From the Vault #19 | How to Learn Like Tim Ferriss

From the Vault #19 | How to Learn Like Tim Ferriss

Our From the Vault series examines episodes from The Art of Charm’s past more deeply; we invite you to revisit them — or discover them for the first time — with us. This From the Vault comes from our Bonus Episode treasury and features the one and only Tim Ferriss — from the days before his podcast became the ubiquitous juggernaut we know and love today.

Jordan’s conversation with Tim originally aired in November of 2012 and was a slow walk through what we’ve seen Tim become famous for: learning at an accelerated speed, aka meta-learning. I’ve spoken about my admiration for Tim’s Tools of Titans before and this episode reveals that Tim has had a basic system and approach to all these questions for many years now. For those who listen to Tim’s podcast on a regular basis, it’s a treat to hear him actually interviewed for once (the same way you might enjoy hearing Jordan occasionally get interviewed on AoC).

How Does Tim Pick His Teachers?

Tim points out that the best performers are not necessarily the best teachers. Just because someone has the ability to do something doesn’t mean that he/she has the ability (or the patience) to break down the steps they take in great details so that learners can take baby steps.

“It’s important to separate attributes from skills,” Tim notes. By this, he means that someone like Michael Phelps is almost “engineered” to be a swimmer and that there’s no way to copy his attributes. But if it’s possible to break down the skills of someone like Michael Phelps, you can duplicate them, via a lot of hard work.

This also means that Tim’s teachers are not always the Michael Phelps types. When someone is “the guy” or “the girl” in his/her respective field, that person is simply very hard to get time with. “Go for the silver medalist,” Tim advises. This person may have finished micro-seconds behind the gold medalist, and has more availability, and sometimes, a better attitude than “the golden child.” Jordan noted that is true in finding guests for the podcast as well.

The Sigmoid Curve

The Sigmoid CurveTim is interested in finding teachers who went from zero to expert in six months or less and often talks about this kind of performance using the Sigmoid Curve. This is a stretched out S and is a concept that Tim often uses to explain his learning process. “I want to chop off as much of that first line before the curve starts upwards and start there.” By working with someone who used skills, not attributes, to become world-class in a short amount of time, Tim is able to ask questions that help identify the assumptions and best practices that lead to this expertise.

Language Learning

Both Tim and Jordan speak enough Chinese to be dangerous, and part of the episode was dedicated to language learning. “The problem is,” Tim opined, “a lot of people want to brute force their way through things, and yes, that will help you with things like vocabulary in Spanish, but to say Chinese words, you have to develop new skills.” Both he and Jordan discussed the importance of getting the tones in Chinese right as so much depends on them. “If you’re not militant about the tones, you’ll be lost,” noted Tim.


“Whenever I feel anxious in general or about something specific, I take a piece of paper and lay it out in landscape and create three columns. In the first column on the far left, I write at the top, “What are all the worst things that could happen, however absurd?” In the middle column I write, “What could I do to mitigate the horrible things from happening?” and in the far right column I write, “What could I do to get back to where I am now, if these things happen?” Tim calls this exercise “Fear-Setting” and he uses it frequently. Jordan noted that many people are worried about things all the time. They aren’t weird — they are normal — and that many listeners could really take advantage of this exercise to gain perspective into changes or decisions that lie ahead.

Remember that From the Vault is just a quick look at some ideas in any given episode. If you’d like to hear more from Tim and Jordan, including what a challenge it was for Tim to reclaim the episodes from his own TV show, why he’ll never switch to DVORAK from QWERTY, and his hacks for learning tones in Chinese, listen to the entire episode here.

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