Tim Ferriss, the Long Now, and how the Meta-Skill of Learning will help us Save the World

[tl;dr][Preamble][Tim’s Talk][The Rub][Wherein I Read Between the Lines][In Summary…]


Tim Ferriss, author of the 4-hr workweek, gave a talk through the Long Now Foundation titled “Accelerated Learning in Accelerated Times”. He walked through a process on how to learn new skills quickly.

He didn’t really tell anyone why we should care or what his talk had to do with long-term thinking or building value in the world beyond ourselves as individuals. After the talk, people I talked to were asking each other “So what? What value will this help me produce? How will this help me make the world a better place?”

Tim didn’t speak to this (at least not to a lot of people’s satisfaction), but below I read between the lines and propose a connection between Tim’s talk and creating value in the world in the context of deep time.


A little background first:

Tim Ferriss is the New York Times bestselling author of The Four-Hour Workweek and The Four-Hour Body, and he’s working on a book now called The Four-Hour Chef. The common themes in his books are challenging conventional wisdom about how to get things done, set unrealistic expectations for yourself, and accomplish extraordinary things. Tim is an optimizer. He figures out how to do things radically better and quicker.

The Long Now Foundation, an organization that I’m a member of, is a

private organization that seeks to become the seed of a very long-term cultural institution. It aims to provide a counterpoint to what it views as today’s “faster/cheaper” mindset and to promote “slower/better” thinking. The Long Now Foundation hopes to “creatively foster responsibility” in the framework of the next 10,000 years…

One of the things the Long Now Foundation does is host a series of talks by influential thinkers on topics related to long term thinking. Here’s a list of prior and upcoming seminar topics to give you the idea:

  • Ten Millennia of California Ecology | Laura Cunningham
  • Universal Access to All Knowledge | Brewster Kahle
  • Why Cities Keep on Growing, Corporations Always Die, and Life Gets Faster | Geoffrey B. West
  • Why the West Rules – For Now | Ian Morris
  • Live Longer, Think Longer | Mary Catherine Bateson

The title of Tim’s talk last Wednesday was Accelerated Learning in Accelerated Times.

If you’re asking yourself what that has to do with long term thinking, join the club. I think a few of us were at a loss.

[Tim’s Talk]

The talk was about the meta-skill of acquiring skills. Tim presented an unconventional process for approaching subjects, which included

  • Challenging conventional wisdom on how to do something (ask: What if I do the opposite of common knowledge?)
  • Look for extremes: people who excel at a certain skill but shouldn’t (he gave the example of a 135 lb normal-looking high school girl who can deadlift in the 400’s) and figure out what they do
  • Figure out the application of Prado’s Law to the subject (what 20% of work gives 80% of the results? e.g. eating 30g of protein in the morning within 30 minutes of waking up produces great fitness results1)
  • There were a lot of tips and tricks like memorization techniques, compressing the essential structure of a language into 8 lines of text, and mnemonic devices.

Tim walked through a methodology for approaching a new topic and effectively learning it in an impossibly short amount of time. It was interesting, informative, Tim brought a lot of enthusiasm and energy to the stage, and managed to get me excited about my potential for learning new things quickly. You can listen to the talk.

[The Rub]

As a stand-alone talk, it was fine. But Tim totally failed to address his audience. People who attend Long Now talks are people who care deeply about the arc of civilization, and work daily on producing things of value for society. Tim failed to tell us why we should care about “the meta-skill of learning” in the context of the work we’re engaged in. Tim’s examples were primarily language learning and physical fitness achievements. At the end of the talk, the attitude among a number of people I talked to was… well, so what? What’s the point of jumping around from topic to topic, learning things and then dropping them? 

My friends and peers work in creative, productive fields: we are engineers, architects, software developers, scientists, carpenters, writers, graphic designers, and social organizers. We care deeply about producing value through our work, in changing the world for the better. We’re either idealists or just scared out of our minds, and we want to make the world suck less. We don’t care about rapidly learning a language on a plane ride or putting 300 lbs on our deadlifts in 8 weeks. We care about saving the world.

So this was not a crowd looking for self-help advice. This was a crowd of people who daily create value in the world and seek ways to do so better. Tim didn’t tell us how this meta-skill of learning addressed these drives. All of his examples of learning topics seem like little more than the idle wankery of a mildly OCD workaholic rich guy. He didn’t really talk about the nature of the so-called Accelerated times, or how rapid learning would help anyone do anything of any particular value.2

None of the examples Tim mentioned had anything to do with, shall we say, the “hard” sciences: science, math, technology, biology, etc. Will Tim’s method work for rapidly learning, say, thermodynamics, or the calculus, or a new software language? (I think so, but Tim didn’t address this question)

In summary Tim really only talked about learning or doing random new things as quickly as possible. And maybe that’s fine: maybe we don’t really want Tim Ferriss to tell us how this applies to creating real value in the world.

Maybe that’s our job to fill in the blanks.

[Wherein I Read Between the Lines]

Look, here’s what designers in this brave new world of ours needs: we need to understand everything. That’s our challenge. We’ve got to the point that we’ve messed with Gaia so hard that we need to help fix her. If we don’t know enough, we’ll just keep hurting her. We need to be able to hold a multitude of different perspectives, from several formerly-unrelated spheres of knowledge, in our heads simultaneously to forge intelligent solutions to the technic-social-political problems our civilization is faced with.

We need to understand basic ecology, thermodynamics, energy systems, biology, climatology, psychology, history, statistics, math, politics, and a myriad of other disciplines just to be able to design solutions that don’t drive society further into the hole it’s dug for itself. We need to be aware of the philosophical nuances of man’s mental models of his environment, and how they dictate the work he does.

Yes we need interdisciplinary teams, because no one will be able to master enough topics to be a one-person holistic designer. But we can no longer exist in our own silos of professional knowledge; our knowledge needs to reach out, overlap, & interlace with the knowledge of other disciplines.

[Traditional Isolated Spheres of Knowledge. Science, the arts, psychology, biologic sciences, etc]

[Multi-interdisciplinary Networks of Knowledge. Core competencies informed by multiple overlapping/intertwined disciplines.]

The designers of the past few hundred years weren’t aware of the damage being done because they didn’t know: the sciences thought that the earth’s systems were functionally infinite. We know better know, and we know enough to stop the destruction. The knowledge exists – it’s out there, in nodes and pockets accross humanity, connected by the internet and our rapidly evolving networked and collaborative culture.
The pieces are there: the knowledge of what we can no longer do, the knowledge that ways exist to do things in a manner that will be regenerative for humanity and for the earth; the knowledge that we have to be extremely careful to not induce unintended consequences (e.g. the idea that geoengineering schemes are suicidally myopic and probably being promoted by profit-motivated hacks anyway); the knowledge that we have to act fast, now, to keep the earth from rejecting our species like the body rejecting an implant.

In other words, we need to be able to learn new things quickly and well. The future of our species depends on it.

For a mechanical engineer, for example, to be a valuable member of a design team for a completely passive building, he has to speak the design language of spatial/human psychological relationships and be able to introduce thermodynamic, heat transfer, and fluid dynamic concepts into that design language, that architectural vernacular.

This is the value of rapid learning to a fairly deep level at competance: the everchanging requirement for design projects to integrate multiple disciplines, skills, processes, and work flows. We need to be able to rapidly pick up the important concepts of a field of study new to us, to a depth of understanding that will allow us to make design decisions or at least interact effectively with the experts in that field.

[In Summary…]

So that’s the take-away from Ferriss’ talk, I think. A clear methodology for rapid skills and knowledge learning is an extremely critical meta-skill for anyone trying to sort through the mega-issues of our generation. We don’t have an excuse for not knowing, for not understanding, and time is of an essence. We can no longer hunker down in the comforting bubble of our respective disciplines, shrug our shoulders at any design considerations that don’t fall within our scope, saying “I’ve not studied that particular science in school; who am I to consider it?” 

Because we must consider it. It is not acceptable to be ignorant of the breadth of physical and psychological reality around us.

So with that, I’m off to learn how to perform annual energy models on buildings. Later I’m going to try to dig into the design language of architecture. Then I’m going to learn the fundamentals of ecology. 

What are you going to learn?3


1 I can’t remember if that result was weight loss or strength gains or lean muscle mass increase at the moment. Not important.
2 And, look, to be totally clear, I’m not hating on Tim here (that is ground well covered); I’m taking what he presented, reading between the lines, extracting a useful take-away for me and like-minded people, and leaving the rest. I don’t care if you think he’s just a marketing hack; I’m not jumping on that bandwagon. 
3 That’s not a rhetorical question: I actually really want to know what you are interesting in learning. Let me know in a comment below!

3 Responses to Tim Ferriss, the Long Now, and how the Meta-Skill of Learning will help us Save the World

  1. Realy nice article, but I didn’t agree with your thoughts you made in the last paragraph. Could you please explain it to me? Best regards Frank

  2. David Sucher says:

    My comment at the LongNow blog:

    “Very interesting talk.
    “I hadn’t heard about Tim Ferriss until a month or so ago and like most self-help gurus, I was skeptical. But my enormous respect for Stewart Brand made me, at least, listen to Ferriss. And I did.


    “What evidence do we have for the truth of Ferriss claims? I felt a gut reaction hesitation when I heard Ferriss explaining why (if I understood correctly) that he forgets about the languages that he has learned until he no longer needs them.

    “I was puzzled that the audience (this from other reports) was puzzled why Ferriss was even on the stage. But his presence seems quite reasonable — if indeed Ferriss has found a way to accelerate learning, that helps human evolution and enough said.

    “But is there any way to verify that Ferriss has indeed done what he has claimed to have done?”

    • flowxrg says:

      I feel like most of Tim’s experiments are pretty out in the open and testable. i.e., he actually did win that kickboxing tournament, he can can (or could) speak X language, he actually did deadlift xxx lbs. If not, someone would have called him out on his bullshit a while ago. I got the sense from Tim’s talk that he indeed had accomplished the things he was talking about (normal story-teller’s embellishments aside).

      I think the interesting question is rather, can Tim do these things because he’s Tim, or because he figured out a method which others can learn too?

      I feel like a lot of type-A, high energy people do some amazing thing, and attribute it to their method and try to “teach” others. Whereas their success really had more to do with their suicidal work ethic and single-minded creepy-intense focus. It’s difficult to teach people how to obsess over something for months.

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