Reading and remembering

It’s easier to read than to remember what you’ve read. I used to struggle to remember what a book was about, even just a few years after reading it.

I don’t have this problem anymore. In a few recent conversations about books, people have asked me how I manage to remember so much about books I read a long time ago.

I don’t think it’s because my brain has got better at remembering things. I think I’ve picked up habits from various places that put the information from books into my brain so that I remember it better. I now have a simple but powerful approach I use when reading most non-fiction books.

The basic structure of this approach is:

  1. Get a broad overview of the book.
  2. Read the book, slowly, noting key ideas and passages.
  3. Summarise the book.
  4. Occasionally review the summary.

Continue reading “Reading and remembering”

Rockstar Books — Exceptional Non-Fiction

With millions of books published every year, how do you decide what to read next?

In software development there’s a concept called the rockstar programmer. This is the kind of person who operates on a completely different level to most others, and can produce 10x the output of the average programmer. Hiring one of these people can be worth more than hiring ten average people.

I think the same is sometimes true in books. You can read endless good books, or you can seek out the exceptional ones and dedicate your time to those.

This doesn’t apply to all books, but I think it applies to most non-fiction books. While fiction is highly subjective and doesn’t necessarily have one purpose, the main point of non-fiction is usually learning.

I found this out through trial and error. For example, I like reading about psychology and behavioural economics. I really enjoyed the Freakonomics books, and some of Malcolm Gladwell’s writing. They’re easy reads and I came away from those books feeling like I’d learnt something. Though if you were to ask me now, I couldn’t formulate anything I learnt in a way that would be useful to me. (beyond maybe “incentives are important” and “little things can make a big difference”).

And then I read Thinking, Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman. It’s much more dense, and takes more time to get into. It requires more focus to read, and the chapters are longer. But it’s completely worth it. Reading this felt like other pop economics/psychology books (like the ones I mentioned above) took one idea from Kahneman’s book and turned it into a chapter, or took a chapter from his book and stretched it into four hundred pages.

Kahneman has spent decades leading research in his field, and so can talk about it in a level of depth that many others can’t. He takes the reader on a journey from hypothesis to experiment design, results, and interpretation. He’s constantly analysing his own way of thinking and shares a wealth of psychological biases that the reader can try to be more conscious of.

The same is true in other fields. Interested in evolution? Try reading Richard Dawkins’ The Selfish Gene. Or go right to the source, and read Darwin’s Origin of Species. You might be surprised by how relevant most of the content still is, and the clarity with which the ideas are presented. Physics? Try the Feynman lectures.

Some people are primarily writers, and their job is to sell as many books as they can. They find interesting ideas, and write them up in a way that makes people want to buy their books. There’s nothing wrong with this, but I think they rarely compare to the people whose writing is secondary to their real work.

This is where the 10x books come from — people who have invested huge amounts of time mastering a field, and who also happen to have a talent for explaining things.

These people don’t write about things because they’re new or fashionable. They probably don’t have enough material to bring out a new book every few years. But their material is far more valuable, and more timeless.

Timelessness is key. An easy way for an author to increase book sales is to cater excessively to the readers of the time, compensating for quality of content through ephemeral relevance. An extreme example of this is the news — while reading today’s news feels somehow educational, reading a newspaper from more than a few days ago is extremely dull.

You can use this as a heuristic to evaluate non-fiction books. If you’re looking for a book on a specific subject, see if there are any which are more than a few decades old and are still considered relevant. When judging a recent book, consider how useful you would expect it to be in a few decades. Hopefully this can help you find those exceptional 10x books, and avoid the ten others.

Thanks for reading! For some more book recommendations (fiction and non-fiction), check out this post 🙂

Effective Language Learning – Pardon My French

I’ve had an interest in French for a while. I got a basic grasp of the language during primary school, and never learnt enough in secondary school to comfortably have a conversation with someone. I started becoming interested in improving again about two years ago, and since then I’ve tried several different approaches. I’d like to share what has worked for me and what hasn’t.

My initial approach involved all of the usual things well-intentioned newbies do: I signed up to some evening classes, printed off verb tables to review “when I had time” and resolved to “sometimes speak French” with friends who were already fluent in the language.

While these all worked to some extent (I went to two out of ten evening classes, memorised a few verb conjugations and exchanged a handful of sentences in French with my friends before reverting to English), none were really a success. Frustration set in, and soon I was back to square one.

But then I stumbled upon a post on Tim Ferris’ blog, entitled ’12 Rules for Learning Foreign Languages in Record Time — The Only Post You’ll Ever Need’. Though initially sceptical, I found a lot of the advice useful and set about trying it. Here’s what I’ve found the most useful and effective, as well as some other things I’ve discovered since.

Listen to Stromae’s Formidable enough times and you’ll never forget how to conjugate être in the imperfect tense.

Immerse yourself

Almost every language teacher will recommend immersion as the best way to learn. That doesn’t necessarily mean travelling to a place where they speak the language though — there are plenty of other ways to achieve it.

The first step is to make a habit of engaging with things in the language you’re trying to learn, and the only sustainable way to do that is to enjoy it. For me that meant finding some good French webcomics and books, which I now read along with others on an almost daily basis.

It doesn’t matter exactly what you do, but try to consume media in your target language wherever possible, instead of watching films/TV in your own language. There are lots of great French YouTube channels (Nus et cullotés, Norman, news, …), TV shows (Braquo), films (qu’est-ce qu’on a fait au bon dieu, Amélie, …) and books (Le Petit Prince, Le Petit Nicolas) which will help you achieve a feeling of immersion at home. And since this is about having fun, you won’t even realise how much you’re learning — listen to Stromae’s Formidable enough times and you’ll never forget how to conjugate être in the imperfect tense.

Practise speaking

It’s important to practise speaking as early as possible — before you feel ready — because you’ll never actually feel ready. Speaking will force you to make mistakes and discover gaps in your knowledge much more quickly than anything else will. While it can certainly feel difficult and draining at first, there is no substitute for it. After all, what is the goal of learning a new language if it isn’t to communicate with other people?

This can be made fun by combining it with something social. There are great free language exchange groups on and Couchsurfing, where you can meet people who speak the language you’re learning and want to learn the language you speak. The great thing here is that there is an incentive for both sides to speak bits of both languages, and I’ve found it to be more constructive than learning with someone who is already fluent in both languages.

Streamline rote learning

The least fun part of learning a language is memorising grammar, but it has to be done. Everyone hates staring at pages in a book or on a screen for ages only to forget everything soon after, but luckily there’s a better way.

Enter Spaced Repetition Systems.

I wish I’d known about these when I was a student. Spaced Repetition Systems (I use Anki) are like flashcards, but smarter. They’ll track the cards you struggle with, and show you those more frequently. Cards which you consistently get right will be pushed to the bottom of the deck. The really smart thing here is that these tools try to show you each card again just before you’re about to forget it, allowing you to spend as little time as possible memorising things while remembering more! You can make your own flash cards, or use pre-made ones. I use this deck for verbs, but there are also decks for vocab and phrases here.

Commit to doing the boring things

Even though you’ll now be able to do rote learning more effectively you still have to… well… do it. It’s no use having a “learn regular French verb endings” item on your to-do list if you (like me) never get around to doing it. Commit to spending a small amount of time studying these at regular intervals. It doesn’t matter whether it’s 5 minutes every day or 20 minutes once a week, but put it in your diary and make sure it happens. The only way I’ve found to get myself to do this is to use a tool like Beeminder, which is built to help you commit to goals and overcome short-term laziness in favour of long-term benefits.

Experiment — and fail.

There are many ways to approach language learning. The right method for you depends on how you like to learn and what stage you’re at. If a method doesn’t work for you, try not to be discouraged and give up on learning altogether, but switch to a different method. Sometimes the marginal benefit from a certain method might be so low that you’re better off doing something else for a while and coming back to it later (e.g. you’ve memorised present tense verb endings and some basic vocab — get out there and practise speaking before you memorise anything else!).

On the other hand, there’s no shortage of advice or apps for language learning and it’s easy to get stuck in a cycle of changing your approach too frequently. I’d highly recommend reading the post on Tim Ferris’ blog which I mentioned at the beginning of this article as a start. The key apps I keep coming back to are Beeminder and Anki as mentioned above, and Duolingo. Here’s a detailed review of Duolingo as a tool for learning French from scratch, by someone who went through all the lessons on it from start to finish.

What have you found most helpful? I’d love to hear about it. More importantly, bon courage!

Shortcuts to Intermediate Climbing

I’ve been climbing regularly for about a year now. Mostly bouldering (no ropes, just a crash pad), at a great indoor wall in Bermondsey called The Arch. While I’ve still got a long way to go to becoming a good climber, there are a few key things I’ve learnt that let me progress from the beginner stage. As these things seem to be common among climbers but not obvious to beginners, I’ve shared them below to save anyone starting out the trouble of figuring them out for themselves.

Don’t do pull-ups

Overhangs. These climbs, where the wall has a slope of more than 90° (more than vertical), tend to be the hardest for beginners. The key is to expend as little energy as possible by keeping your arms straight and pushing from your legs to move up. Whenever you’re static for more than a second, make sure your arms are straight. Think about doing pull-ups — is it easiest to rest halfway through one, or at the bottom with straight arms?

Twist your body

Most people have their body square to the wall when they start climbing. This feels natural, just like climbing a ladder, but has several disadvantages. Having your body (hips and/or shoulders) twisted will keep you closer to the wall while allowing you to reach further — watch an experienced climber at work on an overhang problem and notice how often they twist their body from left to right depending on which way they have to reach for the next hold.

This was me at The Arch almost a year ago. Arms bent, body square to the wall, standing on the balls of my feet. If only I’d had this article…

Thumbs up

Pushing on a hold with your thumb while pulling with your fingers makes for a much stronger, more stable grip, and is less tiring. Good grip technique will allow you to progress more quickly without having to spend time doing boring finger strength exercises.

Pay attention to your feet

It’s easy to focus on the arms and hands, but if you’re climbing right then your legs will be doing most of the work. Think about where you place your feet, and place them carefully and deliberately. It’s almost always best to use the very tip of your toes rather than the balls of your feet. If there’s only one foothold available, the second leg doesn’t have to dangle. Place it somewhere deliberate on the wall or even in the air for counter balance.

Standard Moves

Flag. Drop knee. Smear. Rock over. Toe hook. Heel hook.

While it took me a while to realise this as a beginner, good climbers largely rely on a combination of standard moves, and knowing what these are gets you a long way. The trick, especially in bouldering, is figuring out how to combine the moves around the available holds. This is why boulder routes are called ‘problems’ — they’re as much a puzzle as an exercise.

Try this book if you like taking a methodical approach to learning. It’s £15 for a used version, but if you ask nicely I’ll lend you mine.

Fail more

As with anything, if you’re not failing regularly then you’re not pushing yourself enough. Once you get comfortable climbing at a certain level, start trying harder problems. If you struggle with specific types of problems (like I do with overhangs), then spend more time trying those.

Get excited

As Einstein said, the best way to learn is by “doing something with such enjoyment that you don’t notice that the time passes”. I find climbing enjoyable, but as with anything there are times when other things take over, you become busier, and find it hard to keep making time for it.

To counter this, remember why you want to climb. Watch amazing videos. Read inspiring books. Try different types of climbing. Challenge yourself. Find a group of people to go with. I was lucky enough to have some people in my group of friends happy to go climbing with me, and am making more friends along the way.

I feel like I’ve learnt a lot this past year, mostly about how much there is to learn. This year I’d like to learn more about rope techniques, and climbing outdoors. While I’ll still be bouldering too, I’ll be making time to go on some trips to the Peak District and other UK climbing sites. Get in touch if you’d like to join me.