Human beings crave progress. That craving distorts what we work on. Vital pursuits with less tangible progress are frequently sidelined for trivialities we can check off a to-do list.

Think of the last time you updated your computer. Just having the progress bar made the wait more bearable. The inching left to right may have been inconsistent. It may have been downright misleading, as the frustration at witnessing it stall forever at exactly 99% can attest.

But imagine how much harder it would be to wait if the progress bar weren’t even there.

Progress itself is good. But it is…


Recently, I embarked on a research project exploring the topics of learning by doing, apprenticeship and transfer. I’ve just finished a big reading binge of a few dozen books loosely related to this topic.

Since I’m fully aware that at most 1% of the material I read will make it into any future writing, I thought I’d highlight some of the more interesting books I’ve read while they’re still fresh in my mind.

Here are some of the books that made me think the most…

1. Democracy and Education by John Dewey

John Dewey was one of America’s most prominent public intellectuals a century ago. Today, few…


I recently came across an essay by Tanner Greer about the rise and decline of public intellectuals. Many appear as geniuses for a time, before later becoming a punch line. Why does this happen?

Greer starts with an obvious explanation — genius peaks. As we age, our raw talents decline and we can no longer sustain brilliance. I’d add to this regression to the mean. Chance will allow some the right idea at the right time to make them seem prophetic. But luck fades.

However, toward the end of the essay, Greer offers another explanation. Using Thomas Friedman, the veteran…


I recently came across the following Nature article, “People systematically overlook subtractive changes.” From the abstract:

“Here we show that people systematically default to searching for additive transformations, and consequently overlook subtractive transformations. Across eight experiments, participants were less likely to identify advantageous subtractive changes … Defaulting to searches for additive changes may be one reason that people struggle to mitigate overburdened schedules, institutional red tape and damaging effects on the planet.”

This research fits into the theme of books such as Essentialism, The ONE Thing or Hell Yeah or No. When we want to improve life, we think of…


For the past several years, I’ve been trying to get better at research. I’m far from a master, but I’ve learned some strategies that have helped.

I’ve done smaller research-driven essays, from looking into explore-exploit tradeoffs, how aging affects learning and whether speed reading works. I’ve also worked on longer efforts that had me reading quite a bit of material, like I did for my book or my guide on motivation.

Research is an essential part of thinking for yourself. For if you can’t find and understand other people’s arguments, you tend to get stuck either with what your intuition…


Our culture celebrates originality and creativity. We want our students to think for themselves, not blindly follow tradition, authority and received opinion. After all, doesn’t science, art and politics depend on us all coming to our own answers?

I definitely support the idea of coming to your own beliefs about things. But the way we do it isn’t how it is often portrayed. Thinking for oneself means, first, grappling with a lot of thoughts of other people. Creativity depends on copied insights. Originality is built from mastery.

Descartes’ Error

Our confusion about thinking can be traced back to the philosopher Rene Descartes


How do you build general skills? Abilities that not only help you with a narrow problem, but ones that you can apply repeatedly to problems in your life? Many of our goals, whether its becoming a better programmer, a savvier business leader or more original artist are of this type.

The bad news is that breadth is hard. General skills tend to be built out of many specific ones. Understanding deep ideas can help, but these too often depend on a lot of invisible tacit knowledge to apply correctly.

The good news is that, if you’re prepared to do the…


Learning can be tough, but it doesn’t have to be mysterious. Ample research shows that there are better ways of studying, not just for passing the test, but for creating deep understanding.

Below are ten essential strategies you should keep mind any time you need to learn something important.

1. Practice on Questions From the Test

All skill depends on practice. So too, with memory. If you want to remember something, you need to practice remembering it, not just looking at it.

Retrieval practice — where you shut the book and try to recall what you’ve learned without looking at it — is one of the most…


Why is it harder to watch a physics lecture than Netflix? Why does a cognitively demanding activity, like playing a video game, create a pleasurable state of flow, while math problems rarely feel that way? What makes something effortful?

At first glance, these questions seem too obvious to ask. Of course video games are less effortful than math problems — video games are fun!

Yet, I think an understanding of effort is supremely important. Many of the goals we want to accomplish will require a lot of it. …


Flashcards, especially in their digital incarnations, are some of the most powerful learning tools. They can also easily be a complete waste of time.

Powerful, because retrieval and spacing are key to memory. If you want to learn a topic with a lot of stuff to memorize, flashcards will help you do it better than almost anything else. Mnemonics are trendy, but for medium-to-long-term purposes, flashcards are probably better.

It’s also easy to waste your time with flashcards. You can spend a lot of time memorizing something you don’t need to, or fail to memorize the important things you do…

Scott H. Young

Author of WSJ best selling book: Ultralearning www.scotthyoung.com | Twitter: @scotthyoung

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