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Learning expert Scott Young on memory, self-control and engineering environments for success

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Posted
February 24, 2020
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25 minutes

Have you ever wanted to learn a language? How about four in one year?   For many people, learning slows down or stops when they leave formal education. Not so for Scott Young, whose achievements include teaching himself a four-year MIT degree course in just one and travelling the world with the sole intention of learning languages in an applied way.

In this episode, Scott covers just some of the topics examined in his book, Ultralearning, as well as the 1300+ articles on productivity he’s written since 2006. Questioning traditional methods of education, Scott shares his own recommendations for better mastering learning, self control, memory and habit.

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Paul Sephton: I think the first thing which struck me was that you started off by writing over 1000 articles trying to figure out the ideal way to live and that led you towards this fascination with learning. But where did the sort of starting block for you kick off in terms of article number one and the ideal way to live and what brought that into being?

Scott Young: I started writing because I was a real sort of self-improvement enthusiast in my teenage years. And I think a lot of people who may be are in that situation where they have a passion for something or an intense interest, but they don’t feel like it’s shared by a lot of people around them. I grew up in a small town and the people that I was friends with weren’t particularly that interested in this kind of stuff. And so, blogging was really a kind of early outlet for that. Additionally, I would say that I’ve always had the idea or more of an aspiration early on that I would like to do some kind of solo entrepreneurial thing. I did have some more serious aspirations for it, but I think the topic and why I chose to write about this and why I chose to write as a thing was just because I was really interested in it and I had lots of ideas and not that many people to discuss it with, at least at that time.

Paul Sephton: And how did you find the writing to sort of unpack those ideas for you as you develop them? Or what did the writing in and of itself lead to?

Scott Young: Well, I’m probably the biggest critic of my own work. So I would say that a lot of my early writing was pretty derivative of other people that I liked. So I was in my mind kind of coming up with my own spin on it, but really following a mood set by other writers and other people. And I think it just took a while for me to find not only what things did I think about things that were not just sort of reiterations of what other people had said before, but also to figure out where’s my space? What are the kinds of ideas and topics that I can contribute something? I don’t want to say new because there’s really nothing new under the sun if we’re being really honest, but something where people reading the article, it wouldn’t be… The sources were well hidden. The idea seemed more novel than just me restating so-and-so’s opinion in a very similar style in an article that’s probably worse writing quality.

Paul Sephton: These ideas, as much as they might be sort of distilled down to a few key ones, are now available across so many different content formats. And tech is also doing this thing where it’s shaving our attention spans and we feel quite gratified if we read 10 short articles instead of one long form essay, let’s say. So as we have more and more content available to choose from, what do you look to in terms of the best way overall to wrap your head around a concept and actually digest and internalize that sort of information?

Scott Young: Well, I think we’re talking about it from the perspective that like everyone is on the page of, well I’m trying to acquire the most robust and deep ideas of human knowledge, and then what’s the efficient way of doing that? And I would say that that’s not the optimization problem that most people are doing in their head. I think even just having the motivation to want to learn about the world automatically separates you from almost everyone who’s not really optimizing for that. I think that’s a little bit of a misnomer. The whole idea of like, well how do you pick which content to have? I think it’s how do you pick the right values to search for?

Even just having the motivation to want to learn about the world automatically separates you from almost everyone who’s not really optimizing for that.

If you get the idea of, “Oh, I would really like to understand how the world works.” Then okay, you could make a little curriculum for yourself. Well, I should understand a bit about physics, a bit of a biology, a bit about math, maybe a bit about psychology, sociology. And you could pick a list of a number of books that maybe you could read in a couple of years that would give you the broad outlines of that. And then of course you could specialize in topics that you find more interesting. But it’s the fact that most people don’t even do anything close to that, that I think is the real missed opportunity. Not so much, okay, we’re all trying to become these sort of wise scholars and we’re just sort of getting overwhelmed from information. I think it’s just that most of the information that people are pursuing is just not really aimed at that goal.

Paul Sephton: I think another thing is that we often compartmentalize the learning stage of our life into one in which we sort of got in our early years and then perhaps wrapped up and finished with some gratitude at the end of it. Whereas you seem to have an approach of learning constantly and particularly not just from sort of a school or a university or college. It brings me to the MIT Challenge you did. Can you tell me a little bit about that and then also just how you view your learning journey when it’s clearly not just in sort of an educational bundle.

Scott Young: I had been interested in learning and topics around learning since the start of my blog, which was in 2006, and I had been a university student for most of it. And that was a time when I really was interested in studying also from the perspective of like, “This is the main thing I’m doing right now. I’m full-time being a student.” So talking about studying felt very relevant and I had become really fascinated by this blogger, Benny Lewis, who did these language learning challenges and I’d even met him when I was trying to learn French. He had this kind of style blog where he would go and do these learning challenges that were really intense and super ambitious, but he’d be documenting them as he was doing them. And as someone who is writing and writing about learning related topics, this seemed like really interesting to me. Not only just from the perspective of just the learning aspect of it because I was really interested in learning and doing these things, but also, “Wow, this is like a really cool thing. I’d like to do something like this.”

And so when I was graduating from university, I had studied business and I had always been torn between studying business or computer science. And around this time I found these classes that were posted by MIT online. MIT OpenCourseWare has many classes that are like from actual MIT classes, but they just post content from it online for free. And I just got this sort of confluence of ideas of, has anyone ever tried to sort of attempt to teach themselves what’s in a degree as opposed to just a single class online before? And I couldn’t find any examples of this, but it seemed like such an obvious project. It seemed like, well they put all the class materials up here, why has no one ever tried to do this before?

This was a project to learn MIT’s four-year computer science curriculum… and instead of doing it over four years, which would be the typical path that you would take if you were in school, I wanted to do it in 12 months.

And in addition to that, I was really kind of gung-ho because I’d spent a lot of time investigating sort of studying techniques myself. So I wanted to challenge myself with something a little bit more ambitious and I was following Benny Lewis’s lead of taking these super ambitious challenges and documenting them live. And so the MIT Challenge came out of that. And this was a project to learn MIT’s four-year computer science curriculum by… I simplified it to try to pass the final exams and complete the programming assignments. And instead of doing it over four years, which would be the typical path that you would take if you were in school, I wanted to do it in 12 months, and so I started that in October of 2011, and I finished the last class in September of 2012. I would say it was a successful project.

Paul Sephton: Wow. And beforehand you had gone into all of these techniques for ultralearning and then you got a chance to actually sort of put them into the playground. Which ones worked for you and which ones do you think lost a bit of merit in your mind having studied them all theoretically?

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Scott Young: You know what? Actually for me, I think that that was one of the big projects that shifted me over toward a mindset of practice being fundamental as opposed to kind of the passive reading, listening approaches, which I think students tend to think about when they think of school, is sitting in a classroom or reading a textbook. Whereas going through that project was really, oh no, where you do almost all the learning is trying to solve problems that you don’t know how to solve and the classes assist with that, but it’s sort of a figure ground thing. It’s like what do you think is the most central part of the learning equation?

Whereas I see it more the other way that the assignments and tests are in the foreground of what it is to learn something, particularly hard skills like math, computer science, and the classes are support for that.

And for most students, I would say it’s taking the class, sitting in the class, reading the book, and then assignments and tests are kind of in the background. Whereas I see it more the other way that the assignments and tests are in the foreground of what it is to learn something, particularly hard skills like math, computer science, and the classes are support for that. They’re like, oh, you need some classes to be able to even attempt the problems. But attempting the problems is really what would go there. So I think that was sort of the first kick away from the academic approach of learning, which tends to emphasize the sort of passive consumption towards an active aggressive kind of, you’re doing a lot of things when you’re learning as opposed to just sort of, “Oh, I’m just sitting and listening.” A lot of people, I think they do that. You need those tests and assignments, you need to implement it in actual projects and things.

Paul Sephton: And when you were speaking about something like practice, there’s a lot of debate these days of experience versus degree and where hard skills from a degree might lose value and where actually just learning on the job is going to give you a better career and foundation than sitting in class all day. Do you think there’s some sort of… I guess it’s dependent on degree, but a healthy balance between.

Scott Young: I used to have the perspective, I think that is dominant that the reason you go to school is to learn things and schools teach you lots of things that are presumably somewhat useful although maybe not always the most efficient way. I never had that idealization that university was somehow perfect but I always had the idea that the main reason for school was to acquire skills and knowledge and then the degree was just to show that you had acquired skills and knowledge.

And I really became persuaded by, if not 100% that it is a dominant force as the signaling model of education. Particularly as elucidated in Brian Kaplan’s book, The Case Against Education, and this was a book that I kind of really disagreed with the central thesis when I started and I was sort of bowled over by the evidence in reading it. That basically says that what most people are doing when they get college degrees or credentials of any kind is very often they are signaling that they have certain qualities that were not improved by the educational process, but that they all ready possessed them. But the only way that they could demonstrate that they had them in the first place was by going through this long education process.

What most people are doing when they get college degrees or credentials of any kind is very often they are signaling that they have certain qualities that were not improved by the educational process, but that they all ready possessed them.

In particular, Kaplan singles out the idea that not only intelligence, so we’re trying to signal that when we have a degree that we were smart enough to have gone through college, but that also we were diligent enough so we were hardworking enough to to stick to four years of it. Which is why you can’t just do an IQ test because you have to show that you’re actually willing to work hard for long periods of time because you could be smart but also a dilettante, not actually work very hard and employers don’t want that either.

And then finally, the point that he makes is that it’s also sort of a signal of conformity and obedience to the societal strictures. So someone who goes through an onerous somewhat pointless and bureaucratic college degree is saying essentially to future employers, “I’m willing to submit to your standard operating procedures and I’m not going to raise a fuss about things too much. I’m going to do what I’m told.”

And so I don’t know whether I take it as extreme as he does that this is the only explanation for education. And I think particularly for some areas, it’s more on that you’re learning useful skills than it’s just a signaling. But I think some of the evidence is certainly persuasive. There’s certainly a larger part than I was giving it credit for. And so to me, I think that took me a while to reconcile that idea of, “Well, why am I focusing so much on learning given that lot of the learning that’s taking place isn’t even for that?” But I think in sort of digesting this idea, I think it pushed me more in the opposite that if I do really care about learning and maybe most people don’t, maybe only some people do, then that also makes me more skeptical of the way that we teach things in school. Because the presumption that we’re teaching things in school in roughly the most effective way to impart knowledge and skills is really undermined if that’s not really the main function of school. If the main function of school is credentialing and not really educating, it would make sense that it would be optimized for how do you make really good credentials and not how do you make really good learning.

Because the presumption that we’re teaching things in school in roughly the most effective way to impart knowledge and skills is really undermined if that’s not really the main function of school.

And so I think that that gives a more powerful incentive for learning how to learn and for understanding learning, assuming you care about it because it’s not going to be the case that, oh well, the best way to learn skills is just to look at how they do it in school and do it like that. And so this was a real transition point I would say, coming after the MIT Challenge that now when I look at learning things… Although I look at what they cover in school, and I’m not saying that academic knowledge is useless, just that I don’t take it for granted that they’re teaching it in roughly the best way.

Paul Sephton: It must have made you think quite a bit around the whole signaling thing. Do you think that there’s sort of a utopia which could exist around the corner in terms of a better way to do things looking at how you’ve uncovered the dystopia right now?

Scott Young: I don’t know whether it’s dystopian more than it’s just a realization of principles by how our world works. I think when we’re talking about education, and I think when we’re talking about learning, I’m not sure whether there is some new world system that would take over and sweep college away and make a new system. I was more optimistic of that when I did the MIT Challenge. I was thinking that this might be the thing that would come to replace going to school, was a sort of self-initiated self-education approach. Whereas now I do think that there’s lots of room for improvement. There’s things like Lambda School or code bootcamps or other kinds of alternatives to education. And so I don’t know, for me when I think about it, I’m thinking of more, not like what’s a new universal system, but what are some new options? What are some new ways of thinking about it?

I recently wrote this book, Ultralearning, which was basically describing what I think is a very potent and powerful option, which is aggressive and deliberate form of self-education. So that if you want to do acquire deep skills that would normally need years of education at school, how could you go about doing that yourself? And indeed if we accept the premise that maybe schools aren’t teaching things in a particularly efficient way, maybe you could do that much better than they do at schools if you’re smart about it. And so I’m interested in that as an approach. Do I think that that’s going to be the universal approach that can replace all of schooling? No, of course not, because I think it’s only going to have this appeal amongst a minority of driven, ambitious people who are keen to apply these methods.

If we accept the premise that maybe schools aren’t teaching things in a particularly efficient way, maybe you could do that much better than they do at schools if you’re smart about it

I think in the beginning of our conversation we were talking about how most people aren’t interested in really, really expanding their minds. They mostly just want to entertain themselves, if we accept that there are some people that really want to expand their minds and I think this is a potent tool for those people.

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Paul Sephton: I think two things which are key building blocks in that toolkit are things which you’ve covered quite extensively, and that’s self-control and memory. Imagine that both would have come up a lot in the MIT Challenge and then a lot in your book, Ultralearning. Speaking to one or the other, I don’t think we can dive into both at the same time, but which one do you think is more important and what are the best sort of hacks which you’ve picked up along the way to cover self-control and enhancing your memory?

Scott Young: In the area of what is more important to your overall life, probably self-control is going to be a little bit more important than memory just because so many things involve this fundamental trade-off between should I do something that’s easy now or do the hard thing that I know I should be doing right now. And how do you manage that trade off? I would say self-control is maybe arguably more important topic. But at the same time I think the academic research on self-control is a little bit weaker, whereas memory is like one of the best studied areas of psychology. And so memory is I think one where psychologists truly know a lot about memory that regular people don’t know about memory. And so if you know about how memory works, you maybe have more efficacy. So there’s like a trade off there.

Self-control is going to be a little bit more important than memory just because so many things involve this fundamental trade-off between should I do something that’s easy now or do the hard thing that I know I should be doing right now

I would say the self-control is more personally important, but when you read the literature you’re maybe going to get smaller improvements from a tactical perspective, just understanding how your mind works and how you rationalize things with self-control. Whereas the memory area is probably a little bit more constrained usage, although broader than people typically think. However, we know so much about long-term memory that there’s like really a lot of interesting findings there that I think most people would not expect that turns out to have a huge impact on how well you remember things.

Paul Sephton: One of the things you mentioned in terms of that memory impact is your learning environments. And I think another thing that’s in a state of flux right now is there’s this increase in remote work. Teams are getting more diversified globally and everyone’s sort of wondering what’s the future? We had the open office and that was for some time hailed as the best solution for collaboration. Opinions are mixed now. Do you have a take on sort of the ultimate learning environment for memory?

Scott Young: Well, I think the idea of learning environments for memory is that when we’re trying to remember things, the context around us and our own internal state have an influence on how well we’re able to remember things. And so some of this is really interesting studies that were done by Alan Badley and a few other people involving scuba divers. They would give them tests underwater and on the surface and they found that things that you first learned under water, you remember under water really well, but you have a hard time remembering on the shore and vice versa. And of course that has implications for safety and training because if you’re trying to teach them in scuba diving skills in a classroom, you may find that they remember a lot less of it when they’re actually underwater.

You constantly hear the complaint that, “Oh, I didn’t learn anything in school. I learned everything on the job.” That’s sadly true for a lot of people.

Now, most environments are not as extreme as scuba diving, but there is some amount of contextual cues that allow you to remember things, so you automatically get in a certain frame of mind where it’s easier to recall things. So I don’t think this is so much about what’s the perfect environment, but recognizing this issue of transfer that when you learn something in one context and then you have to apply it in a very different environment, you may have these memory deficits. And when we’re trying to perform in our working environments that we’re often teaching and learning in a way that’s very removed from those situations. And so it’s very difficult to actually acquire useful skills. You constantly hear the complaint that, “Oh, I didn’t learn anything in school. I learned everything on the job.” That’s sadly true for a lot of people.

Paul Sephton: Are there any practical takeaways which you’ve learned, especially in the memory and self-control divisions where you think someone could take on advice and maximize their productivity each day as a result of one or two tips or tricks?

Scott Young: Oh, absolutely. I think for memory, I think it’s more recognizing when you’re likely to remember things and what are the ingredients for that. And those are not always obvious to somebody who hasn’t studied it. So a big thing is if you want to remember something, you have to practice remembering it. You can’t just look at it. And that’s something again, most students, how do they study things? They just look at their notes over and over again and it turns out this is a terrible waste of time. If you’ve looked it over, what you should really be doing is retrieval practice where you close the book and you try to remember what’s in it without looking at it. Because it turns out that trying to remember what’s in it and looking at it are not the same mental process. Very often you feel like you’ve learned something because you’ve seen it a lot, but you’re actually not able to use it and retrieve it. That’s an important thing for memory.

So a big thing is if you want to remember something, you have to practice remembering it. You can’t just look at it. What you should really be doing is retrieval practice where you close the book and you try to remember what’s in it without looking at it

We also talked about the idea of this transfer appropriate processing. So if you know you need to learn something for a practical purpose, engineering your learning environment to be as close as possible to the situation you need to practice in is going to give you huge, huge benefits over that. So if you’re trying to learn a language, having conversations with people is going to be how you dominantly want to learn the language. You don’t want to just be playing on some phone app the whole time. There’s lots of things you can do to learn better and more effectively, but they require a certain deliberateness. It’s not that they’re impossible or that they’re really awful to do, but you’re not going to do them by chance. You’re not going to do them accidentally. You have to be serious and take them on. So I think for memory, if you understand some of these things, you can get a lot better improvements over sort of the status quo.

There’s lots of things you can do to learn better and more effectively, but they require a certain deliberateness.

And then for self-control, I think the research there actually shows that our self-control is way weaker than we think it is. And so that also has practical ramifications but not on the obvious direction of like, “Oh, well I do X, Y and Z and now I’m going to have way more self-control.” Rather it’s from the perspective of, “I know I’m going to have bad self-control for all these various reasons. So how do I engineer my environment? How do I engineer the activity so it requires less self-control?” An example a lot of people do is they try to suppress their thoughts. So when they have some tempting thought, they try to be like, “Okay, don’t think about that, don’t think about that. I’m going to suppress that thought.” And it turns out that that actually doesn’t work. There’s even an effect called ironic rebound, where trying not to think about something causes you to think about it more. And that the people who we think have really good self-control usually they are experiencing fewer temptations. It’s not the case that they’re just unilaterally better at this capacity just to avoid temptations.

So how do I engineer my environment? How do I engineer the activity so it requires less self-control?

Paul Sephton: It’s quite hard these days not to have temptations given the sort of societal pressure and the amount of exposure we have to seeing the way other people purport to live. Do you think that there’s some way sort of killing social media and that sort of thing to reduce temptations in your life while still being level headed and sane in the practice of that?

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Scott Young: Well, again, I think it starts and I’m sort of a Cal Newport fan for this, in that you need a deliberate philosophy of how you want to live. That’s the initiating point. For a lot of us, there isn’t really that compelling vision of how we want to live our lives. There is a process of self-experimentation in getting to that, but I think that starting point of what do you want your life to be like? And so for me, I have explored and articulated this myself. I don’t really see vices like social media or Netflix or video games as being evil, let’s say. So I’m not trying to completely eliminate all of these things in my life, but recognizing that what I really value is usually not spending all of my time on it.

So it’s okay to have some relaxation and leisure. But if I’m honest with myself about what do I really want? It’s, I want to learn things, I want to expand my own understanding of things. There’s a lot of skills and things that I’ve invested in in terms of not only hobbies, but languages and professional skills that I want to improve. I want to have deep social relationships. Meaning I want to travel, I want to have this kind of life. And so sometimes just the path of least resistance that we go through in life does not arrive at that destination.

When you fail at willpower or you fail at self-control, it’s usually because your set up is badly designed, not because you know you’re some kind of defective person, which is I think how it’s often framed in our popular discourse.

I think that’s the right way to think about self-control. Is what kind of life do you want? How do you actually want to live? Do you test it to make sure that that’s actually a realistic way to live or is this just some fantasy that doesn’t actually match reality? And then finally, how do you create structural barriers in your environment with your devices, with your social relationships? How do you make it so that your life flows in that direction so that it doesn’t require constant willpower to maintain? And I think that that’s a difficult process of engineering, but I think it’s much more something that requires thought than requires kind of a central effort, that it requires careful planning and design. And so when you fail at willpower or you fail at self-control, it’s usually because your set up is badly designed, not because you know you’re some kind of defective person, which is I think how it’s often framed in our popular discourse.

Paul Sephton: How much do you move between the state of being fluid and flexible in order to update and change and maybe disregard an idea if you realize that it’s not what you actually are after, versus setting something that’s fixed and cemented enough that you can then break it down and work towards achieving it?

Scott Young: I think in theory, one of the things I think that’s important is finding the right level of granularity of where are quitting points. Because obviously I think we’re often too shortsighted. And so if something’s hard, we just rationalize, “Oh, this is hard right now, so I’m not going to do it ever again.” Which is, if you really thought about it, that’s dumb. Like, “Oh, I find going to the gym a little bit difficult. So I’m just going to give up on this whole fitness idea.” Well, that’s not very helpful. But at the same time, if you really don’t like your fitness plan, maybe you need to do something different that’s going to be more fun or exciting in the longterm.

So self-awareness, self-reflection, and recognizing that a lot of advice has these sort of sophisticated trade-off points, I think is something that’s underdiscussed.

And so I think there’s this sort of process of you setting your own goal, setting your own projects and then diagnosing, “Okay, what is my weakness? Is my weakness that I tend to give up too early or is it that I tend to be too rigid and then how do I adapt that?” So self-awareness, self-reflection, and recognizing that a lot of advice has these sort of sophisticated trade-off points, I think is something that’s underdiscussed.

Paul Sephton: If you were to do a broad sweep of time to when you first started your blog and before you’d written Ultralearning, before you’d done your four-language challenge or your MIT Challenge, what would you condense a set of advice down to if you were talking to yourself sort of 10 or 20 years ago on what was most important?

Scott Young: When I think back to myself back there, were there very high-level, very abstract things that I was screwing up that I needed to be told about? I think there probably were, but I don’t think telling my past self those pieces of advice would have helped. And I think the reason why is because I think I’m more patient, more confident, more sort of secure in how I approach things now. But that comes from having that past experience. So if I were to give myself business advice, for instance, one of the things I would’ve told my early self is don’t worry about monetization as much early on, focus on making something really valuable that people really like and you’ll be able to find a way to make money from it later.

But at that time, blogging wasn’t really a profession. The writing online was kind of a fake thing and I was very nervous that I was putting in a lot of time that I wouldn’t be able to make a go of it. And so it’s one of those things that if I had told my past self, “Okay, don’t worry about that.” I don’t know whether it would have been that beneficial. Similarly, I’m married to wonderful, beautiful wife right now. I probably would have said, “Okay, be less anxious about your dating life. You’re going to settle down and find someone who’s going to be really good. And so just focus on being a nice person.” Sometimes I would maybe be acting in a way that undermine my dating success because I wasn’t as confident as I could have been. But again, I don’t think giving myself that advice would’ve necessarily fixed things. I could’ve said, “Yeah, yeah, I’ll obviously be confident. That’s important advice.” But if you don’t feel it at the time, it doesn’t help.

And so I do think that I’ve learned a lot and I do think there’s lots of useful advice and I do think that there’s lots of little details that I would improve upon. But if I were to distill it to like some really big maxims, I would just say, you know what? Keep doing what you’re doing. You’re going to figure it out eventually. Just focus on that sort of process of self-reflection, see what’s not working about what you’re doing. Be confident yet humble. Be sort of someone who’s going to go out there and try big, ambitious and bold things and try lots of stuff. But then also be really humble with the fact that you probably don’t understand how it works. And so don’t get stuck in the idea that with these rigid conceptions of how the world works.

Paul Sephton: Scott, in closing, you had a big year last year, you released a lot of new research and of course your book. The year ahead with your outlook, what are your main targets and goals? What would you most like to achieve this year?

Scott Young: Well, I think this past year, writing this book was a big milestone for me. And so in some ways that was sort of… I always find after a big project there’s some space to explore new ideas. I do have some new stuff that I’m not going to announce just yet on this podcast that are coming down the horizon that are going to make a big change for me and my life. So I’m definitely thinking of those things as they’re happening. But when I think about what I’d like to do in the sort of longer term future with my career and with my life, I think a lot of it is about refining some of the things that I’d built before. I worked really hard on writing this book but it was also about a topic that I was very sort of linked to personally. And so it was my first attempt at doing the full-scale research to come up with a book and come up with an idea. But it would be nice to get better at that and do that a second time.

Similarly, with learning a lot of topics, building on what I’ve done before. So how do I get better at learning those topics and how do I avoid some of the things that I struggled with in the past. So I think for me it’s always sort of a continuous process of seeing what came before and how can I do what I did before plus one.

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