1: Author Steven Kotler has spent over thirty years as a journalist. 

One of the job requirements? Become a “semi-expert” on new topics. Fast.

This week we are doing a deep dive into learning. 

Over the years, Steven has developed “Five Not-So-Easy Steps” for learning almost anything. 

Yesterday, we looked at step one: Read five books.

“Once we’re done reading those five books, our notebooks should be filled with questions,” Steven predicts in The Art of Impossible: A Peak Performance Primer.

We review our questions. Many of them will now have answers. 

And the ones that remain? 

“That’s the raw material to carry into the next step in this process: Seek out experts to talk to about those questions.”

As a journalist, Steven realizes he has an advantage. After all, “It’s a hell of a lot easier to call up a Nobel Prize winner on behalf of the New York Times than it is if you’re trying to finish a term paper for college.”

That said, most people “love to talk about what they do,” he observes. If we “can’t get that Nobel Prize winner on the line, text one of their graduate students. As long as we’ve done our homework and can ask genuine questions, most people will want to talk. In fact, most won’t want to shut up.”  

Having the right mindset is critical. We must get comfortable leaving our “pride at the door” to “talk to people who are way smarter than we are,” Steven observes.

His approach? He asks people “to explain things to me as if I were four years old. . . I want to be the idiot in that conversation.” 

He has some specific recommendations for interviewing.

“Make our subject feel comfortable and respected. Everyone’s time is valuable. Don’t prattle about ourselves,” he suggests. “Have a list of questions prepared ahead of time, assume we’ll get no more than a half-hour interview, and don’t waste a second. Never ask someone something that we can look up. Make sure we’ve investigated talks, books, and technical papers ahead of time.”

We also want to be sure our initial questions show “both personal knowledge about whomever we’re interviewing and general domain knowledge about their subject,” he writes. 

“Don’t ask: What’s your feeling on the current consciousness debate?” 

“Ask: In that paper you wrote for the Journal of Consciousness Studies, you made a neurobiological argument for panpsychism. When did you first start thinking about the problem this way?” 

Asking questions like these lets the expert know we’ve “taken the time to investigate their work in advance and that they can speak freely, in technical language,” he writes.

2: Step three is to explore the gaps. 

“In our modern world, most experts tend to specialize,” Steven notes. “They end up with an incredible depth of knowledge about their chosen subject, but often with little idea about what’s going on right next door.”

Many times the most interesting topics are “in the gap” between categories. 

When we find ourselves with more questions than answers, we’ve likely stumbled into “the true blank spots on the map,” Steven notes. “Because we’ve followed our curiosity to get into these spots, suddenly we’re stuck with burning questions that no one can answer. So we’ll end up trying to find those answers ourselves. Out of this frustration, that’s where real learning actually begins.”

Step four is always ask the next question. 

“At this point in the process, we want to start hunting conflicting answers,” Steven recommends. “Seek out experts who disagree with the experts with whom you’ve already spoken. When you get to the spot where everything you thought you knew was actually wrong, then you’re in the right place.”

Our goal at this point is to solve the problem we’ve encountered.

“Sure, it’s entirely possible that the puzzle we’ve stumbled upon isn’t actually answerable,” he notes. “That’s fine, too. The goal here is to have an opinion about the answer.”

3: The fifth and final step? Find the narrative. 

“It’s time to take things public. For me, the only way I can be sure I’ve learned something is to tell it to someone else as a story. Actually, two people. The first person I tell is someone who is completely ignorant of and, usually, a little bored by the subject,” Steven notes. “If I can turn everything I’ve learned into a narrative compelling enough to hold this hostile audience’s attention and still convey the story’s critical information, then I usually feel like I’m halfway there.”

Steven then seeks out an expert. “I always look for someone who’s not afraid to tell me when I get things wrong. 

“If I can satisfy both camps,” he writes, “essentially I’ve learned the material. I also feel like I’ve really earned my way to my opinions and am comfortable having them in public.”

At the end of our journey, don’t be surprised if we are left with a sense of how much we still don’t know.

“Expect this,” Steven writes. “Experts often feel dumber about their subject than novices.”

More tomorrow!


Reflection: What’s a topic I am curious to learn more about? 

Action: Follow Steven’s five-step process to become a semi-expert.

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