Actions Per Minute

3 minutes read —

I remember listening to some documentary about an AI developed for some strategy game called Starcraft. The developers had to put an arbitrary constraint on the AI ; they limited its APMs. APM is an acronym that stands for Actions Per Minute. They figured, even though a program could perform clicks at a very high speed, it wouldn’t make for a fair game against human competitors. You would think a strategy game is all about the quality of the decisions, not just the sheer quantity of them. And you would be right, probably. The AI, which was called AlphaStar, ended up beating the best starcraft competitors while playing with a handicap limiting its speed to well below that of the aforementioned human players. Therefore, you could say, good judgment makes for effortless wins, and thus, this parameter should be optimized for. It is all about finding the greatest moves, it would seem, rather than hastily putting things together in a half-assed manner. In this paradigm, it would make sense to slow down and evaluate and reevaluate every decision until one makes the perfect one ; minimizing the risks and maximizing the potential for rewards. This all makes perfect sense, except that when we confront this theory to real-life, it starts to crumble and fall apart. The best starcraft players also happen to have the highest APM scores by far. This is a strong predictor of their performance. They execute a lot of actions, really quickly, and the fastest players at this level usually end up getting the win. Although better and more efficient decisions do exist, as proven by machine learning, they are not available to our limited human brain powers, or at least not without a trade-off in speed so great that we end up losing by inaction. Our best bet for winning is limited to making the best actions we can think off as fast as we can, which is very different from making the best actions period. Doing so would require way more CPU than is humanly possible. JK Rolling said it another way : “it is impossible to live without failing at something, unless you live so cautiously that you might as well not have lived at all — in which case, you fail by default”. I guess what I’m writing about right now is the dangers of analysis paralysis and how that can prevent us from doing much at all. There is a limit to how careful our planning as to be before we can and should act on it. Decisions that carry no danger of being fatal should be made quickly. We can’t anticipate all possible effects, therefore sometimes we have to go with our guts and let the feedback come from real-life. It is about adaptability and knowing that whatever comes, we will be able to react with the same speed we used to make the decision in the first place. You know all about it, right ? Consistent and decisive action, even if imperfect, leads to better outcomes than waiting for the perfect solutions to emerge. So let’s keep moving forward !

Why are all-fourths and all-thirds guitar tunings used by some jazz players ?

2 minutes read —
(Answer originally posted on Quora)

P4 (All-fourths) and M3 (All major thirds) tuning both have the huge advantage of being regular tunings. To this list we could add P5 tuning (All-fifths), and I also know about a tritone tuning as well.

Standard tuning = Inconsistent tuning

The standard tuning of the guitar (EADGBE) is based on fourths, however, there is an inconsistency between the G and B string ; they are a major third apart. This inconsistency makes it harder to visualize intervals on the neck as they are not consistent across string sets.

Using a regular tuning means that all fingerings for scales, chords, arpeggios, or whatever else, is movable both along AND across strings. A same fingering will always produce the same intervals.

This is immensely helpful when trying to improvise or compose music. The connection between mind and fingers happens way faster on a regular tuning than it does on standard tuning. Intuition develops faster. The brain just knows how to grab the sound it is hearing without giving it a second though since the interval map becomes so predictable.

Less rote learning, faster learning

A chord shape on standard tuning has to be relearned 3 times. A simple triad in root position has a first fingering when it starts on strings E or A, then an other when it starts on the D string and yet an other when it starts on the G string. On a regular tuning, a same chord shape would do the job anywhere on the neck.

As a consequence, the rate of learning is way faster on a regular tuning than it is on standard tuning.

As an improvisation tool

Jazz players completely benefit from the advantages offered by regular tunings as they are mainly concerned about improvising and developing that mind-fingers connection as fast as possible.

They also suffer few of the drawbacks. The loss of repertoire (songs designed with the standard tuning in mind) is the main one, but since playing jazz standards do not call for exact replicas but is instead open to interpretation, they simply do not care that much.

Various regular tunings

P4 tuning is the closest regular tuning to standard tuning, which makes the transition easy. My guess is that it is the most used regular tuning.

M3 tuning makes position shifting almost completely avoidable since there is only 4 frets (one by fingers) before we need to string shift. It is sometimes played on 7-strings guitars to compensate for the loss of range.

On the other end, P5 tuning requires big stretches on the fingers. It is the same tuning as violin and viola players. It also extends the range of the guitar significantly.

How to understand atmospheric perspective ?

6 minutes read —

There are multiple ways to depict depth in a painting. I am guessing the first to pop to mind would be linear perspective. The former occurs at the drawing stage and concerns itself with the representation of volumes on a 2D surface. It relies on trigonometry rules and it is all about shapes and scale. Today however I would rather talk about atmospheric perspective which does not come into play until later in the process ; when it’s time to bring values and color onto our drawings. Turns out — colors are a powerful tool in helping the artist to sell depth in a painting. Let me explain how that is the case.

Air isn’t made of nothing

When observing a scene, we might think the distance between us — the observer — and the object we are looking at is nothing but empty. We would be wrong. The gap is filled with air, and this is a crucial point to make. That is because air itself is filled with water particles and dust. Although they are sparse, those particles impact the light passing through them just as any other object would. There is no void, unless we try and paint a moon scene.
On that line of thinking ; have you ever wondered why the sky appears blue considering how sunlight is white ? Answer : the shorter wavelengths of the light are more easily scattered by the particles in the air than than the longer ones. Those shorter wavelengths correspond to blue hues. Thus the sky appears blue to our eyes. And for those of you that would object that sometimes the sky appears orange or even reddish ; in that scenario the angle at which sunlight enters the atmosphere is so low that most of the blue wavelengths of light are scattered even before reaching the lower atmosphere.
Back to topic. It follows that one way to think about our riddle is that there is some sky between us and the object we are observing. And the more distant the object, the more sky there is between us and the object. The closer the object, the less sky there is between us and the object.

Picture overlay sheets between you and the subject

In order to visualize it even better, let us try to picture giant overlay sheets that would be equally spaced apart and fill the distance between us and the object. Those sheets are semi-transparent and take the sky color. The bigger the distance there is between us and the object, the more sheets we can fit in the gap. The shorter the distance ; the less sheets can fit it.

What would happen in that scenario is that an object placed absurdly far away would appear almost indistinguishable from the sky color regardless of its local colors. Indeed, there would be this many sheets between the observer and the object. So much so that its colors would get progressively lost until all that would be left is the cumulative color of all the sheets. Although a single sheet is almost invisible, a stack of those can get pretty close to a 100% opacity at times.

Here are some rules of atmospheric perspective

The emergent rules that follow from that is that the further away an object is the more its colors and values are going to be compressed towards the sky color.
This means the value range gets both shifted and reduced. Shifted because the sky color is usually lighter than the object and thus the object gets lighter with distance. But also reduced, because compression occurs ; there is less of a contrast between the highest and darkest values of the object. Contrast can get very very low for distant object. An hypothetical object infinitely distant would simply appear flat and take the sky value.
It is the same for color : the range gets shifted toward the sky color —which is often some light blue— and also gets compressed so that there isn’t as much color variation as foreground objects. Remember colors travel from point A to point B through greys. In this example, you would thus get de-saturated red before you would final cross and come-out the other side blue. An infinitely distant object would ultimately take the sky color.

To depict a coherent atmospheric perspective, the most important part would be to keep that hierarchy ordered. There is no way a very distant object is going to have a wider value and color range than a close object. It is entirely possible to undermine a good linear perspective job through colors alone. We might have correct scaling, but if the colors tell us that an object is very close, then we will just understand it as being very small rather than being far away. Evidently, this comment rings true in reverse as well ; a close object lacking saturation and flat will feel just as wrong and misplaced. Thus I trust you will grant atmospheric perspective the attention it deserves.

There is one more parameter to navigate ; how much atmospheric perspective should there be in a given painting ? Well, if the coloration of the air is due largely to its water molecules, it ensues that the drier the air, the less of an effect atmospheric perspective will have. On the contrary, on days where the air is very wet, the effect is going to be much more pronounced. As a corollary to that ; we can use atmospheric perspective to tell a lot about the overall weather and dampness of a scene. However, it should be noted that atmospheric perspective is most often cranked up in art and movies even in arid places where no water can be found miles around. That is because atmospheric perspective can sell depth and it is often a primary concern.

Arid place : little to no atmospheric perspective
A wet place for contrast : background elements are entirely compressed to the point where they appear entirely flat

More than one applicationA

Finally, please note that this logic can also be used for things like dust or vapor, or anything that would add matter in the air. Of course in those cases the effect would possibly be localized rather than affect the scene globally, but it is very useful to think of the phenomenon as if there were overlay sheets and to thus shift and compress values and colors towards those of the sheet. The more dust/vapor/or else between observer and object, the more shifting and the more compression. Simple as that.

How to design user interfaces for desktop vs mobile ?

6 minutes read —

As you might know, I’ve been working on a redesign of my websites lately. One of the things I wanted to make sure I do properly in this iteration is to ensure proper display on both desktop and mobile. You would ear often that should design your website for mobile first, and I would disagree. A website should be designed for where it is going to best serve its purpose. For portfolio website, there is no doubt we would rather have them displayed on desktop than on those tiny mobile screens. However we must also acknowledge that we have little control over where and when our pages will be displayed and in these days and age 55% of page views come from mobile phones.
So, what are some nice things to consider on desktop, and how do these differ from what you would do on mobile ?

Accommodating phone users

Screen orientation

The first thing to consider would be the overall layout and here on PC we are generally dealing with a 1920 * 1080 screen resolution, with internet windows being displayed most of the time at that resolution or at least large enough and almost always oriented horizontally. I like it this way, I think this is a format very well suited to present art and I wouldn’t like it messed-up in any ways.
But there comes mobiles phones and they come in all sizes, are used vertically most often, and they are tiny. But I have good news. We do not have to sacrifice our entire design to fit a portrait display where it has no business being displayed. All we have to do is prompt the user to reorient their phones before we display the website.

On the developer side, this drastically reduces the number of weird layout de-figuration we have to take into account, and in doing so it ensures a good viewing experience for the visitor. This is a win-win situation. It might also make it clear that the website is intended for the big screen first, and might prompt some to go sit at a desk before viewing (inshallah).

Screen size

But for those that stay on their phones ; mobile screens can go quite small. This means we should make sure than none of the main features are sized too small. A thumb must easily be able to “click” our interactive elements.

For instance I have this tiny navigation menu on the top left corner.

This would be very cumbersome to access on mobile. Fortunately I have also set-up this huge full page version of the same menu first thing after the splash-screen. The user can always scroll back to it to switch between the different rubrics instead of using the left corner menu. It is also an opportunity to design a nice looking page and ease-in gently into the core content so nothing is lost !

Thumb position

We also need to consider the length and location of thumbs relative to the screens. On desktop we have a tendency to put all our menus on the top but it is not optimal for phone users. Indeed, thumbs are not that long and are located on the bottom right corner of the phone (for a right handed person). This means important navigation items should rather be placed in the bottom.

There is no :hover on mobile !

One last thing we might not have thought about. There is no :hover on mobile since there is no mouse. You are either clicking or dragging or you are in fact not interacting at all with the website. This can mean a lot of information might be lost in translation when switching to mobile. Indeed :hover effects tend to add a lot of life to a website. On this page for example, we light-up reveal the images by hovering them on desktop, but here on mobile, without any change we would go straight to the next page when clicking on them without a change to get a clear view of any of them.

The solution I implemented was to turn my click action into a double click action and to apply my hover effects after a simple click.

Optimizing for keyboard navigation

There is one feature I put a lot of care for the desktop version of my website and that is key navigation. It felt very important to me that this website should be browsable with the arrow keys alone. Keys generally feel easier than the mouse because they require no precision at all ; the hand is comfortably resting on the arrows and isn’t moving much at all during the entire process. The idea is to just lay back and watch some works. The layout I chose reinforces that idea by essentially stacking a pile of sheets vertically and having them feature horizontal galleries. Those two axis : vertical and horizontal match perfectly the arrows our keyboards come equipped with. This is very much intended this way.

One thing that had to be done was to let the visitor know that he or she could use the keyboard, and I tried not to be too oblivious about that. On my pre-screen, in place of a “Get in” message or some other flavor of a welcoming prompt, I used an enter-key shaped “Enter” message to hint at the fact that the key could also be used in addition to click-based browsing.

I also dropped an other down-key shaped icon on the splash screen, to hint at the fact that yes, we could scroll down to see the works, but also that we could do so using the down arrow key. With this hint and the previous one, my hope was that by this point the user’s hand would be anchored to those arrows and he could take it from there.

It’s like a mini tutorial and now we are ready to play by ourselves. The next screen features no hint at all but of course the arrows can be used to select among the various rubrics. After that it’s all supposed to feel intuitive. Easy and fun. The mouse always remains available of course.

One difficulty is to be able to switch back and forth between key and mouse navigation. On the developer side, this means keeping track of our location in the tree structure at all times and updating the relevant variables so that when we go back to key navigation after some mousing, we are moving from where we are rather than where we were before we did the mousing. It is all very worthwhile I believe, key navigation is fast and fluid. I love it very much.

So after those few considerations, if I could say it all in one sentence :

Phone users are missing out.

How to paint coherent local value ranges ?

6 minutes read —

Among the various light sources that could be set-up, direct sunlight is the one we should refer to when studying values. Contrary to spotlights, direct sunlight hits everywhere with the same intensity ; there is no drop-off. This means we have one less parameter to worry about.

We will refer to a value scale ranging from 0 to 10, with 0 being pitch black and 10 being pure white. Any color can be picked and sorted along that scale. Please refer to my previous post for accurately picking values in Photoshop or you might fall for measurement errors.

Any subject has what is called a local color, or base color. That color is only then altered by lights and shadows. To better understand, think of the local color as the color you would see if you lit your subject with a flat white light coming from everywhere. Or in more practical terms, this is the color you would pick if you painted flat colors.

Please note that any color has its own distinct local value before it is even altered by light. A yellow is noticeably brighter than a blue or a red. A brown is darker than an orange.
As a direct consequence, if you picked local colors of different objects in a scene, you would get values all over the place. There wouldn’t be much to think about ; there would only be random. It’s not that much of a stretch to conclude that local values just aren’t that important for an accurate rendition of lighting.

Yet we are able from values to perceive volumes. The reason this occurs is because planes of an object that are facing the light source then bounce that light back to our eyes. Planes of an object that aren’t facing the light source aren’t catching any light and thus remain in darkness. In fact, they would remain pitch black if we were on the moon. On earth though, the water in the air reflects some amount of light and acts as a secondary light source emitting in all directions. Even though such reflected lights are weaker than direct lights, they prevent pitch black from occurring. We could get lost in details here, but what I’m coming at in simple terms is that any object has a lightest value, and a darkest value.

Again, the lightest value would appear on the planes facing the light-source directly and the darkest values would appear on the planes that aren’t facing the light-source. There is a clear separation between the lit and unlit areas, that we lazily refer to as “the separator”. This difference between light and dark, is everything. Understanding values is not about absolute numbers, or how dark or light a specific color is. It is much more about how much darker or lighter that color is relative to the color next to it. It’s all relative.

The bigger the distance between the lightest and darkest value ; the harsher and hotter the light. Bigger value ranges are typically seen midday. Under weak lighting such as a cast day, the value
A distance of 5 between the lightest and darkest values of a given object is typical.

Now ; what is really interesting to notice, is that all objects that fall under a same sunlight, regardless of their local color, present the same distance between their lightest and darkest values on the value-scale. To demonstrate, let’s paint a couple of volumes next to each other and light them. Their local colors and values could hardly be more different. However, because they are under the same light, you can count on one thing to be true ; they will all present an equal distance between their lightest and darkest values. If I have a local blue sitting at 6 and going down to 1, then my yellow sitting at 9 will go down to 4 in its unlit area. As you would have understood by now, the important information is the value range that this lighting dictates. All sort of local values can be used, as long as the range between light and shadows is cohesive for all colors used in the scene. This is grammar. This is what ties a painting together and create a sense of light.

You might wonder though, what would happen in that 5 units differential scenario should I add a new ball with a local value of 3 ? Simple arithmetic tells us that the darkest value should then be minus 2, and surely we do not know how to paint a minus 2 value. Do not worry though, simply paint the area black in this case, and then add-in your bounce lights from there. What happened is that we simply didn’t have enough of a scale to be able to render all the information. This also happens the other way ; sometimes a lit object should get so bright as to appear in values above 10. In that case, the lightest values would simply cap at 10 and you would observe a flattening of the information above that mark. This is what we call respectively underexposure and overexposure. It can be used to great effect in painting as it can occasionally put some tasty emphasis on shapes and silhouettes in key areas.

By this point we’ve got ourselves a nice little rule, but it is still largely insufficient to paint a realistic painting. I can think of two additional clauses we should add.

The first one is that materials will have an influence on this value range I keep talking about. Indeed, the smoother the surface of a material is, the more light it is going to reflect and therefore an equally intense light source would be able to produce brighter values. As a consequence, reflective material such as metals usually present a much wider range than matte objects between their lightest and darkest values. Inversely, painting value ranges that are more compact can be used to signify materials that are particularly matte relative to other objects, such as skin.

The second caveat is atmospheric perspective. The air between your eyes and the objects you are painting is not empty. It is full of water and particle and they reflect light back to you. It is useful to think that for every unit of distance you are adding a semi-transparent sheet of colored paper between you and the object. What this does to values ; it squishes it towards the value of the sheet. Because this sheet is usually quite light, the local value tend to go up, and then the value range tend to reduce the more distance you travel. This means even under and even light that should create a 5 units differential between light and shadow, you will see distant object displaying a difference of only 2 units or even less.

I’ll make sure to discuss those caveats more extensively in later posts.

Learning a language : where to start ?

6 minutes read —

I’m currently neck-deep in the process of trying to learn the Russian language and I believe the best time to teach anything is often while we are still learning it oneself. In today’s article, I’m going to discuss how to best learn a language in the initial stages. But first, I need to answer why even bother.

Kick-starting the practice

I believe English is the single most useful thing I’ve learned at school. It is a key skill in that it allowed me to learn a lot of the other stuff I’ve learned across the years. It gave me access to the global brain. English represents around 54% of the internet content, which is quite a lot more than the 4% or so of the french language. Russian comes in second with 6%. Many East-European people frequently write and talk in Russian on and off the internet. It is not just about Russian people, which makes the ground it can unlock quite large.

I must say although the reasons expressed above make sense on a logical level, they were insufficient for the practice to stick with me for quite a while. More personal reasons needed to be there to really kick-start the learning process. In my case I have a couple of Russian speakers in my immediate surroundings. There is one young soul in particular who cannot yet speak french, which meant I had to learn some very basic Russian quite fast in order to communicate at least a little with him.
Those circumstances opened the door for learning this language for me. When such doors are opened, I believe we should go and learn while it lasts. I’m currently 26. Fluid intelligence is maximal at that age, there is never going to be an easier time to pick on new knowledge. Learning now is better than later.

Fast and loose first, vocabulary is king.

Jumping in ; one thing I realized really rapidly is that grammar is not that important in the beginning stages of learning a language. We want to go fast and loose first.
Learning vocabulary is essential. Without grammar, one can still be understood even though the sentences will likely be all wrong, ugly and unproper. Without vocabulary, we are kinda stuck however and are left hitting a hard stop.

It follows that vocabulary is an essential parameter in how easy or hard it is going to be to learn a new language. French and Spanish are very closely related for instance. I found that even though I have not practiced any Spanish in years since I was out of school, I can still pick-up on it quite easily for the simple fact that we share a plethora of word radicals. Knowing this many words already without even trying is a huge head start. Russian on the other hand is quite alien from any of the language I am familiar with. There is thus a gigantic memorizing job to be done before I can move on to the subtleties of the language.

So how to go about that ? It makes sense to learn the most common words of a language first. In fact, it takes about 1000 to 3000 words to reach a casual conversation level. Depending on how many new words you are able to reliably absorb in any given day, this word-count can be reached relatively quickly. Adverbs are going to cover ground quite fast, verbs are very important to be able to express oneself, adjectives are nice, and nouns are the most contextual of the list.
It is very worthwhile to push hard in the beginning to acquire those most common words. Once a certain threshold is reached ; it becomes possible to continue learning in a more passive way through simple reading and listening. To propel a rocket into space, most of the energy is burned on takeoff.

This means some hard drilling is going to be necessary. ANKI is a very useful tool for that.
Spaced repetition is a technique that leverages what we know about how memory works. Retrieval is the action that really solidifies memories. Each time a memory is recalled, it gets reinforced. What follows from that is that forgetting should in fact be an integral part of the learning process. Rather than trying to learn all in a single sitting session and then never recalling the knowledge ever again, it is in fact more appropriate to space out our learning over time so that it gets recalled more.

In-context learning, well rounded practice

But beyond that, what really will solidify the knowledge is to witness the vocabulary used in context and then try to reuse it oneself. For that reason, I would highly recommend installing an extension called “Dualsub” on your browser. It allows to watch YouTube videos with 2 subtitles tracks on at the same time. For example, you could watch a guy speak Russian, have subtitles for that, and then be able to read the English translation right below. This is obviously really useful for absorbing the language, but then comes the next step which would be recreating the language. You need to write in the destination language, and try and talk with it also. Expression of any kind is what will really solidify the grammar part of the language.

In fact it is useful to think about a quadrant comprised of oral comprehension, written comprehension, oral expression and written expression and find ways to practice each. Most often than not at least one of those gets neglected. In my case, English was learned through written and oral exposure and then I have a habit of writing in English often enough. However, one thing I do not do on the regular is to speak the language. I am a indeed a french person in France and thus speak french on the daily rather than English. To combat that lack, you might have noticed that I started to record readings of my written blog posts and pinning them at the top of the articles. The reasons I do so is to practice my oral expression skills in English, specifically I’m trying to get my tongue used to English pronunciation. In the case of Russian, in the beginning stage, one shouldn’t neglect to learn how to type with a Cyrillic alphabet for example. Paying attention to those sorts of things should ensure a well rounded and ultimately very usable acquisition of the language.

Arts and languages are one and the same

There is one more thing I want to talk about.
The process of learning a language has many carry over with the arts practices.
In fact I use the terms “Grammar” and “Vocabulary” all the time to distinguish between what constitute rules and articulations from what are idioms and specifics in all domains. In digital painting, grammar would be things such as perspective and solid drawing, light and color theory, understanding of reflections and material properties. Vocabulary would be specific pieces of information such as the structure of a face, pieces of anatomy, how to draw a motorcycle, a sword or an helmet.

On a side note regarding vocabulary, it is funny to think that even in digital painting, the idea of etymology makes sense. For example, although mammals differ in proportions, they are in fact very similar in structure. Learning to draw a specific mammal can therefore carry over easily into drawing all others. It can even teach you to draw made-up creatures, or neologisms, which is particularly relevant to concept art.

The thing is, learning languages is what I do. Although I didn’t understand it at first, Arts are just as much languages as Russian is, and like the all languages they are a pillar of culture. Arts are special in that they are especially apt at communicating feelings and experiences in vivid and poignant ways. But at the end of the day, they are all about exchanging with our fellow humans and are thus inherently interesting for us social creatures.

Let’s keep this short and wrap-up ! Until next time.

How to manage one’s time ?

16 minutes read —

Under the umbrella term “time management” are a collection of skills one can develop and use in order to tackle any kind of project ; especially the larger and more challenging ones. Although most of us are battling with procrastination and various setbacks ; I’m not going to talk about that today. I will assume we are in a perfectly capable mindset with a bunch of time on our hands and a goal to pursue. I want to focus instead on what to do once we are sit in front of our projects and ready to work. When working independently, planning can certainly be daunting. In the absence of any sort of manager above our heads to direct our focus ; prioritizing and organizing the work is left for us to do. Below is one way to break a project down and plan its execution in a manner that tries and maximize the odds that all tasks will move-on to completion without major hurdles. This is how I’m currently doing it and accounts for the main errors likely to arise as we move forward on our adventure. Let’s take it step by step.

Open a text editor

The first thing I ideally want to do before tackling a fat project is to sit down in front of a good text editor and start planning out the ins and out of the work-life I’m going to try and adopt in the following weeks to month. My software of choice for such a task has been Typora for a while now. It’s all about simplicity of use. It features the markdown syntax which probably figures among the most efficient ways to add essential formatting to a document. From easy to read plain text format, markdown will convert your writing to structurally valid HMTL. It makes web formatting accessible for people who don’t know a thing about HTML while still allowing the use of html tags within the document if additional formatting such as progress bars is needed. This means we can skip on word processors all together. It features checkboxes to create simple todo lists, tables to cover all our OCD needs, it imports images and links without any trouble. There’s a file management column on the left for easy access to all the ongoing work. Typora really distinguishes itself among other markdown editor by supporting other markup convention such as LaTex for writing math formulas,or Mermaid that can effortlessly produce diagrams and pie charts. All the basics are covered in the simplest way they could be covered. No tweaking needed, just sit and write. One more good thing about this piece of software is that it is currently free.

Set a goal

Now that this is out of the way ; let’s get to it.

Time management always starts with setting a goal. Writing it down will certainly help in the prioritizing department and set-up the mind for the challenge to come. Once you have an aim ; you start to perceive differently. The world becomes a matrix of tools and obstacles. The solutions can only be found once we start looking for them. Hence we must define what it is we’re chasing. It also provides some accountability. Refusing to set-up conditions for failure, although understandable ; ensures life-procrastination. We do not want that.

Goal setting isn’t done randomly though. We want to maximize the probabilities that our ambitions will manifest in actuality. If you’re somewhat distractible ; you might want to avoid setting goals that span too far into the future. We aren’t fixed creatures. We morph and evolve. Our wants and desire are subject to change. What we are aiming at right now might not be what we’ll end up chasing a while from now.

Moreover the goal has to be somewhat realistic otherwise it won’t get done, independent of how good at time management you are. Once again, bigger goals that do not present a finish line before the dawn of times ; even when achievable ; tend not to be actionable. They are floffy ; they lack detail on how to actually implement them.

The solution is to focus on a smaller time scale. Humans have grown accustomed to the natural cycles emanating from the sky and the sun. I’m talking about the seasonal changes that occur every 3 months or so. I’d suggest therefore in an effort to conform to our inherited biology to settle for 3-months time periods when organizing our work. That’s 13 weeks. 90 days or so. There is plenty of room to move the ball forward and make stuff happen in such a timeframe.

Oh and I forgot to mention ; there is one more thing you might want to do aside from goal setting. And that is “fear setting”. Although stress gets a bad rep ; this mechanism remains one of the strongest motivator we know of. It is sometimes far more potent than desire. You are much more likely to postpone a desire than you are a to do the same with a fear. What would happen should you fail to meet the goal ?

Gauge your time pool

You are now in possession of two things : a motivated goal, and a due date. I’d say it’s a rather good place to be at but we shouldn’t stay still. Let’s keep moving. The next step is to go micro and break all of that down.

What is this due date ? How many weeks does that represent ? How many work days ? How many hours ? There are a number of things to consider when making such calculations. Extracting the number of days available should be easy enough ; but then we go down one level and already mistakes arise. When we talk about work hours ; we should always understand fully focused work hours. Not half-assed lazy barely conscious and distracted hours. Twitter hours do not count. YouTube hours do not count. And we are largely guilty of overestimating how much hours are truly up for exploitation in any given day. Using a time tracker such as RescueTime for a while should really open your eyes to the unfortunate reality of your average work day. In order to understand how off we can be ; I need to tell you ; a typical 8 hours day for most knowledge worker barely accounts for 3 to 4 hours of truly productive time. No more than that. The rest is constituted of social media, video consumption, communication… Half the workdays goes out to distractions essentially. What we are often tempted to do is to plan according to how many hours we wish to work rather than how many hours we realistically can and will work each day. That’s called wishful thinking. Should there be a mismatch ; you will almost certainly get late on every single task or, if out of some sort of miracle you still manage to achieve what you set out to achieve despite the uncontrolled optimism, you would have condemned yourself to cut on sleep and ultimately on life-expectancy. No-one wants that. That’s not a sustainable strategy.

In fact, even after you get a clear picture of how much time you can realistically count-on ; you still need to push aside some of that time. We are optimistic to a fault when it comes to loading our future selves with tasks. We’re counting on our best selves to be present and do the work each day. The reality is that sometimes we will fail to sleep properly, get tired and work rather slowly, garbage output will need to be redone from scratch, unexpected problems will happen and need fixing, life-events will take priority here and there and I’m missing out on some. We need to account for all of that and more. The way it is traditionally done is to add a half of your total time estimate as a reserve bank of time. Some people even go as far as blocking out only half the total time and keep as much reserve as they have work estimates. Whatever the margin you chose ; have a margin. All the time available shouldn’t be blocked otherwise the plan will suffer from a total lack of resiliency should anything go wrong. And things will go wrong.

Adjust your workload

Once we know how big your time pool is ; we can switch our focus to the other part of the equation. What are the constituents of the goal ? What tasks need to get down for that goal to manifest ? Let’s just write everything we can think of. Then make an estimate of how much time each task will likely require to get performed. How much juice will you have to put in to cross those marks in terms of work hours ? Estimates are error-prone ; there’s no way around it but make your best guesses. Experience tend to help in that regard. If you’ve done a task a thousand times, you probably have some idea of how fast you can expect to pull it off. I will advise to go especially conservative regarding tasks that are very novel. All sort of unseen trouble probably lies there.

At this point we have two numbers. A time pool ; and a time estimate for our workload. And now you might look at those two numbers and realize there’s a mismatch. Good. That’s what we are here for. This is where it gets real. Most likely you have piled up way too much work for the time pool you dispose of. In that case what you have to do is to tame your ambitions a little bit and cut on that crap. What are the least essential tasks you have put in that list ? What needs to be done no matter what ? Is there a way to reduce the scope of the project to make it doable. When I was studying animation in Paris ; one way to ensure we got to finish our short films in sound time, despite them being solo projects, was to limit our stories to a single place and time as well as keeping the number of characters down to a bare minimum. We also had a time limit for how long the short film should be. This meant less environment modeling, less character modeling, less character animation. Truth is, we would have need a very good reason to push against those limitations : our plates were seriously full already ! And those rules didn’t prevent us from telling compelling stories. They only prevented us from failing the task. So get creative and revise your plan until the two columns match. Your time estimate should match the depth of your time pool. No more. No less.

I need to mention that it’s also possible to delegate tasks rather than simply crossing them off. These days we can find virtual assistants and all sorts of professionals for hire online. This comes at a cost and might require upfront time investment in order to find and then train the person to the task. But it might fit some situations.

Finally, in the rare cases where you have less tasks than what your time would allow ; well you can add some or aim at a better quality level by dedicating more time to each task. You have room to push further ; use it.

Establish your typical day

The next thing I want to do once I’m set on all my checkboxes is to separate all tasks into a bunch of categories. For instance, I’m currently working on the next iteration of my website. I plan to add a bunch of music, some illustrations, blog posts, and try my hands at audio-fiction as a cross-domains production. On top of that I will have to go and edit the website itself to present all of that content in a somewhat convincing way. That means I have five different buckets. And by adding the time estimates of all the tasks that constitute each of those categories ; I have an idea of how much each block eats from the global time pool. So, it’s time to make a pie chart. I can still do that without leaving Typora, my text editor. I want to set my typical day in a way that mimics the overall project. If my illustration category represents 34% of the total time pool ; I will allocate 34% of any given day to that category.

This is done to ensure diversity at the local scale. I find switching tasks often to be beneficial both for productivity and for learning. Some degree of novelty keeps me alert and focused. It can also prevent unhealthy absorption into a single task that could easily border on obsession and lead to over-working parts of the project at the detriment of others.

It also promotes some degree of flexibility. In any given day I have the options to reorder the tasks to my liking. It can make it easier to get started provided there will most likely be at least a task I’m prone to doing at the moment. Once the ball is moving it gets easier to keep going with the least desirable tasks. There’s also the possibility to spend more time on a domain than initially planned ; as long as it is compensated for the next day. Having an idea of what the day should look like is in fact what matters most. “Plans are useless but planning is indispensable” said Dwight D. Eisenhower. That’s because every single conceivable parameter is bound to fluctuate, making the perfect plan inapplicable in real life. Still, planning is the part of the process where valuable information is gathered and thought-up that will inform us in all our on-the-spot decision making. Or to quote Jack Sparrow “the code is more what you’d call guidelines than actual rules”.

Draw a Gantt chart

Now we’re going to get into the knitty-gritty of what gets done when. Since we know how much time we’re going to work on each bucket each day and we know how long each task in the bucket should take to completion ; we can draw a Gantt chart. Timelines and tasks get converted to horizontal bars showing start and end dates. This is a really useful tool for anyone who plan to run tasks in parallels.

There’s a bit of ordering that goes into it initially. Of course ; we should take dependencies into account and not plan child tasks before their respective parent task are completed, it goes without saying.

Once all is said and done we end-up with an eye-pleasing diagram that tells you everything you need to know. All the deadlines are there. The completion dates for such and such task are clearly indicated.

If the planning was accurate ; it only requires constant execution the “typical” day to meet all the dead lines without additional trouble. Of course things rarely go that smoothly.

Garbage collect

There’s one more safety measure I like to implement. One I call the garbage collector. The term is borrowed from computer science. It is the systematic recovery of all the crap that programs leave hanging in memory when it is no longer needed. In the context of project management ; what I’d call garbage collecting is similar in that it’s all about taking care of the stinky trash we tend to leave behind. What I mean is that, I at least, have a tendency to get tasks to an almost finished stage. You know those times when you’re like “well there’s only this little bit left to do, it should take a quarter of an hour at best”. Maybe you’ve written a bunch of blog articles but they’re not published yet and they could benefit from a last proofreading. Maybe you noticed a missing detail in a painting after the fact and you thought you would take care of it later. Maybe there’s a transition you were left unsure with on a score you sped-run yesterday and you are pretty sure you’d fix it in no time with fresh ears at some other time in the unspecified future. Well, those things, although individually quite harmless ; they tend to add-up quite fast ! Way faster than we imagine. There’s a saying that the last 10% of a project take up 90% of the time. This is the reason! Putting off all the areas we are unsure of until the end tends to backfire big times. This is the crap we need to get rid off. A good habit to develop is to note each of those little things on a task list rather than relying on your memory to store the information and then scheduling work blocks dedicated to clearing said list. If it is done regularly enough, a very short amount of time is probably plain and sufficient to keep things under control. It functions just like chores. The dishes are best done everyday soon after their respective meal. It gets a lot messier the longer you wait.

Beat the clock

Once the plan is ready ; there’s only one thing to do and that is to get to work. Try and be fully present at each moment. Uninterrupted focus counts as work. Distracted time does not. Some sort of timer is a great aid when working in conjunction with some variant of the Pomodoro technique. Keeping track of how much time went into each task is also great feedback to have. It will promote better planning over time since everything starts with awareness. Again, keep in mind that only truly focused time counts. When your attention drifts ; stop the clock, stand-up, go for a walk, drink some water, think about anything but the task. Come back, start the clock again, keep going. Counting distracted time leads to the formation of a habit of working more and more hours at a lower efficacy level. It’s akin to self-deception. It is entirely possible to work more-than-full days while still getting very little done. We must remain aware of this trap. With those basics clearly understood, you can then try to do beat your own expectations. Provided they were reasonable in the first place, it should be possible to do so. Try and achieve your tasks faster than anticipated. And then, if you still have some energy after your typical day and nothing better to do ; maybe you can try adding some. I must add sport, sleep, and quality time with close friends and relatives are absolutely better things to do. However if the situation permits it ; there are certainly worse ways to use one’s time than to try getting ahead. Take it as a challenge. Running to the front and with a margin is a great feeling to experience ; as opposed to feeling behind every step of the plan and having to push harder and harder either way just to keep-up.

Plan often

Now as I mentioned several times ; it is a normal part of any plan to eventually break. After-all ; there is one way for the plan to go well and near-infinite ways for the plan to go slightly to completely wrong. Hopefully the safeguards we put in place as we planned should prevent things from derailing to the point where project completion in due time is compromised ; but if this happens to your plan, do not panic.

Maybe you are willing to brute-force your way through what is left. You should have time left on your typical day that you can reallocate for such an effort before eating away at your sleep if you planned well in the first place. I would strongly advise against doing that for prolonged or even recurring periods of time though. Keep in mind that efficacy will suffer ; this is not a linear process. Putting in twice the time does not get twice the work done ; far from it. Moreover it does not protect against further bad surprises and there won’t be any margin left then. If your only way to tackle such problems is to work more ; you will encounter a hard limit soon enough. And you will end-up with an inflated need to recharge afterwards. Burnout can take one to three years of recovery.

What I suggest instead is that It is time to sit down and go through the steps again from beginning to end. Draw an other plan. A revised, better plan.

Maybe this will involve stepping down the expectations again and limiting the scope of the project further if there is not enough time left to get it all done. Maybe it will mean allocating less time to some tasks and figuring out solutions to make that possible ; for example by switching technique to a less time consuming one. I’m not going to lie ; it might require getting seriously creative ; but time spent here will do wonders for your long-term health.

Maybe your deadline isn’t such a hard one and the solution might simply be to move it around a bit

However you do it, taking some time each week or at key moments such as mid-project to review what went well and what didn’t is good practice. The sooner you make the needed adjustments, the less likely you are to get eaten alive by stress.

On a side note, if you are doing contractor work ; know that the sooner you discuss displacing a deadline or modifying a brief with your client, the more likely that this discussion will go well. Put yourself in their shoes ; the really painful parts are the uncertainty of not knowing when and if the work will get done and last minute reshuffles that might negatively impact several other participants that depend on the completion of your part of the job to do theirs. Both of those are major stressors. If you give your clients time to see it coming ; they will most likely be able to adapt with minimal sweat broken. The worst case scenario would be to say nothing and fail to meet the agreed upon deadline. So please, share the Intel with your team, stay transparent.

With all that said ; I wish you some fine strategizing and lots of -hopefully- unneeded luck in all your endeavors ! Just remember to be as honest as you can with your time accounting at all steps of the process and you should be fine.

What makes pantologists worthwhile builds ?

16 minutes read —

“A pantologist is jack-of-all trades; one who likes to learn about many different things. Why specialize in one thing when there’s so much more you could do ? That would be boring.”
Urban dictionnary

Gaming foreshadowing

As a teenager, I used to play this wonderful game called Dofus. It’s an action RPG that used to feature 12 different character classes. As with most strategy games ; according to the current meta, some classes and builds were better performing than others. There were a bunch of archetypes that were true and tried so to speak ; the strong warrior, the agile rogue-like character, the fire cat and so on and so forth. I was playing an Osamodas. They are summoners. And they are typically a mid-range class with a strong emphasis on having the bigger HP pool. At least that’s how they were typically played. They rely on their creatures to inflict the damages and play hide and seek in the meantime. Sometimes they would buff-up their Intel stats and cast a bunch of fire spells that could benefit from that. I gave my Osamodas stronger stats in agility, strength and damage instead, as well as some HPs and a decent quantity of summons. At the time ; this was definitively not a thing. The Osamodas had a very limited to non existent deck of spells in those elements. But what it did for me was to render my character less vulnerable to close range combat when equipped with the appropriate weapon ; as well as better able to distance itself from its opponents should there be a need to, and even capable of topping-off the dps dealt by the summons during key moments. Although none of my character’s spells were high DPS ; they were almost all strong enough to end-up somewhat useful in specific situations that were calling for them. It was a highly adaptable character. And more importantly ; I had fun playing it. Every. Single. Time. I did not encounter situations were I was left with nothing to do and no hope at all to switch the board. Games were not made in advance. They were dependent on my ability to react appropriately to the current situation ; not some very obvious weakness that hadn’t been addressed during the prepping. As a result ; this was not a character that I played using the same recipe every time. Options were numerous and it was my job to sort through them in real-time.

The reason I bring this up is because I noticed patterns in the way people tend to play games and the way they approach the larger one called life. And sure enough ; I have this tendency to go wide in my interests and the skills I develop over time. I am certainly not the only one walking this path. Yet there is this emphasis on over-specialization these days. I want to examine what, in my opinion, makes the “Jack of all trades” experience so rich and worthwhile despite the drawbacks and limitations that we are sometimes quick to point out.

Specialization is over-rated

And sure enough ; there is a good rationale to justify specializing as soon as possible. For one ; it’s an easy path to market. You offer a solution to a specific problem. Explaining what you do comes with no difficulty ; you are simply the guy that does the thing. The expectations are crystal clear and from there ; should what you do fit the needs of the prospect, then you would be hired. Simple. Clients are willing to pay a premium for expertise. In addition to that ; if you were to hone a skill for many years ; you would develop efficiency as a side effect of repeating the same process many many times. This means speed. You’ve seen it all regarding that narrow topic ; you do not need to research or waste any time, you know what to do ; you’re on it already. And, done. More money in less time ; essentially. That is certainly a competitive advantage and that is the promise made by Adam Smith during the 18th century in his well known work “the Wealth of Nations”. Ultimately he argues, it is the better path to divide labor into multiple specialized units. Society as a whole benefits far more than if each person was to try and do it all by him or herself. As long as we are able to freely exchange goods and services ; there is no need for that anyways. Give people time to get uncannily good at their very specific craft by freeing them up of anything else they would otherwise have to do, others will take care of the rest of their needs by becoming good themselves at their own very specific craft.

That was the idea. The rest is history. Fordism happened. Labor was organized in a way where any individual was assigned a single task that he would repeat ad nauseum every day. And it worked. We, as a society, produced more cars, more fridges, more everything, and standards of living went up overall. Or did they ? The devil lies in the details. Although in this case, it might be more appropriate to talk about the elephant in the room. Rates of anxiety of depression have been steadily rising for decades since we started organizing our work-lives this way. Close to 15% of the population is stricken with enough anxiety to warrant a visit to a psychologist in France. The body also seems to suffer ; half of all French people are now overweight. Alienation is the term that is most often used to describe the lack of agency and overall disengagement from work felt by specialized workers. As we become more and more specialized, our work becomes more and more repetitive with little to no spot left for learning, improvisation, novelty. It turns into a chore. Research indeed suggests that functional specialization reduces job satisfaction while job enlargement programs contribute to enhanced work attitudes. Working as if we were cogs of larger machines just isn’t that fulfilling, especially on the long haul. We’ve essentially achieved a state of joyless productivity.

Jacks are resilient

Let me tell you about burn-outs. The term was first coined in 1974 by Herbert Freudenberg in his book “The High Cost of High Achievement”. He originally defined it as “the extinction of motivation or incentive, especially where one’s devotion to a cause or relationship fails to produce the desired results.”. The choice of words here seems remarkably accurate to me. People doing work they love and feel passionate about are particularly prone to burnouts as it can lead to obsessive passion as opposed to harmonious passion.

Trying to master any discipline is an enduring game. The time scale that is relevant is measured in years to decades of focus-intensive work. During all that learning time ; the craft isn’t going to pay its dividends. Plateaus are going to happen. It will seem we aren’t getting better anymore no matter how much harder we push. And most often, we first try to push much much harder indeed. Maybe we won’t get the jobs we thought we would get. Or maybe we’ll even get that perfect job, only to find out later it is no longer needed and be told the industry has moved on. No matter how we twist it ; we’re bound to encounter disappointments sooner or later as is the nature of life.

When that happens, if all you have to keep you afloat is a craft ; then you’re in trouble. Should you attach your entire identity to it ; you run the risk of feeling funny when it abandons you. Hyper-dedication comes at a cost. Basing your entire self-worth to a single discipline implies that the day you fail to perform will also be the day when you will feel worthless.

Opening multiple quests in parallels can prevent getting whipped-out of the game at the first burnout induced depressive state. You do not have one well of confidence. You have multiple. When you encounter that plateau there, you’re still climbing over here. The energy you get in either pursuit should sustain you during the flat-lines on your other quests.

It’s essentially the same idea that investors put to practice when they talk about diversification. You’ll find self-employed persons tend to put some emphasis on the idea of having “multiple streams of income”. Such an income structure is often highly valued as it allows one to stay afloat should one of those streams run dry. Although it might takes a very long time to develop a diverse portfolio, it offers the holder the luxury of resiliency. It’s the same with a skill-set.

Multi-quests foster full attention

In fact if you are interested in a wider learning experience overall, rather than being attached to mastering a single topic ; then you will find that splitting your attention might be really beneficial. Indeed, although you are dividing your energy bar in two or more ; you also get a bigger zeal pool overall since you avoid the near-complete life-force depletion that can ensue from obsessing over a single thread for too long. You’re feeling curious, energized, vibrant.

In fact some people’s productivity really benefits from doing 5 different tasks a day and rotating over those different skill-sets rather than trying to block-in 10 hours on single tasks. They are able to maintain speed easier. Multiple sprints are sometimes more efficient than going for that seemingly never-ending marathon. That sweet novelty factor really rejuvenates the brain in preparation for the next task. Being a little bit scattered might be a small price to pay in exchange for low-pain prolificness.

To put it bluntly ; no-one is able to perform at their best when they are bored. Getting into a flow-state requires an optimal challenge. And part of setting yourself up for an optimal challenge might be to pick multiple challenges instead. Juggling multiple balls is hard. But it can also ensure that you bring in your full attention to the table rather than half-ass life itself.

Diminishing returns when honing a skill

Plus you might have realized by now that learning a topic of interest comes with its specific learning curve. There’s no faster learning than that at the beginner stage of a new skill. Everything is new ; you’re building up from nothing. Jumping from 0 to 1 is infinitely rewarding. But then as you move on your quest ; you may notice a slow-down. You have already unlocked all the main branches. No it’s a matter of sorting through all those smaller ones. Maybe you’re even down to the leaf level. The stuff you learn does not make much of a difference anymore while simultaneously asking more of your time. It asks more and more out of you to produce similar scale improvements to those you once had. That my friend is what is called the Law of diminishing returns. It is an economic law stating that if one input in the production of a commodity is increased while all other inputs are held fixed, a point will eventually be reached at which additions of the input yield progressively smaller, or diminishing, increases in output. When we are confronted to such mechanics, and still regarding this whole thing through a lens of wanting to maximize learning overall ; we might think “Maybe I should invest that time unit in some other thread to maximize my overall learning experience ; this well is slowly getting exhausted”.

And you might be right. The Pareto principle states that 80% of the effects usually stem from 20% of the causes. In a learning environment that means that you can cover most of the knowledge tree in a somewhat limited time. The last 20% improvements are going to require the most effort by a large margin. This is especially true if you get good at identifying what the big branches are in any discipline in order to cover the most territory the fastest. And that in itself is a skill that is developed through the practice of learning multiple skills.

Meta-skill of learning new skills

Fortunately, being a pantologist comes with its own positive loop. Learning a topic well facilitates learning other topics. Rather than getting in the way ; past experiences are a stepping stones for the next skills to learn.

A staggering example are polyglots. The more languages they learn ; the faster they get at learning the next one. You might think that learning 10 languages would require 10 times more time than learning one ; and you would be wrong. YouTube Steve Kaufman’s counter is currently set at 18 languages acquired in the span of 14 years from age 60 to 74. At this point he does not teach specific languages ; he teaches how to learn languages which is the higher level skill that he has honed and perfected through his experience as a polyglot. There is no other way to max-out this one than to tackle multiple quests.

Knowledge compounds. You might find yourself thinking while learning a language “Oh, this specific part is just like english/french/russian/fill-in the gap”. The wider the territory, the higher the chances that there will be something for the new information to lean on ; making its acquisition easier than it would otherwise have been. Generalists naturally develop more transferable skills.

With that comes increased confidence. Generalists feel like they could do well in diverse situations. They have options and might feel like nothing is out of reach (of course they might be faced with the paradox of choices but that’s another story.)

I came across the following daring claim that I would gladly share despite its edge in celebration of all the jacks among us. “Intellectually curious men become generalists. Intellectually lazy men settle for being specialists.” – Mokokoma

Jacks can still be experts

There is this idea in marketing of the blue ocean.

The out-of-the-box course of action for any specialist is essentially to become better than everyone else in a single dimension. Beside the obvious psychological harm such line of thinking is inflicting on people, this can also be extraordinarily difficult to pull-off ; especially in saturated fields where competition is fierce. Although there sure is some existing demand to be exploited ; it is typically distributed to the few top dogs, unless you are willing to significantly cut on price in exchange for your service that’s essentially a lower-standards version of what they do. This gets tricky doesn’t it ?

Here is a solution. Find a market where there is essentially no competition. How would you do that, you ask ? Well, you create it from scratch. You do what no-one does. You venture into unexplored territory. The places where there are no guidelines. Yes ; this is also tricky. Maybe even trickier. But certainly being a jack-of-all-trades is adding to your odds on that front. Specialists tend to be so intensely focused on a localized field of knowledge that they render themselves blind to most things that do not fall in that category. If all you have is a hammer, then everything becomes a nail, essentially. In fact you would find that when things go sour, the well established figures in their field are usually not the ones turning luck around. The greatest breakthrough of this last century instead happened at the cross-section of several fields ; where knowledge and ideas from one field where used to push forward in the next. The essence of this strategy can be summed-up through this famous quote attributed to Henry Ford : “If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses.”

In that sense, possessing multiple skills is a great asset to have. There is distinctiveness that stems from the unique combination of competences that an individual can develop. No one else has that same exact baggage under their belts and it’s going to be hard for others to replicate since it took so long to develop all those various skills. One of the biggest challenges for the Jack of all trades among us will therefore be to figure out ways to make the various parts that constitute their skill-set work together rather than separately or even against each other. The relevant questions become ; how do they combine ? Where is the synergy ? Once you find out the blue ocean ; that unique recipe that you created is going to be unique enough so that you will become the de facto specialist in your micro-field. The whole will indeed become greater than the sum of its parts. At this stage you will be living the best life of any Jacks : the specialized you.

Leadership positions

While I’m on such an uplifting line of thinking, it should be noted that Jacks can make good leaders. Indeed, they’re so well versed in so many different topics than they can develop good overview of the different parts that go into any enterprise. They are good candidates for that “big picture thinking style” that’s required at the top of hierarchies. Military generals were called so because they were generalists. Strategizing is best done with a wide array of experiences to pull from. They know what can be expected from their team and can provide useful feedback. They understand how to channel the various expertise around them into a single light ray ; a skill they developed through their own effort to do so at the local level.

Jacks are also valued and appreciated in small companies where people typically need to wear more than a single hat in order to get the job done with the limited human resources available. In fact, even in larger companies, generalists are often the last people fired when things go sour. If you have only so much bucks to spend on labor, you might as well keep the guys who can cover the most ground. Switching gear quickly and adapting to changing environments with ease is best done by such people. Flexibility rather than being a liability is one of the greatest asset one can possess when resources get scarce. A player that can be used across a wide variety of strategies and who is redeployable are less substitutable than pure specialized workers.

And it might be said that at an even smaller scale ; working any independent profession absolutely requires some of those qualities. Being one’s own boss is a Jack position. A typical day would probably include the main craft, prospecting, marketing, maybe some teaching ; and almost certainly a pinch of creativity to continually figure out new and better ways to make it all work. Most independent artists have to become de facto Jacks in order to do at the local level what others dedicate whole teams to doing. Generalists as freelancers can even become one-stop shops. Competence in many fields might spare clients the need to go to numerous places for hire to get their needs met. The cat who markets him or herself as a designer might also be one’s de facto marketer, virtual assistant, writer and else of their clients.

Time ; the limiting factor

After all that deliberating, maybe you might agree with me that there is a lot going on in favor of becoming some sort of generalist. Yet there is this huge non-negligible caveat. Learning many skills well enough so that they are useful and pay dividends requires massive amounts of learning time. Although they are most-likely not all going to reach specialist standards ; all the generalist skills still need to get mastered enough so that they become useful and practical in real-life situations. They need depth. As a consequence, good generalists are often late to the party. They need a lot of prep’ time and make their best contributions during the end-game rather than early-on. Time is a commodity that is tough to unlock in a world where merely living comes at great expanses. We all need roofs over our heads and food on our tables. Securing enough time is a major challenge for people walking down this path but absolutely necessary to develop that depth that should go along with the range in order to make it useful.

Moreover even older generalists with a lot of skills at their command still cannot handle more than a task at a time. Until they become able to replicate themselves and become multiples ; they follow the same physical laws as everyone else. They need 7,5 hours of sleep and can only operate within the limited wake time they have on their hands. Although they can work on seemingly anything at any moment ; they cannot work on everything. Adaptable does not mean omnipotent. Prioritizing is even harder for such people because of the crippling paradox of choices that perpetually lies in front of them. Being competent at multiple skills does not make it any easier to decide on what to do on a moment to moment basis.

On the other hand you can also twist the table and understand that time is generalists biggest ally. Jack of all trades get better with age. They are like fine wine. Their efforts to continually learn means their skillset is never done expending until it becomes seemingly all encompassing. They will ultimately find a way to combine all the elements of their toolkit into a unified expression. And although it might require a leap of faith to pursue effort during the developing phase of all their branches ; eventually things will connect in a way that is going to be unique to them and representative of their truly unique life-experience.

An ideal worth fighting for

Finally and most importantly ; the pantologist’s path is the funniest there is. Note that I might be biased in saying that. However, being a Jack of all trades means never being bored a single day again. Having a mouth constantly full of new knowledge is a great way to live life to the fullest. It brings intensity to the picture ; it makes the colors pop so to speak. It might even be a bit funnier for the people around, or at least for the 99% of people who do not happen to be specialists in the very same area you do.

Of course nor pure generalists nor pure specialists actually exist in the real world and maybe we would be better off discussing specialized generalists and generalized specialists. The ideal figure would be that of a pit of knowledge that is both richly wide and masterfully deep. That ideal figure we call the Renaissance man and is best exemplified by the figure of Leonardo Da Vinci ; one of the deepest generalist to ever walk the earth. Such a man would have loved the internet, that’s for sure ! There’s never been an easier time to pursue such an ideal. Difficult as it might seem ; I feel it is worth pursuing.

How to achieve healthier productivity ?

17 minutes read —
Why should we even be productive ?

There’s nothing natural about working the way we do in our modern cultures. The human brain and body were never designed to sit at a desk and work all day long and there’s a real possibility that we are asking too much of it. The statistics for depression and anxiety have done nothing but rise since the industrial revolution. For people aged 18 to 24 ; the rates of anxiety have doubled in the last decade alone. It’s staggering. It seems the surge in productivity we kept asking for in the OCDE came at a cost. We are increasingly overfed, malnourished, sedentary, sunlight-deficient, sleep-deprived, and socially-isolated ; all of which are risk factors for mental health problems. Burnout is a thing. Tim Urban pointed out in his talk about procrastination that if you were born a dog, doing nothing but eating when hungry and sleeping when tired would have meant you were a pretty successful dog. Why should we act any different ?

Well the thing is ; we’re not dogs. We somehow managed to develop awareness of the future. And given the huge mess we’re perpetually in, this is causing us anxiety. It ensues that a lack of productivity is a common and massive source of suffering for many as it invites more chaos into our lives. We’re surrounded by those constraints and we feel that in order to survive them, we need to up our game and tackle all problems one by one without a frown. There seemingly aren’t enough hours in the day to meet all the demands that fall upon us nor those we impose on ourselves. Speeding-up it seems, might get us out of a perpetual state of overwhelm by helping us manage our work-lives better.

And beside sheer surviving our circumstances ; we also understand that we can expect around 29 000 living days if all goes according to plan ; about 9 500 of which have already been consumed in my case. That’s almost a third of my life expectancy gone already. Then we start considering the implications of that thought. We have aspirations, an ideal self we strive to become, things we feel we need to do before we pass. We might need a little push on the accelerator if we truly want to get the most out of our earthly time.

Recognizing that, the question becomes ; how to become more productive while simultaneously managing the risks associated with it ? What is an healthy way to get the most out of ourselves ? We certainly do not want to brute force our way to productivity like those guys in japan who end up dying on their work place from some sort of heart failure or suicide, but still we can’t realistically nor aspirationally keep staring at clouds all days either. So what’s the plan ?

Work capacity and happiness go together

First of all ; we should acknowledge that being productive while remaining happy and healthy is possible. In fact it might even be downright necessary. Research tells us Happy people are more productive by as much as 12%. But it goes further than that and is probably more like a two way street : conscientiousness could equally lead to a state of being happier as it allows one to mitigate the uncertainties that come with life. The big five trait Conscientiousness is all about things such as “grit” and “work-ethic”. Conscientious people tend to be the more productive people in our society. Here are some of the things conscientious people are more likely to do ; exercise, maintain proper sleep and diet, do not miss bill payments, keep their promises, show up on time. They are less likely to engage in risky behaviors such a smoking and heavy drinking. They are good at self-regulation and impulse control. You could easily see how that could lead to a happier life, especially on the long run.

Although the five big traits are different enough so as to grant them different labels ; there exist some correlation between different traits which result in various clusters. One such cluster bas been nicknamed “the role model”. People falling in that category are high in agreeableness, high in conscientiousness, low in neuroticism, high in extroversion and high in openness to experience. It turns out scorings on the Conscientiousness and the Agreeableness scale increase with age ; to some small degree they work in tandem. Neuroticism decreases with age. The personality cluster we call the role model could just as well be called Wisdom as we are more likely to fit into that category as we age. Now, there is of course such a thing as too much Conscientiousness ; and it paradoxically correlates with poor success at work. Decisions take longer, the ability to improvise and prioritize is lost. Those people are no fun, that’s for sure. It might even start to resemble obsessive compulsive disorder past a certain threshold. That being said ; the more complex jobs require and tolerate more conscientiousness than simpler jobs ; in part because they are also the jobs with the greater degree of freedom and thus the employee’s personality impacts the outcome way more. For artistic jobs ; especially for those traveling the independent road ; you probably could benefit from some more work-ethic.

Willpower alone doesn’t work

But please keep in mind ; Conscientiousness is not about flogging yourself day in and day out.

Truth is ; we are and will remain fallible. The planning and monitoring part of you really isn’t anywhere close to omnipotent. It is subjected to distractions and moods. Therefore you cannot rely on it to prevent the slips. As strong as you are at battling your various urges ; you cannot fight your way to productivity indefinitely. You’ll get tired. It’s only a matter of time before you get derailed. I’d go as far as saying that if discipline feels painful ; you are most likely doing it wrong. There are ways to work 12 hours work days where you’re enjoying every minute of it. I’m sure you had some of those days. You were flowing through the whole thing and then woke up early the next morning with your head still filled with ideas to pursue the run even further. It was agreeable. Blissful even. Were you brute-forcing your way through productivity then ? I doubt so. Conversely, there were also times where even 30 minutes of focused attention felt like utmost torture. How did going harder on yourself went ? For me it resulted in headaches and barely any more work done. It might even produce a deep hatred for the work itself from which one may never recover. After all, why should you keep working on stuff that’s hurting you every single time ? Is it conceivable that maybe the hyper-productive people among us are not doing it through self-abuse ? Our minds wouldn’t comply to that.

In fact they don’t : that’s how burnouts come into existence. Although you can will yourself into working hard for a time, unless the work starts to feel good and rewarding at some point ; there’s no way this is going on indefinitely. You will lose motivation, your willpower will fail, and all will ultimately crash. Denying and rejecting your emotions simply won’t work. What about acknowledging instead that you truly don’t fucking want to sit and work your ass-off right now. That you are distractible. That you have a tendency to not finish stuff. That you aren’t that great at following through with your longer plans. That you do prevent yourself from asking the help you need. And then prevent yourself from going after your own mind with a fork and from shouting all sorts of insults at it. Respect your challenges. Avoid thinking that somehow you’re fucked-up for falling short on such an “easy task”. They are not easy tasks by any mean. You need to work with your emotions rather than against them. An healthy approach to productivity is based on self-acceptance. And yeah. Achieving that is way more complicated than it sounds.

Self-criticism has its limits

The idea of giving yourself the benefit of the doubt and sticking to your own side even when you’re under-performing can feel a little scary and for good reasons. Would you remain productive if you stopped spending so much energy condemning your bad behaviors ? Certainly if you weren’t bullying yourself all the time you would become contempt and stop moving forward all together. If you admitted to be the way you are ; what do you fear would happen ?

I would object that first of all ; self-criticism isn’t as good a motivator as we made it to be. Self-critics are much more likely to be anxious and/or depressed. The most prominent symptom of depression is a lack of motivation and will to do ; a bias towards inaction. One way to manage anxiety is to procrastinate ; which is another bias towards inaction. An other way to manage anxiety is through excess of control ; and that admittedly could get you going as far as productivity goes ; but it also shatters resilience should anything go wrong. And for sure things will go wrong. And then you would hard stop through lower self-efficacy beliefs and a growing fear of failure ; an other path to inaction. Ultimately self-critics just stop trying to achieve their goals when they can’t take the self abuse anymore.

To understand all this jumble clearly ; picture a parent dealing with the problem of his kid not doing so great at math. It’s well established by now that the harsh and critical approach doesn’t work well enough. You won’t motivate the kid by telling him how stupid and useless he is. The fatal line would be to tell him how hopeless he is, leaving him no room for improvement even in imagination. “Why even bother?”, asks the kid, resigned and now ready to give up math altogether.

Self-compassion has merits

A better path would be to act understanding and supportive. Not bullying the kid for his failings ; as it is a fact of life that everybody fails at some things some times. It’s instead about displaying confidence in the kid’s ability to rise to the challenge. Offer help, look for solutions to accommodate him. This approach is NOT about ignoring the problem and letting it slide. When problems need attention, they need attention ; there’s no way around that. You’re still doing what needs to be done. That being said ; aggravating the child’s suffering is not going to help. So let’s alleviate it instead. Give him back some much needed strength in the form of hope. That’s a great gift to grant someone.

If you reflect back on your own history ; you might find, maybe, that the time periods where you felt the more motivated and driven where also periods where you’ve had family members, friends or significant others put faith in you despite knowing all about your flaws and shortcomings. They believed in you when you yourself weren’t even sure if you were worth believing in. Such encouragements ; they can last you for years. These are the purest energy pills you’ll ever find.

Self-compassion is the same, except in that story you are both the child and the parent responsible for helping the child. It’s a completely different story than that of the boss and the employee. Now all parts of yourself are working in the same team rather than one against each other. If you can pull it off, it’s a killer team.

In fact there is growing research suggesting that people who have developed a solid sense of self compassion set high-standards for themselves yet aren’t upset when they fail to meet them. They are more likely to set new goals for themselves after failure rather than wallowing in feelings of frustration. They’re fueled with more intrinsic motivation ; they try hard because they want to grow and enjoy the process rather than to impress themselves or others. They take responsibility for past mistakes while not getting bugged down by them. They have an easier time sticking to healthier behaviors such as not smoking or exercising, which have the potential to kickstart positive loops. That’s all good and well as far as I’m concerned.

Your challenges should be respected

Plus, I might add that you know perfectly well that it’s not fair to bash yourself this much.

I’d like to remind you that studies have shown that people typically manage around 3 to 4 hours of truly focused productive time. Everything above should be taken as a bonus rather than a must. If you’ve ever tried to maximize the amount of hours working on your personal projects ; you might have noticed a very noticeable and brutal drop in concentration past a certain point. This is not something to lose sleep over. It is perfectly normal and working while in the midst of brain fog can even be counter-productive at time ; adding to your pile of future work the necessity to rewrite, repaint, rerecord all the crap you mind-numbingly produced earlier. The fact that you can’t produce anything worthwhile and you’ve been at it for hours already and your brain is fried is fine in my book.

Moreover it takes a long time to turn intentional behaviors into second nature. Even when you build yourself good routines ; they can easily revert back to their previous state should a negative event occur. It is a protective mechanism ; we have a tendency to crawl back to what we know when our learned behaviors fail. If you get punished after you tried working hard for a while in the form of say a lack of results ; you would have a natural tendency to let go of the reins for a while. It is normal and to be expected. You need to be patient with yourself and try again without dwelling on the past slip.

Beside you’re operating against a whole world of internet companies and other entertainment industries that are doing nothing but conspiring on how to steal as much of your focused attention as they possibly can. They are many and you are one.

Not everyone is dealt the same hand at life. Whatever it is that is pushing you back ; you can’t put this much expectations on your shoulders. We all have our unique sets of strengths and challenges and they both need to be equally respected. Just because some behaviors come easier to others do not make them trivial the least bit. You need to celebrate every win on the path and not get discouraged. Just play your cards the best you can and keep trying. No cursing.

Oh and there’s also that other little trap that we need to avoid : we shouldn’t judge ourselves for not being self-compassionate enough ! Funny how our minds work sometimes, isn’t it ? It is what it is ; just accept it ; move from there.

Help yourself the way you do others

So ; how do you get better at all this self-compassion crap ? Maybe the parent in you isn’t well developed and you do not know where to start. Here is a take on the issue : try putting other people first for a while. Helping other people almost certainly comes at a cost for oneself ; yet we tend to do that quite naturally. We expend energy and do it regardless of how we’re feeling in the moment. Altruism is training our mind’s capacity to set aside what we want in favor of what is good for someone. We’re generally way better at doing stuff for people we care for than we are at helping ourselves. It is way more likely that you’ll drag yourself into doing something as simple as even cooking if you’ve got someone dependent on you to eat tonight. Had that just been you ; you might have skip that meal; but now you’re cooking and even doing a good job at it. It’s not that you aren’t tired anymore or you’ve suddenly been stricken with a strong urge to cook. It’s more that doing it feels more important than the pain associated with it. If you’re a single mom whose only child is left over in your home country and is dependent on money you send him to get by ; then you’re not going to fail your obligations and you’ll keep coming back for work ; even those days when it is excruciatingly painful. You are sacrificing for the sake of something or someone beyond yourself and you draw strength from that. And as you do that, you are training your mind to be less impulsive ; to not get controlled by your own cravings. This is where the bridge to the idea of self-compassion comes in. A conscientious person would treat themselves as someone they are responsible for helping.

And to be clear, doing stuff for others doesn’t require high levels of empathy. There’s two components to empathy ; one is emotional empathy, the other is cognitive empathy. People on the second category do not act out altruistically from an ability to feel the pain of others in their skin ; they do it cognitively. They’re are many good people who aren’t empathic in the traditional sense. They choose to act altruistically. And here is a good argument in favor of doing so : putting others first can train you to become more conscientious. It fits the finding that empathy is positively associated with conscientiousness. Try it out ; the worst that can happen is you’ll have done some good around you in your attempt. The best that can happen is you’ll also up your conscientiousness stat leaving you better equipped to tackle future challenges.

Practical tools for better productivity

Productivity is emotion management first and foremost. However, once you’ve put your mind in a place where your interests are finally aligned with your feelings ; you can start looking into more practical advice on how to get more productive. Here are some of mines.

When asked student reckon they waste 5 to 6 hours a day on average. You might want to check it for yourself using time trackers such as Rescue Time to properly fathom how vast your margin for improvement really is. Awareness is the first step prior to tackling any problem. Once you realize just how much time goes to social media, mails, YouTube and the likes, and just how little goes into genuinely productive time ; you might be tempted to try and max-out the amount of time dedicated to your work. And maybe you should do that for a time in order to realize how far you can push yourself. But I’ would imagine you would eventually find out that it’s not all that sustainable especially when you start doing it through the constant use of a metaphorical stick.

What I would like you to do instead is to pay special attention to how focused or scatter-brained you feel on a moment to moment basis when you are working. Those states correspond to two different modes of thinking that have a natural oscillation from one another that must be respected. When you start to feel the burn ; get up and do something else ; let your mind wander for a while. Come back fresh 5 minutes later and plunge back into focus mode. I found it really important to allow the scatter to happen. It’s all to easy to spend hours staring at the computer screen while producing virtually nothing of value. I would call that the zombie mode. If you find yourself in zombie mode ; immediately stop. You are hurting yourself. The Pomodoro technique is a wide-used tool that taps on that natural oscillation and have been proven to substantially boost employees productivity. Meditation practice can also increase the likeliness that you would catch yourself when the switch from focused to diffuse happens.

Beside that ; managing your environment is often the easier road to take when it comes to maximizing the likeliness that you will be effective during your work session. You need a dedicated space for your work. It is especially important if you’re working from the comfort of your own home. Eliminate distraction as best you can. If your entire living space feels like a dark playground ; then consider spending time in public libraries. I absolutely love them. That’s the first places I visit when traveling to new cities. There’s just a reliable “place to work” mood that I find really helpful. As an added bonus ; walking there also ensures that you get your vitamin D through sun exposure (on that note ; know that if you have a dark skin ; you need even more sun time that your paler friends).

While I’m at it ; you will likely find that among all potential culprits ; bad sleep is the most potent productivity killer by a long shot. There’s just no way you’re going to be consistently efficient if you’re under-slept all days every days. In fact lack of proper sleep is a hallmark of depression. Paying attention to sleep hygiene is really important and it starts with seeing the sun in the morning. When late for bed ; you should still try and wake up at your normal time and see the early lights of day in order not to unset your circadian rhythms. Know that glasses block-out at least half of the rays ; it’s better to physically get out or at least open those damn windows for that to count. Doing so will prevent you from sleeping even later the following night, which is all too easy. You can still go back to sleep and finish your night as long as you’ve exposed yourself to sunlight at a normal waking time. It goes without saying that late screen lights are sub-optimal.

Next ; routines make life way easier. They take out the decision making out of the equation ; which prevents decision fatigue. You do not think about brushing your teeth each day and yet you do it consistently and without effort. That’s the beauty of routines. They are built one at a time through conscious effort. Try to maintain a routine for a prolonged period of time. 30 days is often what people go for. During that time you should only focus on executing the habit at all rather than executing the habit perfectly. If you’re trying to exercise ; just go for a couple of push-ups everyday until it becomes a normal part of your day. You will naturally go for more over time ; do not worry about it. Just worry about consistency. Consistency over-time leads to huge improvements.

In the same vein ; planning takes some of that moment to moment deciding off your plate. What has been decided is not to be decided anymore and that certainly clears the mind from unnecessary uncertainty. It will ground you in the present moment better. Journaling can also be used to take your feelings and emotions off your head and to the page ; which comes with the same benefits of clearing the mind and getting it ready for solid work.

Finally ; sports are important. They get your heart to pump blood all over your veins and arteries and that scrubs the whole system all the way to your brain. You get better oxygen flow and that will translate to an easier time maintaining focused attention. It also helps prevent depression and/or anxiety. And it’s pretty the only thing you can do to minimize the loss of fluid intelligence that typically occurs when ageing. Not sudokus. Sport. It is vastly underrated quite frankly. “If exercise could be packaged in a pill, it would be the single most widely prescribed and beneficial medicine in the nation.” Robert Butler, National Institute on Aging.

Final note

I hope those tips were useful, but here is the thing ; we are all figuring it out as we go ; it’s a never ending work in progress. Developing a system of getting things done takes experimentation. It’s going to be different from person to person. It might even be different at different points in the life of a same and unique person. Tricks often come with an expiration date. So the whole process is going to need constant tweaking. Sometimes you will function as a well oiled machine ; sometimes not so much. Sometimes you will feel like you are making progress, only to accidentally step back a feet or two into numbness. Life happens. It is hard to keep pushing when the weather isn’t so great. Respect your challenges. Try and help yourself rather than boss yourself around. You are a human being trying his best through adversity. That’s certainly something to be reckoned.

Good luck. I wish you the best.

How to learn ?

15 minutes read —
Learning takes time

Mastering any topic of interest takes time. In fact author Malcom Gladwell popularized the idea that it takes 10 000 hours of deliberate practice to reach mastery of any given field. To get to that number, he picked up on a research done by Anders Ericsson among violin students. The guy found out that the most accomplished players among them had reached 10 000 thousand hours of practice time before they were 20. Gladwell pursued this analysis by examining figures such as the Beatles or Bill Gates. Turns out they all put in their 10 000 hours before they made the contributions they’re most well known for. Now, obviously ; 10 000 thousand hours is a bit of an arbitrary number. You might even say a gross over-simplification. Maybe we’re talking a bit over that figure, maybe somewhat under. Most likely that would depend on a variety of factors. But the point remains ; mastering a topic requires mobilizing vast amounts of time. Considering 6 hours seems to be the very upper-limit of truly focused time one can achieve in a day without burning oneself out ; it would theoretically require almost 5 years of full time studying to master a subject. Less than that and you easily go up to a decade or more. I might add than for those of us with more than one interest ; that number is multiplied by this much. It might be fair to say we’re in for a marathon rather than a sprint. And marathons need preparation. So let’s ask the question ; how to optimize learning ?

Access to information

On the question “what should you learn” ; you’re free to choose, but I would highly suggest learning English as soon as possible. Obviously that check-mark has already been crossed if you are reading this. You might even be a native English speaker. Yet I still want to discuss how much of a meta-skill that is. A meta-skill is essentially a higher-order skill that enables and empowers other skills to happen. Now, when it comes to learning ; as human beings we do most of that from culture. Sure, we’re born with some built-in function, such as the fear of heights or a bunch of other safety skills. But we’re mainly vastly handicapped when we first pop-in the world. We make up from that by picking up from people around us everything that we need to now ; and we quickly realize we need language for that purpose. Unfortunately the language we’re assigned as children is pretty random. For me, I inherited the French build. The thing is ; we live in the 21st century. We have access to a library of knowledge that is updated daily with an additional 2.5 quintillion bits of data. The important part is this : 60.4% of the content online is written in English. That’s huge. If I were to search only in french ; I would be limited to a mere 2.6% of the internet. I would have access to almost 25 times less information. And it’s not even that small a share compared to other languages. On that basis, Russian would be next in line as a language to learn and still, it only represents 8.5% of the internet. Spanish occupies the third spot with a 4% share. I hope I made clear why learning English will assure that all your needs are forever met when it comes to accessing pertinent and up to date information. Once it’s done, you’re ready to go down the rabbit hole of never-ending learning.

Fluid intelligence

The ability to learn new information and problem solve is called fluid intelligence. It stands in opposition to crystallized intelligence which refers to previously learned procedures and knowledge, essentially. In the field of psychology ; fluid intelligence is in large part encompassed through an IQ score. IQ research has been developed in the 1920’s and is a well established branch of psychology by now. It has good predictive validity when it comes to academic achievements, although the big five trait conscientiousness (which you could rebrand as “grit”) also accounts for a significant share of the variance ; the rest being accounted for by socioeconomic factors. The way the IQ tests are designed is as follow ; throw a large number of random test at people. They could be anything. Math problems, general knowledge, vocabulary, anything. See how well people respond. If there’s a correlation between respondents scores on one set of questions and some other set of questions ; then we might assume that there’s something that’s measured that is common across all sets. That something we call generalized intelligence or IQ. An other way to phrase it ; IQ is what is common across all possible sets of intelligence tests.
There’s a bunch of facts that are interesting to know regarding the evolution of your intelligence. For the youngest readers, you should know that you have not reached top speed yet. Your fluid intelligence is going to peak at roughly age 25. It will essentially remain fixed for a while before it will go down significantly as you age towards your sixties. Interestingly no amount of sudoku is going to fix that. The best factor to limit the affects of ageing on intelligence ; is physical activity. It’s all about pumping that blood through the veins and cleaning-up the mess that’s accumulating every day to ensure good O2 supply to the brain.
What’s more ; you should know that insufficient sleep absolutely lowers how well people perform on IQ tests. In fact a bunch of shorter nights in a row can easily translate to a loss of 15 points or more on the scale. Sleeps creates new synapses in your brain and also cleans existing synapses from toxins that accumulate all day every day. You really shouldn’t ever pass on sleep if you can avoid it.

The role of dopamine

If you are going to learn anything, you are going to need some fresh dopamine. Dopamine is a neurochemical that’s involved in motivation regulation. If you can’t get yourself to focus on your learning ; there’s a good chance your brain isn’t releasing associated dopamine ; or to say it at the experience level ; you simply find the subject quite boring and you can’t for the life of you get yourself to enjoy the thing. Turns out dopamine is produced when we do things we enjoy and so enjoying the subject at hand greatly facilitates learning and retention.
Stimulant drugs such as methamphetamine or cocaine have a direct effect on the production of dopamine in the brain. In fact methamphetamine releases up to 1500 units of dopamine in the brain. To compare that to something you might be familiar with : sex increases dopamine up to 200 units. It ensues that methamphetamine is by far the most pleasant experience one can have, although I wouldn’t recommend it to anyone since 19 out of 20 people get addicted to it. One thing it does ; is make the user really interested in mundane shit. Math dunces would suddenly become weirdly passionate about math ; “I would want to be the calculus master and I would study this shit for eight days and eight nights and not even be a little bored of it”. In fact dopamine is such a key element in the equation for what makes a good learner that medication for ADHD people who have trouble staying focused are all essentially stimulant drugs such as metylphenidates and amphetamines ; the most well known among them being Ritalin and Adderall respectively.

The fun in learning

Now ; I need to point out ; distractability is common among intelligent people. In fact it might even be a necessary part of being smart. Being uninterested in a task at hand is one way to see the problem ; an other might be that the dude is more interested in other things crossing his or her attention all the time. If you’re going to have something called generalized intelligence, you’re going to need a mechanism to push you to explore the width of available learning, not just to hammer the same subject in depth (although ADHD also make people hyper-focused when they actually enjoy the topic at hand). When under control, they make for T-shaped learning profiles ; where one is highly competent on a topic or two and also has breadth of knowledge reaching out far from main land.

If you want to maximize for learning ; you will have to go for what you find interesting. This is were the overused “follow your passion” comes into play. What if that part keeps changing however and you lack follow through on anything ? The other, sometimes more practical road to travel would be to learn how to make your learning more enjoyable ; and I mean that without relying on drugs. In fact if you’re going to try and focus on the same thing for years ; it’s going to be downright necessary to do so in some measure. Modern culture is phenomenal at grabbing people’s attention and so I bet we can learn a thing or two from what they do to achieve that result. This is were things such as gamification come into play. Video-games are really good at keeping you aroused and focused for extended periods of time. One reason why is because they keep offering a challenge that’s level with your current skills. It’s not so easy that you get bored, and not so hard that you get anxious and rage quit. This is also -ideally- the role of a good teacher to present the subject in a way that is as interesting as can possibly be ; adapting the material to its student so that he stays engaged. In fact hands-on learning always wins over reading books, especially at that debut phase where one needs to find the curiosity first. On the internet, the video format is the winner when it comes to grabbing people attention ; far out-pacing the written word. The more sensory organs involved, the better.

First principles, learning trees.

Getting into the heart of the matter ; when tackling any subject ; you should consider that field of knowledge as a tree branching out in all kind of directions with a bunch of leafs on the outer periphery. As a learner, your goal should be to unlock the trunk and big branches as fast as possible. They are your fundamental principles on which every little facts and details rest. You need them before you can even properly digest the specifics ; otherwise they won’t have anything to hand onto. You risk collecting a bunch of disjointed knowledge and being unable to make sense of them. As a example you’re likely to have encountered ; think of the branch of mathematics. It is a highly sequential, tree-like field. You might have notice that if you miss a level ; it becomes next to impossible to make sense of the next floor and everything falls flat. You can try to rote learn a solution or two for specific problems but you won’t be able to adapt to even slightly different problem statement. That’s the difference between knowing and understanding. The one who understand can pivot and generate new solutions.
The thing is ; it can take a little while to get those core principles down. In fact the reason recipes are popular is because they are extremely efficient. Staggeringly efficient. Just follow through step one to ten and you’ve got yourself a cake. Easy-peasy. The thing is ; if you develop a sense of the underlying chemistry and some of the fundamentals of cooking ; you start being able to produce not only this cake but any cake really ; new cakes even. You’re no longer a cook but a chef. The one collecting recipes would have acquired a dozen or so different cakes recipes while you would now have a quasi limitless possible cakes list from which to draw at any time ; creativity is unlocked. In exchange for understanding you get exponential growth once all the pieces are in place even though it might take a while to take off the ground.
When considering language acquisition ; the trunk might be grammar while the leaves might be vocabulary. In painting ; the trunk might be things like perspective, color theory, values, form, brushwork or composition. The leafs would be any particular object, any particular lighting scenario. In music your fundamentals would be things like intervals, chord relationships, modulations, or maybe rhythm and timing ; while the leaves would be specific songs or licks. You get the point ; time is better spent on those big fat branches. The Pareto principle states that 80% of the outputs come from 20% of the inputs. Don’t get me wrong ; the specifics are important as they are ultimately what is seen from afar ; but you sure as heck will have a much easier time grabbing and remembering them once you can connect everything back to your core anyway. Grammar is your 20-80 input. Master the trunk.

Teaching as a learning tool

Here is a great way to test one’s understanding of any topic : teach it to someone else. Write it down. Talk it out.
Turns out we ourselves are the easiest person to fool. It’s really easy to believe we have it all figured out until we try to get it out to people and can’t help but notice how shaky the ground seem to be at the moment, how full of contradictions we are, how many gaps are still left to be filled. Richard Feynmann was an american physicist who got known as “the great explainer”. His method of learning essentially consisted in formulating stuff as if you were to teach it to a child and then going back to the material each time a gap was identified until full understanding is achieved. It’s about finding the simplicity in the most complex subject matters. In fact, you’ll find teaching as a learning method has a long history to back it up. The Master-apprentice model for painters that was in use during the Renaissance used to divide to time as follow ; about a third would be used learning from one’s master ; an other third would be used practicing on your own ; and the last third would be spent teaching.

Understanding is insufficient. Chunking.

In order to truly master a topic understanding is insufficient though. I need to point out in case it’s not self-evident that no-one has ever mastered dancing by reading books about dance alone. Knowing stuff is not enough ; it has to become automatic. It has to become so ingrained that one does not need to even think about it to put the knowledge into practice. The way that is achieved is through chunking.
The basic idea is that neurons that fire together wire together. Meaning ; as you repeat the same movements, pieces of logic, whatever ; you are in effect reinforcing neural pathways within your brain. They become well practiced neural chunk that can be conceptualized as very compact packages of information that your mind can easily access. As an example ; you can picture what happens when you talk. You are not thinking about how to move your lips or tongue ; you are not overly aware of any of the mechanics that goes into it. Your mind thinks a word and then the entire sequence of actions needed to produce the word just happen. It’s remarkable isn’t it. Yet ; it once was incredibly difficult to do so. In fact if you are currently learning a new language you might have noticed how painfully conscious you need to be in order to produce some of those foreign sounds. Yet if you keep practicing, this is going to get easier and easier until you can do it like you breath. Chunking is compression. A compressed thought require incredibly less storage space in working memory.
It ensues that although practicing is a focus intensive sport ; the master is doing most of the work out of his own awareness. It’s all happening at the subconscious level. The improviser musician just think notes ; the fingers seemingly move on their own. The painter is watching himself paint, thinking the gods must be doing the work. At this point, knowledge becomes intuition. You no longer know how you’re even doing what you are doing. Yet you’re doing it.

Attention natural rhythm

When your focusing on your learning ; the relevant neural chunks get loaded into your working memory. Working memory can be conceptualized as the RAM in your computer. It’s a temporary storage space that is used to connect ideas in the moment. Each time concepts are loaded into working memory ; their pathway gets reinforced and they end up sliding into long term memory. Focusing endlessly on the same stuff for hours does not do much more to engrave it ; it’s much more about that initial recalling. So, when you learn something you should do your best to forget it as fast as possible. Stop thinking about it. And then recall it. Go through that cycle again and again.
From there we get to the concept of spaced repetition. It is the exact opposite of the idea of cramming. Whereas student typically binge their lessons the day before an exam all in one sitting ; it would be much more efficient to rather study a little bit each day (that is, assuming the goal is to develop a long term relationship with the information).

At the local level ; the mind in fact naturally does something like that all the time. There’s two distinct mode of operation it uses. One is called the default mode network ; and corresponds to your experience of a wandering mind. When the brain is operating this way ; it jumps from topic to topic seemingly randomly. It makes long range connections between disparate chunks.
The second is the focus mode. It’s when your attention is devoted to a particular topic. Connections made in this mode are short range ; localized. It happens when you are trying to solve a problem.
The brain naturally oscillate between those two modes of functioning. Although it really likes to be focused, it cannot do so endlessly. It needs to grab some fresh air every once in a while ; just forget everything at hand ; make those distant-range connections, and get itself ready to get back at it. The pomodoro technique really makes use of that natural oscillation. 25 minutes of focus time followed by 5 minutes of guilt-free wandering mind. Turns out the average mind wanders between 15 to 20% of the time ; fitting the pomodoro rhythm. Keep in mind, regardless of whether you can hold your attention for shorter or longer time-frames, some wandering time is a necessary part of learning so don’t skip the breaks. There is a reason eureka moments often occur after showers or walks in nature ; you need those distant connections in order to get unstuck and move forward.

The role of confidence

Finally I want to talk a little about the role of self-esteem and confidence in learning. What kind of mindset favors learning ? The thing is ; those two are not the same. In fact you’d find the motivation to learn more in the first place often stems from low self-esteem rather than high self-esteem. Self-esteem is, literally, how favorably a person regards him or herself. That in and of itself is not correlated with any form of academic performance. You might argue if someone thinks himself perfect already ; he or she might not even have sufficient reason to move further on the path of learning. Inflated self-esteem can instead be a recipe for arrogance or narcissism.
Confidence on the other hand has been shown to affect academic performance. It can affect performance by as much as 12%. Confidence is a measure of one’s belief in one’s own abilities. It’s also often coined self-efficacy.
Turns out students with more self-efficacy keep searching for new solutions longer and are generally more persistent while people with low-efficacy give up more easily and have a hard time concentrating on tasks as well. An other way to phrase it ; the belief that you can tackle maths makes you good at maths over time. It’s one of those positive loops ; that can easily become a negative loop if you let it flip the script.
People routinely under-predict their own rate of learning. Learning curves are steep initially and are associated with some levels of pain. But we should fight our tendency to give up at the first sign of ineptitude. All the conscious effort exerted to learn something will soon enough turn all those complex processes into automatons running in the back-burner. Everything that is easy was once hard.
You’re not there yet ; but you’ll get there. That’s the spirit.