Achieving Mastery When Learning, Plus Followups

I shared writing about mastery with my free email newsletter and asked about people’s concerns and objections. Here’s what I said followed by my responses to three concerns.


(Link to the message where I first wrote this.)

[name], do you think you achieved mastery of some significant, new things in your makeup project? If so, you could list those. If not, I think you should have higher standards and stop overreaching.

Can you self-evaluate the correctness of any of your new makeup knowledge with similar confidence to your self-evaluations of counting to three or judging whether the word "with" is spelled correctly? Those are examples of what mastery looks like.

The same goes for all your other philosophical work. Keep it simpler. Practice things. Aim for mastery. Aim for a low error rate where correct criticisms are uncommon, surprising and treasured.

Consider what you do have mastery of and build on it. Plan out projects intentionally with goals and trees, keeping issues like mastery and overreaching in mind.

Where are the 5+ successful past projects at 90% of the size, complexity and difficulty of the makeup project? And at 80%, and 70%, and 60%, etc., all the way back incrementally to simple projects like crawling to a location as a baby.

You don't have good examples of what success looks [to] compare your project to. There's a huge gap from the makeup project to your most similar projects that are clear, confident, decisive, unambiguous successes.

And these are not new things that I'm saying.

Start way smaller, get quick, clear wins, and iterate. Start with multiple successful (micro) projects per day. Finish 100+ in a month with a not-decisive-clear-success rate under 10%. Establish a baseline of what you can do that way and get the iteration started.


Anne B shared these concerns on the FI Learning Basecamp.

I have a hard time breaking a goal down into a planned-out tree made of smaller things that are easy wins. Example:I have a goal of understanding computers and learning how to use them better. Breaking that down into a plan of all the small things I want to learn and in what order seems too hard. Instead I take opportunities to learn small things when they come up.

Do smaller, easier mini-goals first until you get more experience with the method. For example, “Install Atom text editor” is a mini-goal. I bet you could break that into multiple steps. E.g.:

  1. Find Atom website.
  2. Download Atom.
  3. Run installer.

You need practice doing that kind of breakdown successfully before expecting it to work in more complicated scenarios. Once you get good enough at it, in the future, you’ll be able to skip writing down the steps for small things like installing Atom. And when you’re more used to breaking things into sub-parts, you’ll do better at breaking down bigger, harder goals.

It’s important not to face too many challenges at once. Each one distracts you from the others. Mastery of something means it’s no longer distracting or challenging. Practicing breaking simple projects into steps will help you achieve mastery of some breaking-into-parts skills, which will mean you’ll have fewer things to worry about when attempting a medium-difficulty project.

You could do several other small projects, e.g. one to use Atom documents. Steps:

  • Make a document in Atom
  • Save it
  • Close the document and close Atom
  • Reopen the document with Atom

Another project could deal with bold text. Steps:

  • Make some text bold using the menu.
  • Use a hotkey to make text bold.
  • Make text bold by typing in markdown formatting characters.
  • Remove bold text using each method.

If those are too hard, you could break each of those steps down into easier parts. You can adjust the level of detail. If they were too easy you could use fewer steps, e.g. just “Learn Atom basics”, but that’s unsuitable for figuring out how to deal with projects.

After doing the atom install project, the atom document project, the atom bold text project, and several others, you would have done the steps of a larger project like “learn Atom basics”. Small projects are the components that make up medium and large projects. If you’re trying to do a large project and don’t know what the smaller sub-projects are, it’s hard to be organized or succeed.

Are you saying we should aim for mastery in everything we do? If not, how do we decide which things to go for mastery in? If yes, that seems like too much—wouldn’t we sometimes want to just try something out to see how it goes and whether we like it?

Mastery is important for things you’re gong to reuse a bunch and build on. English, walking, basic arithmetic, typing, searching the internet for info, learning methods and project management are good examples. Those get used over and over as sub-components of other tasks and projects.

Mastery is necessary to do anything complicated. Complicated things have many parts. If each part is distracting you from the others and demanding significant attention, then you’ll be overwhelmed and fail. If you have mastery of some parts, that means you can deal with those parts without them being a distraction. Mastery means something requires little conscious attention, which frees up your attention for other stuff. Without mastery, you can only do small things.

Put another way, mastery is necessary for making progress because progress involves accumulating more and more knowledge. You also revise ideas, replace ideas with more elegant versions, and drop some errors, but overall, on average, the amount of knowledge goes up when you make progress.

Increasing amounts of knowledge would get overwhelming if all the older ideas were taking up your attention or causing many errors. The reason you’re able to increase your total knowledge is because you finished learning some things: they’re done and no longer take much thought (unless you reopen and reconsider the issue, which is always an option but shouldn’t happen too often). Mastery is finishing learning something instead of it being an unfinished project.

How done is done? When are you finished? When you can use the knowledge without it requiring much conscious attention and with few errors.

How much attention or errors are OK? It depends on the thing. The more it gets reused or built on, the closer to perfect it needs to be. If it’s only used occasionally, it can be more flawed but still good enough.

Side note: You can also intentionally stop learning something so it requires your conscious attention to do it, but while paying full attention you can do it successfully. That means you can’t build on it. It’s an end to progress (unless you start learning about it again). But that is reasonable in certain circumstances. E.g. suppose you have a job operating heavy machinery. If you pay full attention every time you do it, and do it successfully, that’s good enough. You don’t need to make further progress to get the job done. And actually it’s dangerous to operate heavy machinery without paying conscious attention to what you’re doing at all times. It’d be bad to go into autopilot mode for that or focus your attention elsewhere. (BTW, a lot of car accidents are due to people achieving a lot of mastery of driving and then not paying enough attention to their driving. Due to mastery they can still generally drive well without paying attention, so it works out fine most of the time, but not every time. Also, btw, a reason texting-and-driving is so dangerous, or using audio books while driving, is due to lack of mastery of texting or audio books. Those things distract people significantly, or in other words they don’t have mastery over those activities.)

To have a thousand ideas and for that to be useful, many of them need to be mastered. You can only fit at most around seven non-mastered ideas in your head at once for active use. (Seven is just a loose estimate that other people like Leonard Peikoff have used; the specific number doesn’t matter.) If you want to fit more in your head, you have to master ideas. In other words, you can only effectively pay conscious attention to at most around seven things at once, so, to deal with more than seven things, some must not require conscious attention, which is what mastery is about.

This is also why it’s important to integrate (combine) ideas. E.g. you take four ideas and turn them into one single conceptual unit, which can then be thought about as one thing that uses up only one slot in your attention. But integration only works well when you master the components. If they aren’t mastered, you can’t focus on the one higher level concept because the underlying ideas that you’re building on will keep causing trouble. You’ll make mistakes while using them and/or they’ll distract your conscious attention, because you never finished learning them to the point (called “mastery” among other things) where that won’t happen.

Integration is one of the main ways we reuse and build on ideas. All the small ideas that got integrated into higher level ideas are getting reused in some sense every time a higher level idea that’s built on them is used. Repeated integration creates a pyramid of ideas, and using a single high level idea can reuse hundreds of lower level ideas. But if any low level idea in the pyramid has an error or won’t work without conscious attention, it can screw up your high level activity.

Integration is discussed and advocated by Ayn Rand’s Objectivism.

You don’t need to master everything that’s available and you should not take on large projects without first exploring/scouting and having a pretty good idea of whether it’ll work, whether you want the results, etc. But you do need to master most of what you learn if you want to make ongoing progress.

Having criticisms be uncommon isn’t a very good gauge. Criticisms could be uncommon because there’s not much to criticize or they could be uncommon for other reasons (maybe there’s so much wrong that people don’t know where to start in their criticisms, maybe people are busy with other stuff, maybe people are afraid you won’t take criticism well, maybe people don’t like to criticize because it’s not nice, maybe your stuff is boring so no one reads it).

Criticism being uncommon is a necessary but not sufficient condition for indicating mastery.

Also, you’re focusing on external criticism, but self-criticism is a more important thing to pay attention to first and it doesn’t have most of the difficulties you mention. It’s very hard to use much external criticism effectively before being pretty good with self-criticism (that’s one of the main reasons people dislike receiving criticism so much – they aren’t able to use it effectively because they aren’t good at self-criticism yet).

That’s similar to an issue that came up on FI list a while back: it’s very hard to find common preferences with your child effectively if you struggle to find common preferences with yourself. Individual, personal stuff mostly needs to come first before dealing with other people much.

If this interests you, and you'd like to better understand ideas like this, join my free Basecamp group.

Elliot Temple | Permalink | Message (1)

FI Learning Basecamp

Basecamp is an easy-to-use project management tool. Features include online collaboration, a message board, a chatroom, and todo lists. It puts a bunch of stuff in one place.

I made a Basecamp for Fallible Ideas learning because people should treat learning more like an organized project, not entertainment.

Join for free: [edit: invites are closed]

Warning: I'll likely close public invites in the future.

Elliot Temple | Permalink | Messages (8)

How Social Status Works

The article Women Explained by Hitori (a female) explains how social status works in just 2560 words.

It's in the Revelation eBook by Mystery and Lovedrop, and also reposted on the web in a few places. You can read it on Reddit for free. (The formatting is worse than in the book, but is readable.) It was originally posted to the old PUA forum community, probably roughly around the year 2000.

The beginning tells us:

Chicks act at all times to gain and maintain social status. This is more important to them than getting laid.

Then it explains social status in four sections:

  1. Qualities of High Status People
  2. Qualities of Low Status People
  3. You Gain Status When
  4. You Lose Status When

Read, analyze, discuss below.

Elliot Temple | Permalink | Messages (6)

Elliot Temple | Permalink | Messages (122)

Elliot Temple | Permalink | Messages (0)

Elliot Temple | Permalink | Messages (38)

Elliot Temple | Permalink | Messages (219)

New Community Website Project

This post is for discussing goals and strategy, and high-level planning, for a project (under consideration) to make a new FI community website, with better educational help, organization, forum features, marketing, and monetization.

Alan Forrester would be doing some coding and hopefully other roles. Some other people have expressed some interest too.

Although I'm an experienced Rails developer, I want to focus primarily on where where I have the most expertise and comparative advantage: philosophy (e.g. research and educational content creation), as well as high level strategy.

Related Discussion Topics

Elliot Temple | Permalink | Messages (66)

Focusing Your Attention Discussion

People must focus instead of letting their attention get dragged around to whatever other people put in front of them (and then dragged again soon after, so nothing gets enough attention to be finished). But people also must listen to criticism and ideas instead of just ignoring the external world and its knowledge. There’s a tension here.

Discuss how to deal with it below:

Elliot Temple | Permalink | Messages (8)

What I Sell

Philosophy Education

My speciality is rationality, problem solving, and how to think or learn. I focus on ideas useful in real life. I have original philosophical ideas (Critical Fallibilism) inspired most by Critical Rationalism, Objectivism, and Theory of Constraints.

I'm experienced at many applications, e.g. how philosophy can bring insight to artifical intelligence, parenting, relationships, psychology, or politics.

I sell digital products (PDFs, videos...) and personalized services (tutoring, advice, consulting...).

Business Consulting

Eli Goldratt died and his successors aren't creative enough. They're doing what he already explained how to do (which is worthwhile). I can apply Theory of Constraints ideas in ways that others wouldn't think of.

Unique Insight

I can do (for example) design, economics and science. But I'm not a designer, economist or scientist. I'm a philosopher. If you just want some regular design, hire a designer.

But what if you want the best that money can buy? What if regular designers aren't satisfying you? You still hire a designer, but you also hire me. I will provide design insights which are different than what you'd get from any designer. You could hire 100 designers and I'll still tell you some things that none of them do, because none of them are philosophers.

I've read and thought about design. I'm not a novice but it's not my profession. Apart from philosophy, I'm a generalist. Some people do design full time. I bring a broader, philosophical perspective. I can do this for most topics where good thinking makes a big difference. When standard results aren't enough, talk to me.

Elliot Temple | Permalink | Messages (18)

Collaborative Writing Discussion Thread

Max and Anne B have been discussing how to do collaborative writing.

This topic is a place for them (and anyone else interested) to discuss and plan how to write something collaboratively.

They have several goals:

  • to learn about discussion, collaborative writing and learning
  • to do some collaborative writing and produce some posts/articles
  • in the case a post isn't produced: to discuss to conclusion why that didn't happen.

Max requested this topic as part of his SubscribeStar subscription.

Elliot Temple | Permalink | Messages (18)

Elliot Temple | Permalink | Messages (7)

What To Sell or Give Away?

What are good policies about what to sell?

I sell personalization, privacy, and (partial) control over my attention and time. Those are easy to decide should be sold. I give those away only in limited amounts, particularly to friends and when there’s mutual benefit (e.g. someone wants to discuss a topic that I want to discuss and is able to say things that interest me).

For articles, videos, podcasts, diagrams, etc., what should I sell?

High effort, quality or accessibility stuff can be sold to wide audiences. Stuff with lower polish, accessibility or that’s for a specialized niche can be sold to narrower audiences of hardcore fans.

I don’t want to sell all my accessible stuff and give away the stuff that has less value to most people because then new people are being asked to pay right away.

I don’t want to give away all my accessible stuff and only charge hardcore fans. That limits getting paid and also makes it harder for a fan to transition to be more hardcore after getting interested in some more niche material.

So I think I should both sell and give away some of each type of material. But then how do I decide which stuff to sell or not? What criteria should I use?

Related, I’d generally rather make 5 lower effort things than 1 polished thing. Why? I generally learn more that way. Most polishing and making stuff more accessible doesn’t help much with me figuring out better ideas myself. I think my ideas are good and important enough that making a lot of stuff makes sense; I can quickly make lots of stuff that has value (e.g. lots of my blog posts aren’t edited but are still worth existing). I think there’s a lack of good stuff in the world and I want to make more.

Most people see it differently. They see way too much stuff to engage with and they want to prioritize stuff that packs a little more value into a little less time. If that takes 10x longer to make, that’s fine, they have more than enough stuff to engage with anyway. I think my stuff has unique value and I want to make lots of it, both because I generally like making stuff more than polishing it and because I want way more of my kind of stuff to exist so that the best and most interested people can learn from it.

Anyway, I think these traits are not the way to decide what to sell or give away. But what is?

Another related factor is giving away stuff for free often makes it look lower value to people and they often treat it badly. This can be worse for them (the mistreatment harms their own learning) as well as worse for me in various ways, though I don’t necessarily need to care about this. From The Fountainhead:

When you see a man casting pearls without getting even a pork chop in return—it is not against the swine that you feel indignation. It is against the man who valued his pearls so little that he was willing to fling them into the muck and to let them become the occasion for a whole concert of grunting, transcribed by the court stenographer.

I’ve been flinging pearls into the muck for decades. I’ve reduced that some in the last few years. I could just keep doing it. My life is fine and I can just keep making stuff and learning stuff. Getting people to pay for some stuff and getting a larger audience would have some advantages.

I’ve considered things like having most criticism on a private, paid forum since the general public hates criticism, but being open to public debate and questions is important to me. And I like having lots of stuff publicly accessible. Paywalling ideas, especially above mass market book pricing (like $10), is problematic in some ways.

A different way to look at it is what will people pay for? Saving time. Stuff they can’t get elsewhere. Stuff with practical benefits.

Anyway I make lots of stuff that could maybe be sold, and I think I should sell some of it and make some free. I have some ideas about how not to decide what’s free or paid. I don’t know a good way to decide. Anyone got ideas?

Elliot Temple | Permalink | Messages (9)

Skills I'd Pay For

There are lots of skills I'd pay for but it's generally hard for me to work with people who are unfamiliar with FI philosophy. For example, I'd like video editing to cut down streams to summaries. The main idea is to delete 80% of each stream so that just highlights are left. (Here's an example of a video made by cutting out 88% of a stream. They're pretty common with popular gamer streamers like smallant and zfg who I believe hire video editors to make them.) But I don't think it'd work to get a video editor who knows how to use editing tools but doesn't know anything about FI. He wouldn't know which parts are the highlights! Plus he wouldn't watch my videos normally. It works best to hire an editor who already watches your videos anyway, so then basically you don't have to pay him extra to watch your videos in the first place. It's more efficient and cheaper to use someone who was going to watch the video on his own than someone who wasn't. And it's better if the person doing it actually likes the videos, is interested, is in a position to make judgment calls and additional edits besides cuts (because he has ideas about what would make something better), etc.

Other things I could use: art, design, marketing, other types of video editing, animation, and Keynote polishing (there are lots more tutorials on that channel, but that one video will give you a good idea of what I'm talking about).

I've been having Justin do some work on making ebooks from email archives and adding tables of contents to videos. Those are other good examples of the kinds of skills I'm interested in delegating.

Editing text would be valuable too but basically that takes a ton of skill and I can't trust anyone to edit my writing. The other ones I listed are all easier to do well enough it'd have value to me. I'm less skilled and picky about them.

I'd also be interested in someone to do my newsletters for me. That takes some writing skill and FI knowledge, but a lot less than writing or editing my essays.

I'm sure there are other similar things that I'd also like to delegate. Maybe you could suggest some.

Are any of my fans good at some of these things and interested in doing work for me? Get in touch. I particularly value people who work fairly independently, and come up with some ideas of their own, instead of just following detailed directions. Micromanaging is too much work for me.

Some of these skills, like basic video editing (how to cut parts out), are quick and easy to learn. Others are harder but have lots of resources to help you learn, e.g. there are books and videos about design and marketing (The Futur is an example of a pretty good educational YouTube channel for design and marekting). If you're interested but not already good at any of these skills, you could learn some. Most of the skills require being decent at using computers. Using other software tools can often help you get stuff done faster and easier, e.g. using to transcribe videos with timestamps can help you find the good parts to include in a condensed version (then you can edit the video backwards, cutting stuff out from the end first and working towards the start, so when you delete stuff it doesn't change the timing of any earlier parts).

Work would be freelance project work, not full time employment. And not a ton of hours. You could do it in addition to other stuff in your life, rather than choosing one or the other.

Elliot Temple | Permalink | Messages (6)

Should I Facecam?

I podcasted about whether to start using facecam for some videos. I’m looking for feedback on this decision.

Facecam would give people additional info about what I’m like and how I live, including about mood, emotions and reactions (or lack of). It’d also give info about fashion, blemishes, race, age and some other stuff. People have to deal with IRL so role modeling how to do that, including dealing with hecklers, has some value. Facecam is dangerous for second-handers, but I’m not personally scared about being judged and becoming self-conscious or defensive. I do have concerns about reducing focus on ideas and ceasing to boycott some social dynamics, but people can actually be more distracted by making stuff up than by seeing reality, and showing how I handle social dynamics is a different way to combat the bad ones.

Those are just a few quick thoughts. Hear more considerations in the podcast and share your opinion below.

Elliot Temple | Permalink | Messages (13)