The most important meta-skill

post by Nanashi · 2015-05-27T15:51:02.150Z · score: 9 (10 votes) · LW · GW · Legacy · 70 comments

Note: This article underwent a significant revision on 5/28/2015. Thank you to estimator for all your feedback.

The most important meta-skill that anyone can learn is how to learn skills. With practice, you learn how to pick up new skills as they are needed, which is infinitely (quite literally) more efficient than trying to learn each skill individually in advance.

There are two basic premises that this method relies on:

  1. A skill can be eventually be broken down into a series of trivial sub-skills.

  2. The skill and its sub-skills follows a Pareto distribution.

The Pareto principle states that typically, 80% of a system's effects can be linked to 20% of their causes. Or in this case, learning 20% of the trivial sub-skills will make you 80% proficient at the overall skill. Empirically, many systems, both artificial and natural have been proven to follow this distribution, and skills are no exception. This guide is intended to teach you how to identify that 20%.

What lies below this is almost 1,000 words to describe something that's ultimately about condensing things and taking shortcuts. So, to be true to this attitude, I'll start with the "20% version", and those so inclined can continue to read the other 80%.



  1. Break the skill you want to learn into several sub-skills.

  2. For each sub-skill, ask "Is this trivial?" If so, add that to your "trivial list". If not, repeat steps 1-2 for each sub-skill. Continue to iterate until all you have left is a list of trivial sub-skills.

  3. For each trivial sub-skill, ask, "How can this go wrong, and what can I do if it does?" Add this to your list of back-up plans, unless it is redundant.

  4. Sort your list of sub-skills by how easy they will be to learn, then start learning and practicing them. Any time something goes wrong or you encounter a situation you did not account for, use one of your back-up plans.

  5. Repeat steps 1-4 for any sub-skills you encounter that you did not account for.  


So, that was the short version. If you find you need more context, here goes. Note that the first premise uses the word "trivial", which then begs the question: "What makes a sub-skill trivial?" A convenient answer to that is: "If you personally feel sufficiently confident that you can do it." Or, in other words, "Can you look up how to do it on the internet?" Which means, if the problem itself is trivial, you don't need to bother with this. Just look up a guide online.

Most skills are too complicated for someone to sit down and analyze every possible sub-skill needed to accomplish it. Fortunately, you don't have to. Your goal isn't to learn all the sub-skills, its to learn the important 20%. The overall efficiency of a sub-skill is a function of two things: how how integral it is to the overall skill, and how easy it is to learn. You're going to let System 1 do most of the heavy lifting here.

Fortunately, our brains are pretty good at pattern-matching. Goals are high-level concepts whose meanings are derived from the combination of several patterns and archetypes that you've got stored away somewhere. When you say, "I want to learn a foreign language", your brain immediately starts filling in the patterns of what exactly that means. It starts identifying the things that are integral to your idea of the concept.  Then it combines them into one coherent concept, and that's what you're left with. The trouble is, most people don't preserve these individual patterns before combining them, and thus they're left with something that's purely conceptual, rather than actionable. "I want to learn a foreign language" or "I want to learn to code" or "I want to learn social skills".


So just let your brain go to work doing what it already does, but pay attention during the process and identify the key components before they get mushed into a concept. Make System 1 tell you "You want to be able to converse, interact, and function in a society that speaks a different language," instead of just, "You want to learn a foreign language." Remember that you don't need to identify all the components. Just the ones that are important enough for System 1 to dredge up on a moment's notice. Most likely, these will be the 20% that you're looking for. Of course, chances are the initial output is going to be a high level concept unto itself. There's no "to-do list" for "being able to converse in a society that speaks a different language". So you put System 1 to work again. What exactly do I mean by that? "Oh, what you mean is: you want to be able to ask and understand both questions and answers, and be able to express your thoughts."

Eventually you'll reach the point of triviality. You'll have a sizable list of trivial tasks such as "You want to be able to say the following twenty basic sentences: XYZ", and "You want to know the following 100 basic vocabulary words: ABC." and "You want to be able to identify the most common articles, prepositions and conjunctions." Here's where System 2 goes to work: you look at this big list and ask yourself, which of these would be easiest for me to accomplish? And then you sort the list accordingly.

Voila. There's your roadmap.

Now, all of this is fine and good, but at some point you will encounter a situation that doesn't fall under this convenient little roadmap you've followed. So you want to make a backup plan. System 2 needs to look over your roadmap and ask: "How can this go wrong, and what can I do if it does?" If you do this for each item on your list, chances are there will be a lot of duplicates and redundancies, which you can pare down. When all is said and done, you'll have a few plans of action in case things go wrong.

So, you have a roadmap to guide you through the 20%, and a generalized plan for the other 80%. What now?

Well, there's always room for improvement. If you do things right, you'll be pretty well immersed in the nitty-gritty of whatever skill you are trying to learn, which means you will be getting loads of first-hand experience as to all the different ways things can go wrong which you probably never could have anticipated. And you'll run in to scenarios that make you say, "I can't believe I didn't think about that."

Fortunately you don't need to get things perfect on the first try. If you encounter a situation you didn't account for it, then account for it. Ask yourself what happened, and let System 1 go to work on breaking it down. If something goes wrong in a way you hadn't thought about, come up with a separate plan for that. Eventually your model will become more and more robust as you start to learn many of the fundamentals that you probably skipped over when you made your roadmap.

There seem to be two different types of learning styles, the "academic" way of starting with the fundamentals and building from the ground up, and the "immersion" method of just throwing someone into the deep end of the pool and working from the top-down. This method combines both: you learn the fundamentals of the things that are necessary to immerse yourself. Instead of being "top-down" or "bottom-up", this is more like, "start at the bottom, skip to the top, then work your way back down through the middle."


Comments sorted by top scores.

comment by estimator · 2015-05-27T17:33:07.160Z · score: 8 (10 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

I think that all self-help / "learning to learn" / etc. articles should contain a short summary telling us some reasons to actually believe anything written below. Like references to relevant research, or author's real life achievements, or something. Generally, one shouldn't rely on personal anecdotes; but for self-help, even having a single data point is often too high a standard.

In your article, I couldn't find a single bit of evidence in support of your claims.

comment by Nanashi · 2015-05-27T17:37:09.867Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Sure, I could, but would that make you any more likely to accept it? Generally I've found that the more someone expounds on their own credentials, the less credible (and likable) they sound.

If my own personal achievements would genuinely make a difference to you personally, then I'd be glad to tell you them. If not, then I don't quite see the point.

comment by estimator · 2015-05-27T18:11:06.771Z · score: 8 (8 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Articles on such topics are notorious for their average bad quality. Reformulating in Bayesian terms, the prior probability of your statements being true is low, so you should provide some proofs or evidence -- or why I (or anyone) should believe you? Have you actually checked if it works? Have you actually checked if it works for somebody else?

I don't think that personal achievements are a bullet-proof argumentation for such an advice. Still, when I read something like this, I'm pretty sure that it contains valuable information, although it is probably a mistake to follow such advice verbatim anyway. So, if you have Hamming-level credentials, it will help.

As for your article, probably the only way to fix it is to add proofs to your statements. What evidence supports them? Is there any psychological research to back up your claims? Why do you think it is optimal (or near-optimal) way to learn skills?

This is a good self-help article. Can you see the reference list? :)

comment by Nanashi · 2015-05-27T18:36:07.834Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Articles on such topics are notorious for their average bad quality.

That's interesting, I wasn't aware of that reputation. That's good to know and certainly justifies your skepticism.

All that said, I think one can still evaluate your point (and in my case, my Less Wrong post) based on its internal logic and how consistent it is with one's own observations, without needing research to back it up. It would be easy enough to dismiss your own post for the very reasons you cited. Consider the following:

"In general, people new to a community are notoriously bad at gauging the pulse of said community. To reformulate in Bayesian terms, based on the length of time you've been posting here, the prior probability of your statement being true is low, so shouldn't you provide some proofs or evidence -- or why should I (or anyone) believe you?"

But to me, your logic checks out, and is fairly consistent with my own observations (that most self-help publications tend to be garbage), so that shifts the probabilities significantly in your favor. I'm hoping that people will evaluate my own post by similar criteria, rather than immediately dismissing it.

comment by estimator · 2015-05-27T20:14:48.375Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

I've started commenting here recently, but I'm a long time lurker (>1 year). Also, I was speaking about self-help articles in general, not conditional on whether they are posted on LW -- it makes sense, because pretty much anyone can post on LW.

Now I found a somewhat less extreme example of what I think is an OK post on self-help although it doesn't have scientific references, because a) the author told us what actual results he achieved and, more importantly, b) the author explained why he thinks that the advice works in the first place.

Personally, I don't find your post consistent with my observations, but it's not my main objection -- my main objection is that throwing an instruction without any justification is a bad practice, especially on such a controversial topic, especially in a rationalist community.

comment by Nanashi · 2015-05-27T20:48:48.733Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

That's totally fine, like I said, your post made sense and was consistent with what I've seen.

I still don't really think that stating my qualifications would do much. In this context, it still just seems too much like bragging. "I helped build a multi-million dollar company, I compete in barbecue competitions and consistently place in the top 10% of the field and was sponsored by a major barbecue website, was ranked in the top 100 players in the world for a popular collectible card game, learned how to code with no formal education (and used that knowledge wrote a somewhat well-received calibration test, and also write a bunch of boring business platforms), wrote an article about a baseball statistic I co-developed and was published in a publication that's important for people who care about baseball stats, learned how to be a carpenter, at one point was a licensed pharmacy technician, blah blah blah"

Even though I'm sure there's a less crass way to phrase it, to me it still sounds exceedingly arrogant. I might be overreacting though. You tell me: if I prefaced my post with that, would you be more or less inclined to take me seriously?

I do like the idea of explaining why I think the advice works in the first place. I will start writing something up about that and append it to the original post.

comment by Lumifer · 2015-05-27T20:52:06.393Z · score: 5 (5 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

I do like the idea of explaining why I think the advice works in the first place.

If I may suggest spending some space on explaining why do you think your experience generalizes -- that is, why do you think that your methods will work for people who are not you.

comment by Nanashi · 2015-05-27T21:19:10.509Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

I took your advice as well as estimator's into account and added two paragraphs at the beginning to offer 1. Some research showing that many systems follow a distribution where a small portion of work accounts for a large portion of results, and 2. and explanation as to why it's generalizable.

comment by estimator · 2015-05-27T23:06:27.261Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Also, I'd like to compare your system against common sense reasoning baseline. What do you think are the main differences between your approach and usual approaches to skill learning? What will be the difference in actions?

I'm asking that because that your guide contains quite long a list of recommendations/actions, while many of them are used (probably intuitively/implicitly) by almost any sensible person. Also, some of the recommendations clearly have more impact than others. So, what happens if we apply the Pareto principle to your learning system? Which 20% are the most important? What is at the core of your approach?

comment by Nanashi · 2015-05-28T14:21:27.165Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

As I mentioned in another comment, the difference between this and the "common sense" approach is in what this system does not do.

As for what the 20% of this system that gives you the most bang for your buck? That's a good question. Right now my "safe" answer is that it's dependent on the type of skill you're trying to learn. The trouble is that the common threads among all the skills ("Find the 20% of the skill that yields 80% of the results") doesn't have a lot of practical value. Like telling someone that all they need to do to lose weight is eat less and exercise more.

Let me think about it some more and I'll get back to you.

comment by Nanashi · 2015-05-28T14:55:28.592Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

So, after some cursory thought, naturally the part of the system that gives you the most bang for your buck are the first 4 steps. The last 3 steps are designed to help you improve, which is a much slower process than just learning the basics.

So, now to figure out how to recursively apply the the skill of learning a skill quickly to the skill "learning skills quickly".

comment by Nanashi · 2015-05-28T17:49:08.288Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Okay, so I made a significant revision of the post. The original ideas are all there, just written in a much less obtuse manner.

  • A much more logical argument is presented at the beginning, along with constraints.
  • "Archetypes" and "Processes" have been replaced by sub-skills and trivial sub-skills.
  • The lengthy discourse on strategy has been replaced by simply sorting your list of trivial sub-skills, which accomplishes the same effect.
  • The "improvement" has been streamlined greatly.
  • Meta-analysis has been removed because it's really a separate subject.
comment by btrettel · 2015-05-29T15:26:54.519Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

One piece of information you can use to determine what is most important is the number of other skills which require a certain skill as a prerequisite. Prerequisites should obviously be learned first, and it makes sense to learn them in order of how many doors they open. This is how I prioritize at the moment if I'm not considering subjective measures of "usefulness".

For my learning goals, I've started making concept maps, partly as it helps me understand a subject by understanding how concepts are related, and partly to identify what to learn next as described above. It becomes fairly obvious that I should learn X if I want to learn Y and Z and X is a prerequisite for both.

comment by estimator · 2015-05-29T18:18:15.982Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

In my experience, in math/science prerequisites often can (and should) be ignored, and learned as you actually need them. People who thoroughly follow all the prerequisites often end up bogged down in numerous science fields which have actually weak connection to what they wanted to learn initially, and then get demotivated and drop out of their endeavor. This is a common failure mode.

Like, you need probability theory to do machine learning, but some you are unlikely to encounter some parts of it, and also there are parts of ML which require very little of it. It totally makes sense to start with them.

comment by btrettel · 2015-05-29T20:34:22.293Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

I'm thinking more specifically than you are. Rather than learning probability theory to understand ML, learn only what you determine to be necessary for what ML applications you are interested in. The concept maps I use are very specific, and they avoid the weak connection problem you mention. (It's worth noting that I develop these as an autodidact, so I don't have to take an entire class to just get a few facts I'm interested in.)

comment by Nanashi · 2015-05-29T20:40:18.857Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

It sounds like both you and estimator are actually both on the same page: estimator seems to be talking about the "prerequisite" in the sense of, "systematic prerequisite", as in, people say that you should learn X before you learn Y. You seem to be talking about "prerequisite" in the sense that, "skill X is a necessary component of skill Y"

Both of you, however, seem to agree that you should ignore the stuff that is irrelevant to what you are actually trying to accomplish.

comment by btrettel · 2015-05-29T23:36:17.472Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

This is a good way to put it. I may not have been clear.

To use an example, I have a concept map about fluid dynamics that I used in a class I took on turbulence recently. There were a few concepts that I did not understand well at some point, and I wanted to figure out which ones. To be more specific, isotropic tensors are often used in turbulence theory and modeling, but I didn't really understand how to construct isotropic tensors algebraically. It became pretty clear this was something I should learn given the number of links isotropic tensors had to other concepts.

comment by Nornagest · 2015-05-29T19:29:27.389Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

On the other hand, if you don't have a solid grasp of linear algebra, your ability to do most types of machine learning is seriously impaired. You can learn techniques like e.g. matrix inversions as needed to implement the algorithms you're learning, but if you don't understand how those techniques work in their original context, they become very hard to debug or optimize. Similarly for e.g. cryptography and basic information theory.

That's probably more the exception than the rule, though; I sense that the point of most prerequisites in a traditional science curriculum is less to provide skills to build on and more to build habits of rigorous thinking.

comment by estimator · 2015-05-29T20:57:28.324Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Read what is a matrix, how to add, multiply and invert them, what is a determinant and what is an eigenvector and that's enough to get you started. There are many algorithms in ML where vectors/matrices are used mostly as a handy notation.

Yes, you will be unable to understand some parts of ML which substantially require linear algebra; yes, understanding ML without linear algebra is harder; yes, you need linear algebra for almost any kind of serious ML research -- but it doesn't mean that you have to spend a few years studying arcane math before you can open a ML textbook.

comment by Nornagest · 2015-05-29T21:06:21.962Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Who said anything about a few years? If you paid attention in high school, the linear algebra background you need is at most a few months' worth of work. I was providing a single counterexample, not saying that the full prerequisite list (which, if memory serves, is most of a CS curriculum for your average ML class) is always necessary.

comment by Lumifer · 2015-05-29T19:42:21.778Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

if you don't have a solid grasp of linear algebra, your ability to do most types of machine learning is seriously impaired

That depends on whether you're doing research or purely applied stuff. For applied use, domain expertise trumps knowing the internal details of the algorithms which you usually just call as pre-build functions -- as long as you understand what do they do and where the limits (and the traps) are.

Not many people can invert matrices by hand any more and that's not a problem for a higher-level understanding of linear algebra. Similarly, you don't necessarily need to understand, say, how singular value decomposition works in order to do successful higher-level modeling of some domain.

comment by Nornagest · 2015-05-29T19:54:05.685Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

I wasn't pointing strictly to research, but I was pointing to low-level implementation. It now occurs to me that I might be unusual in this respect -- much of my ML experience is in the context of a rather weird environment that didn't have any existing libraries, leaving me to cut a lot of code myself.

So I might have to back off from "ability to do machine learning". You can, in retrospect, use ML perfectly competently in a lot of settings even if the closest you've ever gotten to a simulated annealing algorithm is plugging the cost function into a Python library; but I have a hard time calling someone an expert if they've never written anything lower-level, just as I'd expect a competent software engineer to be able to write a hash table by hand even if every environment they're likely to encounter will have built-in implementations or at least efficient libraries for it.

comment by Lumifer · 2015-05-29T20:13:53.139Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

just as I'd expect a competent software engineer to be able to write a hash table by hand even if every environment they're likely to encounter will have built-in implementations or at least efficient libraries for it.

I have a feeling that's a bit of a relic.

Long time ago programming environments were primitive and Real Men wrote their own sorts and hash tables (there is a canonical story from even more Ancient Times). But times have changed. I can't imagine a serious situation (as opposed to e.g. a programming contest) where I would have to write my own sort routine from scratch -- similarly to how I can't imagine needing to construct a washing machine out of a tub, an electric motor, pulleys, and belts.

I certainly still care about performance properties of various sorts, but I don't care about their internal details as long as the performance properties hold. I suspect that the interview questions of the "implement a bubble sort on this piece of paper" variety if anything aim more at "have you been paying attention during your CS classes" and less at "do you have a deep understanding of what your program is doing".

The capacity of human minds is limited and I'll accept climbing up higher in abstraction levels at the price of forgetting how the lower-level gears turn.

comment by Nornagest · 2015-05-29T21:01:29.777Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

I can't imagine a serious situation (as opposed to e.g. a programming contest) where I would have to write my own sort routine from scratch

You can't? I've had to do that several times. The usual scenario is that there are search/sort routines, but they have inconvenient properties -- either they don't perform well in the specific problem domain I'm dealing with (happens a lot in simulation; functions for efficiently doing certain types of categorization on spatially arranged data are rare outside graphics libraries), or they don't work on the data types I need and a reduction is impractical for one reason or another, or they exist but can't be used for legal reasons. Unless you always situate yourself in the most popular subfields, which I frankly find boring, you can't always count on there being a library that does exactly what you want -- all the more so in a still-emerging space like ML.

(I've never had to build a washing machine, incidentally, but I've had to fix washing machines -- twice this year for two different machines, in fact. I could have hired a mechanic or bought a new machine, but either one would have cost me hundreds of dollars.)

comment by Lumifer · 2015-06-01T15:25:52.178Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

You can't? I've had to do that several times.

Well, I was talking about standard sort routines -- the ones where you have a vector of values and a comparator function. Now, search is quite a different beast altogether.

The thing is, most sorting is brute-force where you just sort without taking into account the specific structure of your data. That approach works well with sorting -- but it doesn't work well with search. The obvious problem is that we are interested in searching very large search spaces where brute force is nowhere close to practical. The salvation comes from the particular structure of the space which allows us to be much more efficient that brute-force, but the same structure forces us into custom solutions.

Because the structures of search spaces can be very different, there is a LOT of search algorithms and frequently enough you have to make bespoke versions of them to fit your particular problem. That's entirely normal. Plus, of course, optimization is a subtype of search and customizing optimizers is also quite common.

but I've had to fix washing machines

Sure, so have I. In fact, I probably would be able to construct a washing machine out of a tub, an electric motor, and some parts. It will take a lot of time and will look ugly, but I think it'll work. That doesn't mean I'll feel a need to do this :-)

comment by Nanashi · 2015-05-29T20:44:07.496Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Yes, this this this this this this this. "The capacity of human minds is limited and I'll accept climbing up higher in abstraction levels at the price of forgetting how the lower-level gears turn." If I could upvote this multiple times, I would.

This is the crux of this entire approach. Learn the higher level, applied abstractions. And learn the very basic fundamentals. Forget learning how the lower-level gears turn: just learn the fundamental laws of physics. If you ever need to figure out a lower-level gear, you can just derive it from your knowledge of the fundamentals, combined with your big-picture knowledge of how that gear fits into the overall system.

comment by estimator · 2015-05-29T21:09:57.728Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

That only works if there are few levels of abstraction; I doubt that you can derive how do programs work at the machine codes level based of your knowledge of physics and high-level programming. Sometimes, gears are so small that you can't even see them on your top level big picture, and sometimes just climbing up one level of abstraction takes enormous effort if you don't know in advance how to do it.

I think that you should understand, at least once, how the system works on each level and refresh/deepen that knowledge when you need it.

comment by Nanashi · 2015-05-29T21:35:52.650Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

The definition of "fundamentals" differs though, depending on how abstract you get. The more layers of abstraction, the more abstract the fundamentals. If my goal is high-level programming, I don't need to know how to write code on bare metal.

That's why I advocate breaking things down until you reach the level of triviality for you personally. Most people will find, "writing a for-loop" to be trivial, without having to go farther down the rabbit hole. At a certain point, breaking things down too far actually makes things less trivial.

comment by [deleted] · 2015-05-29T18:26:25.476Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Can I give a counterexample? I think that way of learning things might help if you only need to apply the higher-level skills as you learned them, but if you need to develop or research those fields yourself, I've found you really do need the background.

As in, I have been bitten on the ass by my own choice not to double-major in mathematics in undergrad, thus resulting in my having to start climbing the towers of continuous probability and statistics/ML, abstract algebra, logic, real analysis, category theory, and topology in and after my MSc.

comment by Nanashi · 2015-05-29T20:08:40.906Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

There's a big difference between the fundamentals, and the low-level practical applications. I think the latter is what estimator is referring to. You can't really make a breakthrough or do real research without a firm grasp of the fundamentals. But you definitely can make a breakthrough in, say, physics, without knowing the exact tensile strength of wood vs. steel. And yet, that type of "Applied Physics" was a pre-requisite at my school for the more advanced fields of physics that I was actually interested in.

comment by [deleted] · 2015-05-30T00:40:50.518Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

And yet, that type of "Applied Physics" was a pre-requisite at my school for the more advanced fields of physics that I was actually interested in.

Oh. Really? Dang.

comment by estimator · 2015-05-29T18:45:08.130Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

You're right; you have to learn solid background for research. But still, it often makes sense to learn in the reversed order.

comment by estimator · 2015-05-27T21:56:17.219Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Nice, but beware reasoning after you've written the bottom line.

As for the actual content, I basically fail to see its area of applicability. For sufficiently complex skills, like say, math, languages or football decision-trees & howto-guides approach will likely fail as too shallow; for isolated skills like changing a tire complex learning approaches are an overkill -- just google it and follow the instructions. Can you elaborate languages example further? Because, you know, learning a bunch of phrases from phrasebook to be able to say a few words in a foreign country is a non-issue. Actually learning language is. How would you apply your system to achieve intermediate-level language knowledge? Any other non-trivial skills learning example would also suffice. What skills have you trained by using your learning system, and how?

comment by Nanashi · 2015-05-27T22:29:10.101Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Also, when you say "intermediate level language knowledge", what exactly do you mean? One of the key steps is defining exactly what you want to accomplish and why. I don't want to create a whole write-up, only to realize that you and I have two different definitions of "intermediate level language knowledge".

So if you'd tell me the "what" and the "why", I'll do the rest.

comment by estimator · 2015-05-27T22:47:58.466Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

I meant something like this.

... take part in routine conversations; write & understand simple written text; make notes & understand most of the general meaning of lectures, meetings, TV programmes and extract basic information from a written document.

comment by Nanashi · 2015-05-27T23:27:19.946Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

I'll give a more in depth breakdown soon but for now, I'd probably take a similar approach that I took to learning to read Japanese : learn basic sentence structure, learn top 150ish vocabulary words, avoid books written in non-romaji. Practice hearing spoken word by listening to speeches and following their transcriptions. My exception protocol for unrecognized words was to look them up. And for irregular sentence structure, to guess based on context. It worked for watching movies and reading, mostly but as you can tell, yoi kakikomu koto ga dekimasen*. I'd have to do some thinking on the writing part, it would most likely involve sticking to simple sentences.

*thats terrible Japanese for "I cannot write well". I think. I hope.

comment by estimator · 2015-05-27T23:50:45.068Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

But these are the things pretty much everybody does while learning languages.

comment by Nanashi · 2015-05-28T12:40:55.153Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Well of course they do. Because these things are necessary to learning a language. This is the 20% that's most efficient. By definition someone who puts in 100% of the effort will be doing what I did.

The efficiency of this approach revolves around what you don't do. You're excising the 80%. I didn't spend long hours learning katakana, hiragana and kanji. I didn't learn the more complex tenses and conjugations. I didn't spend time on vocabulary words that are highly situational. Contrast this to a typical Japanese textbook.

comment by [deleted] · 2015-05-28T11:02:02.486Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

There seem to be two major approaches to learning language.

One is to go a language school / course where the teachers, in my experience, teach it like an academic discipline + the usual guess-my-password bullshit, so you get tested and graded on things like grammar, like a test where you need to fill in conjugations / declinations into holes in a text. (Obviously I am talking about languages that have those kinds of things, like Germanic or Romance ones). Case in point: part of my B2 level German exam at the University of Vienna was exactly that kind of hole-filling and it felt really wrong as it has not much to do with commuication, it is a more academic approach.

The other approach is to do something like this for a while, but when you get to that basic point where you can say "Jack would have ordered a beer yesterday if he had money on him" ditch it and pretty much learn from immersion. Screw grammar, just read a lot of books, figure out words from the context, and conduct imaginary or real conversations no matter how bad the grammar is. Real people prefer to communicate with people who talk fast, not correct. Talking with someone saying at a normal speed who is talking like "me no want buy house, me want rent house now" is far better than someone who is like "I no... (long pause) do not? want ... (long pause) want to? buy a house, rather... (long pause)... instead? I want to rent it... (long pause) rent one". I used to be that second guy in 2 languages and it sucked.

(Now of course you may think "but everybody knows immersion is better it is not even new" yeah apparently that everybody does not include the huge European language school chains like Berlitz and their who knows how many students... )

comment by Nanashi · 2015-05-27T22:26:49.207Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Basketball is an example. I'm about to head home so I'll do the ultra-abbreviated TL;DR version:

  1. Goals: Score points, prevent opponent from scoring points.
  2. Archetypes: Offense (2-point), Offense (3-point), Defense
  3. Process How-To: Googled "how to layup", "how to shoot a 3-pointer", and "how to steal a ball" 3a. Process Failure Points: Missing a shot, getting the ball stolen, missing a pass. 3b. Process Difficulties: Anything involving ball handling or dribbling. Defense.
  4. Exception Protocol: On offense: Pass the ball to a better player than myself, or set a pick. On defense: play very close to my opponent. 5a. Avoid anything involving dribbling but not scoring. 5b. Prepare and practice two-point shots. 5c. Focus on getting open for a 3-point shot. Practice consistently shooting from 3-point line.
  5. Get better by playing.

I would say basketball is fairly complex. One thing I didn't mention in the original post (mainly because it starts to get into the "how do individual people learn") but for me, I don't get good at a competitive skill by competing against people who also suck. By getting good enough to be able to play with people who are actually good, it made it easier for me to learn the advanced part of the game faster.

Also, this post has a list of (at least what I think to be) fairly non-trivial skills that I have trained using this method.

comment by [deleted] · 2015-05-29T11:57:29.176Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Generally I've found that the more someone expounds on their own credentials, the less credible (and likable) they sound.

This is true, particularly because people are different, so if you tell us a lot about yourself, you're telling us comparatively little that applies to, well, us. That's why we often want some kind of organized, even if informal, study on a group of people, particularly a group in it with enough variation that personal uniqueness washes out.

comment by Jiro · 2015-05-27T17:57:55.608Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Personal achievements are pretty bad as evidence. But they can still be better than no evidence.

(And personal achievements aren't all he asked for. I don't think references to relevant research would have the same problem as personal achievements here.)

comment by Nanashi · 2015-05-27T18:02:24.403Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

I agree that in some cases, it's better than nothing to include personal achievements (as I did when I was discussing socializing in another thread). I just don't really think that's the case here. I'll say the same thing that I said to estimator: if you genuinely think that my personal achievements would make a difference to you, I'll be glad to tell you.

As for relevant research, well, (and I might be wrong on this) I thought one of the purposes of LW was to produce original content. Again, I might be misinterpreting things here. But if there was research that said, "Such-and-such approach to skill-learning works well", why not just link to that instead of trying to paraphrase it?

comment by Nanashi · 2015-05-27T16:21:35.915Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Here's an example of this process applied to learning a foreign language:

Define the goal: I want to be able to a. interact and b. converse and c. function in a society that speaks a different language.

Archetypes: Most of the time I spend talking with others in person is spent a. eating/drinking/buying things, b.asking for assistance, c. meeting new people. To break those down into subtypes, I'd say:

  • Ordering food
  • Ordering drinks
  • Buying products
  • Inquiring about a location
  • Need help
  • Asking "small talk" questions
  • Giving "small talk" answers

Processes: Learn to say the following sentences for each archetype, along with the various vocabulary words. Also list out possible responses to each sentence and learn to understand them.

  • Food: I'd like to order [food], Is [food item] [adjective]?, [Compliments], [Complaints],
  • Drinks: Can I have a [drink], Another [drink], Do you have [specific drink]?, No thanks.
  • Products: Do you carry [product]?, I am looking for [description].
  • Landmarks: Where is [location]?, Thank you.
  • Help: I need help, I have [condition], I am sick, Where is the hospital?, I am from [country], I am staying at [place], My emergency contact is [person].
  • Small Talk Questions: Hi, How are you?, Where are you from?, How do you like it here? What do you do?
  • Small Talk Answers: I'm doing well, I'm from [country], It's great here, I like [thing], I don't like [thing], I am a [occupation].

Exception Protocol: There are two main non-redundant failure points: "Someone uses a vocabulary word I don't recognize" and "There is a complete gap in understanding." Two different exception protocols can handle these, depending on the situation:

  • Learn to say, "Sorry, I'm from America and don't speak [language] as a first language. Do you know English... or, can you say that again?"
  • Use Google Translate to translate what I am trying to communicate.

Strategy: Avoid situations that have the potential to become high-stakes. Prepare for situations where it may be loud/fast-paced and hard to understand people. Focus on scenarios that involve fairly low-stakes interactions and simple conversations. Practice my "Sorry, I'm from America" line until I can say it and sound good. Make sure my Google Translate app is readily available.

Improvement. Any time I have to use my exception protocol, make sure to look up the sentence that I was trying to say or was being said to me, and remember it. Take note of any recurring scenarios that I haven't learned an appropriate sentence for. Expand my vocabulary list for the scenarios that are most common.

comment by estimator · 2015-05-27T18:37:23.758Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

So, taking a look at what you actually propose to do, this reduces to a) learn some phrases from the tourist phrasebook and b) learn the rest of the language while c) avoiding high-stakes situations where you need language knowledge. Reminds me of this.

comment by satt · 2015-06-02T00:36:52.423Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

That may be a bit more snarky than is helpful. Your reduction loses useful information; Nanashi's longer description of the process includes useful, specific procedural details that could otherwise trip people up.

comment by Nanashi · 2015-05-27T18:40:51.446Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Yup, pretty much. To quote myself

TL;DR: The fastest way to learn new skills is to 1. Break it down into enough "recipes" or "how-to" guides that they cover most of what you might encounter, and 2. Figure out how to eloquently ask for help if you don't know what to do.

(Incidentally, the link you posted does not work, it's giving me a 404).

comment by Sniffnoy · 2015-05-27T19:16:23.753Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

I'm confused about the "strategy" section; it seems largely redundant with the earlier parts.

comment by Nanashi · 2015-05-27T19:50:16.510Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Bad editing on my part. Ill update the post and include the original here for posterity

comment by Gram_Stone · 2015-05-27T17:32:05.243Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Although you were focusing on learning skills, your language example made me think of social ramifications, and I wanted to say that I call things like this 'preprocessing' more generally. It's sort of like a mental version of Crazy-Prepared. I think of writing as a form of it, and it's one reason I'm glad that most LW users are very far from me in meatspace. I can't imagine having to engage in person on a level that I sometimes must here. I think that there's an experiential component and an innate component, like with most things, and Wei_Dai has brought up this difference in passing:

While I look forward to talking to Eliezer and you, I do have a concern, namely that I find Eliezer to be much better (either more natively talented, or more practiced, probably both) than I am at making arguments in real time, while I tend to be better able to hold my own in offline formats like email/blog discussions where I can take my time to figure out what points I want to make. So keep that in mind if the chat ends up being really one-sided.

Some people seem to be able to perform what I consider very complex tasks on a merely perceptual level, and I don't feel like one of these people, so it really helps to do a bit of System 2 planning before situations where others could just go with the flow. I also find that it's a way to make it easier to have more confidence and attention in social situations; you're not worrying about non-social details.

comment by [deleted] · 2015-05-28T19:03:26.716Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

That was useful. I tried to compare it to my own attempts to learn a new technique in microscopy and saw I had not formalized exceptions (though I still would be at a loss as to how do it, even having gained some experience). It went Luke this:

Goals: study mycorrhiza, 1) in roots, 2) in the surrounding soil. 2) quickly was shown to be unfeasible (too many stages in sample preparations that require access to equipment like a centrifuge, which is for me ridiculously inconvenient / nobody here available to check the end result / people who do it in earnest use DNA analysis for species identification, which is another skill I don't possess and requires primers that cost a lot /...), so I concentrated on 1). In part, I did it in the hope that after I have a couple publications on the topic, I can find collaborators to whom I'd be able to outsource 2) - an analogue of your Google translate:)

Then, I chose the ways of preparing roots to practice (since there are about 10 stains commonly used and they don't give the same results). Those were my 'archetypes', as I saw them initially. However, when I saw my first slides under the microscope, I understood that I did not even cut the roots evenly enough (and so some of them just didn't have the cortex where the fungi should have been) and did not place the roots in clear parallels on the slide (they overlapped, etc.) The cutting is done the same way before any kind of staining, andthe placing - the same way after it.

So I sucked it up (incidentally, 10% w/v NaOH seems much worse on your nose than KOH when you make it outside a hood) and chugged out several dozen well-packed never-mind-staining slides. This part was easiest to self-correct. Then I came back to my 'archetypes' - Ink after Vierheilig et al., Trypan blue and acid Fuchsin, and now creep towards good staining quality.

There are 'external forces I cannot control' that limit my ability to make preparations, and I do have a journal of mistakes, but other than that, I do not keep track of things. Your model is much more rigorous, and (to me) seems to assume quick feedback (or an iron discipline, or both:) I don't think I could serenely wait for hours before I knew what to correct if I used such approach.

comment by [deleted] · 2015-08-19T18:16:09.609Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Equally or almost as important meta-skills/skills anyone can learn are how to change your beliefs, how to ask questions and how to understand answers.

comment by Zando · 2015-05-30T16:25:50.133Z · score: 0 (2 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Since we're trying to be lesswrong here, I'll risk seeming petty by pointing out that "begging the question" is a logical fallacy, not a synonym for "raising the question". Just sayin...

comment by Nanashi · 2015-05-30T17:27:33.260Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Although technically you could say that the whole argument begs the question, depending on how you interpret the logic. Because it basically follows the form: "Learning a skill is trivial because you can break a skill down into trivial subskills."

comment by Lumifer · 2015-05-27T21:31:47.886Z · score: 0 (2 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Practice my "Sorry, I'm from America" line

Err.. that would be the "Why can't you damned furriners speak 'Merican like all the regular folk!" line. You may have been thinking of an "I would like to abjectly apologize for being a Canadian" line... X-D

comment by [deleted] · 2015-05-28T09:29:24.804Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

To non-native speakers like myself Brits can be fore more difficult because their local accents / dialects can deviate far more from language schools standards than American ones. I was seriously dumbfounded the first time someone from Birmingham greeted me as "O'royt, moyt!". One favorite: Stockport = shhtoffpfo, Stafford = shtaoffpfo so I had to be careful where to buy the train ticket to.

I used to think it must be a lower class thing, but I have seen engineers talk like this in e.g. Wolverhampton.

On top if it, there are ethnic versions. Chinese-Birminghamese is especially hard to understand, the above greeting sounds like "Ohoy, moyh!"

Scotland is very interesting, in one place people talk like the most difficult lines in Trainspotting ("Hazshu gozshda bish in shour shoightsh?"), and in other places in the usual Hollywood-American one from the movies (which probably originated from there).

Ireland... friend of mine interviewed an Irish DJ, it took a while to figure out "heiss music" means "house music".

I have heard but did not verify that 'Straya down there is pretty much Birmingham, accent-wise, nice = noice etc.

Compared to this, Americans are easy, except those who speak like Jay Leno.

I would really like a comedy scene when two guys argue, one is talking in Brummie, Scullie or a similar thicker British dialect, and other in either AAVE or Jamaican like Little Jacob in GTA IV.

Note: there are similar things going on with e.g. the German language as well, Frankfurt meeting Vorarlberg is a similar comedy.

However in smaller Eastern European countries pretty much everybody speaks "TV language" (not the official but close, official + slang) and I still wonder how comes TV did not kill local accents and dialects yet in every country. I was really used to everybody talking like TV and this not being a problem at all.

comment by Lumifer · 2015-05-28T15:01:09.043Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Warning: a time sink :-) Audio recordings of British dialects.

comment by ChristianKl · 2015-05-28T13:05:41.576Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Serbo-Croatian used to be one language with dialects. After the countries split it became two. A lot of the Serbian languages have mutual intelligibility. Smaller Eastern European countries just named their most popular dialect it's own language.

Communism is also likely to play a huge part. Part of the Marxist idea of accelerating progress is to get rid of dialects and make sure that everybody learns the local high language in kindergarden and school.

Diversity in the German language is also down. I had a university friend who came from a Bavarian town that had a dialect that wasn't able to be understood in Munich. Maybe <10,000 people could understand it. It did weird things like doing new word construction by for new inventions like skateboards by adding syllables together in a way that Germanic languages or even Anglo languages usually don't do. They had essentially their own grammar. But that dialect seemed to be dying and not used by the young anymore.

comment by Creutzer · 2015-05-28T10:57:01.094Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Do we even know that TV killed local accents and dialects in any country? Because I'm not sure that Slavic languages ever had such radical dialectal variety as English and German.

comment by Lumifer · 2015-05-28T15:08:24.869Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

The Slavs just promoted their radical dialects to full-blown languages, mostly due to political fragmentation.

comment by [deleted] · 2015-05-28T15:47:22.675Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Anecdotal evidence - dated a woman in Birmingham who was a professional interpreter from English to Polish and she mentioned she sometimes often hired by visiting Slovak businesspeople who cannot find an English to Slovak interpreter and it works all right. Not without some confusion, but works. I was surprised, since that kind of politicial fragmentation began a good 1000 years ago.

comment by satt · 2015-06-02T02:01:33.653Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Slavic languages resemble each other enough that people have tried to concoct pan-Slavic bridge languages for a long time. It has occurred to me that it might just be easier for someone to learn a relatively interoperable natural Slavic language (Serbo-Croat or Slovak, maybe, judging by this?) and try that as a bridge.

comment by [deleted] · 2015-06-02T07:11:35.085Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

I think the best return on investment in this regard is learning Russian. It is widely useful even in places like Kazakhstan or Bulgaria, due to it being taught at schools in the Soviet era. Of course that generation is aging, but not so much - I'd say over 45 people were still taught it and this is the age when they get into leadership positions and not retire for another 20-25. Besides, there are lots of scientific publications, SA of SSC mentioned medical research that never got translated and so on. Living in Central Europe, the most useful languages here look like English > German > Russian. This is of course widely location dependent.

Fun story: a friend of mine was invited to a project to the Silicon Valley and came back shaking his head saying "Next time I will learn some Spanish in advance so that I can have a chat with people like the newspaper guy."

Less fun story: I really like the sound of the Italian language, but it does not feel like it worths investing into. I would not really want to live there, lovely culture but crazy politics and the "important" people speak English anyway. There is an enormous difference in ROI between say learning Spanish and learning Italian.

comment by ChristianKl · 2015-06-02T15:52:16.606Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Living in Central Europe, the most useful languages here look like English > German > Russian.

How useful to you see German outside of Germany, Austria and Switzerland?

comment by [deleted] · 2015-06-03T10:56:58.004Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

With 50+ people in Czech Republic, Slovenia, Croatia, even Hungary, so basically ex-Habsburg places, it tends to be useful. They picked up some amount of it from their grandparents who remember when it was the lingua franca of the monarchy and their English is not very good usually. The typical old Czech tourist in Budapest will try to communicate in more or less broken German.

Also for young people, in this region young people usually learn English but if they have capacity left, the second one is usually German. And for this reason, "eastern" subsidiaries of DE/AT/CH companies often keep the internal reporting language in it. Which reinforces people wanting to learn it.

The most creative usage I saw was some guys from South Tyrol who offered bilingual SAP consulting to DE/AT/CH firms having subsidiaries in Italy.

I also know a lady who went to East Belgium to work and it worked out well for her.

comment by Creutzer · 2015-06-02T07:35:37.403Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Note, though, that you basically need to achieve native-like levels of proficiency in order to use one Slavic language to understand another. So you may well never be able to collect this return on the investment at all. My Russian isn't anywhere near this level and, living in Central Europe, the only use I ever make of it is talking to Russians. Signage in Slavic-speaking countries becomes somewhat comprehensible, but that's about it otherwise. Russian does, of course, allow you to communicate in Central Asia, the Caucasus, and the Baltic countries, which is nice if you want that, but also likely to be irrelevant for most people.

comment by [deleted] · 2015-06-02T14:32:21.771Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

True, but also: I smell some significant business opportunities in the general direction of Central Asia. It is a very virgin market for e.g. tech products and they have natural resources / fossil fuels to pay with.

comment by Lumifer · 2015-06-02T02:19:02.511Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Slavic languages divide into three groups which are fairly different: Eastern (e.g. Russian, Ukrainian), Western (e.g. Polish, Czech), and Southern (e.g. Bulgarian, Serbian). I suspect that a natural "bridge" language might work within a group, but not between groups.

comment by [deleted] · 2015-06-06T18:14:40.995Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

If you are a tourist in Ukraine, knowing basics of Russian is useful, the kind that the OP refers to. If you want some business done, just speak English; there would be enough translators. If you need to read something written in Ukrainian, and it is sufficiently complex and your Russian is not very good, have it translated; and even if your Russian is that good, but not your first language, it will cost you a lot of nerves.

(Also, if you know Ukrainian more or less well, it can help significantly to accept Russian, Byelorussian, Polish and Czech. I am not saying you will automatically understand those languages, just that adapting to them should be easier with Ukrainian as the base.)

comment by Nanashi · 2015-05-27T21:44:53.902Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Ha ha, when I first read that, I thought "furriner" was another nickname for Furries and I was very, very confused.