How to learn a new area X that you have no idea about.

This guide was in response to a request in the Lesswrong open thread.  I would like to improve it; If you have some improvement to contribute I would be delighted to hear it!  I hope it helps.  It was meant to be a written down form of; “wait-stop-think” before approaching a new area.

This list is meant to be suggestive and not limiting.

I realise there are many object-level opportunities for better strategies but I didn’t want to cover them in this meta-strategy.

It would be very easy to strawman this list. i.e. 1 could be a waste of time that people of half a brain don’t need to cover.  However if your steelman each point it will hopefully make entire sense.  (I would love this document to be stronger, if there is an obvious strawman I probably missed it; feel free to make a suggestion for it to obviously read in the steel-form of the point.

Happy readings!


0. make sure you have a growth mindset. Nearly anything can be learnt or improved on. Aside from a few physical limits – i.e. being the best marathon runner is very difficult; but being a better marathon runner than you were yesterday is possible. (unknown time duration, changing one’s mind, if you think there are parts of you that think you will never be good enough; having systems will only help so far.  You should fix the underlying doubts)

  1. Make sure your chosen X is aligned with your actual goals (are you doing it because you want to?). When you want to learn a thing; is X that thing? (Example: if you want to exercise; maybe skiing isn’t the best way to do it. Or maybe it is because you live in a snow country) (5-10 minutes)
  2. Check that you want to learn X and that will be progress towards a goal (or is a terminal goal – i.e. learning to draw faces can be your terminal, or can help you to paint a person’s portrait). (5 minutes, assuming you know your goals)
  3. Make a list of what you think that X is. Break it down. Followed by what you know about X, and if possible what you think you are missing about X. (5-30 minutes, no more than an hour)
  4. Do some research to confirm that your rough definition of X is actually correct. Confirm that what you know already is true, if not – replace that existing knowledge with true things about X. Do not jump into everything yet. (1-2 hours, no more than 5 hours)
  5. Figure out what experts in the area know (by topic area name), try to find what strategies experts in the area use to go about improving themselves. (expert people are usually a pretty good way to find things out) (1-2 hours, no more than about 5 hours)
  6. Find out what common mistakes are when learning X, and see if you can avoid them. (learn by other people’s mistakes where possible as it can save time) (1-2 hours, no more than 5 hours)
  7. Check if someone is teaching about X. Chances are that someone is, and someone has listed what relevant things they teach about X. We live in the information age, its probably all out there. If it’s not, reconsider if you are learning the right thing. (if no learning is out there it might be hard to master without trial and error the hard way) (10-20mins, no more than 2 hours)
  8. Figure out the best resources on X. If this is taking too long; spend 10 minutes and then pick the best one so far. These can be books; people; wikipedia; Reddit or StackExchange; Metafilter; other website repositories; if X is actually safe – consider making a small investment and learn via trial and error. (i.e. frying an egg – the common mistakes probably won’t kill you, you could invest in 50 eggs and try several methods to do it at little cost) (10mins, no more than 30mins)
  9. Confirm that these are still the original X, and not X2, or X3. (if you find you were actually looking for X2 or X3, go back over the early steps for Xn again. (5mins)
  10. Consider writing to 5 experts and asking them for advice in X or in finding out about X. (5*20mins)
  11. Get access to the best resources possible. Estimate how much resource they will take to go over (time, money) and confirm you are okay with those investments. (postage of a book; a few weeks, 1-2 hours to order the thing maximum)
  12. Delve in; make notes as you go. If things change along the way, re-evaluate. (unknown, depends on the size of the area you are looking for.  consider estimating word-speed, total content volume, amount of time it will take to cover the territory)
  13. Write out the best things you needed to learn and publish them for others. (remembering you had foundations to go on – publish these as well) (10-20 hours, depending on the size of the field, possibly a summary of how to go about finding object-level information best)
  14. Write out things you tried along the way that did not work to save others’s from making the same mistakes.  (no more time than 13)
  15. try to find experiments you can conduct on yourself to confirm you are on the right track towards X. Or ways to measure yourself (measurement or testing is one of the most effective ways to learn) (1hour per experiment, 10-20 experiments)  (Don’t forget – what get’s measured get’s optimised for.  So consider measuring a few things that are close to your goal, but keep in mind that the measurement is not the goal)
  16. Try to teach X to other people. You can be empowering their lives, and teaching is a great way to learn, also making friends in the area of X is very helpful to keep you on task and enjoying X. (a lifetime, or also try 5-10 hours first, then 50 hours, then see if you like teaching)

Update: includes suggestion to search reddit, StackExchange; other web sources for the best resource.
Update: time estimate guide.
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