If you've learned from the best, you're doing it wrong

by George6 min read8th Mar 202117 comments

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RationalityPractical
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i - Working out

Say you've read up on the studies about exercise and you've decided to dedicate 30 to 90 minute of every day purely to improve your body. You like the CV benefits, but also, you agree that strength, stability, postural awareness and whatnot play an important role in optimal functioning, even if that function is sitting at a computer writing code.

How do you proceed?

Well, there are many ways, but the worst possible way would be to look for someone that looks to be very physically fit, is scoring amazingly well in sporting competitions and is known to perform feats of strength, endurance and agility.

Why?

Envision a few examples of this type of person. I'm envisioning Lance Armstrong, the guy who played The Mountain in Game of Thrones, and Royce Gracie, the guy that won the first UFC (the one that was actually fun to watch).

I've no idea how they would act as coaches, but their path to success certainly involved training for 6 to 14 hours a day, every day of the week, for more than a dozen years. It presumably involved a lot of weird meal plans and sleep plans and investments into a bunch of expensive devices. It certainly focused on minimizing accidents, but in the now, not in the 50 years from now. On top of that, it probably included a mix of exogenous HGH, IGF, Testosterone, EPO and many other compounds I wouldn't be able to name.

None of those things are bad if your goal is along the line of:

I want to become the strongest/fastest/powerfulest/sportiest/bestest

But they are horrible ideas if your goal is exercising as a health-enhancing addition to a lifestyle focused on other things.

ii - On Nobel laureates being mediocre teachers

There's a classic problem that you've heard of before along the lines of:

Yeah, he's an amazing researcher, but a horrible teacher. Go figure, it's probably the very mental quirks that make him so smart that give him a hard time with explaining the field to anyone else.

While the thing I'm trying to expand upon here is correlated with this, it's not the problem I'm trying to get at.

Say you've got someone very good at material science and physics in general. She's highly cited, coordinated a bunch of experiments at CERN, appears in the author list of a bunch of major papers, has various patents, is paid to advise major manufacturers, the bunch.

If you take this person and tell her to teach physics 101 she might indeed perform quite poorly, since physics 101, for her, is basically second nature.

But the thing that she has to teach, physics 101, is still part of what she knows. At some point, she learnt it, and while it might be embedded in her brain in a somewhat different way from mine or yours, it's still the same physics.

What the above working out example showcases is not teachers forgetting or having a weird perspective on the thing they have to teach, but teachers never having learnt that thing.

Our sports champion haven't forgotten how to maintain a health casual workout regiment, they never knew how to do it nor did the thought cross their mind.

iii - Uneven starts

The workout example is the mistake that "being the best at a sport" is a path that goes through "learning how to have a healthy moderate workout regiment". Much like "becoming a Nobel laureate physicist" goes through "learning physics 101".

Another case of "mistaking the field", might be you listening to a naturally talented musician from an upper-middle-class background saying "overcoming stage fright is one of the most important steps to success". This may indeed be true for him, but for most people "securing financial stability" and "becoming musically talented" are going to be 100x times more pressing and time-consuming than overcoming stage fright.

Similarly speaking, if you want to start a business and take the example of someone that started from the background of "youngest son of a powerful gem mining magnate", while your childhood was spent in a trailer park, you're probably going to miss out on some critical steps.

Just to be clear, I think that thinking about this issue as mere "inequality" is silly, I'm giving black and white examples here just to make things obvious. While some "starting points" for learning are arguably worst, different starting points usually come with a mix of advantages and disadvantages towards learning anything.

iv - Corrupt polymaths

Even worst, to be considered "the best" in something often involves a bunch of signalling, actually, a lot of signalling.

I think this is a controversial statement, and the rest of my views here stand without it, but just on an intuitive level, I really doubt most "famous experts" are the best in the field, or even the 10th best, or the 100th. Sure, they are in the top 10% or 1% of expertise, but they aren't optimizing for that alone.

The "top experts" are good at a mix of politics and signalling that makes them appear as and be recommended as "the top expert". Dr Fauci is probably a really good immunologist, but he's probably an even better politician and a Nobel laureate equivalent in bureaucracy.

So learning from the "top expert" in {X} might be good if you want to become a "top expert" in {X}, but not if you want to become the best there is when it comes to {X}. Since the person that is best when it comes to {X}, almost by definition, did not have the time to learn how to signal this and how to navigate the politics that come with the title.

v - Force of habit

I don't want to start quoting William James, and most of you probably know the gist of it when it comes to habits and environment:

  • "Momentary self/I" wanting/knowing something isn't the same as "comprehensive self/I" wanting/knowing (i.e. goal-oriented cognition can only nudge your aggregate behaviours)
  • You are very good at walking, opening doors, putting on a shirt, washing dishes, writing a CRUD backend, doing manual hyperparameter tuning... but upon further inquiry, you're probably hard-pressed to explain how you actually do those things, they just come to you naturally when the act is being performed.
  • You are your environment. If your fridge has coke and cookies you eat unhealthy, if it has greek yoghurt and mineral water you eat healthy, intentions are irrelevant most of the time.

Most people that are really good at something got there using habits. Habits that may or may not be desirable or easy to imitate.

I find it surprising how many good programmers default to being DIY minimalists. This is probably not a good choice unless you already are a good programmer, but it forces you into an environment where only a good programmer/techie can prosper.

For example, Arch Linux has the virtue of teaching you server-management 101 while you're installing and using it one can become quite the UNIX specialist. But unless your specific goal is to hone those skills, Arch Linux is quite cumbersome, I wouldn't recommend it to my dad or use it myself nowadays.

The best way I've seen people learn anything "techy" is by being thrown into an environment where that thing becomes useful, where the environment encourages you to learn it.

But the best people aren't in an environment that encourages learning so they've thrown away "learning-friendly" tools for "efficient" tools.


There are many things that I "learned" which I can no longer even distinguish as "a thing that can be learned". I remember there was a time when I didn't know how to use python, I see other people not knowing how to write a simple imperative program, but for the life of me I can't figure out what bridges the gap between that mental state and where I'm at right now.

However, I am 99% certain, barring a weird DMT-aline style hypothesis, that there was a time in life where I had those same issues writing simple imperative logic. Whatever I am doing that young me failed to understand feels like walking, I get at a rational level that it's a very complex skill and that it took me years to learn, but if an adult-brained baby asked me how to do it I'd be lost trying to explain it to them.


I will be an even better programmer 10 years from now but by then my environment and habits will be so highly specialized that I will be useless as a teacher. Now I can at least point people to solutions like using Arch Linux, or a few beginner books in python and javascript that seem like the kind of thing that can get you started. But in 10 years time, I will not even know what the equivalent of Arch or python is, nor be able to judge tools on their teaching merit more broadly, for I will never again be able to place myself in the shoes of someone that didn't know how to code.

Much like with the other examples, I chose programming to illustrate this point, but I think it's more general.

vi - Learn from the same

All of which is to say that I don't get why one would ever want to learn from the best, they are:

  • Hard to find, because they aren't signalling it, they don't have the time.
  • Pursuing a whole other thing than the one you want to learn, but this is non-obvious since you are seeing distinct landscapes as continuous.
  • Starting from a much different set of constraints and advantages than those you are under.
  • Unable to explain how they do the various things that make them the best since they've become automatic.
  • In an environment that is well suited for being the best, but poorly suited for learning to be the best.

It seems obvious to me that I'd want to learn from people that are "the same" as myself, the best imaginable teacher would be a perfect-clone of myself that had a few weeks extra to learn something I don't know.

More broadly, a good teacher is one that is close to me on many demographic metrics. Ideally, someone that has a "skin in the game" way of proving they know the things I don't.

Is there something to be said for learning from a genius? Maybe, but I doubt it, it seems to me that most geniuses are known for producing good but unremarkable apprentices. Anecdotally, I do have experience learning (C++ programming & working with computers in general) from someone that I consider to be a bit of a savant, and it accelerated my learning a lot, but I'm fairly certain it was more so because of a spirit of competition and companionship than any particular teachings.

There are probably traits that make for a good teacher but they likely have to do with memory and mindfulness. A good teacher can remember "not knowing" and able to pay close attention to this environment and automated actions to discover teaching instructions.

Barring the ability to find those traits in someone good, or to find someone similar to myself, it might be wiser to learn from the mediocre while they still have something to teach, though I admit this particular recommendation is strange enough that I'm not sure I myself can fully accept it.

Then again, if you don't believe in learning from the mediocre nor do you feel any kinship to my other ideas, you may have wasted a lot of your time because I am no expert in any of the branches of psychology that study learning.

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I think you've completely missed the main use-case for learning from the best.

Example: Dick Fosbury, the high jumper who invented the "Fosbury Flop". He perfected a new high-jump technique, and absolutely smashed a bunch of high-jump records. Naturally, the technique spread, and today it's the standard.

If it's 1969 and you want to learn to high jump, learning from Dick Fosbury is probably your best bet. Not because he's a great teacher, not because he's near your skill level, but because he knows things about high jump which nobody else knows (yet).

This generalizes. There is little-to-no reason to learn physics 101 or a generic exercise regimen or basic programming from the best in the world. When some knowledge or skill is already widely known, you should learn it from someone who can teach it well, ideally to you specifically. But the use-case for learning from the best is completely different: you study the best when there are no other options. You study the best when the best is doing something completely different, so they're the only one to learn it from.

And bear in mind that the best in an area may be doing something different which isn't very legible. They may have some unusual ways of doing things or thinking about things, which they won't explicitly "teach" and which won't have some useful name like "the Fosbury Flop". But you may still be able to absorb those things by hanging around them, working with them, etc. For instance, back in college I spent a semester on a project with the strongest programmer in my class, and I picked up various small things which turned out to be really important (like "choose a good IDE").

But the use-case for learning from the best is completely different: you study the best when there are no other options. You study the best when the best is doing something completely different, so they're the only one to learn it from.

I feel like I do mention this when I say one ought to learn from similar people.

If you spent 10 years learning how to <sport> and you are nr 10 in <sport> and someone else is nr 1 in <sport>, the heuristic of learning from someone similar to you applies. 

For instance, back in college I spent a semester on a project with the strongest programmer in my class, and I picked up various small things which turned out to be really important (like "choose a good IDE").

What you are describing here though is simply a category error, "the best in class" is not "the best programmer", there were probably hundreds of thousands better than him on all possible metrics.

So I'm not sure how it's relevant.

It might pay to hang out with him, again, based on the similarity criteria I point out: He's someone very much like you, that is somewhat better at the thing you want to learn (programming).

You are very good at walking, opening doors, putting on a shirt, washing dishes, 

I doubt that's the case for most people. In most cases people know those skills well enough to do them without thinking but they don't do them as effective as possible. 

There's a reason those Alexander technique teachers spend hundreds of hours getting up from a chair and sitting down. There's a lot that goes into the task that can be optimized.

Most people tense up way too much muscles and put unnecessary stress on parts of their body. If you have a task like washing dishes where you want a minimum of bodily tension/effort, a minimum of time investment, the amount of cleaning that removes all the dirt from the dishes and then removes all the cleaning products from the dishes you have a complex task.

interesting.

You should still want to learn physics from Richard Feynman

Though even there, his lectures are famous for only being truly appreciated after you've first learned the material elsewhere. They are incredibly good at giving you the feeling of understanding but quite a bit less good at actually teaching problem-solving. When reading them, it was a common occurrence for me to read a chapter and believe the subject was the  most straightforward and natural thing in the world, only to be completely mystified by the problems.

Wasn't Feynman basically known for:

  1. His contribution to computing, formalizing problems into code, parallelizing, etc
  2. His mathematical contributions (Feynman diagrams, Feynman integrals)
  3. His contributions to teaching/reasoning methods in general.

I agree that I'd want to learn physics from him, I'm just not sure he was an exceptional physicist. Good, but not Von Neuman. He says as much in his biographies (e.g. pointing out one of his big contributions came from randomly point to a valve on a schematic and getting people to think about the schematic).

He seems to be good at "getting people to think reasonably and having an unabashedly open, friendly, mischievous and perseverant personality", which seems to be what he's famous for and the only thing he thinks of himself as being somewhat good at. Though you could always argue it's due to modesty.

To give a specific example, this is him "explaining magnets", except that I'm left knowing nothing extra about magnets, but I do gain a new understanding of concepts like "level of abstraction" and various "human guide to word"-ish insights about language use and some phenomenology around what it means to "understand".

I agree that I'd want to learn physics from him, I'm just not sure he was an exceptional physicist. Good, but not Von Neuman. He says as much in his biographies (e.g. pointing out one of his big contributions came from randomly point to a valve on a schematic and getting people to think about the schematic).

(Disclaimer: not a physicist). From what I understand, Feynman was a really really good physicist. Besides winning a Nobel Prize for his work on quantum electrodynamics, he also contributed to several other areas during his career. Also, if you look at what other eminent mathematicians of the time say about him, you get the sense that he was exceptional even amongst the exceptional.

For example, Mark Kac, an eminent mathematician of the time, said:

There are two kinds of geniuses: the ‘ordinary’ and the ‘magicians.’ an ordinary genius is a fellow whom you and I would be just as good as, if we were only many times better. There is no mystery as to how his mind works. Once we understand what they’ve done, we feel certain that we, too, could have done it. It is different with the magicians... Feynman is a magician of the highest caliber.

Hans Bethe (another Nobel Prize winning physicist of the time) shared similar sentiments:

As the late, great Nobel Laureate physicist Hans Bethe remarked: "Feynman was a magician. With a magician, you just do not know how he does it."

I don't have the time to find more quotes like this right now but I think there are a bunch more like them if you look for them.

Yes, although this is the exception rather than the rule- Feynman happens to both be a world-class physicist and a world-class communicator (in addition to being talented at many other things)- I suppose the class Feynman belongs to is that of polymath- he didn't strive to be the singular best at any one thing, but rather to be as good as possible in many different fields

Right, there is a difference between your clone who is a few lessons ahead of you and a really good teacher. So, you don't learn from the best, but try to find the best teacher?

This post feels a bit confused to me. I'll try to make a more precise thesis.

People have different starting points, different destinations (goals), and different paths they can and wish to take.

You want someone who can walk you through the best path for you from your starting point to your destination.

Without taking any teaching ability into account, it's most likely that someone who did a path similar to the one you wish to take would be most helpful, because they can show you where to go and guide you through the same challenges they faced.

Taking teaching ability into account - a good teaching ability would mean being able to take people from multiple starting points, to multiple ending points, through multiple paths (that are good for them). Someone who's a particularly bad teacher, would also be bad at taking someone through the same path they took. This is another skill, perhaps not completely orthogonal to being good at the thing you're teaching, but neither is it directly related.

People who are particularly good at that skill are usually called coaches. The selling point is that even though they didn't walk a similar path to you, they have a general understanding of the challenges people face and they can help you out with those.

It would be great for you if you found someone to teach you who's both the best teacher and the best at the thing they're teaching, but unfortunately the tails come apart. The best person at the subject isn't likely to also be the best teacher.

Johnswentworth points out an example where someone found a new destination point. Now anyone who wants to get there should get help from that person even if they don't have the same starting point, because no one else knows how to get where they got from any starting point.

In summery - Without knowledge of teaching ability, default to someone who walked a path most similar to the one you wish to take - Starting point and ending point included. If you include teaching skills in the calculation, then some people who walked the same path as you will become less desirable, and some people who walked different paths than you will become more desirable. 

You still want someone who was good at getting from your starting place to your desire ending place, just as long as they don't want to take you through a path that doesn't fit you.

The title "If you've learned from the best, you're doing wrong" doesn't feel like it captures this. "Learn from the same" is closer, but not a necessity since it doesn't take teaching/coaching ability into account.

Well said, though I spent longer than I should have trying to parse whether "Our sports champion haven't forgotten how to maintain a health casual workout regiment, they never knew how to do it nor did the thought cross their mind." implied singular or plural "they".

From my own experiences teaching recently-learned vs long-ago-learned topics, I agree with what you're saying about learning from oneself-in-2weeks being near optimal in the sense of most rapidly onboarding you to a particular skill.

However, I still find a lot of value in a process that involves input about what to learn from people who are 1 or 5 or 10 or 20 years advanced from oneself. I find that people who've been following what's state-of-the-art in a particular field for years or decades tend to notice trends and ask good questions about them in a very different way from how beginners do. As a concrete example, I've had an industry-veteran boss insist on branding a project I did while in school with buzzwords that neither I nor the other students were aware of, because he saw interest in those topics growing in the industry, and a few years later I was fighting off recruiters who had been tasked with finding candidates with established backgrounds in those buzzwords. Since part of my goal with that school project was to build my resume and improve my job prospects, the nudge toward more corporate-appealing branding from one of those "best in field" types was instrumental in the project's success.

In other words, I think a "good teacher" has both recent recollection of what it was like to not know, and also a huge corpus of experience from which they can draw trends and predict things about altering the work's direction or details to maximize desired results. Since those traits are nearly impossible to get in a single person, one can get to the target learning experience by learning from several people simultaneously, seeking from each what that person is particularly well suited to offer.

Worth noting that the 'corrupt polymaths' problem only happens in areas that aren't too easy to measure (which is most areas). But like, the famous best 100m sprinter actually is just the best, he didn't need to do any politics to be recognised.

Summarized, this post seems to be saying "Learning <thing> is most effective if you get the most effective teacher. The most effective teachers of <thing> aren't necessarily the most skilled ("the best") people—they are people who are marginally more skilled in <thing> than you ("the same")."

The first sentence seems very true. The second sentence is often true, but as johnswentworth pointed out, there are exceptions. I'll restate his exception and add two of my own. 

  1. (from johnswentworth's comment) If the skill is niche, you may have no choice but to learn from the best. In particular, the best may be the best since they know something everybody else doesn't. 
  2. It can be valuable to gain a "30000 foot overview" of a topic if you want to learn how experts in a field think. Such an overview is best given by "the best" in that field, not people who are "same". For example, a graduate student in one field might attend a seminar in a different, only slightly related field, hoping to ignore the details and take away a broad bigger picture of the field. 
  3. Masterclasses exist. For example, a student musician may gain a lot from a single lesson with a world-class musician.

For examples 2 and 3, the shared attribute here is that it can be beneficial to learn the "compressed" knowledge the "best" expert has, rather than less compressed knowledge from a "same" teacher. Even if the student can't "uncompress" this knowledge, there is still value in learning the general shape of a body of knowledge. 

I enjoyed the read but there is one thing troubling me, those two paragraphs that seem to contradict themselves :

But the thing that she has to teach, physics 101, is still part of what she knows. At some point, she learnt it, and while it might be embedded in her brain in a somewhat different way from mine or yours, it's still the same physics.

What the above working out example showcases is not teachers forgetting or having a weird perspective on the thing they have to teach, but teachers never having learnt that thing.

 

You say she learned it in §1 and then that she never learned it in §2. There must be something I'm missing.

Maybe weird writing on my end, the working out example that I'm referring is the section on professional athletes (aka them never necessarily having learnt how to do casual health-focused workouts). While physics teacher might have forgotten how it is not to know physics 101, but she still did learn physics 101 at some point.

Hopefully that makes it more clear?

Definitely, thank you! :)

[+][comment deleted]1mo 2