Ideas are powerful. Arriving at the right time, they can alter the entire direction of your life.

But ideas also hide in the background, acting as assumptions. Quietly influencing your decisions, whether they’re true or false.

Looking back, I can think of a number of ideas that shaped my life. Some are only obvious in retrospect. Others I took great pains to learn. Below are the ten that had the greatest impact on me.

1. Reality is Malleable

Steve Jobs, here in a 1994 interview with the Santa Clara Historical Society, presents one of the ideas that changed his life:

Most of us will have far less impact than Jobs did. Yet in the smaller spheres of our own lives, there is impressive flexibility. Ideas can only change your life if you first accept the idea that life can be changed. …

Recently, I’ve had an interest in learning more biology. Some of that curiosity is pandemic-inspired. Biology is playing an outsized role in all of our lives these days.

Yet much of the interest predates our current crisis. As a teenager, I really enjoyed books like The Selfish Gene and The Red Queen. Evolutionary biology revealing a hidden pattern in the universe.

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Last year, I stumbled across a course in Systems Biology taught by Uri Alon. Biology is often portrayed as something unfathomably complex. Yet this course showed it in a different light — clever systems for performing particular functions.

My favorite example involved Type II diabetes. Why do we suffer from this? The answer, it turns out, is a downside of an otherwise ingenious…

Recently, I’ve gotten a lot of emails from students asking the right way to take notes. As I’ve been answering them, I realized that the question of note-taking neatly encapsulates a lot of deeper thinking about the right way to learn things.

Instead of explaining how to take notes, then, I’d like to explain how I think about taking notes. This, it turns out, has a lot to say about how to think about learning anything.

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What are Notes For?

The first question with any learning task, be it reading a book, watching a video or doing practice tests, is to ask what you’re trying to accomplish with it. …

A reader emailed me about a difficult exam he was facing. The test was for a prestigious civil service job in his country. Get one of those jobs, and you’re set for life.

Unfortunately, competition was also steep. About four hundred people compete, and only the best scorer on the test gets the spot. Applicants spend around two years studying full-time for one of these positions, many of whom have access to expensive test-preparation services.

What should he do?

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My advice here may sound like a bummer, but I told him to seriously consider whether he even wants to apply for the spot. …

It’s been quite a year. In January, I became a father. In March, the entire world went into lockdown. I also wrote some essays.

Here’s some of the best writing I did in the last twelve months:

  1. Do the Real Thing. Success largely boils down to a simple distinction. It’s glaringly obvious once you see it, but also easy to find ingenious ways of ignoring it: do the real thing and stop doing fake alternatives.
  2. An Interesting Book You Probably Shouldn’t Read. My deep dive into one of the most unusual philosophers of all time.
  3. Two Types of Excellence. Is being the best more like winning a footrace or being a butterfly? …

In my book, Ultralearning, I argued in favor of directness in learning. Given a concrete objective (speaking a language, passing an exam, becoming proficient at a particular skill), the way you practice ought to match the intended use. Transfer is hard. The more we can avoid depending on far-transfer to make our learning successful, the better we’ll do.

A reasonable-sounding extension of this idea is that learning broadly is itself a bad idea. “Useless” knowledge won’t transfer, so why bother with it?

But this isn’t true! While it is true that transfer is hard and directness helps — having a large knowledge base actually makes transfer easier. Since relying on transfer is unavoidable for some kinds of learning efforts, building your knowledge foundations across projects is incredibly valuable. …

Recently, I published my Complete Guide to Motivation. The guide covers the research landscape on motivation from psychological, neuroscientific and economic perspectives. One of the key researchers I highlighted was Piers Steel, a leading expert on procrastination.

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Since I found his research findings so helpful in my own understanding of procrastination, I invited him to sit down with me to chat about it. What follows is our deeper look into the research behind motivation and procrastination.

Click the link below to listen to the full episode:

Ep 135 Piers Steel — The science behind procrastination

Below I’ve highlighted a few parts of our…

Sometimes the boring skills in life turn out to be the most important.

Case in point: the market for being really good at Microsoft Excel is much larger than you think. I have a friend who does lucrative consulting work mostly on his ability to be better than you at Excel. Machine learning is trendy, but most organizations don’t need someone to run convolutional neural nets — they need someone to work spreadsheets.

Or consider another super boring skill that’s incredibly valuable: planning.

Most people are terrible planners. In fact, people are so bad at planning that psychologists have a name for it — the planning fallacy. The planning fallacy points out that people tend to be overly optimistic planners. …

Learning is a lot easier when it’s interesting. And it’s interesting, to a large extent, because you’re curious about the subject. Yes, the carrot of career opportunity and stick of exam failures can motivate. But if you really want to learn something, nothing beats curiosity.

Yet it’s boredom, not curiosity, that dominates student life. Research shows that students report feeling bored much of the time in class. This makes it harder to pay attention and more painful to learn.

How can you boost your curiosity for a new subject?

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The Science of Curiosity

Curiosity remains an under-studied phenomenon. Early research focused on now mostly discredited drive-reduction accounts. Curiosity, like hunger, was envisioned as an aversive state that we were driven to reduce. …

Recently, I shared my list of foundational practices — the basic things everyone should do to live better. Of course, my choices are personal. Your list might differ a little from mine.

Most people, however, tended to agree with my choices. Foundational practices should be obvious. If they weren’t, there would be some controversy over how useful they are.

Yet there was one practice that a lot of people admitted to not doing often. …


Scott H. Young

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

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