A list of potential ultralearning projects

Here are some ideas on my own want-to-ultralearn backburner list:

– Making my own electronic music (releasing an album of electronic music, a la Lullatone)
– Editorial design (creating layouts for books and magazines)
– Illustrating and writing a children’s book
– Making a short film
– Creating an online course
– Creating an app
– Writing a book
– Building my blog from scratch

I’ll update this whenever a new one comes to mind!

Learning is about doing

Very good ideas from Scott Young about how to learn and build skills that matter:

Don’t just learn French, aim to have conversations with people.
Don’t just read a book on JavaScript, build a functioning website.
Don’t just watch lectures, do practice problems from the exam.
Don’t just read philosophy, write an essay or discuss it with someone else.

Relevant reading:
How to start your own ultralearning project (part one)
How to start your own ultralearning project (part two)

thinking, reading, writing, discussing and knowledge-building

“Dear Bard students,

Welcome to Bard College! You are now a part of the academic universe of thinking, reading, writing, discussing and knowledge-building. Your first class will be Language & Thinking (L&T), which begins on Monday, August 15th. All Bard freshman experience L&T, a two-week immersion into thinking, reading, writing, discussing and knowledge-building, thinking, reading, writing, discussing and knowledge-building, thinking, reading, writing, discussing and knowledge-building, thinking, reading, writing, discussing and knowledge-building, thinking, reading, writing, discussing and knowledge-building.

For our first class, you should read the book, Citizen by Claudia Rankin, and the hand-out, Metamorphosis by Franz Kafka. Both of these readings should be in your new folder (or at least with it).

Looking forward to Monday. Be ready to think, read, write, discuss and knowledge-build, think, read, write, discuss and knowledge-build, think, read, write, discuss and knowledge-build, think, read, write, discuss and knowledge-build, think, read, write, discuss and knowledge-build.”

Watching College Behind Bars and this made me smile!

Find out more about the Bard Prison Initiative here.

Learn for the sake of learning

Learn so you can more easily change careers and life paths and become more self-actualized.

But learn also for the sake of learning.

Learn because it’s fun. There doesn’t need to be utility involved. If you want to pick up Latin but wonder when you might ever get to use it, the answer is — maybe never. But should that stop you from learning it?

Pick up a skill if it’s something you’re curious about and if it’s fun and you’re enjoying yourself.

It doesn’t have to be complicated.

You can learn anything


“Nobody’s born smart. We all start at zero. Can’t talk, can’t walk, certainly can’t do algebra. Adding, reading, writing, riding a bike, nobody’s good at anything at first. There was a time when Einstein couldn’t count to 10 and Shakespeare had to learn his ABCs just like the rest of us. Thankfully, we’re born to learn. Slowly, surely, you stumble, slip, crawl, fall, and fail, and fall. Frustrating, confusing, trying, struggling, until one day, you walk. One foot in front of the other. One idea on top of the next. Each wrong answer making your brain a little bit stronger. Failing is just another word for growing. And you keep going. This is learning. Knowing that you’ll get it, even if you haven’t got it yet. Because the most beautiful, complex concepts in the whole universe are built on basic ideas that anyone anywhere can understand. Whoever you are, wherever you are, you only have to know one thing, you can learn anything.”

*

The world is constantly changing, and sometimes the changes are seismic and overwhelming.

At times like these, it can be helpful to remember we are an incredibly adaptable species. We have dominated the world in such a dramatic fashion precisely because we can adapt to almost any environment.

The heart of being adaptable is the ability to learn new things. It’s comforting to know that I am hardwired to learn, because this means — in theory — that I can survive anything this world throws at me, as long as I keep adapting and learning new skills.

No matter what problems we have, it is my deep belief that we can learn our way out of them.

If we are chronically unhappy, we might want to learn about our mind and our brain. David Eagleman has written wonderfully accessible books about neuroscience that will open your eyes to the “tremendous magic” of the three-pound tofu encased in our skull. From our studies about the brain, we might learn that we are not always “the ones driving the boat of our behaviour”. When we understand that, we might no longer be so hard on ourselves whenever we feel bad or angry or anxious.

If we want to learn how to thrive mentally, we can pick up meditation or dive into the research that’s being done across psychology, neuroscience and contemplative practices like Buddhism. We might learn about the conclusions by scientists that “when your mind changes, your brain changes”. Learning about these ideas — that we don’t always have to be a puppet to our emotions — might convince us to commit to training our minds in the direction of more peace and happiness.

If we are stuck in a dead-end job or don’t enjoy our career, we can choose to learn new skills — we can add new knowledge to what we already know or reinvent ourselves entirely. Then we can use these new skills to get out of our dead-end job. Or start a business. Or pursue a new career path. We might think that our brains can no longer change now that we’re older, or that we might not be able to learn anything of much value with our older and slower brains, but research has shown that our brain is a muscle that grows stronger the more we use it.

So eventually it is not our lack of ability (or the lack of neurons) but often our misguided belief that we are doomed to be stagnant that causes so much of our suffering.

In short, we can learn anything, and use the skills we learn to change our lives, no matter what age we are and at which stage of life we find ourselves in, but first we have to believe that we can.

Small commitments, big results

Comment ça va?

I’m on day 13 of my streak on Duolingo (I’m learning French!) but someone on the forum just posted about their 5-year streak, which is nothing but inspiring!

He or she writes on the forum:

“I remember when I hit 365 days…then one year became two, then two became three, and now here we are at FIVE years. it blows my mind! I’ve come close to losing my streak due to a lack of internet in some places during my travels. In fact, I distinctly remember only a few months into my streak, on one vacation, I had only an hour of internet access a day, and you better believe the first thing I did was Duolingo!!

The act of making a commitment to something small can have other effects in your life, that cause you to be committed to other things…whether it’s exercise, eating healthier, drinking more water, etc…these goals are all achievable if you start with small commitments. Do not commit to to a five year streak at day 1. Commit to one day. Then two. Then a week. Then a month.”

A very good reminder that a strong commitment to small things over a sustained period can lead to big results. Oh and the beautiful idea of a keystone habit.

PS: What a nice and thoughtfully written blog.

Learning French


Started learning French via Duolingo. So far an amazing experience. I am in awe. The app is fun and addictive… and I’ve just realised “fun and addictive” are also part of their official marketing language. So it’s interesting to see that users of the app (i.e. myself) are experiencing the process the way they wanted us to.

I spend about an hour every day on the app, though not always at one go (it’s a great alternative to social media by the way). Already I’ve learned about 100 new words in less than four days (according to the app at least) and have gotten a faint grasp of French grammar and sentence structure without much strain or struggle, thanks to the gamification of the learning process. I’m still at the very first modules (what the app calls “skills”) so I haven’t quite teased out what Duolingo’s flaws are yet, but as of now it’s been, well, fun and addictive. And mainly because it’s really quite strangely satisfying to be learning a new language without breaking into much of a sweat.

(Of course, as we ascend the skill levels, things are going to get harder and I have no doubt we will need to put in more effort into reinforcing the new knowledge. But the app strives to smoothen this process and make it as enjoyable as possible.)

A 65-year-old woman on the app (they have tiny forums embedded within each skill level for people to engage in discussions) has been on a Duolingo streak for more than a year and she can now read and speak French, albeit limitedly. That’s quite an inspiring story and proves many things — that we can start learning new things at any age, that smart and well-designed products like Duolingo can bring extraordinary value (even joy) to people, and that by consistently chipping away at something every day, even something as “tough” as learning a new language can be totally doable and conquerable.

Which, by the way, is an idea most well-articulated by James Clear.

Alright, enough talking. Let’s go get 1% better every day.

The art of self-education and the art of insane possibility

I’m back! I was gone for awhile but I’m… back. And it’s about time too.

In July I underwent a jaw surgery (not life-threatening, but still a pretty major surgery) and I got knocked off my path for a while, as you might have noticed. The physical recovery after was intense, but the emotional aspect was worse. To be honest, I dipped into a dangerously low place for a bit, and that’s why it was quite impossible for me to keep up with writing this newsletter/blog.

In other words, I was down in the dumps. Depressed. Very depressed in fact.

Ironically, my last article was about positivity and how I am often “too positive” for my own good. This episode with my post-surgery depression reminded me that I am made of quite fragile stuff, and that I am not immune to depression (even if I have kicked its butt once before). It also goes to show that we human beings are more complicated than we can ever imagine ourselves to be. Turn a bend and there it is, a side of you that you never knew existed. Turn another bend, and you are unrecognizable.

I also learned that when shit really hits the fan, and nothing anyone says can help make you feel better (and I mean not even a psychiatrist, whose words can ring pretty empty at times like these)…

And no amount of self-help works or amounts to anything remotely meaningful…

You pray. You pray hard. And you let time do its magic.

So my major lesson has been that I am weak, but that I am also – strangely, bizarrely – strong. Who the hell even knows what that means? But there is a mystery to it all – this falling and breaking and healing and becoming stronger – that I am still trying to digest and understand.

It’s an ongoing process.

After an ordeal like this, I can’t help but notice that life begins to take on more shades. Don’t ask me why. But the world seems filled with more blues, more greens, more reds. And mostly more grays.

Not quite so black and white anymore.

I started this newsletter/blog to share my thoughts about what I think makes a good life. I also started it because I needed and wanted an avenue to write, to practise writing.

As a wannabe writer, and a person who wants to think hard about what it takes to live a “good life”, it is a blessing – however unwanted – to be able to meet with disasters and unexpected difficulties. That’s when I bump up against the limits of my old views, and I begin to see more clearly and inch somewhat closer to the truth.

So overall, it’s always a good thing when bad things happen, because we learn. Unless we don’t learn, then the bad thing just becomes a pointless tragedy.

I wanted to jump right into today’s topic – “self-education” – which is something I have been pondering over, but I thought it would be good for me to explain my absence over the last 3 months. After all, I had promised to write one article a week. You don’t make such a commitment and just disappear for 3 months!

So I’m back writing. And thinking. And hopefully writing and thinking with a little more nuance, a little more maturity.

Right. On self-education.

Recently I have been toying with the idea of going back to university. As you know, I never did graduate. I was an English major at NTU (a public university in Singapore) for exactly one year, then I dropped out. That’s the extent of my higher education.

As a photographer, and as someone who intends to be a photographer for a long time, I have no need for a college degree. But sometimes I think about how wonderful it would be to go back to school again, to be surrounded by books and ideas and people who love learning as much as I do.

When these thoughts appear in my head, they often come tinged with a purplish dreamy hue.

I think that’s because I have been dreaming of a false and idealistic image. I was a university student myself back in those days, and I hated school. I had zero appreciation for my privileged education. All I wanted then was to be let loose onto the big wild world out there. What learning? What knowledge? What I yearned for was the world out there, that seemed ever so enthralling and full of wonders and bright lights. I wanted to be a music producer. I wanted to write. I wanted to meet people who were doing amazing things with their life. I wanted to create, make a name for myself… so get me the hell out of here right now!

That was my 20-year-old inner monologue.

Now, at 31, after having taken a spin in this “big wild world”, I want increasingly to go inwards instead. Enough of the crazy noisy world out there, I want to know the answers to some big questions. Like who am I? What am I made of? What is a cell made of? Why am I here? What is the meaning of my life? Does my mind affect my body or does my body affect my mind? Why do countries go to war? How does history affect our lives as citizens today? Why are people not as moral as we want them to be? What is the implication of artificial intelligence? Where will technology take us in a few decades? And do we want to get there?

The more I thought about it though, the more it seemed that maybe going back to university won’t cut it. I love my freedom, and my job requires me to travel at short notice. So short of going back to a physical university, what can I do to effectively educate myself?

Enter MOOCs.

MOOC is basically short for Massive Open Online Course, courses put online for anyone in the world to participate in, learn from. Some of these courses were originally taught in some of the best universities in the world – Harvard, MIT, Yale, Stanford – and now they have been put online, in platforms like Coursera and EDx, for free or at an extremely low fee.

So instead of going back to university and slogging through four years of academic sludge, I now get to learn from some of the best university curriculum in the world. For free or next to nothing. And I get to design my own education by making my own decisions on what I want to learn, based on the questions that I am currently obsessed with.

I’m enrolled now in a few courses. “Minds and Machines” is one – it’s an Introduction to Philosophy of Mind course offered by MIT to its first year undergraduates. “Philosophy and Critical Thinking” by University of Queensland is another one. As you can see, I’m interested in, amongst other subjects, philosophy. But there are courses in hundreds of other subjects – music, the history of the western civilization, biology, law – whatever you can think of, whatever you might be interested in studying, I have no doubt there’s something for you.

The other thing I’m trying to teach myself to do is writing. Yes, I know you wouldn’t be reading this if I didn’t know how to write. But that doesn’t mean I’m a good enough writer. I want to teach myself to be a better writer. That’s why I started this newsletter/blog, so that I have an audience to write for. And with the help of writers like William Zinsser, who published the famous “On Writing Well”, I am learning slowly to become a better writer.

Already Zinsser has influenced me profoundly. He was the one who said, “the secret of good writing is to strip every sentence to its cleanest components.” So nowadays, all I do is cut, cut, cut. Instead of trying to create a style deliberately, I simply say what I want to say and cut the fluff out. It makes writing 200% easier.

I get excited just thinking about the things I want to learn in future.

One of the joys of learning, I think, is simply the joy of learning itself. Learning reminds us that we are indeed alive and changing. We are not static and can transform our bodies and our minds. And that’s good news.

To be able to teach ourselves new skills is also to have the means to be anything we want to be. We can learn to code, to sketch, to argue better, to build a house (if we are so inclined), to play the cello – anything at all. The internet is our best friend. But the fuel must come from us in the form of our urge to learn.

And of course, a measure of discipline and a sprinkling of will.

What are you interested in learning? Please swap learning stories with me! Would love to chat more about this. You can just reply to this email and I’ll be able to get your message.

Till then, happy learning.

“Live as if you were to die tomorrow. Learn as if you were to live forever.” – Mahatma Gandhi