health and wellness (e.g “I could never ride a bicycle because it’s too dangerous”)
  • Relationships with loved ones (e.g. cutting ties with a family member over a $100 dispute)
  • Education, skills, and learning (e.g. “our company doesn’t have the skills to perform this core business task so let’s just contract it out”)
  • Culture / morale (e.g. “We can’t fire Sarah. Sure, she’s a toxic, unethical person and makes everyone in the office miserable, but damn is she ever good at making widgets!”)

Common Failure #4: Not considering the costs of inaction

No matter what you do, you are making a decision. Choosing to not do anything or to “not make a decision” is itself a decision. As a result, the benefits and costs of inaction must be considered alongside the benefits and costs of all other courses of action. 

Common Failure #5: Ignoring hidden benefits and costs

Many benefits and costs are commonly ignored because they are less obvious. For example:

  • Transporting yourself by bicycle leads to improvements to your physical appearance, mood, strength, focus, and energy. 
  • Many people think the cost of owning a home is just a monthly mortgage payment. Hidden costs include property taxes, maintenance, and insurance, among many other expenses.
  • Many people think the cost of driving a car is just the cost of gas. Hidden costs here include insurance, parking, and maintenance.

Keep an eye out for costs and benefits that may be lurking slightly under the surface.


Decisions are hard. You’ll never make perfect decisions, but if you have a solid mental framework at your side and have some awareness of common mistakes, you can get better. More importantly, you can relieve some stress and feel more confident that you’re doing the best you can with what you have.

If you want to commit this article to long-term memory, download the Anki deck I put together for it here.