[00:00:06.4] ANNOUNCER: Welcome to The Science of Success with your host, Matt Bodnar.
[00:00:12.4] MB: Welcome to The Science of Success. I’m your host, Matt Bodnar. I’m an entrepreneur and investor in Nashville, Tennessee and I’m obsessed with the mindset of success and the psychology of performance. I’ve read hundreds of books, conducted countless hours of research and study and I am going to take you on a journey into the human mind in what makes peak performers tick, with the focus on always having our discussion rooted in psychological research and scientific fact, not opinion.
In this episode, we discuss learning how to learn, meta learning, how Salvador Dali and Thomas Edison practiced the art of sleeping without sleeping to hack their nervous systems. The concept of chunking and what the neuroscience says about it and how you can use it to become a learning machine, why following your passion is not the right thing to focus on, and much more with our guest, Barbara Oakley.
The Science of Success continues to grow with more with more than 900,000 downloads. Listeners in over 100 countries, hitting number one new noteworthy and more. I get listener comments and emails all the time asking me, “Matt, how do you organize and remember all this incredible information?” A lot of our listeners are curious about how I keep track of all the incredible knowledge you get from reading hundreds of books, interviewing amazing experts, listening to podcast and more.
Because of that, we created an epic resource just for you, a detailed guide called How to Organize and Remember Everything. You can get it completely free by texting the word “smarter” to the number 44222. Again, it’s a guide we created called How to Organize and Remember Everything. All you have to do to get it is to text the word “smarter” to the number 44222 or go to scienceofsuccess.co and put in your email.
In our previous episode, we discussed how school gives you zero of the social and interpersonal skills necessary to be successful in life, the best starting point for building nonverbal communication, how to read facial expressions and body language to discover hidden emotions, how to become a human lie detector, the secrets super connectors use to work a room and much more with Vanessa Van Edwards. If you want to become a human lie detector, listen to that episode.
[0:02:24.5] MB: Today, we have another awesome guest on the show, Barbara Oakley. Barbara is an associate professor of engineering at Oakland University in Michigan. She’s been described as the female Indiana Jones and her research has taken her from Russian fishing boats to Antarctica.
She’s authored several books on topics ranging from genetics to neuroscience and has an upcoming book called Mindshift: Break Through Obstacles to Learning and Discover Your Hidden Potential.
Barbara, welcome to the Science of Success.
[0:02:50.8] BO: Hey Mat, thanks so much for having me on here.
[0:02:54.7] MB: Well, we’re very excited to have you on here today. For listeners who might not be familiar, I know you have a fascinating background. Tell us your story.
[0:03:03.6] BO: Well, it’s a little bit of a convoluted one, basically I had no idea I would end up doing what I’m doing. I flunked my way to elementary middle and high school math and science which I just thought, “Oh, you know, the only thing I can maybe do is learn another language because I clearly can’t do anything with math or science or technology.” So I did learn another language.
I joined the army and they taught me Russian and I ended up working out on Soviet trawlers up in the bearing sea. But I found something a little bit dismaying and that was that I had followed my passion just as everyone when we said to do, and I followed it right into sort of a box because basically, working out on Russian fishing trawlers is about one of the few jobs you can do with a specialization that only involves knowing Russian.
When I was 26 years old, I decided to retrain my brain, if I could, and see if I could actually learn math and science. To my shock, even today, I am now a professor of engineering, It obviously worked, but I think that there’s —If I had known then what I know now about how to learn and be successful in learning, I could have made it a lot easier. That’s a lot of what my work is about.
[0:04:35.2] MB: Do you think that people today are math phobic and afraid of math?
[0:04:40.5] BO: Surprisingly often yes and I think it’s because of the way that Math has been introduced and taught to them at least in the west.
[0:04:49.7] MB: What about the way that math is taught that makes it so intimidating for people?
[0:04:54.2] BO: There has been, over the past, well let’s say, over the last 2,000 years or so of human learning, there has been a very strong emphasis on memorization as sort of the basis, the sole basis of learning and of course it’s not. Memorization is only like a part of learning but over the last hundred years or so, there’s been this sort of swing to the other side of things.
We said, “Memorization is really bad when it comes to learning and the only thing that’s important is understanding.” That’s bad too. For example, I had a student come up to that, I was teaching statistics and he shows me his test and it’s all red line and he says, “I can’t believe I flunked this test because I understood it when you said it in class.”
I almost had to laugh because he has clearly heard through his life sort of echoes from a zillion teachers, if you just understand it, that’s enough but it’s not enough. Practice and repetition is a critical part of building expertise in any discipline and that includes math and science and unfortunately, we could have thrown that out, we placed so much emphasis on understanding that we forget that that’s only part of learning.
[0:06:25.6] MB: You’re an expert in how we learn and the concept of, I guess maybe you call it meta learning. Can you tell me a little bit about kind of what that is and why it’s so important?
[0:06:36.7] BO: Let’s take me for example, I learned how to learn Russian at the Defense Language Institute. Now, what I didn’t realize that I was also learning at the same time because nobody ever told me this was that I was learning how to use deliberate practice on the parts of the material that were really the most difficult for me in order to kind of advance my learning more swiftly.
A lot of times when you're learning something, you make the mistake of, “Hey, this is easy, it feels good to be some prospect you’ve already learned because you’ve already learned it. You sort of tend to spend your time on this easier stuff instead of always pushing the edge, kind of going, “Now what’s difficult for me? That’s what I need to practice with.”
When I was learning Russian, I learned about this concept of deliberate practice where I push myself on the stuff I’m really having trouble with. I also learned about practicing repetition when I’m learning verb conjugations and various sorts of procedural fluencies that it’s not really enough to know how to conjugate a verb but to know how to conjugate different kinds of verb and pull them up instantly whenever I need them and mix the together with other sorts of things.
All of this are meta learning ideas that apply equally well to learning in math and science or learning to drive a car, learning to play soccer, how to play a musical instrument, it’s all really the same kind of thing and so what ties all of this ideas together is the concept of chunking. Chunking is a lot of interesting neuroscientific research that’s coming out on this now but we didn’t understand before that when you’re first sitting down to look at something and learn it, your little working memory and your prefrontal cortex is going nuts because it’s trying to make sense of this really difficult to handle material.
But once you’ve mastered it or understand it and you practiced with it, you can actually pull that chunk into mind and then you have other —It’s what really happens is, your prefrontal cortex settles down when you have acquired expertise. You might think, “It should be working harder,” but it’s not, it actually settles down because it turned out this mental processes to other parts of the brain and it can just call them in to play into the working memory whenever you need to and it can even tie other things together when you need to, if you sort of really develop neural patterns that you practice with that you can easily pull to mind.
[0:09:39.7] MB: There’s a lot to unpack from that and I’d love to start with the concept of deliberate practice, it’s something we’ve talked about in the past and that’s something I’m a huge fan of on the show but for listeners who may not know about it, can you briefly explain kind of what is deliberate practice and why is it such a powerful technique?
[0:09:56.5] BO: Well, let me give the example of learning to play a musical instrument. Let’s say you want to get better at the guitar. Well, your tendency is to — you’ll learn a chord and learn a few chords and maybe learn a song and then you’ll practice with that song so maybe you’ll spend an hour practicing this song at length, right? But you’re practicing the whole song, you’re not focusing on the parts of the song that you’re really having trouble with.
Parts of that practice are really easy and comfortable to do because you already know it pretty well. It’s also kind of wasted time because you already know it. Instead of kind of wasting time on those easy parts that you already know, it’s much better to put most of your time into the stuff that’s really hard that you fumble finger over.
The more you’re able to place your attention on those really hard parts, the more quickly you will improve. Some studies between people who have really become masters at whatever area they’re working it, whether it’s playing chess or sport or a musical instrument, the more the people put practice into the toughest stuff, the more rapidly they advance.
For me, I put that in my mind as, “Well, gee, you’re sure making learning unpleasant right?” Because you’re supposed to just work on the painful parts but if I instead reframe that in my mind as I’m going to put X number amount of time into put really focusing on the tough stuff, whether I can only take a 25 minutes of doing that or whatever — sorry, I put it in mind how much can I really take of hard learning and then I set everything aside so that I’m only doing that hard learning during that time. That does seem to really help.
[0:12:24.1] MB: Let’s dig deeper into kind of how to become better learners? One of the things you’ve talked about is the difference between the focus mode and the defuse mode in the brain, can you dig into that distinction and why it’s so important from a learning standpoint?
[0:12:41.0] BO: It’s easy to look at the brain and it’s extraordinary complexity and get sort of lost in it. But the reality is that research is showing that there’s sort of two fundamentally different modes of thinking that the brain uses. Almost like two different ways of perceiving the world.
One of them is what I’ll call focus mode and it might be considered, it’s sometimes termed pass capacitive networks in the psychology literature and there’s a little bit of evidence that actually just kind of focus mode is more left brain oriented although any type of thinking, you obviously need both sides of the brain.
Focus mode thinking is you can turn it on instantly. Sort of like a flashlight, boom, it’s on and then you can focus on that math problem you were trying to solve or the bit of coding you wanted to do or even the type of kick that you wanted to make in soccer, you’re focused and that involves sort of a smaller network in a particular area of your brain.
Then, there’s that other network I was talking about and I’ll call it the defused mode. What I mean by this kind of catch all term is the mini neural resting states, the most prominent of which is the default mode network and this network quite literally has broader range connections. When you go into this defused mode, you can’t do this type focused type thinking that you came when you’re solving a math problem or something.
But you can at least get to a different place in your brain, right? A different way of thinking about things that can sometimes get you out of a rut. For example, if you look at my old books when I was trying to retrain my brain. I was 26, had to start with remedial high school algebra and if you look at the book, it has this dimples on the pages.
The dimples are because I get so frustrated, I take a fork out and I’d stab the book page with the fork. What I didn’t know now, I mean, of course, frustration of what you’re learning, especially if it’s tough, it’s quite common and what you often need to do when you reach that stage, you’re in focus mode.
What you're doing is you’re kind of in this little tiny network and it’s not the right network, you’re getting frustrated because you can’t solve it. Being where you’re at in your brain so to speak. You can only solve it by taking a big step back and taking a completely different approach that can maybe get you to the part of the brain where you need to be thinking and solving this particular problem or understanding this particular concept.
Learning often involves going back and forth between this tight network focused type thinking and this broader network defused type thinking. You can’t be in both modes at the same time, you can only be in focus mode or defuse mode.
That means, as long as you’re focusing, you’re actually blocking the other type of thinking, the other network that you may need to be able to solve the problem or understand the concept. That’s why again, when you get very frustrated, it’s important to close a book, get your attention off it, whatever you’re trying to learn, and just let your mind go.
You can either focus on something different or you can go for a walk or just do something very different. After a while, your defuse mode is like processing in the background and when you next return to that concept, it makes more sense and sometimes you’ll say, my goodness, how did I ever miss? It’s so easy, I should have been understanding it.
“Now, you might say, well, why can’t I be in focused and defused mode at the same time,” about the same topic? The thing is, the brain just doesn’t work that way unless you’re on certain forms of mushrooms and I am not suggestion that that’s a good thing to do.
[0:17:31.7] MB: It’s not possible without sort of some extreme interventions to simultaneously be in both the focus mode and the defuse mode?
[0:17:41.3] BO: Indications are about that same subject, you can’t be in both modes at the same time. If you’re focusing on a particular problem, you can’t also be defusing about the problem as long as you’re focusing on it. But if you switch your attention to something different, then your defused mode can be processing in the background.
As long as your attention switch. On the same topic, the same problem, the same thing, you can’t be in both modes at the same time.
[0:18:21.0] MB: You’ve shared a couple of examples in the past of particular famous people, specifically Salvador Dali and Thomas Edison and how they were able to cultivate a strategy to switch between this modes in a way that helped them kind of harness the benefits of both, could you share those stories and examples?
[0:18:39.0] BO: Sure. Salvador Dali had a technique that he called sleeping without sleeping. What he would do with this is he would sit in a chair with some keys in it and he’d relax, he’s kind of loosely thinking about whatever problem with his surrealist painting, he was a great surrealist painter that he was trying to resolve or crack a business related problem and he relaxed away with his keys in his hand and his hand would be dangling above the floor. Just as he relaxed so much that he’d fall asleep.
The keys would fall form his hands, the clatter would wake him up and as he was in this sort of relaxed, almost drifting towards dream like state, he would get this ideas that were extremely creative and as soon as the keys would drop, the clatter would wake him up and he’d come out of that defused mode reverie back into the focus mode and that’s where he could refine and analyze and work with the ideas that had come to him while he was in the defused mode.
You might think wow, that’s great for surrealist painters but you know, I’m an engineer, how does that help me? What’s interesting is that Thomas Edison apparently did something almost identical. Except, he sat in a chair with ball bearings in his hand, at least according to legend and relax away, kind of loosely cogudaing on some sort of a technical issue, he was trying to solve.
Just as he’d fall asleep, the ball bearing would fall from his hand, the clatter would wake him up and off he’d go to work on some of this new creative ideas that had come to him. Now, I’ve tried this and you know, I have trouble sleeping anyway and when Id o fall asleep, I really fall asleep so it didn’t work too well for me but perhaps it might work better for some of the listeners.
[0:20:55.8] MB: When we have something to study or something we really want to drill down and focus on deeply, what’s the best balance between kind of focused attention and I guess daydreaming or defused thinking?
[0:21:08.9] BO: That is a very good question because there actually is an important balance depending on what you’re doing. For example, if you are doing your taxes and that’s something that requires intense focus effort and your best bet is to put yourself in a room with no distractions whatsoever and so that you can really work a way in a focused way on whatever you’re working on. Let’s say that you’re working on something like trying to understand cardiac function or how an irrigation system that you’re designing might come together or that you’re building — Something that involves like a bigger picture, you’re not just memorizing or working through rope kinds of things.
You sometimes need to focus but then also step back and see the bigger picture and the best way to do that is to do something like go to a coffee shop because a coffee shop, what will happen is, you go along, you can be focusing away and then suddenly there will be like a little clatter in the background and that little clatter and the little bit of noise here and there, what it does is it momentarily seems to take you out of the focus mode and put you momentarily into default mode network, into defused mode kind of thinking.
These little occasional transitions are healthy because they kind of distract you, you look at it with a bigger picture way and it can help you to understand sort of this kinds of bigger picture issues. For example, the book I have coming out now is called mind shift and in it, I write about things like this. Medical schools sometimes have problems with students who seem to be on the face of it stellar students, they get great grades, they’re just superb, they are the kinds of students who can sit there and memorize all the anatomical terms maybe in a couple of hours that other students might have to spend weeks, even months trying to learn because medical school is a deluge of information.
This ace memorizers can easily pick up memorized material but then they might sit down and they’ll use the same technique to study for a cardiology exam, well guess what? You can’t memorize how the heart is functioning and sort of see and imagine all the different kinds of things that are happening simultaneously and that influence one another.
It takes a very different kind of studying and that often takes much more time. Here are this ace memorizers who are super stars when it comes to the anatomy examinations, suddenly, they give themselves way too little time to study for something like a cardiology examinations and they do terribly because they think they can just memorize it but it doesn’t work. I think there’s a lesson for us in all of this and that is that of course, memorization is an important part of learning.
Often, you do need to be able to step back and make sure that you’ve synthesized information particularly about complex systems that have sort of a lot of moving parts to them so to speak.
[0:24:56.8] MB: For people that have learning limitations or struggle all the things like a slow memory or ADHD? What does that mean for their learning style and does that inhibit their ability to become effective learners?
[0:25:11.6] BO: ADHD is very interesting in that we often sort of penalize individuals whose attention is kind of like shiny, you suddenly give this rapid and it sort of falls out what you were doing. The reality is that individuals that have this kinds of challenges can actually have a superior — They can have a big advantage over those who have steel crafts or some working memories and minds. The reason for that is that if you have this easy distractibility, what it seems is that in essence, things fall out of your working memory very easily, it’s not sticky.
When something falls out, something else goes in and that’s where more creativity comes from and so researchers shown that individuals with more working memory problems or ADHD or distractibility, they are often more creative. Do you have to work harder to sort of keep up with the Jones’, the people who have overly tenacious working memory? Yeah you do but you would not want to trade off the advantage that your core working memory actually gets you.
More than that, people with a sort of a slow way of thinking, it can be a little bit demoralizing because you're sitting in class and the teacher utters some complex question and before the words have even escaped the teacher’s mouth, some race car driver grain person has already got their hand up in the air with the answers. But where does that lead the rest of us? Where it leaves the rest of us is a very interesting and sometimes very desirable place because the race car, the person with the race car brain, they get there really fast. In some sense, think about what a race car driver sees?
Everything goes by in a blur and boom, they’re there. Now, the rest of us may have something that I would call like a hiker brain, you get there but it’s really slower. So a hiker brain is like you can reach out, I mean, a hiker can reach out and touch the leaves, they can smell the air, the pine in the air, they can hear the birds, see the little rabbit trails, completely different experience than the race car brain.
\In some ways, richer and deeper. By hero in science is Santiago Ramon y Cajal, he won the Nobel Prize, he’s considered the father of modern neuroscience. And what Ramon y Cajal said was I am no genius and he was being honest, he said, I got to where I am because I was persistent and because I was flexible when the data told me that I was wrong in my conjectures.
He said, I am no genius but I have worked with many geniuses and he said, geniuses tend to jump to conclusions and then because they’re used to always being right, they have difficulty changing their minds when they’re wrong. If you are a slower thinker, rejoice. Sometimes you can see things that even the geniuses miss. There’s definitely a place for you.
[0:29:02.7] MB: Tell me about the illusion of competency and how that factors into learning strategies.
[0:29:09.5] BO: Well we all suffer from illusions of competence and money. For example, I’ll sometimes be trying to learn something and I realized that I spaced out a little bit. I haven’t been testing myself to see if I really understood the concept because sometimes it’s a bit painful to really push yourself with learning actively. It’s so much easier to watch a video on how to solve a problem and it’s like, “I got it, I don’t need to work this myself” and it’s simply not true.
For example, one class I had the worst student in the class. He would watch the videos and he would come to class and he couldn’t grab it. He just thought that his presence in watching the videos when he was trying to learn something or sitting in class would get it into his brain through osmosis and he just didn’t recognize that you actively have to do it if you want to master the material. So I think one thing that is apparent to me is what makes me laugh, whatever could make me laugh.
You know I suffer from test anxiety. What makes me laugh is that as a society we more or less encourage this kind of misunderstanding of what learning entails because don’t get me wrong, test anxiety is real. I suffered from test anxiety but over the decades as I have talked, I discovered that 99% of those who claim to have test anxiety never work with their groups, never worked hard on homework problems. They’re at a loss because basically they are not doing the work on the side to try to understand the material.
So it’s really important to be aware of how you’re fooling yourself when you are trying to learn something. Often the first thing that comes to mind about why you are unable to learn something is a thought that is actually fooling yourself. You may say, “You know I just don’t have a talent for math” for example when actually it isn’t that at all. It’s that you’ve for example procrastinated about learning math and then you come up the last minute and you try to learn it all at once and of course you can’t do that.
So the best way, some of the best way to get around illusions of competence and learning are to test yourself at every possible time that you can do that. So make little flash cards for yourself. If you’re learning a language, it’s natural to develop flashcards or anatomy parts but actually even flashcards when you are learning in math and science can be extremely valuable. We often say, the poets will say memorize the poem and you will understand it more deeply.
But why should we let the poets have all the fun? If you have an equation, that equation is a form of poetry and if you memorize it, you’ll think about it more deeply. So don’t just sit there and mechanically try to memorize it but go, “Now let’s see why is that M multiplies times the A? Why isn’t it dividing?” so you are memorizing F is equal to MA but you are thinking about it or if you’re taking mass times velocity squared over two, why is that velocity squared?
So you are thinking about these equations and as you are memorizing them and it will enhance your understanding. So test yourself, make little flashcards, even put the equation like you are working a problem for homework. It just bores me sometimes. We have this philosophy that you just do a homework problem once and you turn it in and you somehow absorb how to do it and that’s like saying, “Yeah, you sing a song onetime” sure now you’re suddenly Lady Gaga.
You could sing like that, it just doesn’t work that way when you are learning something difficult. So your best bet if there are some, you can’t really internalize everything but if you are learning something difficult in math and science or language or anything, what you want to do is for example, take a problem and then see if you can work it cold and if you can’t, take whatever hints you need to, look and then try later in the day just see if you can work it cold.
And then try that over the next couple of days and what you’ll soon find is that you worked it enough times that boy, that problem just flows like honey from your mind like a song. Whenever you look at the problem you can see the steps that you need to do in order to solve the problem and that is rich learning and then when you are under stress with an examination, you’ve got these ideas so deeply internalized that they’ll flow naturally even under conditions of stress.
And of course, they’ll stick with you for many, many more years. The other little trick that can help with illusions of competence and learning is to use the method of recall and what recall involves is let’s say you’re reading a chapter in the book and you are trying to internalize the key ideas. So you read it, read a page and then this is key to this technique, you just look away and see what you can recall as far as the main idea.
Now if you want to, you can put a little note in the margin or maybe just a bit of underline somewhere but what you really want to be doing is looking away and see if you have internalized the key idea enough so that you can regurgitate it on your own. By contrast, if you simply read the text, your eyes will flow over it but you won’t internalize it or if you just underline a bunch of stuff or even if you do concept mapping, none of these techniques is as good as simply seeing if you can recall what you’ve just read.
[0:36:24.3] MB] So for those of us that aren’t students, are these strategies still effective or what are some of the strategies that we can use in our everyday lives to build and retain knowledge?
[0:36:24.3] BO: Well it depends a lot on what you are trying to learn. The key idea here is like when I was talking about recall and reading something difficult, often no matter what you’re doing, let’s say that you’re in business and you are sitting there listening to someone’s report, what you really want to be doing is trying to get one chunk, a key chunk, maybe a couple of them so these are the key points that that person is making.
So what you want to be doing is sitting there and analyzing, “Okay, there’s this wall of words coming out of me. What’s the crystal? What are the couple of little crystallized ideas that this person is really trying to communicate?” because during a presentation like that, you are actually being taught and you are learning something and so that’s a good way to synthesize what you’re learning. Another technique that’s more applicable just for learning in general and in life is often times when you’re trying to retool yourself or learn something new.
You always feel like you’re at a disadvantage because let’s say you are trying to learn a new program in language for your job. You’ll be thinking, “Wow there’s these other people who are so far ahead of me how can I even catch up?” For me, when I was trying to switch from language study to becoming an engineer or I was thinking, “Oh all these people know so much more than me” and we all do this kind of thing where we feel like we’re an imposter.
Whenever we are at a work situation where it’s new to us and everybody else seems to know more than we do but now psychologist will tell you that feeling like an imposter is a very bad thing and you should just stop it because you’re just terrific and you are there by virtue of the fact that you’ve got so many gifts and you are not just lucky, you’re just really talented and all these kind of stuff. I think that’s kind of baloney in some ways and the reason and I think it’s very well meaning.
It’s nice to tell people to stop thinking that way but I think they don’t need to stop thinking that feeling like an imposter is a bad thing. I think feeling like an imposter is a wonderful thing because what that does is it gives you a kind of beginner’s mind. It lets you much more open to what’s going on around you and you’ll look at things and think about things. See when you are the outsider, when you’re the new one, it gives you…
Even if you’re like, for example, for me, a woman in engineering and there’s not as many women in engineering but that can be a good thing because it gets me used to, “Oh I’m different” so if I have ideas that are different, that’s okay. I’m used to that so I think it’s a healthy and naturally to be sometimes be a bit of an outsider by virtue of whatever reason because it gets you more used to, “Hey, it’s okay to think a little bit away from everyone else” and also, it does keep you a little bit more open because you’re trying to figure out what that situation is.
So you’re watching more carefully, you’re not over confident of how you’re just so smart and gifted and intelligent that of course you’re going to be a superstar. So these are my kinds of thoughts and approaches about meaning in equator of working world.
[0:40:23.7] MB: Earlier you touched on procrastination. I’m curious, why do we procrastinate?
[0:40:29.1] BO: We procrastinate sometimes, in fact many time because it hurts. It turns out if you even just think about something you don’t like or you don’t want to do, it activates a portion of the brain, the insular cortex that experiences pain and so the brain naturally bough, will now look for a way to stop that negative stimulation and it turns your attention away from whatever you were thinking about. This is called procrastination and that’s exactly what happens a lot of times with procrastination.
It’s simply is slight changing of what you are focusing on so that it takes away the pain. You do this once, you do it twice, no big deal at all. You do it very often, however, and it is procrastination and it will have very serious long term consequences on your life. So the biggest thing that I recommend there is something called the Pomodoro Technique and that was invented by the Italian Francesco Cirillo in the 1980’s and it’s so super simple.
That is probably why I love it and actually the course I teach is called Learning how to Learn and it is the world’s biggest massive open online course. So we’ve had approaching two million students now. I teach this course with Terrence Sejnowski, the Francis Crick Professor at the Salk Institute. One interesting thing is student in this course like I hear from a lot of these students was just really tough when you got to know these students.
But it also gives you a sense of what people find really important and they love this Pomodoro Technique. They find it incredibly effective and helpful. So I think if you haven’t heard of this technique before, it’s high time to hear about it and if you have heard then this is a good reminder for you. All you need to do is turn off all distractions, so no little ringy-dingy on your cellphone or notifications on your computer and you set a timer for 25 minutes and you just focus as intently as you can in those 25 minutes.
Now if your mind distracts you and says something like, “My mind was A” which was, “Holy cow, I’ve only done two minutes of my Pomodoro and I’ve got 23 more minutes to do? I just can’t do it” and I just let that thought go right on by and I return my focus to the Pomodoro or to whatever I am focusing on and then when I’m done, I relax. Now this is not to say if I’m really in the flow I let myself go longer than 25 minutes but at the very minimum I’ll do my 25 minutes and then I switch my attention to something else.
So I might cruise the web, get up and move around a little bit, just something to change my attention for a little bit and this is as we found earlier a really important part of a assimilating on mastering or understanding whatever you are working on. It’s a little bit like while you’re focusing you’ve got the roast in the oven cooking and then diffuse mode afterwards when you relax or reward yourself. You’ve taken the roast out and it’s continuing to cook a little bit.
You don’t want to jump right in and have that roast. So we always used to think that you only learned when you are focusing. That little diffuse mode is when you’re also consolidating and processing, whatever you’re trying to work on and that helps you to understand it more effectively.
[0:44:28.7] MB: Changing gears a little bit, one of the things that you’ve talked about is the idea of following your passion isn’t necessarily the right direction to go in. Could you talk about that for a moment?
[0:44:41.1] BO: I think that that’s a very important question and the reason is there are many competing poles in any one’s life. There is how you internally feel about what you want to do and some things come easier to some people than to other people. So let me give you one interesting example. It turns out you might ask, “What effect does testosterone have between men and women and their understanding of math and science.
Oh boy, that’s a scary question right? What research shows is well it really doesn’t have any difference. Actually any women on average are equally capable in learning math and science but testosterone does have an effect on some aspect of what we’re interested in and what we think we’re good at and that is that testosterone unfortunately when in fetuses and young children, what it can do is it delays the development. It doesn’t stop but it delays verbal development in boys because they’ve got more testosterone.
Well clearly, it doesn’t do this in girls. So as boys and girls develop what happens is guys will lag behind initially, they’d catch up later. They lag behind verbally and so within themselves they’ll look at themselves and go, “You know I’m better at analytical sorts of things” and women on the other hand, they’ll look inside themselves and would go, “You know I’m better at verbal sorts of things than analytical things” and it’s true.
Even though men and women are the same in their analytical skills, right? So what this really means is that women sometimes look inside themselves and go, “You know I’m just naturally better at verbal sorts of things so that’s what I should do in my career” and guys will go, “You know I’m better at analytical sorts of things so that’s what I should do in my career” even though they both have the same sorts of capabilities.
So when we tell people, “you know just follow your passions” what that really equates to is a lot of the time is simply do whatever is easiest for you, whatever feels the easiest and so well the guys will go off and detect logical more often and this is all on average, more technologically related sort of issues and of course that’s an advantage today because technology is really important in today’s society and women on the other hand, they’ll hear “follow your passion”.
And they will say, “Well gosh English comes so much easier to me, that must be my passion” even though they could be equally good at something more technological or matching it with something technological and off they’ll go into something that perhaps not going to benefit them in the workforce. It’s important to be strategic about your learning. Passions can lead us to dead ends as I’ve found when I learned Russian. This doesn’t mean that you give up on your passions.
It means that you’ll use a little bit of common sense to see if either you can combine your passion with something else or find a way to at least make sure that you’ve got a workable living in a real world that can combine and help support whatever you’re creative passions may involve. I heard a psychology professor and I love psychology, I write about psychology but this psychology professor said, “Oh I told these parents that their child should go into psychology because psychology is a general sort of thing,”
Engineering or something like engineering you’re very specialized in what you can do whereas psychology is very general. And that is a complete misconception of what’s going on in those two careers. Engineering is a general field like look at Jeff Bezos. He has engineering degrees but he’s the CEO of a company. In fact there was a study done on what is the top factor in common of all the world’s leading companies? And that factor was that they were led by CEO’s who were originally trained as engineers.
Not as accountants, not as English majors, as engineers and engineering helps you to think in terms of tradeoffs. Now I’m not saying that engineering is the “be all end all” and if you have caught a degree in psychology, I actually love it. It’s a wonderful thing but it’s a very good idea to as much as you can broaden your skill set. So if you are really good at humanities or social science oriented sorts of things, it’s a good idea to try to broaden into something just a bit more technical.
And if you are more technical, then you want to go the other way. You want to enhance your public speaking skills and your writing skills and just broadening your passion I think is the way to go. Don’t just follow your passion. You want to broaden it.
[0:50:45.1] MB: What is one piece of homework that you would give to listeners who want to practically implement some of these ideas in their lives starting today?
[0:50:53.2] BO: I would say to get out a piece of paper and write down where are they now and where do they want to go, what direction do they want to go at and then here’s what I would suggest. I would say go to an outfit called Class Central online and Class Central is a wonderful mechanism for taking online courses, really good ones and go in there and see what kinds of free or very low cost learning might help you to get to wherever you want to go in your learning and in your life.
Head off a little bit. Learning doesn’t have to be — you can learn too much. You could fill your life with it. Learning to the detriment of everything like relationships or just relaxing a little bit but learning is like exercise for the brain. Having a little bit of exercise during the day helps you to be a healthier human being and in a similar way just having a consistent learning program of some sort also helps your brain. It literally makes it more healthier.
It allows new neurons to survive and thrive and grow when you’ve got that trellis of learning for those new neurons that are being born every day to grow onto. If you are not trying to learn anything new then you become one of those kind of as you are growing older sort of stuck in the rut kind of inflexible sorts of people and nobody wants to be that in your learning or in their life. So learning can help just make you a fun person to be around as well as the most interesting person in the room.
[0:52:55.6] MB: Where can people find you and the book and your courses online?
[0:53:00.6] BO: Well, if you go to my website, it’s www.barbaraoakley.com and there are links there for the Learning How to Learn course, which is free by the way, and that’s really, you can buy a certificate that people can like but all the material is right there and it took me a long time to develop that course and we did it in our basement. I do have to tell you that I was invited to speak at Harvard about the course once and I was so nervous.
Here I am, this little mid-western engineer, I walk in the door and it was filled with Harvard and MIT and Kennedy school folks and I wonder, “What the heck is going on?” And it’s because our one little course made for less than $5,000 in my basement mostly has in the order of the same number of students as all of Harvard’s course online courses put together made for millions of dollars with hundreds of people. So that tells you it’s a course that people really like.
And so you could also find a link to my new book, Mind Shift, which will be coming out very soon and that one, I travelled all around the world to research and write and it’s pretty exciting and there’s also an ebook, a massive open online course coming out about that.
[0:54:31.2] MB: Well Barbara, thank you so much for being on the show and sharing your wisdom. I think there’s so many lessons here about how we can become better learners so thank you very much.
[0:54:40.9] BO: Oh you’re very welcome, Matt.
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