The Art of Learning: Fractals, Water Polo and Marketing Templates

“We do not learn from experience, but from reflecting on the experience.” – John Dewey

[This post started out as a book review and became a reflection on my own experiences of learning. The idea of fractal learning is one that I would love your feedback on in the comments. Is it useful? Could it be applied in a way that helps us to learn more rapidly or teach more effectively? With more depth or more focus on the passions we have?]

Josh Waitzkin has a fascinating story. He is:

  • 2 x US Junior Chess champion (his father wrote a book about his journey called Searching for Bobby Fischer which was turned into a feature film of the same name),

  • Tai Chi Push Hands World Champion (2004) – the martial arts version of Tai Chi – and has subsequently coached others to that same title,

  • and founder of The Art of Learning Project.

I’ve read his book, The Art of Learning: An Inner Journey to Optimal Performance and loved it.

The Art of Learning:

The Art of Learning

The book explores Josh’s journey from US Junior chess champion to world champion as a martial artist in Tai Chi Push Hands. As he learned TaiChi, Josh began to see how his deep understanding of chess was influencing his learning process and vice versa. Josh subsequently spent years deconstructing his learning process across the 2 pursuits and shares his universal themes in the The Art of Learning.

Josh’s principles of learning:

  • Cultivating a beginner’s mindset
    A beginner is open to all possibilities, is excited to learn and is not afraid of failing. As a beginner there is no expectation to succeed or produce results.

    As your skill level increases, so too does the expectation (often self-imposed) for you to produce results. We stop learning when those expectations make us too afraid of making mistakes. Cultivating a beginner’s mindset helps us overcome this fear of mistakes so we can continue to learn and improve.

  • Invest in loss
    By training, practicing and competing with people who are better than you, you will be forced into making mistakes (losses). These losses become investments when you take the time to reflect on them to understand what happened and why. Through this reflection you can learn and then refine and improve your skills and performance.

  • The study of numbers to leave numbers
    Another way of wording this principle might be to call it the study of a skill to make that skill automatic. By studying and practicing your skills, you gradually absorb them. They become intuitive, automatic, no thinking required.

    Remember the basics of how to catch a ball? Keep your eye on the ball and watch it into your hands. Do you repeat this to yourself every time you catch a ball? When you’re first learning – sure. However, after practicing for a while, you don’t think about it anymore. In fact, often you forget someone even taught that to you.

    This is one of the key difficulties for masters trying to teach beginners – they have forgotten what they have learnt and how they learnt it.

  • Making smaller circles (condensed technique)
    Over time you work on finer and finer details within a skill, condensing your technique to use less effort to achieve the same result. To progress to smaller and smaller circles you’ll need to follow the above 3 elements every time:

    • adopt your beginner’s mindset,

    • invest in loss to understand and learn the finer level of a skill

    • then reflect, study, and practice the new “smaller circle” of the skill until it is automatic. Then you can progress to even deeper levels.

  • Slowing down time (enhanced perception)
    In a competitive arena, if you are “making smaller circles” by focussing on finer details of a skill than your opponent, you will feel like you have more time. The greater the difference in skill level, the greater the time difference will feel.

Fractal Learning

As I was trying to understand these principles, I started to draw. This is my original drawing and notes:

Fractal Learning.png

 My notes on the side tie it back to Josh’s themes:

  • Level 1 Novice sees 3 skills to master

  • Level 2 Intermediate sees 3 skills to master

  • Level 3 Expert sees 3 skills to master

  • And so on

  • Cultivating a beginner’s mindset is about forever being open to, and then seeing the next 3 skills to master.

  • To move deeper into the pattern and down a level to more condensed technique you must invest in loss.

  • You progress to a deeper level when it is internalised by study, reflection and practice.

This drawing – of smaller and smaller circles within circles – immediately reminded me of fractals.

From Wikipedia: A fractal is a mathematical set that typically displays self-similar patterns. Fractals may be exactly the same at every scale or they may be nearly the same at different scales.

I started to look for a fractal that would help me visualise Josh’s concept of “making smaller circles”. I found the Apollonian Gasket. Here is an animated version:

Apollonian Gasket.gif

As the animation proceeds, it is exactly the same at each level – a bit like the drawing in my initial notes although with much more detail.

On the other hand, The Mandelbrot Set – one of the most famous visualisations of a fractal pattern – varies at each level:

1024px-Mandel_zoom_00_mandelbrot_set.jpg

Here’s an animated zoom of it (you don’t need to watch the whole thing):

You’ll notice that as you zoom into the structure, you don’t get an identical pattern repeating. Unlike the Apollonian Gasket, you get something different at each level. BUT it is still related to the whole.

Fractals really helped me to visualise Josh’s principles. So I wanted to step through 2 examples from water polo and web marketing to make these ideas more concrete.

Water Polo

I created a simplified water polo example:

Level 1 – A beginner, keen to learn, watches a game of water polo and sees 3 circles of skills she will need to learn to be able to play the game:

    • Water Polo:

      • Ball skills

      • Swimming

      • Game play

  • Level 2 – When she arrives at her first training session, the player becomes aware (with the help of her coach) that these 3 skills can be broken down further. For example she learns that in Ball skills there are 3 more circles – Passing, Shooting and Blocking:

    • Water Polo:

      • Ball skills

        • Passing

        • Shooting

        • Blocking

      • Swimming

      • Game play

  • Level 3 – This cycle of awareness of more detail (and capability to progress) then repeats and she then breaks each of these skills down even further.

So a branch of this water polo example might look like this:

  • Water Polo:

    • Ball skills

      • Passing

        • Forehand pass

        • Backhand pass

        • Push pass

      • Shooting

      • Blocking

    • Swimming

    • Game play

Drawn out, the pattern of smaller circles looks like this:

Water polo example

It looks a bit like a very simple Apollonian Gasket. In reality, there a more than 3 circles at each level of water polo, so let’s look at web marketing to provide a more detailed example.

Web Marketing and Templates

We started to create web marketing templates to help us teach our clients how web marketing worked and how all the various pieces of the puzzle fitted together. In hindsight, we were deconstructing the relevant skills as we learnt them.

So let’s consider web marketing as a skill set you might want to master.

The visual side of the Web Strategy Planning Template works as a good representation of the broadest level of web marketing.

Screen Shot 2014-05-13 at 7.46.52 am.png

Level 1: In the above image there are 5 areas that will need to be understood:

  • Outcomes

  • Website

  • Search

  • Backlinks

  • Social Media/Content Marketing

Level 2: Let’s zoom in on one – Search. There are 2 skills to learn in Search:

  • SEO – Organic searches

  • SEM – Google Adwords

Level 3: Let’s zoom in again – SEO. The Web Strategy Planning Template doesn’t give more detail, so we can use the SEO planning template to explore the smaller circles:

SEO can be broken down into:

  • Keyword Research

  • On-page SEO

  • Off-page SEO

Level 4: Let’s zoom in one final time – On-page SEO. Again, the template helps us to clarify that we need to learn:

  • Target Keyword

  • URL

  • Page Title

  • Header tags

  • Meta description

  • Image alt tags

  • SEO Yoast

  • Web page copy

  • Google Authorship

So one branch of Web Marketing might look like this:

Web Marketing:

  • Outcomes

  • Website

  • Search

    • SEO – Organic searches

      • Keyword Research

      • On-page SEO

        • Target Keyword

        • URL

        • Page Title

        • Header tags

        • Meta description

        • Image alt tags

        • SEO Yoast

        • Web page copy

        • Google Authorship

      • Off-page SEO

    • SEM – Google Adwords

  • Backlinks

  • Social Media/Content Marketing

Imagine if you expanded each of these – it would be complex right? Visually it might start to look more like the Mandelbrot Set with related but not identical patterns at each level.

In order to progress through the levels of either of these skills and “make smaller circles”, we need to look back at Josh’s principles:

  • Cultivate a beginner’s mindset
  • Invest in loss
  • Study numbers to leave numbers

All with the purpose of making smaller circles as we learn to condense our technique in order to enhance our perception.

So thanks to Josh for an incredibly thought provoking book that inspired me to explore and reflect on my own learning journeys. I can’t recommend The Art of Learning highly enough.

Finally I’d be really interested to hear what you think:

  • Could fractals help you to visualise your learning journey? Or to help you to teach others?
  • How might your expertise or specific skill set look laid out as a pattern?

Let me know your thoughts in the comments below. Thanks!

Humanising – the real value of Real Time

Real Time Marketing and PR“Our people are our greatest asset.”

“Our differentiator is our relationships.”

“Product X is great but it’s our people and our culture that really makes the difference.”

“Our competitors could walk into this place and look around. They can even copy everything we do, but they can’t copy our culture or our people.”

Have you ever heard these statements? I have. Many times.

David Meerman Scott (in Real Time Marketing and PR) has nailed a fundamental shift in communication:

…the web has actually brought communication back full circle to where we were a century ago… communication is once again real, personal and authentic… word of mouth has regained its historic power…

Humanise your company.

If you believe these statements, if you truly believe them, then place your trust in your people and culture, and let them wow the world. Give them the tools – Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and whatever else is next – to share that very same culture and grow those same relationships – in real time.

If your people and culture can’t be copied then surely that is the one thing you can fearlessly make public.

88 tips for business – Rework reworked (a reminder list)

Rework book coverRework is a string of 88 short essays by Jason Fried and David Heinmeier Hansson – the founders of 37signals.com (we are big fans of their products Highrise, Basecamp, Campfire and Backpack at Bluewire Media).

It’s a gem, so I thought I’d write a one line summary of the 88 to remind me.

If you don’t want to read the lot, here’s the themes I took out of it:

  1. Never accept the status quo/age old wisdom/rule of thumb without seriously asking “Why?”
  2. Simplify [I really like Jason Fried’s Twitter credo: It’s simple until you make it complicated]
  3. Break BIG into small
  4. Be personal and real

For those who want the details…

Rework reminder list:

First:

  1. The new reality: You don’t have to work 80hr weeks in an office – you can work from anywhere in the world with people from all over the world.

Takedowns:

  1. Ignore the real world: “That would never work in the real world” is an excuse.
  2. Learning from mistakes is overrated: “When something succeeds, you know what worked – and you can do it again.”
  3. Planning is guessing: Contemplate the future, but don’t obsess about it – there are far too many variables to accurately predict it.
  4. Why grow?: Maybe the right size for your company is 5/40/100.
  5. Workaholism: “The real hero is already home because she figured out a faster way to get things done.”
  6. Enough with “entrepreneurs”: “You just need an idea, a touch of confidence, and a push to get started.”

Go:

  1. Make a dent in the universe: Make a difference
  2. Scratch your own itch: Solve your own problem.
  3. Start making something: Ideas are abundant, execution is what counts.
  4. No time is no excuse: If you really want something, you’ll make time.
  5. Draw a line in the sand: Know what you do and know what you don’t do.
  6. Mission statement impossible: Your actions speak much louder than your words.
  7. Outside money  is Plan Z: Spending other people’s money has a noose attached.
  8. You need less than you think: How would you do it with $0 to spend?
  9. Start a business, not a startup: All businesses, sooner or later, have to make a profit.
  10. Building to flip is building to flop: “You need a commitment strategy, not an exit strategy.”
  11. Less mass: Lean business = responsive, quick to change and flexible.

Progress:

  1. Embrace constraints: Constraints force creativity
  2. Build half a product, not a half-assed product: “Getting to great starts by cutting out the stuff that’s merely good”.
  3. Start at the epicenter: Begin with the stuff you have to do.
  4. Ignore the details early on: Get the big picture right first – details will come later.
  5. Making the call is making progress: “Decide and move forward.”
  6. Be a curator: “It’s the stuff you leave out that matters.”
  7. Throw less at the problem: Trim down the problem first.
  8. Focus on what won’t change: Timeless desires, not what’s hot and new.
  9. Tone is in your fingers: Equipment is often a crutch and never a shortcut.
  10. Sell your by products: Spot by-products and see opportunities.
  11. Launch now: Additional features can come later.

Productivity:

  1. Illusions of agreement: Get real with your ideas – draw, build, hum.
  2. Reasons to quit: Keep asking: “Why am I doing this?”, “Is there an easier way?”
  3. Interruption is the enemy of productivity: Switch everything off and get more alone time.
  4. Meetings are toxic: Agenda, set a timer, few people, be specific, have action items.
  5. Good enough is fine: Maximum result with minimum effort.
  6. Quick wins: Smaller tasks + more frequent celebrations!
  7. Don’t be a hero: Ask for help before investing more time.
  8. Go to sleep: It helps.
  9. Your estimates suck: Break big projects into small projects.
  10. Long lists don’t get done: Make smaller ones and prioritise visually.
  11. Make tiny decisions: “Small decisions mean you can afford to change”.

Competitors:

  1. Don’t copy: You can’t lead by copying.
  2. Decommoditise your product: Pour yourself into your product and everything around it.
  3. Pick a fight: Taking a stand always stands out
  4. Underdo your competition: What you don’t do is just as important as what you do.
  5. Who cares what they’re doing?: Set your own parameters.

Evolution:

  1. Say no by default: But don’t be a jerk about it.
  2. Let your customers outgrow you: Stay true to a type of customer rather than an individual customer.
  3. Don’t confuse enthusiasm with priority: Write your idea down, wait a few days, then evaluate priority.
  4. Be at-home good: Your product needs to get better with use.
  5. Don’t write it down: Listen to your customers, they’ll keep reminding you when something really matters.

Promotion:

  1. Welcome obscurity: You can take more risks/test more options when no-one’s watching.
  2. Build an audience: You won’t have to buy their attention, you’ll have earned it, so they’ll give it to you.
  3. Out-teach your competition: Teaching = trust and respect.
  4. Emulate chefs: Share your “cookbook” (your IP).
  5. Go behind the scenes: Show people how your business works
  6. Nobody likes plastic flowers: Don’t be afraid to show your flaws.
  7. Press releases are spam: Be specific and personal with your approach to a journo.
  8. Forget about the Wall Street Journal: Niche media often produces higher levels of direct activity.
  9. Drug dealers get it right: Give a little away up front – they’ll come back for more.
  10. Marketing is not a department: Marketing is something everyone in your company is doing 24/7/365.
  11. The myth of the overnight sensation: “Trade the dream of overnight success for slow, measured growth.”

Hiring:

  1. Do it yourself first: That way you’ll understand the nature of the work.
  2. Hire when it hurts: What happens if you don’t hire to replace?
  3. Pass on great people: It is much worse to have people on staff who aren’t doing anything meanful.
  4. Strangers at a cocktail party: Hire slowly.
  5. Resumes are ridiculous: Use a cover letter and what they’ve actually shipped.
  6. Years of irrelevance: Experience is irrelevant – what matters is how well they do it.
  7. Forget about formal education: Classroom smart doesn’t necessarily give you what you need.
  8. Everybody works: Small team means everyone has to do work, not delegate it.
  9. Hire managers of one: Motivated people set manage themselves.
  10. Hire great writers: Clear writing = clear thinking.
  11. The best are everywhere: Use people from all over the world, then meet in person every now and again.
  12. Test drive employees: You only really get to know someone when you work side by side with them.

Damage control:

  1. Own your bad news: Acknowledge, Apologise, Act.
  2. Speed changes everything: Answer quickly and personally.
  3. How to say you’re sorry: Accept responsibility, use “I”.
  4. Put everyone on the front lines: Don’t protect the people doing the work from customer feedback.
  5. Take a deep breath: Listen to complaints about change then take a breath before you respond/change again.

Culture:

  1. You don’t create a culture: You live and breathe it, then it will happen.
  2. Decisions are temporary: You can change a decision when the circumstances change.
  3. Skip the rockstars: Create a great workplace, and you’ll attract great people.
  4. They’re not thirteen: Treat staff with respect and trust – it will be reciprocated.
  5. Send people home at 5: You don’t need more hours, you need better hours.
  6. Don’t scar on the first cut: Don’t create a policy straight away – communicate first.
  7. Sound like you: Write, talk like you do to a specific person/target.
  8. Four letter words: Easy, Need, Can’t – don’t use ’em.
  9. ASAP is poison: Save your urgency for when you truly need it.

Conclusion:

  1. Inspiration is perishable: Take it and use it when it’s there, because it won’t be forever.

Is this the first ever example of crowd-sourcing?

Twelve mighty volumes; 414,825 words defined; 1,827,306 illustrative quotations used… The total length of type – all handset, for the books were done by letterpress, still discernible in the delicately impressed feel of the inked-on paper – is 178 miles, the distance between London and the outskirts of Manchester. Discounting every punctuation mark and every space – which any printer knows occupies just as much time to set as does a single letter – there are no fewer than 227,779,589 letters and numbers.

Do you know this book?

Probably – the quote above is describing the first ever edition of the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) and it may well be one of the first documented examples of “crowdsourcing“.

Crowdsourcing

What is crowdsourcing?

The Wikipedia definition of crowdsourcing is: “the act of outsourcing tasks, traditionally performed by an employee or contractor, to a large group of people or community (a crowd), through an open call.”

And it is exactly what made the making of the OED possible.

The scope of the task:

In his speech to academics, in the London Library on Guy Fawkes day 1857, Richard Chenevix Trench set out his Big Hairy Audacious Goal. It was to build an English dictionary that “should be a record of all words that enjoy any recognised life span in the standard language”.

He envisaged a dictionary that would:

  1. List every word in the English Language
  2. For each word, have the quotation that represents the first time that word was ever written down
  3. For each word, have sentences to show every meaning and every possible usage – obselete or modern.

Can you imagine for a moment the scale of this project?

The task would be gigantic, monumental and – according to the conventional thinking of the times – impossible.

That’s a hell of a BHAG.

So where does crowdsourcing come into it?

The undertaking of the scheme, he [Trench] said, was beyond the ability of any one man. To peruse all of English literature… It would be necessary to recruit a team – moreover a huge team, one probably comprising hundreds and hundreds of unpaid amateurs, all of them working as volunteers.

Sound familiar to you? Think no further than Wikipedia.

How about an open call to the public to submit every single word in the English language plus quotations plus definitions past and present? Not only that, but to do it entirely by mail?

The first editor, Herbert Coleridge, designed a stack of pigeon holes to accommodate 60-100,000 slips of paper that would come in from volunteers and estimated that the first volume of the Dictionary would be available in 2 years.

The reality? 6 million slips of paper came in from volunteers, it took 20 years to complete the first volume and 70 years to complete the entire Oxford English Dictionary.

At least now with the internet, we can streamline the crowdsourcing process. It’s humbling to think that this scale of project would be undertaken without it…

Surgeon of Crowthorne

This is just a small part of the incredible story of the making of the OED as told by Simon Winchester (@simonwinchester) in “The Surgeon of Crowthorne – A Tale of Murder, Madness and the Love of Words“. I highly recommend reading it. Brilliantly written, it’s part tragedy, part history, part inspiration and has one of those “truth is stranger than fiction” story lines that will keep you wanting to find out more.

PS: A small irony: When I checked originally in the Crowdsourcing article in Wikipedia, there was no mention of the Oxford English Dictionary in the “Early Examples” section of the article. So I decided to make my first ever contribution to Wikipedia. Crowdsourcing in action!