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How to Learn from Experts

(Cross-posted from


The key difference between experts and beginners is the quality of their abstractions. Masters of a field mentally organize information in a way that’s relevant to the tasks at hand. Amateurs may know as many facts and details as experts but group them in haphazard or irrelevant ways.

For example, experienced Bridge players group cards by suit, then number. They place the most importance on the face cards and work down. Bridge amateurs group solely by number and place equal importance on all numbers. Professional firemen group fires by how the fire was started and how fast it’s spreading-features they use to contain the fire. Novices group fires by brightness and color. Both have the same information, but the firemen hone in on the useful details faster.1

Learn abstractions from masters. If you ask a Software Architect which database technology you should use, circumstances will eventually change and you’ll need to ask them again and pay them again. But if you ask the Architect to teach you how to choose a database then you can adapt to changing circumstances. Ideally you should emerge with a clear set of rules-something like a flow-chart for that decision. A good example is this article onwhether you should use hadoop. Clear criteria let you make a high-quality decision by focusing on the relevant details.

After talking to the expert you can write up the flow-chart or criteria and send it to them to get their opinion. This ensures you understood what the expert was trying to say, and lets you get additional details they might add. Most importantly it gives them something valuable to share with people seeking similar advice, so you’re able to add value to their lives as a thank you for their advice.

Caveats to this method:

  • In some domains there are details only professionals know. Academic research has a secret paper-passing network with ideas known to top researchers 1-2 years before they’re published. So you need to be in constant contact with these experts and hear the details from them. However, this typically only matters if you’re aiming to become a top-class expert yourself.
  • Experts aren’t always conscious of the abstractions they use. They’ll say one thing and do another. So you should ask them to guide you through a specific situation and ask them several questions about how their decision would change if some conditions are different.
  • You may not have a specific question you want answered-you might want to find “unknown unknowns.” In that case ask the expert for stories-things they did that made a big difference. Then analyze those situations to figure out what criteria they used.

Categories: Career, Learning, Productivity

Systematic Lucky Breaks

(Cross-posted from

Many people can point to significant events that improved their lives in a positive way. They often refer to these as “lucky breaks”, and take it for granted that such events are rare. But most of the time “lucky breaks” don’t need to be uncommon-you can often reverse engineer the reasons behind them and cause them to happen more frequently. So when a one-off event ends up contributing a lot of value, you should systematically make it part of your life.


Example 1: in June the Less Wrong – Cambridge community held a mega-meetup with several people arriving from out of state. Since several of us had to stay up until 2AM+ in order to meet with people, we decided to have a game night that evening, which I held at my place. The game night was excellent-plenty of people showed up, we all had a lot of fun, and it was a great way to socialize with several people. Since it went so well, I started hosting game nights regularly, eventually converging on one game night every two weeks. This was a phenomenal move in many ways-it let me meet a lot of interesting people, deepen my connections with my friends, quickly integrate with the Less Wrong community, and just in general have a lot of fun, simply by taking one thing that worked well and making it systematic.


Example 2: a while back I was given an assignment to set up a scalable analytic architecture to allow data scientists to iterate faster-a project where I had no idea what to do or how to start. In desperation, I reached out to several people on LinkedIn who had experience with similar projects. Some of them responded, and the advice I got was incredibly valuable, easily shaving months off of my learning curve. But there is no reason for me to only do this when I am completely desperate. Thus I’ve continued to reach out to experts when I have new projects, and this has allowed me to avoid mistakes and solve new problems much more quickly. This has significantly improved my learning speed and made a qualitative difference in how I work. I no longer dismiss potential ideas simply because I have no idea how to implement them-instead, I now talk to experts and figure out roughly how difficult those ideas are, which has allowed me to solve several problems I would have dismissed as unfeasibly difficult before.


Example 3: a few years back some of my friends in the tech industry mentioned that Machine Learning was becoming a trend, so I took two weeks to learn the basics. A few months later the “Big Data” boom exploded, and I was able to get a job as a Data Scientist at a significantly higher salary doing more interesting work. Even though my Machine Learning knowledge was pretty rudimentary, I was able to get the job because demand completely exceeded supply at that point. In short, this was a lucky break that greatly advanced my career. To systematize this I simply continued to keep an eye out on big trends in technology. I’ve read Hacker News (which is generally half a year or more ahead of the mainstream), kept in touch with my friends on the applied side of academia (which feeds useful techniques into the industry), and just generally kept talking to a lot of people in order to keep up-to-date. This has been useful again and again, allowing me to focus my learning on the most valuable skills right as there was market demand.


In short, one of the fastest ways to improve your life is to look at things that already made a big difference before, and cause more of them to happen.

Categories: Career, Creative Chaos, Learning, Productivity