A millionaire with a Ferrari in the garage but with no gas

My chess teacher described my gameplay today as ‘a millionaire with a Ferrari in the garage but with no gas’. It was my second lesson, and my tutor reviewed some of my recent 5-minute games on Chess.com. His point was that I had built up lots of raw ‘power’ but did not have a framework to use that power, resulting in inconsistent performance. 

This observation was fair; I recently gained and lost 150 rating points in the space of a few days. 150 points are equivalent to what most amateur players would hope to gain in a year with hard study and hours of play each day. This gain and loss is similar to a gambler winning big with a run of luck, then losing it all and staying at the casino all weekend without sleep, trying to win it back but making it worse.

There are two main ways to pick your next move in chess, intuition and calculation. Intuition is when you look at the board, and the move just comes to you. This skill is built over time as you train your brain to recognise positions, moves, and lines that you have experienced before in games, book study, and puzzles and can call on to make your next move. Calculation in chess is a series of steps where you assess all avalible ‘candidate’ moves on the board to decide your best course of action. 

Calculation is considered the most critical skill for success in chess and is developed in longer-time games. Intuition is required for shorter time frames where you have less time to assess all the possible moves on the board. I almost exclusively play short time frames currently, so I rely on intuition; however, my recent jump and drop in rating indicated I need to improve my calculation through deliberate practice.

A good coach is helpful for three reasons; the first is they have an objective, expert eye on your current ability. Second, they help you to identify where you want to go and realistic timeframes to get there. Thirdly, they can help you create a personalised plan for what you need to do to get there, monitor how well you stick to it, and update the program based on this feedback.   

You can get most of the way there on your own by focusing on three questions:

  • Do you know where you are in life?
  • Where do you want to get to?
  • What are you doing to get there?

Now back to finding some gas for my Ferrari.

Managing Oneself

Peter Drucker is arguably the most influential thinker on management. One of his best-known works is the 18,000-word book ‘Managing Oneself‘ published in 2008 from a 1999 Harvard Business Review article. The article now be found in HBRs ’10 must Reads: The Essentials’, the collection of the 10 most important articles published in their 100-year history. The book’s core idea is that you need to cultivate a deep self-awareness to achieve ‘true and lasting excellence.

Drucker presents a series of questions you can answer about yourself to gain the self-awareness needed to ‘build a life of excellence:

  1. What are my strengths?
  2. How do I work?
  3. How do I learn?
  4. What are my values?
  5. Where do I belong?
  6. What can I contribute?

The most difficult of these questions is the first. With over 180 cognitive biases that affect our ability to process reality, such as confirmation bias where we look for evidence that justified our existing beliefs, how do you truly know what your strengths are? Drucker’s recommended method is feedback analysis; each time you make a key decision write down the outcome you expect and then return in a couple of months and compare the actual results with your expectations. By assessing patterns using this method you will be able to assess your strengths from where you can create desired outcomes. You can then spend time improving these strengths as the most effective route to high performance. Creating a series of feedback analyses can take two to three years for meaningful patterns to emerge, so what can we do immediately while collecting these experiments?

Success in the knowledge economy comes to those who know themselves-their strengths, their values, and how they best perform.

Peter Drucker

How do I perform?

My current focus is on the second and third questions of Drucker’s questions. A set of sub-questions are presented to help us get to:

  • In what ways do I work best?
  • Do I process information most effectively by reading it, or by hearing others discuss it?
  • Do I accomplish the most by working with other people, or working alone?
  • Do I perform best while making decisions, or while advising others on key matters? 
  • Do I perform best when things get stressful, or in highly predictable environments?

By answering these questions you can start to understand what kinds of productivity techniques and tools might suit you best. I know for instance that I can consume and process information through listening. I am often able to recall things I have heard better than those I have read, although this means I often have to avoid listening to things like the radio when I am driving home from work and processing the day’s information and decisions. I have set up techniques to support this including preferring listening to audiobooks over reading them or listening to the week’s economist rather than reading the paper version.  

An interesting point though is how much of overall performance is improved by foundational skills and how much is open to preference and styles? Time blocking for example, where blocks of time, usually in 30-60 minute intervals are allocated to specific tasks, is widely seen as the best method to organise a day. Many methods of note-taking from GTD to Zettelkasten, and the ‘Building a Second Brain’ method all base themselves on the premise that the brain is built to process information rather than store it. Which of these ideas are universal for improved performance that forms the starting point for developing exceptional ability?

How do I learn?

I did not enjoy school nor did I develop any good learning habits or achieve anything exceptional academically. I did however get obsessive with other pursuits such as music production, where I did much better. Drucker suggests that people that excel at learning through writing tend to do poorly at school as most classes are not set up to exploid this approach. One of the reasons I set up this blog is I have a google drive full of documents I have used to organise my thoughts and when learning something new, I usually reach for a pen to organise the idea in my own way. Drucker suggests that there are multiple ways to learn including readers, listeners, talkers, and writers and says that most of us know how we learn best but rarely act on this, and so do not reach high performance. 

As a teacher, I know there are definitely foundational skills and techniques that everyone can benefit from using more. Encoding, spaced repetition and active recall are all seen as highly effective methods of rote learning. Kolb’s cycle presents four stages of experiencial learning; planning, doing, reflecting, and learning but perhaps the most effective way we do each of these stages can vary from person to person and within different contexts. Bloom’s two sigma problem suggests that 1:1 and very small group tutoring produces results two standard deviations better than other methods and John Hattie’s invisible learning presents a meta-analysis of the meaningful research on teaching methods.

 My actions for gaining self-awareness for excellent performance

With my MBA graduation over and the immediate actions complete for my new job, it is time for me to refocus on my performance. I am working on a number of methods to improve my understanding of my strengths but what can I do to improve my ways of working and learning? 

First, I need to work on my foundation skills and update my productivity and learning systems. Then, I need to build on these foundations with more advanced personalised methods that fit the way I work and learn best. Finally, I need to use these two sets of skills on a daily basis. 

Some resources I am using:

The moving University; Learning on your commute

We have had snow here in Leicestershire, England. My wife has been using my car recently and asked me to drive her to and from work. It turns out that a 3-litre supercharged rear-wheel-drive car is not the easiest thing to navigate slippery roads. While driving home and then back again on my own, I got the chance to listen to an audiobook. 

I used to have a 40-minute commute that gave me 80-90 minutes five days per week. I don’t miss the commute, but I do miss this learning time. There is something about listening while driving particularly on regular routes when you are almost on autopilot. I still listen to audiobooks on the turbo trainer or while doing housework, but something about driving seems to help me retain the information. 

Audiobooks for myself and other listeners do not tend to replace reading but rather augments it. Nielsen Book and The Publishers Association suggest that audiobooks listeners tend to be those who do not read much such as 25-44-year-old urban-dwelling males or audio is used for convenience, and when print reading is impossible. Audiobooks, and podcasts, are an art in their own right and can be more engaging for reluctant, struggling, and developing readers as listening to a human voice provides a stronger emotional response.

The genuine love for reading itself, when cultivated, is a superpower.

Naval Ravikant

Research from the National Literacy Trust suggests that audiobooks benefit children’s reading skills and enjoyment by widening their access to books. Listening to the books performed, deepens their understanding of tone, pronunciation, accents, and dialect. Further studies on reading comprehension in adults found no statistically significant differences in comprehension and recall between audiobooks and text ebooks either immediately after reading or two weeks later. However, reading dead tree versions of books is has shown to be slightly better for understanding, but more research is needed to know why. This difference is possibly due to the visual cue of how far you are through a narrative not present with digital books, or that print words are located in a specific place on a page to help people remember it.

Learning with Audiobooks

  1. Listen at normal speed don’t speed it up to get through the book quicker, be selective in your reading, give you brain space to process the words, and enjoy the experiences. 
  2. Listen to selected parts such as the introduction and conclusion if the book is bloated, you don’t have to listen to the whole book.
  3. Use Audible across multiple devices – mobile, kindle, laptop app etc. and use the Wisperlight feature between an audiobook and kindle version.
  4. Make some notes or set a bookmark once it is safe. Write a book summary once you have finished. Recalling the ideas, and putting them down in a document helps you retain the information.
  5. Share what you learn and have a conversation about it to reflect on what you’ve learned. Playing with the ideas in different contexts helps you not just remember the information but better understand it.

Sixteen hours per week of deliberate practice

I have been reading and watching a lot of the late Charles Poliquin this week. In a video this morning, he talked about the amount of learning you need to do to be world-class at what you do:

Eight hours per week is the minimum you need to learn… The people that make the most money in their profession learn sixteen hours a week… The more you know, the more you realise you don’t know.

Charles Poliquin

Charles Poliquin was well-read and based all his recommendations on expert knowledge, so I spent some time looking for this recommendation’s origin. I returned to the ‘Role of Deliberate Practice in the Acquisition of Expert Performance‘ paper by K. Anders Ericsson to see how these recommendations for developing masters compare. The article presents research from multiple sources that it takes ten years or more of necessary experience to develop the skills to produce outstanding work at a world-class level. This practice should be time-limited at 2-4 hours per day, every day, for many years. This recommendation was present in research on experts from chess, musical composition, mathematics, tennis, swimming, long-distance running, scientists, authors, and poets.

The average age of the first published works was 25.2 for scientists, and 24.2 for authors and poets and the average age at which they published their most remarkable work was 35.4 for scientists and 34.3 for authors and poets. There was an average of more than ten years between the scientist and authors first work and their best without considering the time it took learning and writing to get to the first publication. The highest performance levels were not attained just by years of experience but by deliberate efforts to improve slowly over a very long time.

Deliberate practice is a set of activities that are most effective in improving performance. It requires the motivation to do the task and effort to improve performance. These activities are repeated consistently with slight variation and should provide immediate informative feedback. The idea of deliberate practice in developing scientists and artists is very similar to athletes and musicians’ development. This development involves years of intensive preparation under an expert teacher, total emersion in the field, and most importantly, identifying the most likely activities to result in the desired achievements.

When looking at scientists, the highest performing are also those who produce a larger number of publications than others in their field. This would suggest that writing to develop arguments would be the deliberate practice that helps them develop a new published theory or idea. Writing is a demanding activity; most world-class scientists stick to a rigid daily schedule that involves writing as the first significant activity of each morning and is time blocked to 1-2 hours, leaving the rest of the day to other work.

In virtually all domains, there is evidence that the most important activity – practice, thinking, or writing- requires considerable effort and is scheduled for a fixed period of time during the day. For those exceptional individuals who sustain this regular activity for months and years, its duration limited to 2-4 hours a day, which is a fraction of their time awake.

K. Anders Ericsson

Two to four hours per working day would be equal to ten to twenty hours per week. To hit Charles Poliquin’s sixteen hours of learning per week target, we would require just over three hours of learning or around 40% of a typical eight-hour working day. The question then is, what is a Learning Designer’s deliberate practice that will allow them to become world-class, and how do I provide an environment to help Learning Designers do this deliberate practice to gain mastery?

The length of time between each iteration of a course makes the day to day work of a Learning Designer unsuitable as deliberate practice, so I need to find something more immediate. My wife is launching a company and becoming active on social media to market the brand. The kinds of skills she is learning are very similar to those that make an excellent Learning Designer—developing Learning Designers as Youtubers might be an effective strategy. Youtubers produce regular video content that is published, continually work to improve all aspects of quality, operate on social media and interacting with viewers to drive traffic to their youtube site, and using the analytics tools to track activity and inform future content. This might be a crazy idea, but it might just work.

Initial mapping of Learning Designer competencies

Photo by Startup Stock Photos on Pexels.com

I spent some time a few months ago mapping the knowledge, skills, and behaviours of a Learning Designer. I separated the role into three areas; learning, technology, and design. The learning competencies cover having a clear definition of quality and what good learning and teaching look like. The technology competencies focus on the development of learning materials and the use of multimedia. The design competencies cover the process of working with subject matter experts, usually academics, to co-design learning with an understanding of the other two areas.

This list is not exclusive, and I sure it has changed since my team has taken my rough workings and corrected it based on their practice.

Learning (Quality)

  • Learning theory/models 
    • Kolbs learning cycle 
    • Blooms [Digital] Taxonomy
    • Spaced learning and the forgetting curve
    • SAMR 
    • Active Learning inc. SCALE-UP
    • The PAR model (Presentation, Activity, Review
    • Merrill’s First Principles of Instruction
    • eTivities (G.Salmon) 
  • Accessibility (WCAG 2.1)  
  • Quality frameworks
    • Quality Matters 
    • Online Learning Consortium Scorecard 

Technology (Development)

  • Typography 
  • Images/photography 
  • Audio 
  • Video – hardware and software, production process 
  • HTML & CSS (Javascript?)
  • Theory 
    • Dual coding  
    • Mayer’s principles for multimedia learning


  • Design thinking 
  • Student centered design 
  • Personas 
  • ADDIE (Analysis, Design, Development, Implementation, Evaluation) 
  • Rapid Prototyping (agile) 
  • Kirkpatrick’s levels of evaluation 
  • Design workshop structure 
  • Design workshop facilitation 
  • Module Storyboard/map 
  • Scheduling & Project Management 
  • Good practice examples 

Scholarship and continuous improvement

On top of these three skillsets, it is essential that a Learning Designer working in higher education maintains personal scholarship and operates in continuous improvement cycles. Scholarship is a set of principles and practices that allow a practitioner to ensure their methods are valid and trustworthy through rigorous enquiry. This may be through applying published research or carrying out structured research on their outputs. Continuous improvement cycles ensure that the Learning Designer gets better from every course they develop through reflecting on what has worked, what hasn’t, learning from this and then experimenting with new and emerging practices. 

Let me know what I have missed via my Twitter account.

Elon Musk’s Semantic Trees

I am a big fan of Elon Musk. He was born gifted, but he has been able to master how to learn, he reads a lot, surrounds himself with experts, and does a lot of experiments. Has been able to identify industries such as banking, energy, transportation, and space, that are important to the future of humanity and apply his unique thinking and resources to disrupt these fields.

One of the things that makes him unique is his ability to identify and master the core principles of a chosen field and then apply these to disruptive solutions. Elon Musk believes that most people have limited their capacity for creativity by not knowing how to outline their information in a way that leads to new connections.

Elon Musks has two stages of learning:

  1. Semantic trees – build the trunk on first principles
  2. Make connections – add peripheral knowledge as connections to these principles

Semantic trees

Not everything you learn in a field is equally important; some elements are central, and others are peripheral. Identify these central elements and then master them first before moving on to the peripheral elements.  

“Make sure you understand the fundamental principles, ie the trunk and big branches, before you get into the leaves/details or there is nothing for them to hang on to.”

Elon Musk

Taking this semantic tree approach, you can create a conceptual framework of the fundamental ideas and central debates of a discipline to help you come up with new ideas that have value. Naval Ravikant suggests a similar idea when talking about aiming to be able to pick up any book in a library and understand it. By learning the fundamentals of a subject first, and then you can pick up and understand any text in that field.

Introductory textbooks are a great place to start building a conceptual framework for a new field. You can usually find the reading list for many university introductory courses on their websites as a starting point when looking at a new area. These introductory courses for some of the best universities in the world can also be found on Massive Open Online Course (MOOCs) platforms like EdX and Coursera if you need a more directed starting point. 

Make connections

We remember things better by associating them with something we already know. The fundamental knowledge of an area can be used as ‘hooks’ for new learning to be attached, speeding up your understanding and helping you remember more of what you read. Once you have built the foundational truck of your semantic tree, you can start to read more widely around a subject to construct vast trees in across multiple sectors. By starting with the core knowledge and then adding the peripheral knowledge to the truck of core principles, you will find that although slower, in the beginning, you will be able to go much further and faster with your learning in the long term. 

One approach that Bill Gates suggests is to find the leading thinker in a field and read everything they have published. This approach allows you to quickly find interesting peripheral knowledge and understand how these have been linked to the core principles by an existing expert. Once you have your semantic trees, over time, you can start to connect your current knowledge and new ideas as you come across them, using these connections to come up with new usable insights that can help you build experiments in your work.

Build your first tree

When approaching a new area, first learn the core principles and then move on to the advanced material, making connections to these core principles for faster and better learning. Build the truck first and then read everything you can to make the connections.

Try building a tree now; 

  1. Open a blank document (paper or digital) and write the disciple as a title at the top of the page. 
  2. Have a go at listing five to six fundamental principles in that area; these might be a formula in a maths-based subject or rules in a non-technical discipline.
  3. Try to find the reading list of an introductory module at the top university for that subject and edit your list with these new items.
  4. Now you have the trunk for your semantic tree, add any peripheral knowledge, ideas, or debates you can think of, using the core text and a google search to help. 
  5. Connect the peripheral elements to the fundamental principles you believe they relate to in your tree.

I would highly recommend reading Ashlee Van’s book on Elon Musk and The Almanack of Naval Ravikant.

Connect with me on Twitter if you want to discuss these ideas.