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Tim Ferriss On Why Outsiders Hold The Secret To Learning New Skills

What Contrarians, Anomalies, And Silver Medalists Taught Best-Selling Author Tim Ferriss About Learning.

When Tim Ferriss is launching into learning a new skill, the entrepreneur and 4 Hour Chef author looks for outsiders — the contrarians, anomalies, and silver medalists.

"Whether I'm looking at hedge funds or looking at marksmanship," he says, "I will go onto the Google and search 'contrarian fill-in-the-blank.'"

Tim Ferriss

Consider something like shot-put: he'll search for "outlier shot-put coach" or "contrarian shot-put coach." Then he looks for a silver medalist with his location.

Why the silver medalists? "Typically, they're technically very often just as good as the gold medalist, they just had a bad day, and they're easier to get a hold of," he says.

"It's far easier to back a few Olympics to find someone who perhaps is actually closer to you genetically and get spectacular advice, " he says. "It might cost you 50 bucks for an hour-long Skype session or in person training session." Then he asks a battery of standardized questions for unlocking nonstandard results, like:

  • Why is what you do controversial?
  • Is there anyone who hasn't been able to replicate your results?
  • If you had eight weeks to prepare me for X and you had a million dollars on the line, what would you do?

Then all those results go into Evernote, one of the apps he can't live without. But what's fascinating is how the iconoclastic successes fold into Ferriss's overall learning strategy.

How eccentricity shows what's most valuable

Ferriss is a longtime proponent of the Pareto principle, the idea that you get 80% of your value from 20% of your activity.

From what Ferriss says, if someone has become really good at doing something in a very nonstandard way, you can infer that the standard path isn't necessarily the best methodology for learning a skill.

The nonstandard cases also reveal the difference between what Ferriss calls techniques and attributes. Techniques are skills that are quickly learnable; attributes are physical and take time to develop.

"If you're trying to learn parkour (an extreme type of obstacle course training), you need to figure out where you can cheat by refining technique and jumping to intermediate or advanced stuff," he told us in an interview. "(But in the case of attributes), you have to recognize that there are challenges and obstacles like tendons snapping because you don't have the time to develop the increased power output or strength."

The anomalies and iconoclasts show the differences in techniques and attributes, like the whispy girl that can deadlift 405 pounds. They're performing with techniques rather than genes.

The Bottom Line:
By doing it the "wrong" way so well, iconoclasts show you what you need to focus on. Then it's on you to commit.

[Image: Flickr user Martin Fisch]

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  • Chris

    What a useless waste of bandwidth, you don't even mention who this guy is or why he is successful and you expect us to take his advice! Incredible.

  • Dissymmetry

    You Are Not So Smart. You are exhibiting, in all of it's glory, the logical fallacy of Survivorship Bias.


    A simple google search would have confirmed to you that Tim Ferris is in fact a true modern renaissance man. Maybe the reason the author of this article didn't bother introducing him, is because most of Fast Company's reader base already know who he is.

  • Anthony Reardon

    Yeah! Brilliant one here.

    So...I'm not the successful CEO of some multi-million dollar company, but not for lack of capability. I see things differently and that is where I get the power of my insight. However, I am contrarian, antagonistic, and against the grain. I just might not have what it takes to fit into the mold. However, some CEO wants to shatter the mold, then I'm the guy to call.

    Ask me why what I do is controversial, how often I come across people like me, or what I would do with a million dollars and 8 weeks to accomplish X. I can pretty much guarantee you where I would come from is completely outside-the-box. I might even share my insights for $50 over an hour long Skype session.

    What I like about this article is it points out the value of studying the "exceptions to the rule". I think the same goes with technical vs. principle learning. You see, a technique is a standard prescribed solution. It means knowing "what" you are supposed to do, and if it is a scripted scenario like that, then knowing the "why" isn't necessarily prerequisite. Principle learning requires building things up and breaking them down again and again. Even if you are affirmed something works, and especially if it doesn't, you do it again and again approaching it from different angles to understand the "why". Consequently, the approach is not great for roles where you have to simply regurgitate information (school) or do what you are told (work). However, when it comes to finding solutions to problems where the answer is not known - such as the modern business world with its ever increasing rates of complexity, volatility, and competition - I think this is where the real innovation, differentiation, and disruption come from.

    Nonetheless, I am fascinated by the relationship between technique and attribute introduced in the article. I'll be breaking that one down for a while. Thanks!

    Best, Anthony

  • Anthony Reardon

    Lol! I don't mind criticism when it's due.

    Who are you to say I'm full of shit? You're no one.

    The only thing you have to say is the author doesn't say who the guy is which he does right below the title, or why he is so successful which is clearly why he's talking about this guy's methods. You might get a better picture of who the guy is, why he's a success, and why anyone might find his methods interesting by clicking one of the other two articles linked to this one.

    If that's all you got to say, you've got nothing to say either, lol! Just bail troll bot.