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Rapid Skill Acquisition: Autodidactism And Meta-Learning As A Skill

In 2012, investor and life-long learner Tim Ferriss published his third book, The 4 Hour Chef. While you will find tips and tricks to improve your culinary skills, a more notable feature is a detailed look into Tim’s meta-learning strategies.

Known as DiSSS and CaFE, the two methods provide a framework for rapid skill acquisition fit for anybody interested in autodidactism.

Tim applies them not just to cooking but languages, swimming, and tango—but the beauty of meta-learning strategies is they can be applied across the board.

DiSSS stands for Deconstruction, Selection, Sequencing, and Stakes (the ‘i’ doesn’t mean anything, it’s added to make the acronym easier to remember). Let’s look at what they mean and how to apply them.

D: Deconstruction

Many subjects will look daunting, complex, and amorphous before you start digging into them. The first step in the DiSSS method is to deconstruct the skill or knowledge into its basic units, making it more manageable.

For example—languages can be broken down into words; meals into their ingredients; science fields into basic concepts; playing the guitar into notes and chords; golf into the correct posture and sequence of movements.

Thanks to the internet it’s easy to research most skills and topics to find out what they’re made of. Here’s just a few ways you can find the basic elements:

  • Lookup a glossary of important terms
  • Search for others who have asked/answered the same question
  • Email an expert or post a question to a forum to see what they recommend
  • Find an online course or textbook to see what they start with and how they structure it

S: Selection

The second step in the DiSSS method is selection—choosing which of those initial building blocks are the most important.

By honing in on the most essential elements you can take advantage of the 80/20 rule—focus on the most important 20% and you’ll unlock 80% of the final result.

The best example of this can be seen in language. As Tim notes there are over 170,000 words in the Oxford English Dictionary, however, the most common 100 of them make up about 50% of all written material.

That’s a lot of understanding for learning only a fraction of a percent of all possible words. Another example can be seen in music, where a simple 4-chord structure allows for playing a number of songs.

There are fundamental principles and building blocks to skills and concepts that provide a base for everything else. Find out what these are and master them for a disproportionate advantage.

S: Sequencing

The sequencing stage is about ordering your essential building blocks into the most logical flow.

Sometimes the order will be obvious, especially after the deconstruction and selection phase, but not always. There are many times when the logical process to learn is not the order it’s conventionally taught.

Tim discovered several situations when doing things backwards proved the better option.

When learning chess, Josh Waitzkin’s started with three pieces—an endgame scenario and vast reduction in complexity compared to openings.

When learning to dance tango, Tim learned the female role first, which let him focus on basics like footwork, posture, and positioning, before also tackling the difficulty of leading.

Logically ordering your learnable units won’t always follow how people normally teach, consider how you can reduce the complexity to start as simple as possible.

S: Stakes

The final S in the DiSSS meta-learning strategy is about creating an extra incentive to push you forward even when there’s a lull in your motivation or distraction on offer.

Stakes come in two varieties: rewards for success, or punishments for failure. While both can be effective, punishments have an edge.

Research has found that we will work harder to avoid a loss than secure a gain. Called loss aversion, it suggests the best way to keep on track is to put some skin in the game.

We can achieve this fairly easily by making a bet with a friend—one that we know will hold us to it. Alternatively the website allows you to do the same but online with a commitment contract.

The Secondary Meta-Learning Method

The DiSSS method is the backbone of Tim’s meta-learning strategy, but to really boost rapid skill acquisition, he recommends complementing it with the CaFE method.

CaFE stands for Compression, Frequency, and Encoding (the a is again added to make the acronym more memorable).

C: Compression

It’s not easy to synthesise and simplify information. When we first start learning something it will often feel messy and complicated.

Compression asks you to make that effort. To summarise the big ideas into their most basic form, without losing the essence.

Think about how you would turn this subject into an elevator pitch—what’s the bare minimum you would need to explain it to a total novice?

Can you compress the information from the deconstruction step into a one-page cheat sheet? Ferriss creates prescriptive one-pagers to specifies the rules, and practice one-pagers with examples to teach the principles.

This is an impossible task if you don’t properly understand the idea, and so compression is both a learning tool and yardstick for measuring your current understanding.

F: Frequency

Rapid skill acquisition should require less time than traditional education, but you still need to carve out time for study.

How should you plan that out? While you’re going to be limited by whatever else is occupying your calendar and to-do list, there are a couple of recommendations.

We know from a lot of research that cramming doesn’t work, single intense study periods don’t lead to great results.

Spacing sessions is far more effective. The downtime means you’ll forget some of the material, but the added difficulty to recall it simultaneously produces a stronger memory.

Taking the spaced strategy even further, you can lengthen the delays between study sessions—the first delay might be a few days, then a week, a month and so on.

Anything that proved totally forgotten or particularly difficult should revert back to the previous delay. This way you’re balancing the material on the edge of your memory, not over or under-studying anything.

E: Encoding

The final piece in Tim’s toolkit for rapid skill acquisition is encoding. This tasks you with anchoring new material to knowledge you already harbour, which takes advantage of the associative nature of memory.

The acronyms DiSSS and CaFE are examples of this. The words diss and cafe are already entrenched in memory, so by condensing and attaching the framework to them we give the new information some more support.

Beyond acronyms, you can try asking any questions about how the information might relate to other familiar ideas, rewriting information in your own words, finding useful metaphors, or drawing the idea with images.

Learn Quickly

Taking the plunge into autodidactism and learning new skills has never been easier, but to make the most efficient use of your time and energy you need the right meta-learning frameworks.

The DiSSS and CaFE approaches are two proven methods from one of the worlds foremost autodidacts—Tim Ferriss. If anybody knows a thing or two about rapid skill acquisition, he does, and now you do too.

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