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The 4 Hour Ethos: A Guide to Meta-learning

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Tim Ferris has long been one of LLB’s main inspirations, and after a stroke of luck I found myself able to attend his most recent appearance in London on Monday 14th January 2013, a talk entitled ‘The Four Hour Ethos’.Tim encapsulates the whole motivation and drive behind our group. He is a multi-lingual ‘meta-learner’ who challenges his physical and mental capacities constantly, is a best-selling author and an enormously successful entrepreneur. His series of ‘4 hour’ books (The 4 Hour Work Week, The 4 Hour Body, and The 4 Hour Chef) are widely categorised as ‘self-help’ books, but are in reality are much more. I do not try to sum them up here, but if you’re interested in ultimate ‘lifestyle design’ and wish to achieve those ambitions you brushed under the carpet years ago, these books are invaluable.Escape the 9-5 rat race; make lots of money doing what you love; become the person you always wanted to be.

Tim’s talk on Monday focused on his latest book The 4 Hour Chef and the principle behind his concept of ‘meta-learning’.He opened with a favourite quote of his by Mark Twain:

“Whenever you find yourself on the side of the majority, it is time to pause and reflect.”

Being on the side of the majority is not necessarily a bad thing, but it’s important to take that time to consider that other options do exist and can be achieved. If you want to learn something new and have never felt it possible, then Tim will help you reassess. ‘Meta-learning’ is simply the idea that if you apply yourself in the right way and focus on a few key specific things, then any skill can be learned well in a very short period of time.If you can train yourself to think determinedly and creatively about one aspect of life through learning a new skill, then this can then be developed and experienced in other parts of life.Tim said “if you don’t get the right answers, ask better questions”, which points to the idea that if you want to lead a more fulfilled, happier life, then there are always alternative options to consider which will help you do so.

Tim gave a 45 minute presentation of examples of some of the incredible skills which he has been able to learn using this principle.He learnt to speak Japanese well in two months using Judo textbooks, increased his deadlift to 650lbs (294 kilos) from 300lbs (136 kilos) in just 12 weeks and challenged himself to learn the Japanese art of Yabusame (horse archery) in only one week, a skill which usually takes years to develop.It seems that Tim sought out a few extremely skilled people in particular disciplines, discovered how they trained in order to be so good and then applied his meta-learning principles to the same skill in order to achieve a similar outcome.Tim said “study how people become the best, not what they do when they are the best”, as this is most useful for us when approaching something new in the same way.

Now whilst you might be wondering what use you have for horse archery if you live in London these days (or indeed anywhere…), the concept behind the way in which these skills are learnt is fascinating. Take the deadlift example.He heard of an average high school girl who was able to deadlift 400 lbs (181 kilos) – and no, she didn’t look like a body builder. Instead, he went to investigate and found it was the specific technique she had developed and the small range of movement on which she focused that allowed her to lift such an incredible weight. In applying the same focus to just the range of movement involving lifting the bar to knee height and then lowering it, Tim was therefore able to develop his own lifting abilities beyond anything he’d previously considered.He said that if you get to the point where things are becoming tough, just think “what else have I given up on that I shouldn’t have?” and use it to spur yourself on.

Tim’s theory of meta-learning is comprised of the following simple steps, which he shortens to ‘DiSSS’:

  1. Deconstruction: break things down, focus on one thing at a time. If learning two skills in conjunction, try to separate into one physical, one mental.Tim said it may not be best trying to learn say, Spanish and French together, but rather Spanish and kickboxing…though go for it if you want a challenge.
  2. Selection: apply Pareto’s 80/20 rule; 80% of outcomes come from 20% of causes. Eliminate the 80% that’s unnecessary, focus on improving that 20% that’s creating all those good results. Then, enjoy all that extra free time!
  3. Sequencing: do things in the right order. Along with deconstruction, this helps make things seem less intimidating[1].
  4. Stakes: set actual incentives. Tim believes “the stick is more compelling than the carrot”. As the world’s biggest procrastinator, I have to agree. I am often most motivated to do something, (even if it’s interesting!) by the thought of the consequences of what will happen if I don’t.

Personally, I’m swayed by the talk he gave and believe that through following Tim’s principles a great deal can be achieved. I plan to apply these principles to a number of personal goals I have at the moment, such as getting good at martial arts, learning Spanish and playing the piano. Stay tuned; I’ll be updating you on progress as I go.

Q & A

Any of you can (and should) read Tim’s books and discover the above and more for yourselves. However, for those who could not attend the talk and are curious as to what sort of extra things were shared in the Q&A (often the most revealing part of any of these talks), here are – very paraphrased – a few of the questions and answers discussed:

Q: Should I quit my job to work on my muse?

A (Tim): Obviously it depends on your circumstances, but remember that employment and entrepreneurship do not have to be exclusive.

*Q: What are your current fears? *

A: Watching my parents age. I am currently exploring things which might help slow neurologic degeneration.After this, another ‘fear’ is a fear of rushing, the idea of doing things with unnecessary haste. To combat this I meditate in the morning listening to a song and this helps me to concentrate more on what is to be appreciated in life.

Q: Do you believe in a ‘calling’?

A: I believe people capitalise on those strengths that give people the greatest pleasure.

Q: How would you advise getting a mentor?

A: Well, the worst way to get a mentor is to ask someone to be your mentor!

Q: What is your favourite country/culture?

A: Hard to say, though probably Japan. I like its minimalist aesthetic and the culture’s keen attention to detail. Perhaps also Argentina, which I’ve always found to have a very warm and social atmosphere.

Q: Does anything not apply to meta-learning?

A: Relationships!

Another one of Tim’s ideas to put things in perspective can be seen in this short quiz when things seem intimidating: Are you anxious? > No > Good, enjoy life. Are you anxious? > Yes > Can you do anything to alleviate your anxiety? Yes > Good, do this and enjoy life. Are you anxious? > Yes > Can you do anything to alleviate your anxiety? No > Okay, so may as well enjoy life. Whilst overly simplistic, it has great foundations and may be something to consider in the next panic attack over the ‘enormous’ to-do list of the day…!