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A physicist's guide to learning hard things (and using the scientific method)

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lowtek

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So I was responding to a thread, and realized that one problem I see with some folks, newbies in particular, is that they lack a systematic methodology for teaching oneself. This isn’t surprising, as it’s not really a skill that we’re taught early in life. Realizing this, I figured I would share what I have learned about learning difficult things, over the years.

Of course, the scripted dogma is that we must go to school for 4 years, rack up a mountain of debt, and hope that we'll have marketable skills at the end. For STEM fields, this actually isn't a bad bet, but since most people don't major in useful things, it turns out disastrously for the majority.

I actually see some parallels between that scripted dogma and some of the posts here. Some folks will do extended learning challenges, work through dozens of tutorials, or seek out mentors to hold their hand... Perhaps it's the case that some people really need these constructs and arrangements, but I believe that there exists a better way to teach oneself.

Full disclosure: I guzzled the scripted dogma for the first thirty years of my life. I loved undergrad so much that I did a 5th year as a victory lap. Not willing to enter the real world, I then went on to a masters program and ultimately a PhD. However, from the ashes of these potentially ruinous decisions came an invaluable skillset that benefits me to this day: the ability to learn new things with minimal guidance.

Much like we have the CENTS framework for evaluating business opportunities, I believe there exists a mental framework for teaching oneself new skills.

What does it mean to learn something, really? I argue that learning means internalizing information in a way that allows you to apply it to new problems that are only marginally similar to previously encountered problems. After all, if you only know how to solve one problem, you’re not really a problem solver, you’re a robot.

Central to learning is having a solid mental model of cause and effect relationships. This is necessary because the world we live in is causal. To illustrate, let’s consider a simple example.

Let’s suppose you’re selling a widget on your website. For the sake of argument, we’ll assume that the widget is something people actually want. You’ve got some traffic, but only 1% of it is converting. You want to increase the conversion rate, because you have big baller dreams of lambos and lavish nights out in the big city. Problem is that with that 1% conversion rate you’re barely making burger flipper money, so hyper cars are out of the question, let alone hiring someone to fix the landing page. It’s on you to solve this problem. How to do it?

Most people will approach this problem by reading blog posts, books, or listening to podcasts on conversion rates. They will think they’re taking action, and assimilating knowledge, but in reality they’re wasting time. There are two reasons for this:

1) This delays the feedback loop between taking action and receiving results, thus obscuring the relationship between action and results.
2) It’s often event focused rather than process focused. Consuming prepackaged information often obscures the why of the solution.

The correct approach to learning how to increase conversion rates is this.

Clearly state the problem; the more precise and detailed the better.
Make a guess about what things you can control contribute to the problem
Formulate a plan for iteratively testing each of these possible root causes. Test most likely cause first, if possible.
If necessary, seek out information that tells you how to address each possible root cause.
Execute the plan.
Repeat until solved.

So if your conversion rate is only 1%, you could guess that the following things contribute to that low rate:
1) the page loads so slowly that people leave before it finishes
2) The color scheme makes peoples’ eyes bleed, so they can’t find the buy button
3) The copy reads like it’s written by an overseas scammer
4) The perceived risk is too high

These are just a subset of the possible reasons, and indeed a combination of them could be the problem.

We’ve already stated the problem, so that’s good.

Our analytics indicate loading speed could be an issue, and indeed any of the other 3 could be the problem so we have no choice but to test them all.

Brute force it is.

We therefore start at the top, load speed could be an issue. We then specifically seek out information regarding improving load speed issues on our site. Execute on that information immediately and observe the results. If the loading speed improves but not the conversion rate, then it’s on to the next thing.

We know nothing about color schemes, so we spend some time reading some information about it. After some careful consideration, we settle on a pre selected palette of colors and revamp the site. Observe the results, and move on if necessary.

We don’t know much about copy, so we pick up a copy of Cashvertising and skim the book looking for content that would be helpful. When we’ve found it, we implement it immediately. Observe the results and move on if necessary.

To fix the perceived risk, we can reach out to the 1% that have bought our product and ask for testimonials. So we look up some information on how to craft such an email, and boom send it out. We can also implement a money back guarantee, if we haven’t already.

After implementing all these things, we’re left with a vastly improved site. If the conversion rate doesn’t budge, we merely repeat the process. Come up with additional root causes and systematically test them, looking up information you need along the way.

So to summarize, this is how you rapidly learn new things:
Isolate a problem
Guess the root cause of the problem
Address each root cause in turn
Acquire any new skills to solve that specific problems
Repeat until you’ve got your lambo

This is in contrast to the approach of “oh gee, I have a poorly converting site. Guess I need to read a bunch of stuff on how to improve conversion rates… oh gee, guess I need to know web design, and copy writing, and … oh I’ll just give up”.

This is not to say that reading general business books doesn’t have its place, but I think this is primarily useful for those who are already in motion and can take the 1 or 2 nuggets from a book and apply it to their business straight away. I don’t believe there is large utility in reading for those that are not in motion.

In subsequent posts I’ll talk more about finding underlying principles, and expand on how I’m learning difficult things in my own journey.
 
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lowtek

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Some really great replies here... I'm so glad that people are finding value in the content.

Apologies for taking so much time to get to part 2 of this thread. I've been overwhelmed with other things, so I haven't made time for this ... until now.

What to do when everything fails - appeal to principles

Story time...

My graduate work was in a field broadly called spintronics, which is using the electron's spin (as opposed to charge, in electronics) as a unit of information. My work in particular fell under the category of nano magnetics, meaning that we used advanced fabrication techniques to make magnets that were on the scale of tens of nanometers. We subjected these magnets to external magnetic fields and microwave radiation and observed their behavior.

Much like the magnet in a compass, these nano magnets would spin around the external field, and in that process they would emit microwaves in the GHz regime. By subjecting them to external microwave fields, we could synchronize them to resonant frequencies and observe some really fascinating behavior.

It was pure science, so not really engineering related. All these phenomenon occurred at 4 degrees above absolute zero, and disappeared at liquid nitrogen temperatures, so you won't see the tech in a device any time soon.

The process to fabricate these devices was quite strenuous. It required around 10 hours of highly focused and highly skilled labor, and the fragility of the devices ensured that mistakes meant that you wasted the entire days' effort. I worked along side my professor, as I was the only student in the lab. He was known for firing people who didn't want to put in the work, and I guess I passed the test. I got to see first hand what it takes to push a project from idea to completion and it was this set of experiences that I believe have set me up for success, but I digress...

During October of 2010, suddenly... the process stopped working. Every device we made was dead. We couldn't even pass a current through the devices (the resistance was in the mega ohm regime), which would have given us some basic information to diagnose the source of the problem.

To say this was "not good" was an understatement. This was our livelihood. Our only avenue of research. If it didn't work, we had nothing.

Anxiety set in.

Keeping a cool head, we followed the process I outlined above: what could be the possible root causes?

We made a list and spent the next two weeks working non stop, tweaking every step of the process.

Slowly.

Methodically.

But there was no respite to be found. Each change was only met with more failure. None of our mental models were correct. We had skewed all the variables to such an extent that at least a single device should have worked. Yet ... nothing.

Panic sets in. How could we get back on track?

One night we sat down exhausted. It was almost midnight; we had been fabricating all day and were met with more dead devices, yet again.

My mind began to wander... when did all this start anyway?

"A couple weeks ago", my professor replied.

I began to stretch for reasons... and came up with one of my most brilliant insights in grad school. I realized that the weather had recently changed. We went from warm and humid, to cool and dry.

What happens in dry air? Static discharge.

"I've got it. It's not the process"

"What, then?"

"It's static. We're killing the devices as we test them. It may be imperceptible to us, but even a tiny jolt to a nanomagnet is like a lightning bolt."

Ding ding ding. We have a new mental model to work with.

The following day, we revert back to the old process and instead of keeping the samples in a plastic container, we put it in an aluminum boat. A literal Faraday cage. We added grounding to our soldering station, and voila....

Success. The devices live, our overall success rate improved relative to the baseline, and we can move on with the science.

We had made the assumption that the process was killing the devices, when in reality it was our testing procedure.

So what's the moral here? The moral is this:

When all else fails, and you have exhausted all possibilities, something you have assumed is false. This is a foundational principle of problem solving (which is really learning).
 

Bekit

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So I was responding to a thread, and realized that one problem I see with some folks, newbies in particular, is that they lack a systematic methodology for teaching oneself.
...I believe that there exists a better way to teach oneself.

@lowtek this is gold! +Repped!
Seems like learning how to learn is the fundamental skill that will unlock all the doors.

I like your approach. Solid. Keeps the focus on taking action.

It also gives the learner permission to utilize "brute force" as a solution mechanism. I think in my case, the reason I turn to books first is that I've been trained to perceive brute force as a bad way to solve a problem. Why reinvent the wheel when others have already create a proven, streamlined procedure?

The problem is, reading the book or finding the "7-step how-to" or listening to the podcast creates a false sense of having "done something," which then leads to inaction. I've satisfied the craving in my brain to "know how," but I haven't acted yet.

So a brute force method would be better in cases like these, because until I actually stumble upon the real solution, I haven't satisfied that craving in my brain to know how, but I have taken consistent action on all the guesses.

As a thought experiment, I applied your method to the thing I'm currently stuck on.

I don't know how to get clients.
OK, that means I need to learn how to learn this. So let's go...

Isolate the problem: No clients.
Guess the root cause of the problem:
  • I haven't talked to my potential clients
  • I haven't researched to find potential clients to talk to
  • I don't have an effective sales strategy to close leads
  • I don't have a system to fill my pipeline with leads
  • I haven't put serious effort into showing my clients the value of what I do
  • I haven't scheduled time in the week where I focus on solving this problem
  • [Look at that... just off the top of my head, I have all those solid guesses... this is working!]
Address each root cause in turn: TBD - but I think I'd start here:
  1. Schedule time in the week where I focus on solving this problem
  2. Put together some materials that will show my clients the value of what I do so that I have them on hand for #4
  3. Do research to find potential clients to talk to
  4. Talk to those potential clients
Acquire any new skills to solve that specific problems: TBD - will wait until I run into the need for an acquired skill.

*whew* ... this is not rocket science, but I literally did not see the simplicity of my next steps forward until I conducted this exercise just now. I am NOT STUCK AFTER ALL.

Seriously, thanks @lowtek for this awesome guide.
 

YoungPadawan

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I would also like to add: you could build an incredibly powerful intranet or knowledge base for your business if you were to write out something like:

Problem:
Website not converting

Possible root causes:
1) the page loads so slowly that people leave before it finishes
2) The color scheme makes peoples’ eyes bleed, so they can’t find the buy button
3) The copy reads like it’s written by an overseas scammer
4) The perceived risk is too high

Then, after you solve each one, for the problems that you may face again in the future, you could write out what you did to solve it that worked successfully. For instance:



"How to solve slow loading pages"

Summary
How to solve slow loading pages that cause an increase in bounce rates.

Steps to take
Write how to solve it

Commentary
Any additional details that could help more fully describe the scope of the activity.

You could create a flow chart as well to document it so that it is as easy as possible for someone new to understand. You could write this data into Evernote and whenever you have this specific problem, you just type in certain keywords and it will find the exact working procedure you're looking for.
 

MJ DeMarco

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I'm not even done with the thread but read enough to see GOLD.

As a reminder, not all of the mods (including myself) read EVERYTHING on the forum, including some of the things we get tagged in! (Sorry!) As such, potential GOLD threads escape or purview. If you read legendary content and believe it should be GOLD or NOTABLE, please tag myself or a mod (@Andy Black @Fox @Vigilante or @AllenCrawley ) so one of us can get to it and tag appropriately! Thanks @YoungPadawan for doing so.

@lowtek -- thanks for this contribution. And thank you for saying "hello" to many of the new members here at Fastlane -- I do see it!!
 

ChrisV

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Lol, This post is hilarious

For the sake of argument, we’ll assume that the widget is something people actually want. You’ve got some traffic, but only 1% of it is converting. You want to increase the conversion rate, because you have big baller dreams of lambos and lavish nights out in the big city. Problem is that with that 1% conversion rate you’re barely making burger flipper money, so hyper cars are out of the question, let alone hiring someone to fix the landing page. It’s on you to solve this problem. How to do it?

This is in contrast to the approach of “oh gee, I have a poorly converting site. Guess I need to read a bunch of stuff on how to improve conversion rates… oh gee, guess I need to know web design, and copy writing, and … oh I’ll just give up”.

I was actually thinking of starting a thread yesterday, but after reading this post I think I'll just talk about it here for now. I think this is one of the biggest things people struggle with. I know I did.

My biggest business obstacle has been perfectionism. I’d want to learn, learn, learn everything so I can put out something some jaw-dropping product that flies off the shelves and really touches people’s lives.

It was never fear, it was never laziness. It was just perfectionism.

But I’ve learned the hard way that this isn’t the best approach. Or even a very good one.

Okay analogy... let’s say you’re building a house. You have nowhere else to live. Your best bet is to just build a shitty house, then gradually upgrade it as time goes on and you have the time/resources. Right?

In retrospect, not taking that approach was my biggest mistake. I would take so much time making the perfect doorknob. Then the perfect window.

Great.. now I got a F*cking doorknob and a window. Maybe they’re big/beautiful doorknobs and windows, made by a now skilled doorknob artisan.. but it’s still a F*cking doorknob. Better to have a shitty house than a perfect doorknob. It’s also pretty tough to live in a window, no matter how beautiful.

The same with business. JUST MAKE SOMETHING. I see this all the time. You have to put your skills into practice. Doing things creates muscle memory. Make some bullshit that you’re not proud of and just get it done. Just make something that people will buy, even if it’s not the the end product you want. You can upgrade later. Besides just having something people can actually buy, Learning = doing. Book smarts and Street Smarts have to go hand in hand. Just put something out. It’s like when people make wordpress blogs. They spend a gazillion hours getting the theme perfect, but they have no content! People will read decent content with a shitty theme. They won’t look at a beautiful theme with no content. People come to blogs for articles, everything else is garnishment.

I think it’s a matter or prioritization. Look at your bucket of rocks, and remove the biggest ones first. You’ll have time to handle all the pebbles later. When you’re building a business, don’t perfect every last thing. Put up a shitty website. A shitty logo. Don’t spend a penny on business cards. Just get yourself a minimum viable product and upgrade/learn as you go. You’ll learn 10x more by doing than by reading. Which isn’t to say that reading isn’t important, it’s to illustrate that both have their place.

Seriously... without doing, you’re shooting yourself in the foot. Memory fades quickly if you don’t put the things you learn in to practice. @lowtek and I both program. So when you’re programming and want to learn a new skill, for programmers it’s common knowledge that the best way to learn by taking what you’ve read and immediately putting it into practice. You need the neural pathways to form and crystallize or you forget it. Evolution has created a brain that is extremely skilled at conserving resources. If our ancestors learned something that was used right away, the brain would tag it as ‘important’ and give it priority storage in the brain. If not, why even waste valuable neural connections? It’s why you forget a lot of the stuff you learned in college that you never put into practice. But someone who’s a biologist who actually uses what he learned on a daily basis it going to have an amazing memory of what he learned in college.

Anyway:

How to succeed at business (or anything): Read, Do, Read, Do, Read, Do, Read, Do

How to stay stuck in business(or anything): Read, Read, Read, Read, Do, Do, Do, Do.​

By the time you start doing, you’ve already forgotten 70% of what you’ve learned. You gotta put the things you’ve learned into practice. Like, immediately.

Great post.
 
Last edited:

garyfritz

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Central to learning is having a solid mental model of cause and effect relationships.
+1000! It always amazes me how many people have zero clue about the connection between action A and result Z. They don't really understand what affects result Z, so they don't know what to fix. They will make wild guesses, flail around, or try what worked for their buddy Joe, and they wonder why they can't get it working.

Problem-solving is something that comes naturally to me. I have an engineering background, because that's what I was drawn to because that's how my brain works. When I was younger I was the lead support guru for a large Fortune 50 product launch. These days I do high-tech corporate training, so learning complex new things and diagnosing problems (when my students are trying to do lab exercises) is what I do.

If it doesn't come naturally to you, you probably still need to solve problems -- so you should think about how you can improve your problem-solving process. Give @lowtek's steps a try. You may find out you have more problem-solving skillz than you realized!
 

Tryptofy

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I actual really like that. Coming from a scientific background myself I never thought of applying it to business.

That's what I just did for my website:

Problem: No Visitors
Cause
  1. Nobody knows about the website
  2. Not enough games in the database
  3. No SEO
  4. Maybe bad user experience / usability
Solutions
  • Take time in the week to get to it
  • Create a list of links where I can advertise for free ( like reddit )
    • Do the copywriting
  • Add 100 games to the database
  • Do SEO for Landing Page and maybe others
  • Improve usability
    • Search
    • Let the user sort platform specific game lists
New Skills
  • SEO, what are the standards today
  • Usability in web context
  • How to copy write, get examples
 
G

Guest24480

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These are the types of posts this forum needs more of. People can go out and apply this right away no matter what they are working on.

I am learning Linux in my free time and have applied similar principles. I wanted to learn practically so I decided to configure an email server from scratch. Mind you, I know a decent amount about email but I am nearly clueless when it comes to Linux administration.

The first thing I looked for was a step-by-step tutorial that utilized the exact technology stack I was, but I was having a hard time finding a decent one. I almost gave up because of this, but decided I needed to take a piecewise approach to this instead of looking for someone to hand the answers over on a silver platter.

So I broke the task down into pieces:
1). How do I set up basic security measures on a Linux server? --> Learn about that --> Implement
2). Shit, my firewall is blocking some ports I need open.. --> How do I unblock them, which ones? --> Implement
3). I need to setup DNS so the Internet knows who I am --> Which records, how to set up? --> Implement

etc, etc, etc.

Now within a few days I have an email server setup that can send mail locally. Wait..the Internet can't send mail to me this is pointless..but the tutorial didn't say how to configure that..

Oh well, I am figuring this out. Which port do they need open to send mail inbound to me? --> Find that out. Okay I know that, now I need to see if I can connect to that port? I can't? Great, let's figure out how to open it up. Oh, it's this obscure setting in the config file that some dude on a Linux forum knew. Cool. Time to change that setting and test. Shit, my MX record is trash. Fix that. Boom, now I can receive mail from the Internet. But it's not encrypted..

Learning is fun when you do it this way.
 
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Guest61835

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So I was responding to a thread, and realized that one problem I see with some folks, newbies in particular, is that they lack a systematic methodology for teaching oneself. This isn’t surprising, as it’s not really a skill that we’re taught early in life. Realizing this, I figured I would share what I have learned about learning difficult things, over the years.

Of course, the scripted dogma is that we must go to school for 4 years, rack up a mountain of debt, and hope that we'll have marketable skills at the end. For STEM fields, this actually isn't a bad bet, but since most people don't major in useful things, it turns out disastrously for the majority.

I actually see some parallels between that scripted dogma and some of the posts here. Some folks will do extended learning challenges, work through dozens of tutorials, or seek out mentors to hold their hand... Perhaps it's the case that some people really need these constructs and arrangements, but I believe that there exists a better way to teach oneself.

Full disclosure: I guzzled the scripted dogma for the first thirty years of my life. I loved undergrad so much that I did a 5th year as a victory lap. Not willing to enter the real world, I then went on to a masters program and ultimately a PhD. However, from the ashes of these potentially ruinous decisions came an invaluable skillset that benefits me to this day: the ability to learn new things with minimal guidance.

Much like we have the CENTS framework for evaluating business opportunities, I believe there exists a mental framework for teaching oneself new skills.

What does it mean to learn something, really? I argue that learning means internalizing information in a way that allows you to apply it to new problems that are only marginally similar to previously encountered problems. After all, if you only know how to solve one problem, you’re not really a problem solver, you’re a robot.

Central to learning is having a solid mental model of cause and effect relationships. This is necessary because the world we live in is causal. To illustrate, let’s consider a simple example.

Let’s suppose you’re selling a widget on your website. For the sake of argument, we’ll assume that the widget is something people actually want. You’ve got some traffic, but only 1% of it is converting. You want to increase the conversion rate, because you have big baller dreams of lambos and lavish nights out in the big city. Problem is that with that 1% conversion rate you’re barely making burger flipper money, so hyper cars are out of the question, let alone hiring someone to fix the landing page. It’s on you to solve this problem. How to do it?

Most people will approach this problem by reading blog posts, books, or listening to podcasts on conversion rates. They will think they’re taking action, and assimilating knowledge, but in reality they’re wasting time. There are two reasons for this:

1) This delays the feedback loop between taking action and receiving results, thus obscuring the relationship between action and results.
2) It’s often event focused rather than process focused. Consuming prepackaged information often obscures the why of the solution.

The correct approach to learning how to increase conversion rates is this.

Clearly state the problem; the more precise and detailed the better.
Make a guess about what things you can control contribute to the problem
Formulate a plan for iteratively testing each of these possible root causes. Test most likely cause first, if possible.
If necessary, seek out information that tells you how to address each possible root cause.
Execute the plan.
Repeat until solved.

So if your conversion rate is only 1%, you could guess that the following things contribute to that low rate:
1) the page loads so slowly that people leave before it finishes
2) The color scheme makes peoples’ eyes bleed, so they can’t find the buy button
3) The copy reads like it’s written by an overseas scammer
4) The perceived risk is too high

These are just a subset of the possible reasons, and indeed a combination of them could be the problem.

We’ve already stated the problem, so that’s good.

Our analytics indicate loading speed could be an issue, and indeed any of the other 3 could be the problem so we have no choice but to test them all.

Brute force it is.

We therefore start at the top, load speed could be an issue. We then specifically seek out information regarding improving load speed issues on our site. Execute on that information immediately and observe the results. If the loading speed improves but not the conversion rate, then it’s on to the next thing.

We know nothing about color schemes, so we spend some time reading some information about it. After some careful consideration, we settle on a pre selected palette of colors and revamp the site. Observe the results, and move on if necessary.

We don’t know much about copy, so we pick up a copy of Cashvertising and skim the book looking for content that would be helpful. When we’ve found it, we implement it immediately. Observe the results and move on if necessary.

To fix the perceived risk, we can reach out to the 1% that have bought our product and ask for testimonials. So we look up some information on how to craft such an email, and boom send it out. We can also implement a money back guarantee, if we haven’t already.

After implementing all these things, we’re left with a vastly improved site. If the conversion rate doesn’t budge, we merely repeat the process. Come up with additional root causes and systematically test them, looking up information you need along the way.

So to summarize, this is how you rapidly learn new things:
Isolate a problem
Guess the root cause of the problem
Address each root cause in turn
Acquire any new skills to solve that specific problems
Repeat until you’ve got your lambo

This is in contrast to the approach of “oh gee, I have a poorly converting site. Guess I need to read a bunch of stuff on how to improve conversion rates… oh gee, guess I need to know web design, and copy writing, and … oh I’ll just give up”.

This is not to say that reading general business books doesn’t have its place, but I think this is primarily useful for those who are already in motion and can take the 1 or 2 nuggets from a book and apply it to their business straight away. I don’t believe there is large utility in reading for those that are not in motion.

In subsequent posts I’ll talk more about finding underlying principles, and expand on how I’m learning difficult things in my own journey.
Wow! That's....a crazy observation. So crazy that most people (including myself) were OBLIVIOUS ENTIRELY to their own inability to learn. That's something I've struggled with insanely in alot of things. Except music.
MUSIC is where I found my ability to learn on my own with little research to play instruments. I can play guitar,drums,bass guitar, and such completely by myself. Self taught. Yes I had to research to find the solution and did it but I was unaware of myself being able to self teach myself (or at least unaware of the concept). Thank you!

Now I know where to direct MYSELF into the darkest tunnels with help when needed on certain manners. Thank you SO MUCH for updating me about this post.
 

lowtek

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When I read the title, thought you were gonna post the Feynman Method, but this is pretty good too :smile:

I leverage the Feynman method in learning AI, hence the YouTube channel. But I think what I've suggested is more broadly useful and gets more to the heart of learning, which is seeing cause and effect relationships.
 
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YoungPadawan

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This is great stuff! It's basically like the scientific method for solving problems.

I've used a similar approach in developing standard operating procedures. I write down exactly what I did the last time I did a certain procedure, and if there are any issues, I look at the procedure to identify the exact point that is causing the problem, and adjust. Good old cause and effect at work
 

GIlman

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Wow, great thread. Don't know how I missed it before.

You really boil down very succinctly this process. It's funny because I never really though about my own "process" before, when people asked me how I had started my companies, and some of the crazy things that have happened along the way, I always just thought of it as being prepared, start something and keep moving forward, and good things will fall in your lap.

You really nailed what the core behind success (mine included) actually is. For whatever reason I had just always done this method without ever really thinking or realizing I was doing it. So I can vouch 100% for the validity of what you are documenting here.

Admittedly, I do read a ton, including audio books when I'm driving or doing mindless things. But I also do a huge amount of very in-depth research as part of that reading, I identify problems and then learn as much as I can possibly learn to solve them. You gain a very useful deep dive skillset that helps you grow and improve yourself along the way. It's not always useful to know a lot of facts, it is hugely useful to know how to actually DO a lot of things.

It really is that simple. Thanks a ton, I will be sharing this with my kids because you really simplified something I always struggled to explain to them -
 
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lowtek

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This is great stuff! It's basically like the scientific method for solving problems.

I've used a similar approach in developing standard operating procedures. I write down exactly what I did the last time I did a certain procedure, and if there are any issues, I look at the procedure to identify the exact point that is causing the problem, and adjust. Good old cause and effect at work

It's pretty amazing how useful the scientific method is, even outside of a laboratory.

It also sounds like what you're doing is part of the LEAN methodology. I had training in that while I was at Intel, which was funny because they were one of the most un lean organizations. It was merely lip service.
 

Marzook

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great post as usual. Physicists are the ultimate modern-day thinkers of problem solving and this confirms the latter.
 
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lowtek

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Thank you for this Gold @lowtek. It's funny because my answer to people when they ask what the point of going to college is. Is that you need to learn how to learn, however I have received such short shrift on this site, as I tend to go against the idea that Uni is a waste of time (it isn't), that I've almost given up giving that advice.

Can I ask, what would your approach be to learning to code in general, and also if you have an app idea?

I can dedicate a separate post to learning to code in particular, but the basic idea is the same. Pick a project, break it into smaller parts, try to attack each part and look up relevant documentation or tutorials to solve very specific problems related to each of those smaller parts. You can build up a surprising amount of knowledge very quickly that way, without getting bogged down in action fakery.

As far as an app idea, if you check my INSIDERS thread you'll see what I've got going on ;) I'll post about it on the outside when I'm ready for a reveal, as I think what I'm developing would be beneficial to many of the folks here.
 

lowtek

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I'm not even done with the thread but read enough to see GOLD.

As a reminder, not all of the mods (including myself) read EVERYTHING on the forum, including some of the things we get tagged in! (Sorry!) As such, potential GOLD threads escape or purview. If you read legendary content and believe it should be GOLD or NOTABLE, please tag myself or a mod (@Andy Black Black @Fox @Vigilante or @AllenCrawley ) so one of us can get to it and tag appropriately! Thanks @YoungPadawan for doing so.

@lowtek -- thanks for this contribution. And thank you for saying "hello" to many of the new members here at Fastlane -- I do see it!!

Thanks MJ!
 

Mike Partee

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Great post @lowtek!

Traction by Gino Wickman was a great book that introduced me to this kind of rigorous cause-effect testing. Each month I go through what the author called the "Issues Solving Track" to do exactly what you mentioned. This involves asking...

1: What is your desired outcome?
2: What is standing in the way of achieving that outcome?
3: List the issues that are blocking your progress
4: List the solutions to each of your issues
5: Execute

I hadn't considered a hierarchy of potential solutions to choose from in order of importance; that's a good tip I'll begin implementing. Sounds much more efficient.

I've even started implementing this sort of thinking in every area, although I'll admit it's not easy. The biggest pitfalls I've run into is default mental laziness that I think we all get at some point. Some examples...

1: Managing bad results, instead of solving problems ("It doesn't hurt bad enough").
2: Blindly testing solutions without explicitly examining their effectiveness.
3: FORGETTING the solution to the problem you formulated when it comes up again.
4: FORGETTING the process of problem solving, or only applying it to one domain.

...Any more you can think of? I'd be interested in learning how to catch myself in a "dumb problem duck-taping" loop. Rep+
 

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Some really great replies here... I'm so glad that people are finding value in the content.

Apologies for taking so much time to get to part 2 of this thread. I've been overwhelmed with other things, so I haven't made time for this ... until now.

What to do when everything fails - appeal to principles

Story time...

My graduate work was in a field broadly called spintronics, which is using the electron's spin (as opposed to charge, in electronics) as a unit of information. My work in particular fell under the category of nano magnetics, meaning that we used advanced fabrication techniques to make magnets that were on the scale of tens of nanometers. We subjected these magnets to external magnetic fields and microwave radiation and observed their behavior.

Much like the magnet in a compass, these nano magnets would spin around the external field, and in that process they would emit microwaves in the GHz regime. By subjecting them to external microwave fields, we could synchronize them to resonant frequencies and observe some really fascinating behavior.

It was pure science, so not really engineering related. All these phenomenon occurred at 4 degrees above absolute zero, and disappeared at liquid nitrogen temperatures, so you won't see the tech in a device any time soon.

The process to fabricate these devices was quite strenuous. It required around 10 hours of highly focused and highly skilled labor, and the fragility of the devices ensured that mistakes meant that you wasted the entire days' effort. I worked along side my professor, as I was the only student in the lab. He was known for firing people who didn't want to put in the work, and I guess I passed the test. I got to see first hand what it takes to push a project from idea to completion and it was this set of experiences that I believe have set me up for success, but I digress...

During October of 2010, suddenly... the process stopped working. Every device we made was dead. We couldn't even pass a current through the devices (the resistance was in the mega ohm regime), which would have given us some basic information to diagnose the source of the problem.

To say this was "not good" was an understatement. This was our livelihood. Our only avenue of research. If it didn't work, we had nothing.

Anxiety set in.

Keeping a cool head, we followed the process I outlined above: what could be the possible root causes?

We made a list and spent the next two weeks working non stop, tweaking every step of the process.

Slowly.

Methodically.

But there was no respite to be found. Each change was only met with more failure. None of our mental models were correct. We had skewed all the variables to such an extent that at least a single device should have worked. Yet ... nothing.

Panic sets in. How could we get back on track?

One night we sat down exhausted. It was almost midnight; we had been fabricating all day and were met with more dead devices, yet again.

My mind began to wander... when did all this start anyway?

"A couple weeks ago", my professor replied.

I began to stretch for reasons... and came up with one of my most brilliant insights in grad school. I realized that the weather had recently changed. We went from warm and humid, to cool and dry.

What happens in dry air? Static discharge.

"I've got it. It's not the process"

"What, then?"

"It's static. We're killing the devices as we test them. It may be imperceptible to us, but even a tiny jolt to a nanomagnet is like a lightning bolt."

Ding ding ding. We have a new mental model to work with.

The following day, we revert back to the old process and instead of keeping the samples in a plastic container, we put it in an aluminum boat. A literal Faraday cage. We added grounding to our soldering station, and voila....

Success. The devices live, our overall success rate improved relative to the baseline, and we can move on with the science.

We had made the assumption that the process was killing the devices, when in reality it was our testing procedure.

So what's the moral here? The moral is this:

When all else fails, and you have exhausted all possibilities, something you have assumed is false. This is a foundational principle of problem solving (which is really learning).

This resonates with me big time, my product development adventure has been nothing but this. Every new version of the product completely messed up other parts that were working, and I’ve overcome all obstacles exactly how this thread describes. Also reminds me of an early conversation/lesson from my mentor, a very successful product developer.

His company invented a particular medical testing strip. The manufacturing process was so simple and efficient, that several years worth of strips could be made, packaged and stored for distribution in just a few days.

A few years later, when it was time to manufacture more strips - failure. The strips didn’t work. It drove him and his team crazy, going over and over the process, materials, chemicals, everything. With their backs to the wall, retracing their steps over and over, they began to ask themselves, “What was different back then? What really changed?”

They realized that the first batch was made in February, when ambient humidity is typically extremely low. They were attempting to manufacture with the same processes in the summer, with humidity levels higher, even in a climate controlled factory.

Once they retraced their steps and figured this out, they tried replicating the super dry February manufacturing conditions - and were met with success. A new few million dollars worth of strips that worked.

Thanks for the awesome thread @lowtek! Undoubtedly one of the most valuable I’ve read, rep+.
 

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This is very well stated. I'm a computer science tutor and I often tell my students to use this method to solve any problem they encounter (in computer science or in life):
1. Clearly interpret, understand and define the problem
2. Plan a solution that solves that problem (if programming, write commented pseudo-code)
3. Execute

But I like the idea of isolating the problem, that is a golden nugget!

Thanks bud!
 

lowtek

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Lots of people have mentioned it specifically or anecdotally - study LEAN for business and AGILE for product / service development.

Sent from my SAMSUNG-SM-G930A using Tapatalk

haha, you're foreshadowing my next post. Part of my training at Intel involved LEAN methodology (which they didn't follow, but whatever) and it's quite useful for business in general. If it worked for Toyota, chances are it can work for all of us.
 

lowtek

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well I agree with this observation but this is not necessarily true for all situations; at least in my opinion. Yes it works for situation like your example presented here but this doesn’t always work as nicely for technical subjects in particular. The reason for that is the limited working memory in our brain; it all comes down to the difference between the level of expertise required to tackle a particular problem and the individual’s skill level . When the difference between these two is large enough itis easy to overload ones working memory mental gymnastic becomes impossible therefore blocking actual learning. Here is some info in that http://www.cogtech.usc.edu/publications/kirschner_Sweller_Clark.pdf

Of course, we're all working within our physical limitations.

If LeBron James told you the way to master basketball was to play every day, it would still be true that you'll always be working within your physical limitations (i.e. you're probably not 6'8"). Nevertheless, the process to achieve success is the same regardless of your limitations and one should always strive to max out their potential.

Beyond that, working memory can be expanded with N-back training... but that's a topic for another post :)
 

lowtek

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On and off with going over web (HTML, JS and related) tutorials and videos- nothing really sticks. But as soon as there is a real problem, troubleshooting and learning happens.
Used to to blame it on my (supposed to be) personality type - ISTP, like the one who only learns by action and gets bored from books or any theory.
I learn more doing some really cheap freelance when someone has a real (or urgent) problem than signing up to a course or networking.

Looking for a way to make it not so cheap. Overpromise over ability seems like lying.

I guess creating that real problem would be to quit my day job but that seems too far over at the moment.

Sorry I it does not make any sense, English not the first one.

Your English is fine, I read you loud and clear.

I wouldn't recommend quitting your day job until you've got a solid flow of freelance work.

Getting paid more just means solving bigger problems, and getting better at communicating the value of what you do.
 
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Absolutely brilliant post mate. If there's one useful thing my engineering degree has taught me, it's how to learn things very freakin fast. At uni you have no choice but to pick up and apply concepts quickly, and this gets drilled into you for years.

I found the best way to learn is by 'doing'. Read a little bit of background info, a few example, then have a go. You're probably gonna get it wrong, but that's fine. Figure out where you went wrong and try another problem. This process can be applied to anything, as long as there isn't any real negative consequences to getting stuff wrong.
 

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Great post @lowtek !

I can relate for getting sidetracked and trying to understand everything before starting the problem solving. I would get too overwhelmed and nothing gets solved (or took took long).

To summarize, what I get out of this is:
1. Encounter problem
2. Stop. Analyze.
3. Write down whys and break down into incremental (achievable) steps, say stepOne, stepTwo, and stepThree.
3a. What do I already know?
3b. Which step can I solve already with what I already know?
3c. Found that I can solve stepTwo with my current knowledge because it is marginally close and doable, I just need a little reading at documentation and tinkering.
4. Acquired stepTwo knowledge.
5. Which, from remaining steps (stepOne and stepThree), can I solve with my knowledge set?
... repeat until stepOne, stepTwo, and stepThree done.

If stepThree is not solvable, break stepThree into subSteps until I can build up knowledge to solve them.

If I have NOTHING, then start from beginning.

Finally, put stepOne, stepTwo, and stepThree together to achieve solution.

I must also add, my personal opinion, that the ability to filter knowledge - which is useful and which isn't is useful. Not all knowledge is profitable. It's neat to know everything about something, but if I can build what I need without irrelevant knowledge, why would I waste time?

Thanks again for useful post! Gonna check out some of posts about Feynmant techniques!
 
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MJ DeMarco

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Bump, needs some new comments for the new year. ;-)
 
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