Category Archives: Gray Matter

Learning Something New

Don’t force yourself to learn something if you don’t want to or it’s not a natural talent.

What’s the role of talent? Very small. But you have to start with it. Talent is the seed of skill.

How do you know if you are talented? If you loved it when you were ten years old. If you dream about it. If you like to read about it. Read the below and you’ll know what you are talented at.

Trust me when I say: everyone is talented at many things.

In the past 20 years I’ve wanted to learn how to do some things really well. Writing, programming, business skills (leadership, sales, negotiating, decision-making), comedy, games.

So I developed a ten step technique for learning.


If you can’t start with “love” then everyone who does love will beat everyone who “likes” or “hates”.

This is a rule of the universe. The first humans who crossed the arctic tundra from Siberia to Alaska in -60 degree temperatures had to love it. The rest stayed in the East Africa Savannah.

The very first day I wrote a “Hello, World” computer program I dreamed about computers. I woke up at 4am to get back to the “computer lab” and make even bigger programs.

When I first started to write every day, I would write all day. I couldn’t stop. And all I wanted to talk about with people were different authors.

When I was 10 years old I wrote a gossip column about all my fellow 5th graders. I read every Judy Blume book. I read everything I could. I loved it.

Most of my friends got bored with me and soon I was very lonely. Except when I was writing.


Bobby Fischer wasn’t that good at chess. He had talent but nobody thought much of him.

So around the age of 12-13 he disappeared for a year. He did this later in his 20s.

But at 13 when he came back on the scene he was suddenly the best chessplayer in the US, won the US championship, and became the youngest grandmaster in the world.

How did he do it? He barely played at all during his year of wandering.

Instead he did two things:

a) he studied every game played in the prior century. In the 1800s.

When he came back on the scene he was known for playing all of these antiquated openings but he had improvements in each one. Nobody can figure out how to defeat these improvements.

In fact, the final game of the World Championship many years later, in 1972 when he was playing Spassky, he brought out his 1800s arsenal to become World Champion.

Spassky desperately needed to win to keep the match going. Fischer needed to draw to win the title.

Spassky started with a very modern attacking opening (“The Sicilian”) But then around 13 moves in, all of the commentators watching gasped.

Fischer had subtly changed the opening into an old-fashioned very drawish 1800s opening called “The Scotch Game.” Spassky didn’t have a chance after that.

b) He learned enough Russian to read the Russian chess magazines. At the time, the top 20 players in the world were all Russian. The Americans didn’t really have a chance.

So Fischer would study the Russian games while all of the Americans were sitting around with openings and styles the Russians already knew how to defeat.

Consequently, when Fischer competed in the US championship in the early 60s it was the first complete shutout, all wins and not a single draw.

Studying the history, studying the best players, is the key to being the best player. Even if you started off with average talent.


If you want to be a writer, or a businessman, or a programmer, you have to write a lot, start a lot of businesses, and program a lot of programs.

Things go wrong. This is why quantity is more important than quality at first.

The learning curve that we all travel is not built by accomplishments. It’s only built by quantity.

If you see something 1000 times, you’ll see more than the person who sees the same thing only ten times.

Don’t forget the important rule: the secret of happiness is not “being great” – the secret is “growth”.

If you only “try” you’ll get to your level that is natural for you. But growth will stop and you won’t be happy.


If I try to learn Spanish on my own, I get nowhere. But when I go out (and now marry) someone who is from Argentina, I learn more Spanish.

With chess, writing, programming, business, I always find someone better than me, and I set a time each week to ask them tons of questions, have them give me assignments, look over my mistakes and tell me where I am wrong.

For everything you love, find a teacher and that makes you learn 10x faster.

In fact, everything I put on this list, makes you learn 10x faster. So if you do everything on this list you will learn 10 to the 10th power faster than anyone else.

That’s how you become great at something.


If you want to learn how to be a GREAT programmer (not just good enough to program an app but good enough to be GREAT, study machine language.

Study 1s and 0s. Study the history of the computer, learn how to make an operating system, and Fortran, Cobol, Pascal, Lisp, C, C++, all the way through the modern languages of Python, etc.

If you want to write better, read great books from the 1800s. Read Hemingway and Virginia Woolf and the Beats, and the works that have withstood the test of time.

They have withstood the test of time. versus millions of other books, for a reason. They are the best in the world.

Then study the current criticism of those books to see what you have missed. This is just as important as the initial reading.

If you want to study business, read biographies of Rockefeller, Carnegie, the first exchange in Amsterdam, the junk-bond boom, the 90s, the financial bust. Every Depression. All the businesses that flourished in every depression.

Read “Zero to One” by Peter Thiel. Watch “The Profit” on CNBC. Read about Steve Jobs. Read about the downfall of Kodak in “The End of Power”.

Don’t read self-help business books. They are nothing. You are about to enter a great field, the field of innovation that has created modern society. Don’t read the average books that came out last year.

Step up your game and read about the people and inventions that changed the world into what it is today.

Read how Henry Ford had to start three car companies to get it right and why “three” was the important number for him.

Read about why Ray Kroc’s technique for franchising created the world’s largest restaurant chain. Read how the Coca-Cola makes absolutely nothing but is the largest drink company in the world.

Write down the things you learn from each reading.


Tony Robbins told me about when he was scared to death on his first major teaching job.

He had to teach a bunch of Marines how to improve their sharpshooting. “I had never shot a gun in my life,” he said.

He studied quite a bit from professionals but then he came up with a technique that resulted in the best scores of any sharpshooting class before then.

He brought the target closer.

He put it just five feet from them. They all shot bullseyes. Then he moved it back bit by bit until it was the standard distance.

They were still shooting bullseyes.

Richard Branson started a magazine before he started an airline. Bill Gates wrote BASIC before his team wrote Windows.

E.L. James (and yes, I’m including her) wrote Twilight fan fiction, before she wrote “50 Shades of Grey”.

Ernest Hemingway never thought he could write a novel. So he wrote dozens of short stories.

Programmers write “Hello, World” programs before they make their search engines.

Many chess grandmasters recommend you study the endgame first in chess (when there are few pieces left on the board) before you study the other parts of the game.

This gets you confidence, it teaches subtleties, it gives you greater feelings of growth and improvement – all steps on the path to success.


The other day I threw everything out. Everything. I threw out all my books (donated). I threw out all my clothes.

I threw out old computers. I threw out plates I never used. I threw out sheets I would never have guests for. I threw out furniture (four book cases) and my TV and old papers and everything.

I wanted to clean up. And I did.

I found a novel I wrote in 1991. 24 years ago. It was horrible.

For the first time in those 24 years, I re-read it. I studied what I did wrong (character unrelatable. Plot too obvious. Deus ex machina all over the place).

Someone told me a story about Amy Schumer, one of my favorite comedians. She videotapes all her performances.

Then she goes back to her room and studies the performance second by second. “I should have paused another quarter-second here,” she might say.

She wants to be the best at comedy. She studies her every performance.

When I play chess, if I lose, I run the game into the computer. I look at every move, what the computer suggests as better, I think about what I was thinking when I made the bad move, and so on.

A business I was recently invested in fell apart. It was painful for me. But I had to look at it and see what was wrong. Where did I make a mistake. At every level I went back and wrote what happened and where I might have helped better and what I missed.

If you aren’t obsessed with your mistakes then you don’t love the field enough to get better.

You ask lousy questions: “Why am I no good?” Instead of good questions: “What did I do wrong and how can I improve?”

When you consistently ask good questions about your own work, you become better than the people who freeze themselves with lousy questions.

Example: I hate watching myself after a TV appearance. I have never done it. So I will never get better at that.


Look at every literary, art, and business scene. People seldom get better as individuals. They get better as groups.

The Beats: Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, William Burroughs and a dozen others.

The programmers: Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, Ted Leonsis, Paul Allen, Steve Wozniak and a dozen others all came out of the Homebrew Club

The art scene in the 50s: Jasper Johns, De Kooning, Pollack, etc all lived on the SAME STREET in downtown NYC.

YouTube, LinkedIn, Tesla, Palantir, and to some extent Facebook, and a dozen other companies came out of the so-called “PayPal mafia”.

All of these people could’ve tinkered by themselves. But humans are tribal mammals. We need to work with groups to improve.

Find the best group, spend as much time with them, and as a “scene” you become THE scene.

You each challenge each other, compete with each other, love each other’s work, become envious of each other, and ultimately take turns surpassing each other.


What you do every day matters much more than what you do once in awhile.

I had a friend who wanted to get better at painting. But she thought she had to be in Paris, with all the conditions right.

She never made it to Paris. Now she sits in a cubicle under fluorescent lights, filling out paperwork all day.

Write every day, network every day, play every day, live healthy every day.

Measure your life in the number of times you do things. When you die: are you 2 writing sessions old? Or are you 50,0000?


Eventually the student passes the master.

The first hedge fund manager I worked for now hates me. I started my own fund and his fund went out of business. My evil plan was ultimately to be better than him.

But how?

After all of the above, you find your unique voice. And when you speak in that voice, the world hears something it has never heard before.

Your old teachers and friends might not want to hear that voice. But if you continue to be around people who love and respect you, then they will encourage that new voice.

There’s that saying, “there are no new ideas.” But there are.

There are all the ideas in the past combined with the new beautiful you. You’re the butterfly.

Now it’s your turn to teach, to mentor, to create, to innovate, to change the world. To make something nobody has ever seen before and perhaps will never see again.

(Source: James Altucher)

If I Ran the Country

This is a great exercise to see where you really stand politically and what great ideas you might have down deep. Don’t think in terms of left or right, democrat or republican, but think through what’s right and good. My list is below – use it as a starting guide to write down your own thoughts about how this democratic republic should really be run.

General Economy

  • trickle down economics don’t work
  • markets work
  • don’t stress the budget deficit until economy is humming
  • work towards a balanced budget that works towards a long game
  • trim expenses by simplification, efficiency and cutting waste
  • raise revenues


  • greatly simplify income taxes
  • keep personal income tax rates as low as is prudent, but close loopholes
  • if we create personal tax incentives, let those be for the poor rather than the rich
  • adjust the corporate tax rate to be competitive with the most forward-thinking European countries and close loopholes

Strategic Investment

  • invest in hard infrastructure as a needed improvements and job stimulus
  • invest in technology infrastructure (fiber optics) and delivery methods in the same way… both a white and blue collar investment


  • look to the successes in Europe
  • create a nationalized, socialized healthcare system
  • create a national wellness program
  • don’t mess with a woman’s right to choose


  • keep and increase funding for arts and humanities (NEA, NIH)
  • don’t attempt to regulate personal moral choices
  • let humans marry humans – it’s a legal contract – churches can do what they want
  • create a simple path to legal status for immigrants
  • keep religion out of government
  • work to keep the Internet a free information exchange system


  • invest in new defense technologies
  • for offensive technologies, think the long game: create offensive technologies that are not designed around killing humans but rather incapacitation of humans, machines, network systems and such


  • go ahead and tap into new sources of oil and gas, but do it in an environmentally responsible way
  • don’t make the goal “independence from foreign oil”… think a longer game than that… think “independence from fossil fuels”
  • invest in research to find commercially-viable energy sources that replace fossil fuels, because they WILL RUN OUT someday
  • innovate with other countries and share tech with other countries
  • we’ll only reverse global warming if we can give developing countries a viable, cheap alternative to fossil fuels


  • invest heavily in energy research
  • enhance the NSF SBIR investment program
  • let real science be taught in schools
  • push the space program and space research
  • push research on quantum effects and string theory (quantum computing)


  • do a long-term evaluation of US farm subsidies – are they needed down the road?
  • work to create a best-practices resource system for small holder-farmers around the globe
  • incentivize genetic crop research to best help small global farmers
  • work with world organizations on sensible, long-term population control policies
  • integrate urban agriculture requirements into large scale urban zoning policies
  • work to support local CSAs and best practices for seasonal vegetables for dietary variety in all sectors of the country

Foreign Policy

  • do not start wars in other parts of the world
  • do not be the sole global moral authority
  • only act militarily on foreign soil when a member of a coalition force


  • No Child Left Behind does NOT work
  • require a national core curriculum, but keep it as minimal as possible – test to the minimal curriculum
  • allow teachers and local school districts to teach and expand the curriculum beyond the core based on local needs and teacher expertise and interest
  • pay teachers better and give them a national path of professional development
  • create a national online system of higher education that’s free for all US high school graduates
  • explore virtual reality as a delivery method for public schooling (specifically grades 7-12)

Kurt Vonnegut’s Writing Rules

  • Use the time of a total stranger in such a way that he or she will not feel the time was wasted.
  • Give the reader at least one character he or she can root for.
  • Every character should want something, even if it is only a glass of water.
  • Every sentence must do one of two things — reveal character or advance the action.
  • Start as close to the end as possible.
  • Be a sadist. No matter how sweet and innocent your leading characters, make awful things happen to them — in order that the reader may see what they are made of.
  • Write to please just one person. If you open a window and make love to the world, so to speak, your story will get pneumonia.
  • Give your readers as much information as possible as soon as possible. To heck with suspense. Readers should have such complete understanding of what is going on, where and why, that they could finish the story themselves, should cockroaches eat the last few pages.

Keys to College Success

1. Remain open to new ideas, new thoughts, new interpretations, new people, new situations and new perspectives. If you complete your first year of college feeling and thinking just as you did when you entered, then you have failed, regardless of your GPA. – Stacy Cordery, professor of history

2. Start with showing up. The rest will come if you want them to. Woody Allen once said that 80 percent of life was showing up. He got the percentage wrong, but the principle right. Showing up prepared is more important, then staying awake, thinking about what you heard or read, then knowing how to explain your ideas orally and in writing. – Bill Urban, Lee L. Morgan Professor of History and International Studies

3. Study harder than you think is necessary. If your grades turn out to be too good, you can always cut back. – Mauri Ditzler, Monmouth College president

4. Get eight hours of sleep every night, try not to do EVERYTHING, and listen to your professor’s advice – they really do want you to succeed; they aren’t just trying to make your life difficult. – Ken Cramer, professor of biology

5. Raise your hand and answer a question even if you think you may be wrong. It still counts toward participation and will make you stand out among your class. Read assignments before coming to class and take notes and write down any questions you may have, visit your professor during office hours for help or to talk about papers, projects and classwork.” –  Carina Olaru, assistant professor of modern foreign languages

6. Social life, sleep and grades … choose two: If you get good grades and plenty of sleep, you will not have a social life. If you have an active social life and good grades, you will be sleep deprived. If you get plenty of sleep and have a good social life, your grades will suffer. The take-home message is all decisions have an impact. – Brad Sturgeon, assistant professor of chemistry

7. Schedule your time, even when you are planning to eat breakfast, lunch and dinner. I always give my ILA students a piece of paper that is marked with the days of the week and the hours between 6 a.m. and 12 midnight. I then ask them to write in their class schedule, any other co-curricular commitments that they have made, and the times at which they will eat breakfast, lunch and dinner. After this, they are able to see how much time there is in the day to not only do their work but to also have some time to relax. I encourage them to then schedule in study time and relaxation time. It is very important for freshmen to be aware of the time that exists in the day so that they use it properly. This exercise often relaxes those that are nervous about the amount of work that is required by college professors. – Audra Sostarecz, associate professor of chemistry.

8. Participate in off-campus study. Whether you go to an English or foreign language destination, stay in the U.S. or go abroad, studying off campus gives you a broader educational experience. International study develops independence, maturity and experience with diversity.  It sets you apart from all other applicants for a job or grad school. Better yet, develop fluency in a second language! Students have said it is ‘amazing’ and ‘life-changing’ and ‘the best semester of their life.’ – Kristin Larson, associate professor of psychology, licensed clinical psychologist

9. Start with the end in mind. By your senior year, you will want to have participated in academic and service activities that build your resume and demonstrate your engagement in your education. You will also want to have some work experience through research, volunteering and internships. Lastly, build relationships with your professors by visiting office hours and participating in events that they sponsor. They need to know you in order to write letters of recommendation. – Kristin Larson

10. Challenge yourself. This is a relatively low-stress environment to make mistakes, but when you do, take responsibility for them. Then get up and challenge yourself again! – Stacy Cordery

(source: Monmouth College)

Exercise: Riding with Benjamin Franklin

If he was transported into our time and your job was to drive him from here to there, before he has had any chance to experience our world-what would you talk about? What things would he notice out the car window that would be fascinating to him (what things would he notice in the car?). Imagine you are his first significant contact with our time: how would you explain the world around him?

Exercise: the Salvador Dali

Try to tap into “hypnogogic imagery.” Have pencil and paper handy. Place a metal cookie sheet on the floor near a comfortable chair and hold a spoon loosely in your hand over the sheet. Settle down and try to relax fully. As you relax or fall to sleep, you’ll drop the spoon, creating a noise that will rouse you. Grab the paper and write down any thoughts or images that come to you.

Creativity Overview

Creativity is the ability to recognize new connections and patterns between elements residing in your “library” of long term memories. A moment of inspiration occurs when this newly recognized pattern is seen as a whole or partial solution to an existing problem.

Your creative skills can be enhanced by four primary means:

  • Enhancing your general mental performance
  • Enhancing your memory skills
  • Growing your library of long term memory objects
  • Learning to use creative thinking tools

Lucid Dreaming

Lucid dreams are dreams you have in which you are fully conscious and aware that you are dreaming. You can fly, do anything you wish, and in general, have a mental vacation.

You need to train yourself to know when you are dreaming. The easiest way to do this is to get into the habit, every hour or so, of looking at a book title or a digital clock nearby, making a note of what it says, and then turning away for a second. Look back again—does it say the same thing? If so, you are awake—in a dream, it will say something different, and this is your cue: you’re dreaming!

If you feel yourself starting to wake up, outstretch your arms and start spinning slowly—this will pull you back into sleep and your dream state.

Short Term Memory: Repeat to Remember

  • The “moment of learning” is the most important
  • The more “hooks” into a memory, the better (the more it relates to concepts and experiences already in the learner’s brain)
  • People recall better in an environment that is like where they learned a concept in the first place
  • A memory is retained in the same physical cells in which is was learned
  • Create a focused room for more effective learning and memory (language room, music room, etc.)

(source: John Medina)

People Don’t Pay Attention to Boring Things

  • There is no such thing as multitasking-the brain can only process one attention-getting thing at a time
  • We learn better when we start with large concepts and then move into details
  • Emotional content helps us learn and remember better

You can only really concentrate for 10 minutes at a time, without a break:

  • Start with general concept, 1 minute or less
  • Reinforce with examples
  • End with (or start next topic) with emotional hook to serve as the brain rest period

(source: John Medina)

Exercise Boosts Brain Power

  • Aerobic exercise, 30 minutes at a time, 2-3 times a week
  • Exercise during work (do email on treadmill)

(source: John Medina)
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15 Second Guide to College Success

  • Go to class every day
  • Pay attention to your teacher in class
  • Listen for clues: they will tell you how to succeed in a class and what will be on the test
  • Read and do the homework
  • Do something calming before a test, like read a book–don’t try to cram

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