How to Get Better at Anything ASAP: My Extreme Theory of Learning
Focus on passions. Take on risk. Go to logical extremes.
Like a lot of people, I began working out pretty heavily my freshman year of college. The reason, of course, had nothing to do with physical health or mental well-being; I just wanted to be ripped to get girls. If there’s one thing I know, it’s that women are only interested in men with traps so big their neck becomes immobile, and nothing else.
When I start doing something and get into it, I tend to get really into it, like in a completely extreme and 100% unhealthy sort of way. Just as I dedicated years of my life to studying daily fantasy sports, I did the same with exercise and nutrition when I was maybe 19 to 22 or so. All I did, all day long, was work out, read about working out, analyze data on working out, and watch videos of Kai Greene and Phil Heath working out. Actually, I still think bodybuilding is a super cool sport—one that goes beyond “meathead” status and requires a serious mind-muscle connection that reminds me of Taoist principles in some ways.
When I began working out a lot, I went to GNC and got protein and vitamins and stuff, as well as some creatine. The directions said to pre-load the creatine, which meant taking four teaspoons a day for the first four days and then one a day after that. My roommate was joining me and said this was to be done four times per day. He meant like one teaspoon four times a day, I think, but for some reason I got it in my head that it was 4x4, or 16 servings a day. And I was doing tablespoons, not teaspoons, which meant I started taking TWELVE TIMES the recommended serving of creatine, which was already too much since you don’t actually need to pre-load it at all.
I started on a Wednesday. I specifically remember this because I had a Spanish test—the first test of my college career—on a Thursday afternoon. I went into that test with 24 tablespoons of creatine eating away at my insides. I failed that test. I failed it after I panicked and just started writing shit down in Spanish that made no sense for the first half, then just got up and left before finishing the rest. I did this because my body was repeatedly making this ridiculous farting noise. Not my ass. My body. Like my back and sides and stuff—very loud, very extended farting noises that were making everyone extremely uncomfortable.
Think about the wettest fart you’ve ever had. Now imagine that extending for maybe 3-4 seconds. Now imagine those noises coming from the depths of your body every 30 seconds or so in a quiet classroom filled with your peers who you’ve just met, all turning and staring as your face is dark red, entire body covered in sweat, sitting in terror as you wait for the next eruption.
Anyway, I got super jacked in college. At my peak, I was 178 pounds and could bench press 225 pounds 31 times. I’m not bragging; that’s actually embarrassing, but I’m just trying to demonstrate how much time I put into this. Didn’t learn a word of Spanish, but you should have seen my triceps. And guess what? As far as the ladies were concerned, it worked! My profile pictures were much better and it gave me so much more confidence as I continued to chat with girls online rather than ever dare to approach them irl. Four years well spent.
I really did learn so much about exercise and nutrition during that time, though. And since I was passionate about what I was learning, I still remember a very large percentage of it.
There was no real strategy behind anything I was doing in terms of learning, but since that time, I think I’ve gotten much better at learning and, in hindsight, can look back and identify specific principles that I’ve built upon as a foundation. Learning how to learn is more important than racking up useless bits of knowledge.
Everyone learns differently. For me, these are the characteristics I’ve recognized as being a springboard for both rapid learning and a high level of retention:
It’s a passion.
You can learn things that aren’t interesting to you. It will just be painful and you’ll eventually forget them. Really, think about all the things you learned over the course of your life. My guess is the majority of the little nuggets of high-level knowledge in your brain are either recent or those for which you have a real passion.
You’re best off going “all-in” on learning about the relatively few areas for which you have a genuine interest—because it will be easy, painless, and even fun—and then creating a web of connections by combining your specific knowledge from various areas in a unique way and also taking LSD.
I’ve taken on some form of risk.
I don’t know if I gravitated toward gambling because I fundamentally believe people should have downside on their beliefs, or if I formed that belief because I got into betting. Either way, the speed at which I personally have learned has been exponentially greater when I’ve taken on risk.
You don’t need to risk money (or much of it). Look at how many nerds have been created across this great country because they don’t want to lose to their friends in a fake football game. It’s amazing.
If you want to learn sports, bet on sports. If you want to get in shape and learn about the body, make fitness prop bets.
When the consequences of not knowing are losing your money, you learn real fast. Most useful things can be learned but not taught, but if you’re going to try to learn from someone else, it should be people doing what you want to do with personal downside when they’re wrong. It isn’t that it’s a prerequisite for knowledge, it’s just that the chances of any specific person being “right”—or of having some sort of knowledge that could be useful to you—soars when they’re in an environment in which good ideas and actions are rewarded and bad ones are punished.
This is something I discussed in How to Determine What (and Whom) to Believe.
It goes to an extreme.
You don’t know how to learn until your kidneys and intestines are performing a dueling pianos of shit noises. How could I possibly have foreseen it being bad to take 24 tablespoons of creatine in a day without trying it? Now I know!
But really, I have learned best by being “extreme” in regards to my interest on a topic, but also in terms of taking things to their logical ends. Okay, I think X might be good? What if I do nothing but X all the time? What happens?
The situations in which I’ve learned the fastest and most effectively are when I take ideas to their logical ends—in theory and practice—and then adjust from there.
This “extreme” approach to learning is what I’m going to focus on for the rest of this post.
The Russian Doll Theory of Learning
There’s a well-known phenomenon called the 80/20 rule, or Pareto principle, that states that 80% of effects come from 20% of causes. We see the principle repeat itself all the time in economics, sports, and nature. Applied to education, the idea is that a vast majority of what we know comes from a relatively low percentage of our efforts to learn.
But why would we stop at 80/20? Why not apply the 80/20 rule to the top 20%? That’s 64% of effects from just 4% of causes. And how about again? 51.2% of effects from just 0.8% of causes. And again, again, and again? Just over one-quarter of effects from over 1-in-15,000 causes.
Okay, you get the idea. Regardless of the exact numbers, if most of the benefits of something come from a much smaller percentage of your efforts, as long as you can properly identify which efforts are “working,” you can acquire incredible leverage by continuing to apply the 80/20 rule—by taking your beliefs and hypotheses to their logical end, then working back from there.
Working in the Tails
In the business world, writer Anthony Bardaro summed up this concept nicely in his article on the future of media: "If you’ve already won with either huge scale or niche focus, you can then try to creep down or up in scale to grow. But, you cannot start in the middle of either spectrum and grow out."
Why is this? There are three primary reasons, in my opinion.
The first is because there’s less competition in the tails. It doesn’t matter if we’re talking about business or poker or chess, in the game of life, you don’t just want to be the best at what you do, but just as important, you want to be the only person doing it.
Keep redefining what you do—by gravitating toward logical extremes—until you have little or no competition. It’s much easier to move the goalposts and eliminate others from “the game” to reduce competition than it is to contend with everyone and become the top dog in a crowded space. Plus, it’s fragile; in areas in which you’re forced to constantly compete with a shit ton of people rather than innovate, there’s sure to be a lot of turnover at the top. You’re better off playing your own game over taking on the masses at theirs. So extreme learning works because of the 80/20 rule, and it also allows for the (sometimes) unintended advantage of limiting competition.
The second reason—related to the first—is that if you’re alone in your strategy, you’re more likely to hit on something groundbreaking, and the payoffs for that will be huge. They say you can’t keep doing the same shit and expect different results—that’s the exact quote I think, right?—but you also can’t do what everyone else is doing and expect a sensational outcome. Carving your own path isn’t just more fun; it’s also the best decision for maximizing the rewards you reap when you’re right—and the only one who’s right.
Most Useful Feedback & Faster Learning
The final reason—and the most important as it relates to rapid learning—is that going “extreme” in your decision-making is accompanied by the hidden benefit of gaining more useful feedback on how to adapt. If your starting point for evolution is a logical extreme, you know which direction you need to move should you be wrong. If you’re a writer and unsure on the best length of your writing for whichever goals you have, it’s superior to start writing very short, quick-hitting posts in abundance or go super longform with fewer, more in-depth articles/stories than to be somewhere in the middle. With the latter, it takes longer to adequately adjust to what’s optimal (for whichever goals you have) than with the more extreme approach, which allows for the benefit of obvious adjustments toward a less extreme strategy. And many times, you’ll probably find that working at a logical extreme is the place you want to stay, at least for a period.
Logical Extremes in Practice
So let’s take a look at a couple real-world examples of the niche, work-in the-tails, take-everything-to-a-logical extreme approach to learning, decision-making, and gameplay.
My buddy Joe Ingram is a former poker pro who specialized in, according to Joe Ingram, “the the the the the the GREAT game of POT Limit Omaha.” One of the tactics he employed while learning the game was to form hypotheses about what sorts of strategies he thought were underutilized—three-betting in certain spots, for example—and take them to their logical extreme by employing them 100% of the time. That might sound outrageous, but in doing that, he was able to quickly acquire really valuable information about which theories were astute, slowly adjusting the percentage downward—it was the only direction to go, after all—until he hit the GTO (game-theory optimal) position, a.k.a. the Nash equilibrium, at which earnings were maximized.
Side note: I’ve had a variety of prop bets with Joey over the years, including if he could write a book in a month (he did it in a week), if he could make a rap video that would get over 100,000 views on YouTube (he did, although it was complete ass), if he could learn Mandarin in a year (he did not), and whether or not he could get one of Ke$ha, Shaq, or Oprah on his podcast (he did not).
In the business world, we always tried to utilize the work-in-the-tails approach at FantasyLabs. When we started the company, we decided to build a product designed for pro daily fantasy sports players—even though there probably weren’t enough of them to support a business on their own—knowing that more casual players would probably follow. To start, we basically just built stuff that we wanted as players. We focused on niche features and advanced data, not really worrying about how many people would find this useful or even know how to use it, and all about how much the people who enjoyed it really appreciated and needed what we were doing.
The idea: if you want to build something 10,000 people love, you first need to build something 100 people love. So we started building a super-niche product designed for a few power users, and for it, we charged about double what anyone was at the time.
And guess what? We miscalculated both the number of people who were seeking advanced DFS tools and the optimal price. Way more people wanted what we were offering than we anticipated, and we almost certainly could have charged more than we did. This phenomenon can be seen in many other areas, too; there’s usually more people than you’d expect who are willing to pay a higher price than you’d expect for truly advanced, innovative tools that help their lives, assuming they’re far and away the best on the market. Those people come to rely on you, and if you’re offering something truly unique that they need, you can charge a premium.
Be the best. Focus on a specific niche and keep redefining what you do until no one does it better. More broadly, be “extreme” in your approach to learning. Form hypotheses and take them to their logical end, as it 1) reduces competition, 2) maximizes the payoff to you if you’re right, and 3) allows for superior feedback and an easy decision on which direction you need to head, i.e. faster evolution. Going extreme lets you naturally get to the tails to see where your logic holds up and breaks down. It might not be where you stay, but it’s the best area to quickly learn and adapt.
If you want to start a business, make something 100 people cherish and then work outward.
If you think a strategy is underutilized in DFS or poker or even a board game you play with friends, take it to its logical extreme, gather feedback, and adjust downward.
And if you want to get ripped, take one tablespoon of creatine every hour on the hour for an entire day and flunk out of freshman Spanish so you have plenty of time to lift weights and get swole.
In the words of the great Ronnie Coleman, “No es nada más que un maní.”