USC Commencement – Arnold’s Fifth Rule of Success

Full Transcript :

And that brings me to rule number five, which is the most important rule of all: Work your butt off. You never want to fail because you didn’t work hard enough. I never wanted to lose a competition or lose an election because I didn’t work hard enough. I always believed leaving no stone unturned.

Mohammed Ali, one of my great heroes, had a great line in the ’70s when he was asked, “How many sit-ups do you do?” He said, “I don’t count my sit-ups. I only start counting when it starts hurting. When I feel pain, that’s when I start counting, because that’s when it really counts.”

That’s what makes you a champion. And that’s the way it is with everything. No pain, no gain. So many of those lessons that I apply in life I have learned from sports, let me tell you, and especially that one. And let me tell you, it is important to have fun in life, of course.

But when you’re out there partying, horsing around, someone out there at the same time is working hard.

Someone is getting smarter and someone is winning. Just remember that. Now, if you want to coast through life, don’t pay attention to any of those rules.

But if you want to win, there is absolutely no way around hard, hard work.

None of my rules, by the way, of success, will work unless you do. I’ve always figured out that there 24 hours a day. You sleep six hours and have 18 hours left. Now, I know there are some of you out there that say well, wait a minute, I sleep eight hours or nine hours. Well, then, just sleep faster, I would recommend. (Laughter)

Because you only need to sleep six hours and then you have 18 hours left, and there are a lot of things you can accomplish. As a matter of fact, Ed Turner used to say always, “Early to bed, early to rise, work like hell and advertise.”

And, of course, all of you know already those things, because otherwise you wouldn’t be sitting here today. Just remember, you can’t climb the ladder of success with your hands in your pockets.

Condensing Knowledge

Do not learn if you do not understand

Trying to learn things you do not understand may seem like an utmost nonsense. Still, an amazing proportion of students commit the offence of learning without comprehension. Very often they have no other choice! The quality of many textbooks or lecture scripts is deplorable while examination deadlines are unmovable.

If you are not a speaker of German, it is still possible to learn a history textbook in German. The book can be crammed word for word. However, the time needed for such “blind learning” is astronomical. Even more important: The value of such knowledge is negligible. If you cram a German book on history, you will still know nothing of history.

The German history book example is an extreme. However, the materials you learn may often seem well structured and you may tend to blame yourself for lack of comprehension. Soon you may pollute your learning process with a great deal of useless material that treacherously makes you believe “it will be useful some day”.  

Learn before you memorize

Before you proceed with memorizing individual facts and rules, you need to build an overall picture of the learned knowledge. Only when individual pieces fit to build a single coherent structure, will you be able to dramatically reduce the learning time. This is closely related to the problem comprehension mentioned in Rule 1: Do not learn if you do not understand. A single separated piece of your picture is like a single German word in the textbook of history.

Do not start from memorizing loosely related facts! First read a chapter in your book that puts them together (e.g. the principles of the internal combustion engine). Only then proceed with learning using individual questions and answers (e.g. What moves the pistons in the internal combustion engine?), etc.

Build upon the basics

The picture of the learned whole (as discussed in Rule 2: Learn before you memorize) does not have to be complete to the last detail. Just the opposite, the simpler the picture the better. The shorter the initial chapter of your book the better. Simple models are easier to comprehend and encompass. You can always build upon them later on.

Do not neglect the basics. Memorizing seemingly obvious things is not a waste of time! Basics may also appear volatile and the cost of memorizing easy things is little. Better err on the safe side. Remember that usually you spend 50% of your time repeating just 3-5% of the learned material [source]! Basics are usually easy to retain and take a microscopic proportion of your time. However, each memory lapse on basics can cost you dearly!

Stick to the minimum information principle

The material you learn must be formulated in as simple way as it is only possible. Simplicity does not have to imply losing information and skipping the difficult part. Simplicity is imperative due to the way the brain works. There are two main reasons for which knowledge must be simple:

  • Simple is easy
    By definition, simple material is easy to remember. This comes from the fact that its simplicity makes is easy for the brain to process it always in the same way. Imagine a labyrinth. When making a repetition of a piece of material, your brain is running through a labyrinth (you can view a neural network as a tangle of paths). While running through the labyrinth, the brain leaves a track on the walls. If it can run in only one unique way, the path is continuous and easy to follow. If there are many combinations, each run may leave a different trace that will interfere with other traces making it difficult to find the exit. The same happens on the cellular level with different synaptic connections being activated at each repetition of complex material

Use imagery

Visual cortex is that part of the brain in which visual stimuli are interpreted. It has been very well developed in the course of evolution and that is why we say one picture is worth a thousand words. Indeed if you look at the number of details kept in a picture and the easiness with which your memory can retain them, you will notice that our verbal processing power is greatly inferior as compared with the visual processing power. The same refers to memory. A graphic representation of information is usually far less volatile.

Usually it takes much less time to formulate a simple question-and-answer pair than to find or produce a neat graphic image. This is why you will probably always have to weigh up cost and profits in using graphics in your learning material. Well-employed images will greatly reduce your learning time in areas such as anatomy, geography, geometry, chemistry, history, and many more.

The power of imagery explains why the concept of Tony Buzan’s mind maps is so popular. A mind map is an abstract picture in which connections between its components reflect the logical connections between individual concepts.

Avoid enumerations & Sets

Enumerations are also an example of classic items that are hard to learn. They are still far more acceptable than sets

Combat interference

When you learn about similar things you often confuse them. For example, you may have problems distinguishing between the meanings of the words historic and historical. This will even be more visible if you memorize lots of numbers, e.g. optimum dosages of drugs in pharmacotherapy. If knowledge of one item makes it harder to remember another item, we have a case of memory interference. You can often remember an item for years with straight excellent grades until … you memorize another item that makes it nearly impossible to remember either! For example, if you learn geography and you memorize that the country located between Venezuela, Suriname and Brazil is Guyana, you are likely to easily recall this fact for years with just a couple of repetitions. However, once you add similar items asking about the location of all these countries, and French Guyana, and Colombia and more, you will suddenly notice strong memory interference and you may experience unexpected forgetting. In simple terms: you will get confused about what is what.

Interference is probably the single greatest cause of forgetting in collections of an experienced user of SuperMemo. You can never be sure when it strikes, and the only hermetic procedure against it is to detect and eliminate. In other words, in many cases it may be impossible to predict interference at the moment of formulating knowledge. Interference can also occur between remotely related items like Guyana, Guyard andGuyenne, as well as Guyana, kayman and … aspirin. It may work differently for you and for your colleague. It very hard to predict.

Still you should do your best to prevent interference before it takes its toll. This will make your learning process less stressful and mentally bearable. Here are some tips:

  • make items as unambiguous as possible
  • stick to the minimum information principle (many of the remaining rules in this text are based on avoiding interference!)
  • eliminate interference as soon as you spot it, i.e. before it becomes your obsession (e.g. as soon as you see the word inept you think “I know the meanings of inept and inapt but I will never know which is which!”)

Optimize wording

The wording of your items must be optimized to make sure that in minimum time the right bulb in your brain lights up. This will reduce error rates, increase specificity, reduce response time, and help your concentration.

Personalize and provide examples

One of the most effective ways of enhancing memories is to provide them with a link to your personal life. In the example below you will save time if you use a personal reference rather than trying to paint a picture that would aptly illustrate the question

Rely on emotional states

If you can illustrate your items with examples that are vivid or even shocking, you are likely to enhance retrieval (as long as you do not overuse same tools and fall victim of interference!). Your items may assume bizarre form; however, as long as they are produced for your private consumption, the end justifies the means. Use objects that evoke very specific and strong emotions: love, sex, war, your late relative, object of your infatuation, Linda Tripp, Nelson Mandela, etc. It is well known that emotional states can facilitate recall; however, you should make sure that you are not deprived of the said emotional clues at the moment when you need to retrieve a given memory in a real-life situation



Cal Newport – Effort Vs Technique

Studying is a technical skill. As with any such skill, the best results come from mastering the relevant techniques. Simply pouring on more effort proves an inefficient approach to accomplishing your goal.

Most students ignore this reality. They approach studying haphazardly, typically just reading and re-reading their notes as many times as possible. They don’t think about howthey study. Instead, they consider only how long. Accordingly, they are stuck on the slow growing curve from our chart above. To get top grades, they have to invest a lot of hours. And that’s a large demand. Most settle for less.

You know better. Consider how you study, and you can drastically decrease the effort required to internalize the material. Technique grants so many more advantages than effort, it behooves you, for the sake of reducing study time, to hone your techniques to a sharp edge.

Here are a few practical tips to help you down this path. For a detailed treatment, see Part II of How to Become a Straight-A Student.

Tips for Improving your Study Technique

  1. Study like Darwin. After every test, reflect on which study techniques proved useful and which were a waste of time. Keep the former. Get rid of the latter. Then throw in something new to introduce some variety. Over time, you will evolve a set of optimal practices.
  2. Reject Rote Review. Most students study by silently reading and re-reading their notes and assignments. This is an incredibly inefficient way to internalize information. A surprising number of the straight-A students I interviewed, on the other hand, used the quiz-and-recall method. The idea is to study by lecturing out-loud, to an imaginary class, about the key concepts you need to learn. Something about articulating arguments in complete sentences cements them in your mind like nothing else.
  3. Record Ideas not Facts. When taking notes, don’t just transcribe the facts being spewed by the professor, or presented in the reading. Instead, try to organize the information into big ideas. One approach is to use the Question/Evidence/Conclusion method. Reduce the information to questions paired with conclusions and connected by a sampling of evidence that justifies the link.
  4. Always Operate from a Plan. Never randomly wander through your studying process. Always be operating from a detailed plan, formulated at least one day before you begin work. This prevents wasted effort.

LW – Analysis of Returns on Time Spent

I don’t have a good name for this fallacy, but I hope to work it out with everyone here through thinking and discussion.

It goes like this: a large majority of otherwise smart people spend time doing semi-productive things, when there aremassively productive opportunities untapped.

A somewhat silly example: Let’s say someone aspires to be a comedian, the best comedian ever, and to make a living doing comedy. He wants nothing else, it is his purpose. And he decides that in order to become a better comedian, he will watch re-runs of the old television cartoon ‘Garfield and Friends’ that was on TV from 1988 to 1995.

This is absolutely not a great use of his time. Maybe he’ll learn a little about jokes structures and pick up a gag from the show. It’s probably not entirely useless. But Garfield and Friends wasn’t all that funny to begin with, and there’s only so much to be learned from it. The would-be comedian would be much better off watching Eddie Murphy, George Carlin, and Bill Cosby if he wanted to watch old clips. He’d be much better off reading memoirs, autobiographies, and articles by people like Steve Martin and Jerry Seinfeld. Or he could look to get into the technical aspects of comedy and study well-respected books in the field. Or best yet, go to an open mic night, or spend time writing jokes, or otherwise docomedy. But he doesn’t, instead he just watches re-runs of Garfield and Friends.

I think a lot of us are guilty of this in our daily lives. Certainly, most people on LessWrong examine our lives more carefully than the rest of the world. A lot of us have clear goals. Maybe not a full, cohesive belief structure, but pretty clear. And sometimes we dabble around and do low-impact stuff instead of high impact stuff. The equivalent of watching Garfield and Friends re-runs.

I’ve been an entrepreneur and done some entrepreneurial stuff. In the beginning, you have to test different things, because you don’t know what’s going to work. But I’ve seen this fallacy, and I was guilty of it myself – I didn’t double down and put all my efforts into what was working, or at least commit mostly to it.

The most successful entrepreneurs do. Oh, keep learning, and diversify a bit, sure. But I remember watching a talk about the success of the company Omniture – they had two people in their enterprise business-to-business side, and 60 people in their business-to-consumer side. Then the founder, Josh James, realized 90% of their revenue was coming from business to business, so he said – “Hey. 58 of you go over to the business to business side.” And just like that, he now had 60 of his team working in the part of the company that was producing of the company’s revenues. Omniture sold last year for $1.8 billion.

I feel like a lot of us have those opportunities – we see that a place we’re putting a small amount of effort is accounting for most of our success, but we don’t say – “Okay, that area that I’m giving a little attention that’s producing massive results? All attention goes there now.” No, we keep doing things that aren’t producing the results.

I’m curious as to why. Do we not evaluate the return on time? Is it just general akrasia, procrastination, fear of success, fear of standing out? Those hard-wired evolutionary “don’t stand out too much” things? Does it seem like it’d be too easy or can’t be real? 

A lot of times, I’m frittering time away on something that will get me, y’know, very small gains. I’m not talking speculative things, or learning, or relaxing. Like, just small gains in my development. Meanwhile, there’s something on-hand I could do that’d have 300 times the impact. For sure, almost certainly 300 times the impact, because I see some proven success in the 300x area, and the frittering-away-time area is almost certainly not going to be valuable.

And heck, I do this a lot less than most people. Most people are really, really guilty of this. Let’s discuss and figure out why. Your thoughts?

Cal Newport – Nathan Med School Student

Nathan is pre-med at the University of Texas at Austin, where he’s currently tackling the weed out courses that give this major its bad reputation. Here’s what makes Nathan interesting to me: he finishes his work by 5:30 pm every weekday.

In fact, he doesn’t just finish it, he dominates it.

“On the last chemistry test, the average score was a 57,” he told me recently. “I made a 98…My professors are fascinated by me.”

Naturally, I asked him to share a typical day’s schedule:

  • 6:00 to 6:30: Breakfast/Shower
  • 6:30 to 9:30: Study
  • 9:30 to 10:20: Class
  • 10:30 to 11:30: Study
  • 11:30 to 12:30: Lunch
  • 12:30 to 1:30: Class
  • 1:30 to 2:30: Class
  • 2:30 to 5:30: Study
  • 5:30 to 11:00: Chill by meeting girls, explore the rolling hills and lakes of Austin, listen to live music, etc.

Here are two things I noticed about Nathan:

First, he’s not necessarily working less than his peers. His schedule includes 40 hours of studying per week, which is about right for his course load. He simply consolidates this work better.

“But he wakes up at 6,” you might complain, “I could never do that.”

Nathan’s out chasing girls before most students have even started their work for the day. Fair trade, if you ask me.

The second thing I noticed is that he’s obsessive about focus. He doesn’t just “study,” he works on the 7th floor of the engineering library: one of the most isolated spots on campus (see the above image). He works in 50 minutes chunks, and does 10 minutes of calisthenics, right there on the library floor, between every chunk. In three hours of this focused studying, he probably accomplishes more work than most pre-meds do in ten.

I don’t claim that Nathan represents a specific system that all pre-med students should follow. To me, he’s just a nice example of a more fundamental observation: the happiest students are those who take control of their academic experience, molding it to fit their own ideal of a life well-lived.

LW – Humans are not Automatically Strategic

Lionhearted writes:

[A] large majority of otherwise smart people spend time doing semi-productive things, when there are massively productive opportunities untapped.

A somewhat silly example: Let’s say someone aspires to be a comedian, the best comedian ever, and to make a living doing comedy. He wants nothing else, it is his purpose. And he decides that in order to become a better comedian, he will watch re-runs of the old television cartoon ‘Garfield and Friends’ that was on TV from 1988 to 1995….

I’m curious as to why.

Why will a randomly chosen eight-year-old fail a calculus test?  Because most possible answers are wrong, and there is no force to guide him to the correct answers.  (There is no need to postulate a “fear of success”; most ways writing or not writing on a calculus test constitute failure, and so people, and rocks, fail calculus tests by default.)

Why do most of us, most of the time, choose to “pursue our goals” through routes that are far less effective than the routes we could find if we tried?[1]  My guess is that here, as with the calculus test, the main problem is that mostcourses of action are extremely ineffective, and that there has been no strong evolutionary or cultural force sufficient to focus us on the very narrow behavior patterns that would actually be effective. 

To be more specific: there are clearly at least some limited senses in which we have goals.  We: (1) tell ourselves and others stories of how we’re aiming for various “goals”; (2) search out modes of activity that are consistent with the role, and goal-seeking, that we see ourselves as doing (“learning math”; “becoming a comedian”; “being a good parent”); and sometimes even (3) feel glad or disappointed when we do/don’t achieve our “goals”.

But there are clearly also heuristics that would be useful to goal-achievement (or that would be part of what it means to “have goals” at all) that we do not automatically carry out.  We do not automatically:

  • (a) Ask ourselves what we’re trying to achieve; 
  • (b) Ask ourselves how we could tell if we achieved it (“what does it look like to be a good comedian?”) and how we can track progress; 
  • (c) Find ourselves strongly, intrinsically curious about information that would help us achieve our goal; 
  • (d) Gather that information (e.g., by asking as how folks commonly achieve our goal, or similar goals, or by tallying which strategies have and haven’t worked for us in the past); 
  • (e) Systematically test many different conjectures for how to achieve the goals, including methods that aren’t habitual for us, while tracking which ones do and don’t work; 
  • (f) Focus most of the energy that *isn’t* going into systematic exploration, on the methods that work best;
  • (g) Make sure that our “goal” is really our goal, that we coherently want it and are not constrained by fears or by uncertainty as to whether it is worth the effort, and that we have thought through any questions and decisions in advance so they won’t continually sap our energies;
  • (h) Use environmental cues and social contexts to bolster our motivation, so we can keep working effectively in the face of intermittent frustrations, or temptations based in hyperbolic discounting;

…. or carry out any number of other useful techniques.  Instead, we mostly just do things.  We act from habit; we act from impulse or convenience when primed by the activities in front of us; we remember our goal and choose an action that feels associated with our goal.  We do any number of things.  But we do not systematically choose the narrow sets of actions that would effectively optimize for our claimed goals, or for any other goals.

Why?  Most basically, because humans are only just on the cusp of general intelligence.  Perhaps 5% of the population has enough abstract reasoning skill to verbally understand that the above heuristics would be useful once these heuristics are pointed out.  That is not at all the same as the ability to automatically implement these heuristics.  Our verbal, conversational systems are much better at abstract reasoning than are the motivational systems that pull our behavior.  I have enough abstract reasoning ability to understand that I’m safe on the glass floor of a tall building, or that ice cream is not healthy, or that exercise furthers my goals… but this doesn’t lead to an automatic updating of the reward gradients that, absent rare and costly conscious overrides, pull my behavior.  I can train my automatic systems, for example by visualizing ice cream as disgusting and artery-clogging and yucky, or by walking across the glass floor often enough to persuade my brain that I can’t fall through the floor… but systematically training one’s motivational systems in this way is also not automatic for us.  And so it seems far from surprising that most of us have not trained ourselves in this way, and that most of our “goal-seeking” actions are far less effective than they could be.

Still, I’m keen to train.  I know people who are far more strategic than I am, and there seem to be clear avenues for becoming far more strategic than they are.  It also seems that having goals, in a much more pervasive sense than (1)-(3), is part of what “rational” should mean, will help us achieve what we care about, and hasn’t been taught in much detail on LW.

So, to second Lionhearted’s questions: does this analysis seem right?  Have some of you trained yourselves to be substantially more strategic, or goal-achieving, than you started out?  How did you do it?  Do you agree with (a)-(h) above?  Do you have some good heuristics to add?  Do you have some good ideas for how to train yourself in such heuristics?


[1] For example, why do many people go through long training programs “to make money” without spending a few hours doing salary comparisons ahead of time?  Why do many who type for hours a day remain two-finger typists, without bothering with a typing tutor program?  Why do people spend their Saturdays “enjoying themselves” without bothering to track which of their habitual leisure activities are *actually* enjoyable?  Why do even unusually numerate people fear illness, car accidents, and bogeymen, and take safety measures, but not bother to look up statistics on the relative risks? Why do most of us settle into a single, stereotyped mode of studying, writing, social interaction, or the like, without trying alternatives to see if they work better — even when such experiments as we have tried have sometimes given great boosts?