Tim Ferriss, the acclaimed author of the “4-Hour Workweek”, set himself a challenge to become an accelerated learning machine.
Taking on a range of new pursuits as varied as Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, playing the drums, poker, parkour, driving a race car or learning Tagalog — all with no prior experience whatsoever, and with the aim of becoming competitive at each of those.
Not only did he only give himself 5 days to accomplish the feat of being proficient at the above (13 skills in total), but he deliberately put himself under the pressure of incredibly high stakes in the process: such as playing the drums live during a rock band’s show, or raising his own money to compete with pros at the top of their game around a poker table.
The “Tim Ferris Experiment” certainly has a lot to teach us, and you can learn from these insights to master new skills and hobbies faster than you ever thought was possible.
As Tim explains:
“The idea that developing real expertise takes years of practice. These things just aren’t true. The show is about teaching people how to get superhuman results without them having to be superhuman.”
Ready to become the fastest learner you can be? Let’s dive in!
Raise the stakes
To accelerate your learning, you have to go all-in.
Tim did this by putting himself in front of the pros he was trying to learn from and emulate.
- Facing off with Jiu-Jitsu world champions in the ring.
- Competing with poker pros, staking his own money.
- Playing in front of a packed audience, during a live show.
- Being interviewed on TV in a language he barely knew existed 3 days prior.
When the rubber hit the road, is when he would test whether he’d been successful at learning all those skills to a decent level.
This was a full-contact investigation into how quickly one can possibly learn new skills and become good enough at them to compete with the world’s best.
There was no half-stepping, rather consistently high stakes and strong levels of commitment — no matter the pursuit at hand.
Another concept that helped Tim in his endeavor was to spot and apply patterns (or systems) which he came across while learning one after another new skill.
Turn your fear into fuel
Although the pursuits he undertook were worlds apart (from surf to race driving), some patterns quickly emerged throughout the experiment.
For instance, Tim found out that fear-mastering techniques that he’d learned from surf pro Laird Hamilton were as usual when conquering overhead waves in a week, as when stepping inside a fast car on a race track.
And the same techniques came in handy when playing in front of a full house or staking serious money on a poker table.
Being able to push past the fear of failure, and use it instead as a fuel to try, try, and try again, became essential to the success of the whole experiment.
As Tim put it:
“Fear is your friend. Fear is an indicator which sometimes shows you what you shouldn’t do, but more often that not it shows you exactly what you should do.”
One technique Tim uses is to ask a simple question when faced with a challenge or situation which arouses fear in you:
“What’s the worse that could happen here?”
Fear is only natural, and it’s not something you can get rid of permanently at the flick of a switch. Everybody experiences it — from amateurs to world-class athletes or actors at the top of their game.
But by letting it hold you back from taking action, you’ll be sure to always miss the shots you don’t take!
Focus on the 20% of actions that will drive 80% of the results
The well-known 80/20 Pareto rule was useful when learning brand new skills from scratch, in the most effective manner.
A typical life-hacking principle, 80/20 stems from the principle that 80% of your results (performance, revenue, learning, etc.) come from 20% of your actions.
By experimenting and identifying which activities drive the highest payoff, you can hone in on those to maximize your learning outcomes.
For instance, it might be tempting to boil the ocean when picking up a new sport or instrument. However, Tim did just the opposite.
Instead, when trying his hand at Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, Tim didn’t try to learn and master every single technique in the book. Rather, he intently focused on the guillotine choke, one of the most effective moves in the sport.
He practiced this hold from both attacking and defending positions, and in every scenario, he could possibly encounter on the mat.
The outcome? By mastering this one single move, he was able to apply it in most situations he could ever find himself in and did reasonably well out of it.
In this case, the 20% was the chokehold, the one specific skill which gave him the confidence to compete in the sport.
Not bad, after a mere 5 days of practice!
Chunk things down
When he learned Tagalog, an Austronesian language spoken in the Philippines, Tim found ways to not get overwhelmed by the vastness of a language, its idiosyncrasies, grammar, and vocabulary.
He came up with a list of his “deconstruction dozen”: a list of about 12 basic sentences that make up the foundation of any language, its various tenses, and structure.
Breaking down a project into its constituent parts of smaller chunks makes the whole pursuit much more manageable. This keeps motivation levels high and makes it easy to track progress as you go along.
Applying the same effectiveness (Pareto) principle to learning languages, Tim made lists of the words that would “deliver the greatest ROI (return-on-investment) per hour invested”.
By focussing on learning these common words, you’d be covering off the greatest part of all material in that language.
However, be careful to separate the most common words of the language in its written, versus its oral form. Most words used in writing are different from those used in speech, and both are necessary to master any one language.
By covering off those two types of words and backing them up with constant practice, you’ll quickly learn a solid foundation to express yourself in writing and verbally to a decent level.
Tim’s experiment proves a few things:
- It’s never too late to learn and become good at something new.
- You have no excuses to not get outside of your comfort zone more often, and pick up new skills.
Becoming decent at something you’ve never done before is exhilarating and intensely rewarding.
So why not put yourself out there and try something different?
As Tim says:
“Look, I wasn’t a great learner. I sucked at foreign languages as a kid. I didn’t learn to swim until I was 30. This is exactly why I know this stuff works. If I can do it, anyone can do it.”
What are you waiting for?