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The Importance of Questions + My Question List

“What you seek is seeking you.”

Rumi (1207 – 1273)

Sometime after college, I was exposed to the idea that…

Questions are extremely powerful.

In his book, Tribe of Mentors, Tim Ferriss says that the answers to anything and everything that we want is in other people’s heads and questions are our pickaxes. He attributes his 10x, 100x, and 1000x gains to his development of better questions.

I instantly fell in love with this idea. Not because I immediately recognized how useful that perspective is (although I wish I could say that), but because I was having trouble finding answers to the questions that were burning inside of me.

Why am I always getting the short end of the stick?

How come I’m not being rewarded for doing the right thing?

Is this all there is to life?

Will it ever get easier?

What’s the point of understanding complicated things if no one cares about them?

When will I have sacrificed enough?

How do I make more money?

Why do I keep making bad choices?

The frustration drove me deeper and deeper into nihilism, but this new piece of knowledge was bright enough to help me see the light.

It’s not that life was giving me harsh answers to my questions, it’s that I wasn’t asking the right questions at all. Then I realized…

Improve my questions, improve my life.

It’s not that knowing that asking better questions suddenly made my life better, but knowing that there is something I could do to give me a fighting chance was liberating and empowering.

I just needed to ask better questions.

Little did I know that the best was yet to come, and I was just beginning to understand the power of questions. There was another way to use questions powerfully.

This other idea was clearly articulated to me by Jordan Peterson, but I found it to be true in many other instances of my life.

When we’re asked questions, our minds almost immediately go to work on finding an answer.

This can be extremely uncomfortable if we’re asked the wrong (or right) questions. We can ignore the answers and act as if we don’t know them, but we will. The curse of knowledge is that we will never unknow something, so once we are asked the question we are also given the answer.

The cool part is that it doesn’t matter who asks the questions. We just need to be asked the question in order to start looking for an answer. This means that we can ask ourselves these questions or find someone to ask them to us.

At first, this idea seemed inconsequential but then I realized that I can discover honest and reasonable answers if I take a little bit of time to be asked what I really think I should do.

It can be something as small as “What do I want to eat for dinner?” or something as big as “What do I want my life to mean when everything is said and done?” Our minds will find us an answer if we let it.

This can be done in a way that is ineffective, but the key is to want to answer the question in a way that does not compromise ourselves. Try to be genuinely curious about the answers.

Suddenly, big questions don’t worry me as much and smaller questions are answered with myself in mind. My major life choices aren’t made carelessly or for other people. Learning and practicing this is so freeing.

Despite my question list being presented in no particular order, I do think it’s important to mention that good questions in the wrong order can get bad responses. Sometimes jumping right to the deep work questions can surface some superficial answers. If we take the time to warm people up with easier questions before jumping right into the difficult stuff, we’ll get answers that are more honest and well thought out.

My Question List

Here is a list of every question that I’ve found worthwhile to ask myself. I recommend spending at least 5 minutes thinking about each one (obviously in your own time, there are way too many of them to do it all at once). A lot of these questions aren’t necessarily designed to give me pragmatic answers, but to get me to think differently and break old ways of thinking.

I think everyone should keep a question list, if you decide to make one please share it with me at chris@chrismukiibi.com. I would love to see what other people’s pickaxes look like.

Bolded questions are the ones that I would argue have most impacted my life.

“Often, all that stands between you and what you want is a better set of questions.”

Tim Ferriss (Tribe of Mentors)

In no particular order:

  • What do I want to change and how will I know when I have?
  • What would this look like if it were easy?
  • What am I avoiding just because I know the answer is painful?
  • How can I make my 10-year plans happen in 6 months?
  • How am I complicit in creating the conditions I say I don’t want?
  • What am I not saying that needs to be said?
  • What’s being said that I’m not hearing?
  • What are the actions I need to take today?
  • What am I unwilling to feel?
  • Whose expectations am I trying to fulfill? My own or those of someone else?
  • How much would I pay to relive this moment 40 years from now?
  • Who do I know that can help me with this?
  • Do I need this?
  • Is there an action that I can take now to make this better?
  • What is something that feels productive to me at the moment, but usually ends up wasting time and energy?
  • Am I doing this for Present Me or Future Me?
  • What do I enjoy refining?
  • What makes me different?
  • What is something that I know is stupid that I can stop doing today?
  • What are my 7 streams of passive income?
  • What skill am I working on?
  • If someone could only see my actions and not hear my words, what would they say are my priorities?
  • What is the biggest small thing I could do today?
  • Is there a way I can automate this?
  • What do I have to offer?
  • What am I good at?
  • What am I preventing myself from feeling?
  • What can I work on today that will continue working for me years from now?
  • What am I avoiding just because the desired outcome would take longer than I’d like?
  • What can I do now that I would be so happy I started doing 3 years from now?
  • Have I earned this?
  • Are my goals my own, or simply what I think I should want?
  • How much of my life had I missed from under planning? Overplanning?
  • How could I be kinder to myself?
  • How could I better say no to the noise to better say yes to the adventures I crave?
  • Assume that more than one path exists to achieve your ideal life. What would some of the alternative routes look like?
  • What would make today great?
  • What are the three amazing things that happened today?
  • How could I have made today even better?
  • What two things am I going to try to improve this month?
  • Which thoughts have I had over the past week that are worth remembering forever?
  • Will this new endeavor either supply me with long-lasting relationships or a new skill set? In other words, will I win even if I lose?

Updated 12/10/20

  • Imagine each day is only 12 hours long. What would I cut out?
  • If I had a gun to my head and could only work for 2 hours today what would I work on?
  • Which areas of my life are in maintenance mode? Which areas are in growth mode?
  • What’s a tiny problem that irritates me every day?
  • Am I being effective or just busy?
  • What do I wish I had?
  • What are the 1-2 things that if I get them done today, I’ll go to bed content? 
  • At what point is the flower perfect? (Refer to The Art of Practice)
  • Is there a better way? Is there a kinder way?
  • If I keep living the way I am, what will my life look like in 20 years? Do I need patience or action?
  • What’s stopping me?
  • Where do I have healthy momentum right now? Where do I have unhealthy momentum?
  • What is the little bit of extra work that has a huge upside?
  • Who can I collaborate with to make this easier?
  • What part of this situation is under my control?
  • What is one repeating problem I can automate or eliminate today?
  • Why did I fail?

Like my Must-Read Book List, and many of us, this list is always in a state of becoming.

Every so often I’ll update this list with any new, and worthwhile questions I come across in my journey.

The Myth of Motivation

“We are always complaining that our days are few, and acting as though there would be no end of them.”

Seneca (4 BC – 65 AD)

Missing Pieces

Motivational books, speakers, quotes, videos, blog posts, you name it, are fantastic for getting us pumped up enough to dominate any obstacle in our way. When we’re motivated we can do anything, but motivation doesn’t stick around for very long and can be difficult to recover when lost. Action beyond motivation is necessary for achieving many of the goals we set for ourselves.

Acting only when we feel motivated and expecting to accomplish all our dreams sets us up for massive disappointment and wasted energy.

Substantial achievement requires acting even when we don’t feel like it. If I only studied when I felt like studying, I would never have even finished high school let alone a chemical engineering degree. If I only blogged and made music when I felt like it, then I wouldn’t have a blog and a YouTube channel. If I was only a good boyfriend when I felt like it, then I wouldn’t be in a happy relationship. I can literally go on forever about this.

Motivation is a fantastic tool, but it isn’t reliable enough to take us to the promise land, so to speak. So that poses the question:

What is motivation missing?

Without discipline and purpose, motivation is only a short term solution. Motivation fueled by purpose and discipline is enough to get us anywhere we need to go. Discipline gets us through when we don’t want do and purpose gets us through when things are hard. They both give us access to action beyond motivation.

I talk about purpose at length in the following posts:

This post is going to mainly focus on discipline. What it is, why it’s necessary, how to develop it within ourselves, and specific methods to create action beyond motivation.

Discipline

“Discipline equals freedom.”

Jocko Willink (Discipline Equals Freedom: Field Manual)

When most people think of discipline, they think of punishment. That is not what I am talking about here. What I mean by discipline is taking on the challenge of creating a relationship with ourselves to know ourselves as people who do the right things. Knowing ourselves as the kind of people who can focus on the task in front of them as do it as well as they possibly can.

I like to think of discipline as a way to learn how to deliberately narrow our focus to the one thing that our highest selves want to be doing. Without discipline, we are victims to our circumstances, environments, and unconcious desires.

I spent a few weeks trying to wrap my head around discipline and in doing so I had a fantastic conversation with my girlfriend. She was telling me about how her relationship with discipline can be broken up into two sub categories: taking responsibility and making decisions. She told me that when she started taking responsibility for everything in her life, there were endless opportunities for decisions. When we take responsibility, we empower ourselves, which gives us a vitalizing freedom and insight into what we can and cannot change. Once we see our options, it is up to us to do something about it (or not). Taking responsibility gives us options.

Let me root this in a simple example. Let’s say we are trying to study for a test, but can’t get ourselves to crack open the book and start. What we lack is discipline. A disciplined person would just sit down and start working without wasted energy deditated to convincing themselves that studying is a good idea.

In order to navigate our way from not being able to open the book to sitting and starting flawlessly, we first need to take responsibility for our learning. We can take on the perspective that how much we understand and how much we are able to demonstrate that is solely a function of our own effort and dedication. Once we genuinely take that on, we can see the decisions to be made in front of us. We can either study or not. The choice is ours and not up to our professors, our parents, or the economy (common scapegoats people love to use). Now we can make the decision to study or not. That is where we want to be mentally. We can choose to not study, but if we run through this thought process and still decide not to, the pain is so much worse. Nothing sucks more than suffering and knowing that it’s all because of you and your stupid choices. More often than not, we will end up doing what we “should” be because of loss aversion. People will go to greater lengths to not lose $5 then gain $20.

If we take responsibility for our lives, we can see how much power we truly have. Usually, it’s much more than we like to think. Opportunities for decisions appear to us and all we have to do is make a choice. Taking responsibility and making decisions are what we need to create a foundation for developing discipline.

Access to a New Life

Most of what we want to accomplish takes tremendous amounts of effort, time, energy, and attention. Our resources are best spent moving closer to those goals, not convincing ourselves we need to.

Here’s a fun little exercise to show us how we have have access to a new life. I stole this from one of Jordan Peterson’s lectures.

Ask yourself – How many hours a day do I waste? Write that number down…..really write it down.

Now, let’s say you value your time at $50/hour, which is probably on the low end.

How much money do you waste per day?

Most people write anywhere from 4-6 hours. Let’s say we waste 4 hours a day valued at $50/hr. That’s a loss of $200/day or $1000/work week. That’s $52,000/year wasted, at least. That is the cost of a lack of discipline. If you value yourself higher, then the cost is even more expensive.

I do this exercise with my students at the beginning of my classes and it’s always so funny to see the look on their faces when they’re present to how much time they really have access to. The best part of this exercise, is that I don’t define waste. The students waste 1/6 of their day by their own standards!

Discipline is more than just preventing waste, it helps develop a powerful relationship with ourselves. While preventing wasted time and developing a powerful relationship with ourselves provide incredible benefits, the real sweetness of discipline comes from accomplishing what we set out to accomplish. This is how we live a life by design.

Since external discipline can be hard to find in some occupations, cultivating self-discipline is key in making all of this possible. We need to learn how much self-discipline we have and how we need to adjust. Some people are too lax with themselves while others are too stern.

How to Develop Discipline within Ourselves

“A paradox of life: The problem with patience and discipline is that developing each of them requires both of them.”

Thomas M. Sterner (The Practicing Mind)

We can increase our discipline by changing our self image. If we think of ourselves as lazy, then we will be lazy. If we think of ourselves as focused, then we will be focused. The trick is actually believing it. Our identity is one of the strongest motivational forces if we learn how to use it correctly. We hate being wrong and being wrong about our identity is something we will go to the ends of the earth to prevent, this is known as identity defense. I go more in depth about changing our self image to create a better life for ourselves in these two posts:

Work on changing our identity to someone who is disciplined and the discipline will follow.

We can also do short term challenges which train the “discipline muscle.” These challenges will give us opportunities to be disciplined if we don’t have something else requiring that of us.

An example is taking cold showers for 30 days. It’s tempting to want to take a hot shower (especially for me), but with the challenge in place we can decide to stick to our word or give into to our animalistic needs. Doing something like cold showers is great because it’s excuse proof. We’re already taking showers daily (I hope) so it’s already integrated into our routines, we just need to make a simple and small adjustment. Remember: anyone can do anything for a month.

Another method for increasing discipline is setting up a system that requires you to show up every day. Yes, I do mean every damn day. This is powerful because it forces us to act even if “we don’t feel like it.” At first, it will be painful, but after each day the part of us which perservies will become stronger and stronger until we have the self-discipline to get through it. Create a nice reward for yourself afterwards, but also create a punishment so you have even more of a reason to do it. Make it short and manageable so you actually will do it every day.

An example of this in my life are my exercising habits. I used to hate working out and I never had the discipline to do it, until I told myself I wasn’t going to eat in the morning until I did a few kettlebell swings. The reward is eating and the punishment is going hungry. Pretty simple if you ask me. It’s also effective if you ask me, because I’ve been working out every day for the past 2 months and I don’t plan on stopping.

Now you could say, “Chris why don’t you just eat anyway if you don’t feel like working out?” and my reply to that would be because it destroys the relationship I have with myself. Letting ourselves slide with things has a detrimental effect on how we relate to ourselves and I’ve worked too damn hard to develop a positive and strong relationship with myself where I know myself to be a person who follows through on his commitments.

Getting Started Anyway

Acting when we aren’t motivated is difficult. It’s expensive in terms of cognitive load, not because the tasks are hard, but because we have to overcome so much within ourselves to get going.

Since I’m a physics nerd, I’m going to put it like this: Action beyond motivation is like overcoming friction. Friction is a force that works against another force, usually slowing or preventing the displacement of an object.

There are two types of friction – static friction and kinetic friction. Static friction is tougher to overcome than kinetic friction. You can try this with a box sitting on the ground. If you apply a pressure on the box, you will notice that it takes more pressure to get the box moving than to keep the moving moving. The same principles apply without work. If we find ways to overcome the static friction, to get started, then we won’t have to push as hard to keep it going.

Procrastination is a huge ally to static friction, usually we procrastinate because we feel like overcoming that static friction is too expensive. Just finding ways to get started is the secret to action beyond motivation.

Methods to Fight Procrastination

There are a ton of methods to get started, but I’m just going to share two of them right now.

One of my favorite methods I use to fight procrastination and overcome static friction is The 5 Second Rule. I first heard of this idea from the renoun and respected author and motivational speaker, Mel Robbins. It’s pretty simple, right before you get yourself to do something just count down from 5 then begin.

5…4…3…2…1… Go!

There is something about counting down that primes our minds for overcoming that static friction. I do this all the time when I’m working out. Right before I do a set (that I really don’t want to do) I count down from 5 and begin. Once I start, I just focus on getting through it. The push I give myself (the willpower I exert) to start is more than enough to keep the workout going as long as I keep pushing.

This idea set me free from believing that it’s going to be hard to get started and it just keeps getting harder. The opposite is actually true, getting started is the hardest part and it gets easier over time.

Something I do want to mention about this technique is how it is easier to get derailed if we are interrupted.

Let me use the example of my workouts again. I can use the 5 second rule to get started and push through to the finish line, but if I’m interrupted while I’m doing my workout the process has to start over again. I will have to overcome the static friction and the same force applied will not be adequate enough to get started. Beware of interruptions when doing high cognitive load activities.

Another fantastic method of fighting procrastination and overcoming static friction is implimenting starting rituals. Starting rituals are fantastic for tricking our brain into doing things we don’t want to do.

In this post, I talk about the habit cycle and how we can design the lives we want if we work on designing our habits. As most of us know, its difficult to get us to do what we tell ourselves but with knowledge of the habit cycle, we can see our patterns and manipulate them to our own advantage. The first stage of the habit cycle is Cue. This means our cravings and responses which come afterward are influenced by cues.

We are extremely susceptible to subconsciously perceiving cues and we can use this potential vulnerability to create powerful starting rituals. Doing the same thing over and over right before you do an activity primes your brain to do that activity.

Let me solidify this with an example. I remember to brush my teeth when I walk into my bathroom and see my toothbrush. As much as I’d like to say I remember to brush my teeth every morning, the truth is that I’m reminded by the cue. Walking into the bathroom is my starting ritual to brushing my teeth. Another example is when I’m blogging. I always grab a drink, place it on my right side, turn on classical music, set my pomodoro timer, and start typing away. All the things I do before I actually start blogging I consider my starting ritual. Doing these things helps me “get ready” to work and it really helps with overcoming the huge amounts of static friction which come with writing.

I’ve tried to blog without the ritual and it ended in disaster. I would try to tell myself all those little routines are BS and I should just start writing, but I end up writing for a short amount of time and I’m easily distracted. This results in worse writing and wasted energy. Starting rituals really help us get in the mode. Don’t sleep on them. The best part is that we can create our own starting rituals, which I think can be a lot of fun.

Like with any habit, it takes a while before our brain starts to understand these cues and cravings so stick with it for at least 5 session. I give six more methods of overcoming static friction and enginerring compliance in my post Understanding Change.

Aim for the Success Spiral

The Matthew Effect (also known as the Matthew Effect of Accumulated Advantage or the Matthew principle) was popularized by American sociologist, Robert K. Merton, and is named after The Parable of Talents from the biblical Gospel of Matthew.

“For to every one who has will more be given, and he will have abundance; but from him who has not, even what he has will be taken away.”

Gospel of Matthew (25:29 Revised Standard Version)

Regardless of religious affiliation, The Matthew Effect is a phenomena we can observe time and time again even in the modern world.

I just recently started seriously investing in the stock market and I see exactly how people who already have money can make more money with their money. People who invest more money have the potential to make more money, people who invest little money have the potential to make little money.

This is also visible in something a small as a bank account, the more money we have in the account, the more money can we get back in interest. People that don’t have a lot of money in their bank account are subject to low interest yeilds and overdraft fees, which prevent them from effortless wealth building.

On an academic level, students who get A’s on the first few exams are going to have an easier time getting an A on the final exam. The students who failed the first few exams are more likely to fail the final, unless they put in even more effort than the A students.

When it comes to exercise, it’s actually easier to work out once you’re in shape and healthy. If you aren’t, exercise can seem like an impossible mountain to climb and are more likely to become even unhealthier.

In my Understanding Habits and The 1% Rule post, I talk about the the Two Life Path from Jeff Olsen’s book The Slight Edge which clearly illustrates The Matthew Effect.

Our choices compound on each other, and while it doesn’t seem like it in the moment, the good choices can easily becomes great and the bad choices can easily become terrible. We just need to add time.

This knowledge is powerful because we can use it to our advantage. All we have to do is aim for the success spiral. Once we reach a critical point of good decisions, the benefits compound on each other and create even more benefit as long as we don’t destroy the structure.

Focus on making the small wins and watch them evolve into big ones. It’s much easier to win once you’ve been winning. On the flip side, take the small loses and they can spiral out of control. At that point, it becomes too easy to lose and seemingly impossible to win. Don’t let it get to that point, take your wins everywhere you can! There’s no win that is too small.

You did half a push up? Fantastic, next time you’ll done 1. The time after that you’ll do 2. Keep that up for a year and you’ll be surprised how far that can take you.

A big part of aiming for the success spiral is tracking your habits. Tracking is important because we can see how we’ve been performing over time and determine if we are on a success spiral or if we need to make changes.

For the past few months I’ve been using the Streaks app on iOS and I highly recommend it. Best $5.99 I’ve spent this year for sure. Creating streaks builds momentum and that momentum gives us an extra push. Remember, kinetic friction is easier to overcome than static friction. It’s easier to maintain a streak than to start one. I also reward myself whenever I finish my streaks, so I have incentive to start again the next day. I got more in depth about building and breaking habits in my post Types of Habits and Designing Our Lives.

Good Feelings Come After Action

“Chase after money and security, And your heart will never unclench. Care about people’s approval, And you will be their prisoner. Do your work, then step back. The only path to serenity.”

Lao Tzu (Tao Te Ching)

Waiting until we feel good about doing something is similar to waiting until we feel motivated to do something. It’s futile and we will never get enough done to obtain significant achievement. Action beyond motivation is the muscle we need to develop within ourselves and the same principles can apply to action beyond feeling good.

What makes people happy is not obtaining goals, but observing themselves move towards a goal. Knowing that our actions are “correct” gives us bursts of dopamine, which makes us feel really good. The truth is that the good feelings come after the actions. We will feel like doing it, once we are doing it. I come up against this every time I start reading or writing a blog post. Every time it’s a struggle to start, but once I’m started I tend to lose myself in my work and I feel genuine pleasure while I’m doing. I feel the feelings I was waiting to feel to start while I was doing the work.

Good feelings comes after accomplishment, not before. Do good, feel good.

Strategies for Better Studying (Part 1)

“All truly wise thoughts have been thought already thousands of times; but to make them truly ours, we much think them over again honestly, until they take root in our personal experience.”

Johann Wolfgang Von Goethe (1749 – 1832)

In light of my last post, Active Recall and Spaced Repetition, I want to go over different study methods that can be used with those principles in mind. Proven study methods used in conjunction with active recall and spaced repetition is the winning formula for any student looking to get better grades with less work and stress. It doesn’t matter which method you use, as long as the principles are being practiced. Pick the a strategy, combine it with another, modify it so it can fit your needs. I want my students to have an arsenal of methods to so they can design their own perfectly personalized study system. Over the next 4 weeks, I’m going to explore some of the most popular study methods that we can use to chop up, modify, and customize.

The Pomodoro Technique and its Modification

You may or may not be familiar with the word Pomodoro, but it’s Italian for tomato. I’ve been watching an absurd amount of The Sopranos lately, so I figured it would be appropriate to start with the Italian themed strategy. Now, I know what you’re thinking..

What do tomatoes have to do with studying?

Absolutely nothing. Pomodoro was the name of the tomato shaped timer that Francesco Cirillo used when he developed this technique!

Feast Your Eyes

The Pomodoro technique can be executed in 7 fairly simple steps:

  1. Clearly articulating what task needs to be done
  2. Setting a pomodoro timer (or any timer) to 25 minutes
  3. Work on the task without interruption for the 25 minutes
  4. Take a break for 3-5 minutes
  5. Repeat Steps 2 through 4 at least 4 times
  6. Take a longer 15-30 minute break
  7. Repeat as many times as needed

Each work interval of 25 minutes is commonly known as a Pomodoro. Do 4-5 pomodoros then take a long break. I use this method all the time just to get started! For me, starting something is usually the hardest part. My brain doesn’t like the idea of sitting down and working on something for hours, but when I practice the pomodoro technique, it’s much easier to get the ball rolling if I think I’m only going to be working on this for 25 minutes.

Using the Pomodoro Technique is a really great strategy and you will get tons of work done if it’s executed properly, but I find that I get my best work done when I’ve been working on something for hours uninterrupted and the Pomodoro Technique inherently comes with interruptions. So what I do is modify the technique to fit my own personal needs. If I’m feeling like it, I’ll use this technique the way it was designed but more often than not I just use it as a catalyst to begin my work flow.

In all honesty, I have an incredibly difficult time sitting down and writing for hours or producing for hours but over the years I’ve gotten pretty good at negotiating with myself to get things done. One of the deals I make with myself constantly is just do 1 pomodoro then you can play video games. Sometimes I work the 25 minutes and go play my video games, but most of the time I ride the momentum that I build during that first pomodoro and get shit done. When I make this deal with myself, I end up being more focused too. Getting my work done is important to me, so knowing that I only have this limited time to get it done helps me stay focused. There’s something about having a short time line that gets us out of our own way. The best part of that discovery is being able to trick our minds into getting out of its own way.

The pomodoro technique is effective because it works under the assumption that we get our best work done within the first 25 or so minutes of beginning. It’s easy to come to this conclusion, if we examine our productivity as a function of attention span. I view my attention span as a period of time which I can voluntarily focus on something without suffering or wanting to do something else. There are certain days and conditions that contribute to a longer attention span, but on average my attention span is about an hour. There are been times when I really developed myself in this domain and I got it up to 3 hours but there have also been times in my life when I let it drop to 10 minutes. There’s no shame or ought when it comes to attention span, but I think it is something we should take into account when we are designing systems to optimize our learning capacity. Rather than define a pomodoro as 25 minutes, I define a pomodoro as equal to my attention span at the time. It’s useless to sit down and stare at your paper if the only purpose is to wait out a pomodoro session. Adjust the length of each session and you have a game plan that works best for you, but that leave us with the question:

How do we know how long our attention span is?

So there are ways to determine an attention span, but what I find best is to just start a timer whenever you start a project and whenever you feel the desire to seek out different stimulation or take a break stop the timer. I spent a day and timed my attention span (and because I’m a total math nerd) I averaged it out and defined that as my pomodoro. Nowadays, my pomodoros last about an hour, but on days when I’m not feeling up to it I make them as low as 10 minutes. This is a great technique to bang out loads of work and overcome that high activation energy required to get started.

The Feynman Technique

I’ve mentioned this technique in earlier posts, Active Recall and Note-Taking, and it’s fairly simple. The Feynman Technique is based on the idea that we truly understand something if we can explain it in simple terms. When I first started tutoring, I wasn’t aware of all the different learning and studying theories but I noticed that I was gaining a deep understanding of math quicker and faster than my students. At first I thought it was strictly a function of time. Since I’m doing math more often than them, I’m improving faster than them. But I’ve always felt like there was a bigger reason and it is because I was constantly explaining complex ideas in a simple way. This exercise 1) forces me to find any holes in my knowledge and 2) is an excellent active recall technique. If I’m explaining something that I don’t have a deep understanding of, then I’ll stumble while I try to explain these topics. I’ll take note of that stumble and fill that little knowledge pothole, so next time I run the neural pathway it’ll be smooth.

If you don’t have another person to explain it to, try writing it down in simple terms and reading it after some time has passed. It takes more effort, so it may actually be more effective. Explaining concepts to other people, especially students, gives an opponent processing benefit but writing it out and reading it back to yourself is an excellent test for understanding.

Incorporate Concepts into Everyday Speech

This is one of those things I’m always doing without people knowing. By sliding these new concepts into conversations with people helps with firing the neurons connected to the concepts you’re interested in. I tend to look like a nerd, but I don’t mind because I get my recall in. Additionally, using the information in a creative way helps with retention.

Most people usually don’t see conversations as a creative, but they are! We are creating conversation and humans live in conversation. Our environments are results of our conversations and by injecting our concepts into our speech, we build the concepts right into our fabric of reality. The idea of speech being one of our superpowers is an old one and definitely deserves it’s own time in the sun, but I’ll just leave this tip here. Incorporating our newly found knowledge into our everyday speech is a solid strategy to get those neural pathways fired and help with knowledge retention.

Simulate the Test Environment

For a while many of my students would do fantastic when I’m working with them, but when it comes to taking the test they end up failing! They understood the material fine and whenever I’d ask them what they think happened they tell me that they forget everything when they’re under pressure. This problem drove me crazy for a long time, until I took a deep dive into the human mind to understand.

Our minds are constantly making associations and we perceive the world on so many different levels. I recommend checking out Jordan Peterson’s Maps of Meaning lecture series for those interested in diving deep into why that is. Our minds and bodies are navigating space and time constantly fluctuating between order and chaos. The world of what we already understand and the world of what we don’t. When we’re in the world of order, we aren’t anxious and can predict the outcome of our actions. When we’re taking a test, it’s much more comfortable to operate in the world of order. However, taking a test in a classroom is different than taking a test at home.

While it seems like the same thing, the test in a classroom environment is unfamiliar to the parts of ourselves that are adapted to the test in a home environment. The unfamiliarity causes us to activate the parts of us that navigate the world of chaos and that part of us may not be equipped to handle the questions on the test. This is why many students, including myself, don’t perform as well on tests than we do while we’re practicing. The solution to this problem is to simulate the test environment as much as possible while studying. The small associations we make while learning (or studying) the material can act as cues when we are trying to recall the information later. That’s why my students do better when practicing math with me. We usually practice in the same place, so their minds are associating their work with myself as well as the environment around us. Those minor associations make the recall significantly easier!

Back in high school, I noticed that my calculus skills were much better when I was in my math class but I didn’t know why. Today, my math skills are much better when I’m at a student’s home or in the tutoring center. I’m not as math savvy in my personal life.

“No Stakes” Practice

Every since I was a kid, I’ve always liked the idea of practicing something with no serious consequences. (Probably because life tends to be unwavering about consequences.) The opportunity to be a n00b is powerful because it frees us up. It gives us the freedom to make mistakes, and mistakes light the path to mastery. When we’re free to make mistakes, we’re free to learn. I talk more about this is my The Power of Failure post. Not to brag, but I’m constantly told that I make difficult academic subjects easy not because I explain things well, but because I have a relaxed attitude about it. I was so surprised when I first heard this, but after reflecting on it for a while it made complete sense. Once my students understood that nothing bad really happens if they make mistakes, they are more willing to give things a try. In those attempts, mistakes would inevitably be made but they would learn from every single one.

When we try something new, or if we’re trying to improve a skill, we should allow ourselves “No Stakes” practice. Trial runs with nothing at stake tend to carry high yield lessons. I don’t just try this strategy when I’m studying, although it is fantastic for it, I also use it when I draft blog posts and make music. I give myself a “no stakes” pomodoro, so I have a definite time when I can stop making trash but that time is crucial because I edit that trash into most of the creative projects I put out. I freedom to make mistakes is priceless, don’t underestimate the value of “no stakes” practice.

Categories
Education

The Brain vs. The Mind (Part 1)

“Biology gives you a brain. Life turns it into a mind.”

Jeffrey Eugenides (1960 – )

We use both the brain and the mind to perceive the world around us and decide the best course of action. The brain is an organ and, in some respects, isn’t just in our heads. It’s spread throughout our entire body expressed in our central and peripheral nervous system. The central nervous system is essentially our spinal cord and what we traditionally consider the brain. The peripheral nervous system spreads out to our fingers and toes as our afferent and efferent nerves.

The mind is a completely different story. The mind isn’t tangible but, in some ways, can be more real than our brains. The mind is our cognitive functions which interpret and interact with the world around us. We usually consider our consciousness and thoughts as originating from the mind and because of this we like to think of the mind as “in the brain” but really the mind is an abstract idea. Our minds shape our reality and are responsible for our creativity and imagination.

There are known connections between the brain and the mind, which are easily demonstrated in drug use. But what I’m most interested in learning is how the brain functions physically, learning how the mind functions metaphysically, and maximizing their innate behavior to bring out optimal results.

The Brain

The brain is made up of 100 billion of neurons, nerve cells, that all work together to run our entire body. Neurons communicate with each other by sending neurotransmitters, electrical and chemical signals, through the spaces in between each neuron, synapses. These connections of neurons and synapses creates neurological pathways in our brain. Different neurological pathways do different things and our brain has a unique pathway for every single thing we think and do. Neurological pathways are a bunch of neurons that communicate through electrical impulses. It’s useful to know that these pathways strengthen every time they are fired. This gives the brain a unique ability to change and adapt based on what it thinks it needs to survive, this is known as brain plasticity. The brain is constantly morphing and changing, which is exciting because it shows that it’s never too late to learn anything. Learning doesn’t stop when someone gets older or gets “set in their ways.” Learning only stops when we decide it stops. However, like all organs in the body, the brain is something that requires energy and maintenance to function effectively.

In order to understand how to take care of our brains and use them more effectively, it’s helpful to know a little anatomy. This is not an exhaustive nervous system anatomy section – just some general knowledge and the parts that I’ve found relevant to learning:

3 Major Parts of the Brain

Thanks hopkinsmedicine.org

Cerebrum

This is the part in charge of performing higher order functions like interpreting our senses, developing and deciphering speech, reasoning, emotional regulation, learning, and fine motor skills. This is the youngest part of our nervous system.

Cerebellum 

This part of the brain receives sensory information, coordinates voluntary muscle movements, maintains posture, and regulates balance. This evolved after the brainstem but before the cerebrum.

Brainstem

This is part connects the rest of the brain to the spinal cord. It’s in charge of many automatic functions. This includes but is not limited to respirations, heart rate, temperature, circadian rhythms, digestion, sneezing, and sweating. This is the oldest part of our nervous system.

Left Brain vs. Right Brain

We’ve all heard the common saying – left brain people are more analytical and right brain people are creative. This never really sat well with me because I’ve always felt like I could be a left brain person and a right brain person. I’m logical and extremely analytical but I’m also creative and artistic, where did I fit into this whole left brain right brain debate? Turns out, I didn’t have to pick a side! Everyone uses both hemispheres of their brains all the time. They’re just used for different things.

In Jordan Peterson’s Maps of Meaning lecture series, he outlines (in extensive detail) how human beings interpret the world and derive value structures from that information. In the eighth video of the 2017 series he presents this image and I believe it’s a much better representation of the functions of the left and right hemispheres.

Maps of Meaning – Jordan Peterson (2017)

We use the left hemisphere to operate in places that we understand, it’s the part of the brain that gives us our positive emotion when the world around us aligns with what we expect or want. In the context of learning, our left hemisphere is what we’re using what we already know the answers. When students feel like what they’re working on is easy and within their realm of understanding, then they’re primarily using their left hemisphere.

On the flip side, we use the right hemisphere to operate in unknown territory, it’s the part of the brain that tells us what to do when we don’t know what to do. When it comes to learning, our right hemisphere is what’s going crazy when we’re trying to learn something new. When students feel like what they’re working on is scary, confusing, or too challenging, then they’re primarily using their right hemisphere.

Each hemisphere has a separate consciousness and they don’t communicate with each other as much as we’d think. They are seperated and communicate through the corpus callosum. It’s almost like each hemisphere makes their own interpretation and we just kind of roll with it. We see this in people with prosopagnosia, the loss of the ability of recognize faces.

Take the Weirwood tree from Game of Thrones for example. There’s curves in the tree that indicate facial information but it’s still a tree. One half of the brain interprets the visual stimuli as a face while the other interprets the information as a tree. We use both of these perspectives to understand reality but someone with prosopagnosia would see only the tree.

Ned & Catelyn Stark discussing duty

I believe our two hemisphere brain is an amazing demonstration of intelligent design. It’s extremely useful to have our control center, so to speak, ran by two systems. If one side goes down, then the whole thing doesn’t have to shut down. We see this happen in people who have strokes. If someone experiences a CVA (cerebrovascular accident), a.k.a. a stroke, they may experience some brain damage but because we have two hemispheres, people usually lose function of only one side of their body, rather than their whole body.

The Lobes of the Brain

The Cerebrum can be further divided into four different sections referred to as lobes.

Frontal Lobe

This is what’s in charge of our personalities, behaviors, and emotions. The frontal lobe is responsible for planning, problem solving, and judging and is where the majority of our executive and higher level functioning takes place. Cognitive phenomena such as concentration and self awareness are functions of the frontal lobe which helps makes us smart and also helps us move towards our goals. The Broca’s area, which is in charge of speaking and writing, sits inside the frontal lobe as well as the motor strip for voluntary body movement.

The frontal lobe also contains the prefrontal cortex, which is the part of the brain which is involved with planning complex cognitive behavior, personality expression, decision making, and moderating social behavior. It’s basically the part of the brain that’s physically responsible for our will power and ability to regulate the more animalistic and impulsive parts of ourselves. Someone with a strong prefrontal cortex is more able to do what they tell themselves to do.

Parietal Lobe

The parietal lobe sits on the top part of our brains and is sort of the sensory processing center of the cerebrum. The parietal lobe is in charge of interpreting language as well as tactile, thermal, visual, auditory, and other sensory stimuli. It also manages spatial and visual perception.

Occipital Lobe

The occipital lobe is at the back of our head and is the primary visual processing center. It interprets visual stimuli in three different ways – color, light intensity, and movement.

Temporal Lobe

The temporal lobe is located on the sides of our heads right under our temples – the parts where our skull fuses together. This part of the brain is great for processing auditory stimuli, sequencing, organization, and memory. You can find the Wernicke’s area in the temporal lobes so It also plays a huge role in understanding language too.

Internal Structures

Hypothalamus

This part of the brain runs us like a tyrannical 2 year old. It controls our autonomic systems and is responsible for the 4 f’s: fighting, fleeing, feeding, and fornication. So it plays a role in determining our body temperature, blood pressure, emotions, and sleep. The hypothalamus knows how to motivate us. When it wants something, it makes sure that we only care about that thing. That’s why it’s so difficult for most people to concentrate when they’re hungry – it’s because all we care about is the food! The hypothalamus is like our master orienting system. Whatever the hypothalamus wants, it gets. We can kind of regulate it with the cerebral cortex, but only to an extent. This is fantastic to know because there are learning techniques that take advantage of the hypothalamus’ behavior.

Pituitary Gland

This part of the brain hides in near the base of the skull in a place called the sella turcica. It’s connected to the hypothalamus, so you know it’s got some power. It controls the other endocrine (communication from far away) glands in the other parts of the body through hormone secretion that regulates sexual development, physical growth, and stress response.

Pineal Gland

This little guy is behind the third ventricle and regulates the body’s internal clock. This part of the brain controls the balance between melatonin and serotonin. The pineal gland is crucial to sleep, which is crucial for learning.

Basal Ganglia

Also known as the basal nuclei. This part of the brain works with the cerebellum to coordinate voluntary motor movements. It’s also involved in procedural and habit learning, eye movements, cognition, and emotions. So this is the part of the brain that we develop when we learn how to type, tie our shoes, ride a bike, or play a musical instrument. The basal ganglia recieves the information from the cerebellum to encode different skills, this is what people are referring to when they are talking about muscle memory.

Hippocampus

This is the part of the brain that’s responsible for information consolidation and spatial memory which helps us with navigation. Since I’m most interested about learning, I want to focus on the information consolidation feature of the hippocampus. The hippocampus moves our memories from our short term (working memory) to our long term memory. If someone were to damage their hippocampus they would experience anterograde amnesia, the inability to form new memories. If we think about what learning is, it’s really what the hippocampus is doing. It’s turning information that we know right now into information that we can have access to forever.

Amygdala

This almond-shaped clump of neurons is responsible for processing our emotions. The amygdala is associated with our fear response and pleasure. This is the part of the brain that goes crazy when some of my students see math problems. Understanding our fear and pleasure tendencies is crucial for understanding learning. Fear helps us remember things better and our seemingly endless pursuit of pleasure is a fantastic motivator.

Working Memory vs. Long Term Memory

Working Memory – this memory we use throughout the day is also known as short-term memory. Working memory has a finite limit. Holding things in your working memory increase cognitive load and since cognitive load has a maximum so does working memory. Things stored in working memory are easily forgotten. The prefrontal cortex is responsible for the working memory. It stores information for about one minute and its capacity is limited to about 7 items (plus or minus 2). This is why we’re able to dial a phone number someone just told us. You can see it in reading too! Our working memory memorizes the sentence we just read so that the next one can make sense.

Long Term Memory – this is memory that we use throughout our entire lives. Some items in our working memory are converted to long term memory in the hippocampus through various methods, the most common is sleep. Highly emotionally charged ideas, events, or memories have a fast pass ticket to our long term memory. We have virtually unlimited space and the items stored in long term memory are not easily forgotten.

The goal that we are most interested in, as far as learning is concerned, is moving as much information as possible to our long term memory and be able to retrieve it using as little cognitive load as possible.


Some basic knowledge of the brain can help tremendously when examining methods for learning and improving. Given that the brain is set up for survival in dangerous living conditions, we can develop techniques which take advantage of these mechanisms. If we don’t use something often then our minds tend to forget it because the brain thinks we don’t need that specific neural pathway to survive. Our brains have evolved for a very different environment than we have built for ourselves as modern people. If we use something often, then our brain will strengthen that pathway so it’s easier for us to use later. I talk about this in my other post Neural Pruning vs. Long-Term Potentiation. This is the basis of Active Recall and many of the other scientifically proven study techniques.

Studying the mind in tandem with the brain sets up a fantastic foundation to test out other learning techniques for yourself. The next post will focus more on the mind and how we can use that knowledge to maximize our learning.

Categories
Education Lifestyle

The Power of Failure

“There are two kinds of failure. The first comes from never trying out your ideas because you are afraid, or because you are waiting for the perfect time. This kind of failure you can never learn from, and such timidity will destroy you. The second kind comes from a bold and venturesome spirit. If you fail in this way, the hit that you take to your reputation is greatly outweighed by what you learn. Repeated failure will toughen your spirit and show you with absolute clarity how things must be done.”

Robert Greene (1959 – )

Failing is one of my favorite things to do. My students always think I’m crazy for believing this. I haven’t always had a great relationship with failure and still to this day there are times when I wish she was never around, but failure is our most honest teacher and a natural part of learning.

Somewhere along the way, humans decided that failing is bad and wrong. We teach our youth to avoid failure at all costs, that failure is the antithesis of success, or failure makes you feel terrible and that is why we should avoid it!

All of that is hot garbage.

Failure is honest. Failure is accurate. Failure teaches us lessons that we are less likely to forget. Failure is power.

When my students attempt active recall questions, I’ve noticed an interesting phenomena – when they miss things they are less likely to miss a similar type of question later. I’ve even found this true for myself too. When I was studying for the MCAT, I would do practice questions with multiple parts. I had an easier time remembering the parts I got wrong and the parts I initially got right, I ended up getting wrong later! It’s almost like I needed to fail to remember.

I’ve read somewhere (I’ve spent days trying to find the source but alas, I failed) that people are 7 times more sensitive to negative stimuli than positive stimuli. Which makes sense because we tend to remember our critiques more than our praises. But that had me thinking-

Why are we more sensitive to negativity than positivity?

I believe it’s an evolutionary process. We are walking through unknown territory and we experience something negative, we learn quickly to adapt and survive. Whereas, if we experience something positive, the stakes aren’t as high so we don’t learn as fast.

Failure feelings like a threat. Like a real threat. To our brains, failing our self administered tasks is like having our hand touch a hot stove. We learn quickly not to do that thing anymore.

“Failure had better be an option, because whether or not you consider it an option, it’s going to happen! If you go through life with the philosophy that “failure is not an option,” then you’ll never have any good opportunities to learn.”

Jeff Olson (1958 – )

When we fail at something, the probability that we will fail in the same way is pretty small. So in a sense, everytime we fail we get better. We learn what not to do, which is a lot more useful than we like to acknowledge.

What excellent feat has occurred without failure? When we watch professionals play sports or politicians give speeches, we don’t see the hours of failure that have happened in the background. Just because we see the shiny finished product, doesn’t mean that they were always that way. In fact, if you ask them, I’m sure every single successful person will tell you that they have failed more times than they succeeded.

The Unveiling

“Mistakes and failures are precisely your means of education. They tell you about your own inadequacies. It is hard to find out such things from people, as they are often political with their praise and criticisms. Your failures also permit you to see the flaws of your ideas, which are only revealed in the execution of them.”

Robert Greene (1959 – )

I believe desirable progress is based off two things:

  1. Identifying what needs to improve.
  2. Acquiring the skills or knowledge required to improve.

Failing reveals to us exactly what needs to get better. The rest is education and deliberate practice. Failing is half the battle. Whenever we’re learning something new, we fail in all sorts of ways, but how we fail is an insight into how we succeed. It’s like trying to complete a maze; it’s not very likely that we are going to get to the exit without hitting a dead end. Once we hit the dead end, we try a different route, and if we hit another dead end we try another route until we reach the exit. We cannot discover what to do without discovering what not to do.

“Would you like me to give you the formula for success? It’s quite simple, really. Double your rate of failure.… You’re thinking of failure as the enemy of success. But it isn’t at all. You can be discouraged by failure—or you can learn from it. So go ahead and make mistakes. Make all you can. Because, remember that’s where you’ll find success. On the other side of failure.”

Thomas Watson (1874 – 1956)

In order to accept failure gracefully and learn as much as we can, we must detach our identities from our successes or failures. When we fail, we are not failures, we simply did not take the actions necessary for the desired outcome to manifest. By the same token, when we succeed, we are not successes, we simply took the actions necessary for the desired outcomes to come into being. Failure and success is simply the difference between executing necessary actions and not executing necessary actions.

Our failures are stepping stones to mastery and temporary defeats.

“Every adversity, every failure, every heartache carries with it the seed of an equal or greater benefit.”

Napoleon Hill (1883 – 1970)

Defeat is not realized until we stop getting up. We decide when we are defeated, no one else does. Whenever I’ve failed in the past, I can always find an exact moment when I admitted defeat. There is always a singular moment in time when I decide that I had enough of whatever challenge is in front of me. When I admit defeat, I stop learning because I stop finding my inadequacies. Failure is what shines the light on what needs to be improved.

Circumambulation

“I began to understand that the goal of psychic development is the self. There is no linear evolution; there is only a circumambulation of the self. Uniform development exists, at most, at the beginning; later, everything points toward the centre. This insight gave me stability, and gradually my inner peace returned.”

Carl Jung (1875 – 1961)

Circumambulation – the act of moving around an idol – in this case the idol is our maximally developed selves, also known as the Jungian conception of the self. The Self is different for each person, which makes sense to me because no one has the same genetic make up. It’s almost like The Self is a metaphysical representation of our biological dispositions.

I find the idea of circumambulation to be pivotal in understanding the power of failure. Circumambulation of the self is the idea that all of the smaller skills we develop ourselves in is actually apart of a bigger, centrifugal development. Each of these skills is obtained by traveling, so to speak, to all of the far corners of our minds. The Self is our maximally developed selves potentialized in the future and circumambulation is our journey of manifesting this self into actuality.

It’s kind of like this – we develop a bunch of smaller skills, and at first this feels like a linear progression, but as we go through life we start to see the skills pointing towards an ideal.

Circumambulation of The Self – Christopher S. Mukiibi (2019)

Learning about circumambulation freed me up in so many different ways because I was worried that I had too many different interests and developing myself in too many different things will prevent me from manifesting my Jungian Self. The best example of this was when I was repressing my love for music because I felt like it didn’t fit with the skills I needed for medicine. Now that I see it is the culmination of all of these skills that will bring about my best self, I feel free to pursue all of my interests wholeheartedly.

Jordan Peterson beautifully outlines the circumambulation of the self and how it relates to failure in the video below.

Jordan Peterson always says the fool is the precursor to the hero and I believe that makes a lot of sense because the one who is willing to make mistakes ends up learning the most, and learning is what’s necessary to save everyone from the malevolent forces of chaos. We see it all the time in movies. The main character is usually seriously flawed but grows over time and that’s where the richness of the story lies. Ash is the worst Pokemon training of all time, but that’s what gives the story room to breathe. The same case is true with us – we are flawed beings, but our admission of our flaws and the strive to improve these imperfections is what embodies our life with meaning.

Robert Greene also references circumambulation in his book, Mastery, but not explicitly. Robert talks about all children having inclinations. These inclinations are strong unexplainable interests that a child develops early on in life. As they get older, they tend to ignore these inclinations and pretend like they aren’t important. Greene suggests adults to do deep reflection to revivify that lost child within them and lean into their inclinations for that is where people will find the skills necessary to be their best. I believe the skills we need to manifest the Jungian Self are found in developing our inclinations.

When we try something new, we are usually very bad at it, but over time we get better. At first it may seem like these things are disconnected by as long as we are developing our inclinations (as defined by Greene) then we will see that all of our development aims towards a central ideal.

Course Correction

“Knock me down nine times but I get up ten, bitch.”

Cardi B (1992 – )

As mentioned earlier, we are only defeated once we stay down but sometimes our failures may throw us off course. Sometimes when we’re knocked down, it takes some time to reorient ourselves again. When we fail, we have to take stock of where we are in relation to our goals. We can’t simply get back up and start moving again. We want to get back up, get back on the right path, then start moving again. We have to consider course correction when we fail. We did not succeed for a reason and it’s important to figure out why and how we move forward without experiencing that specific failure again.

The power of course correction is really laid out in the Apollo mission to the moon-

“On its way to landing astronauts safely on the surface of the moon, the miracle of modern engineering that was an Apollo rocket was actually on course only 2 to 3 percent of the time. Which means that for at least 97 percent of the time it took to get from the Earth to the moon, it was off course. In a journey of nearly a quarter of a million miles, the vehicle was actually on track for only 7,500 miles. Or to put it another way, for every half-hour the ship was in flight, it was on course for less than one minute. And it reached the moon—safely—and returned to tell the tale.”

Jeff Olson (1958 – )

Most of the time the rocket was off course, but that didn’t matter because they still made it to their destination with continuous course correction. It doesn’t matter how often we fail, as long as we are constantly trying to get back on track. The astronauts on the Apollo rocket didn’t think “Oh no we’re off course now! It’s too late! It’s all screwed up! I can’t believe we let this get off course! Let’s just quit!” They simply acknowledged the failure and readjusted their actions accordingly and by doing that enough, they ended up on the moon!

We can see the same thing happen with sports too! Kobe Bryant had a terrible first season of basketball. When he first started, Kobe was horrendous but after he failed he took a step back and figured out exactly what he needed to work on to get his game better. He course corrected and developed The Mamba Mentality, which I think is one of the most powerful perspectives to take on.

Failure doesn’t have to be something that we desperately try to avoid. It teaches us what we need to improve and offers us opportunity to grow. Coupled with ideas like the Circumambulation of the Self and Course Correction, failure can be seen as an exciting phenomena of life. Many of my students think I’m insane for loving failure, but am I really?