You Know What You Write: The Textbook Method for Ultra-Learning

August 10th, 2012 | By craftsmanincubicle


Less Than Ultra Learning

The surprisingly useful Riemann Zeta function in action. (Image from MathWorld.)

As part of my craftsman in the cubicle project, I spent this past week monitoring how I learn new information.

I wasn’t impressed.

At one point, for example, I needed to dive into a topic I didn’t know much about: how information disseminates in random power law graphs. I went to Google Scholar and begin downloading papers with promising abstracts. I printed three and skimmed another half-dozen or so online. In retrospect, I think I was hoping to find a theorem somewhere that described exactly what I was looking for in notation I already understood.

Not surprisingly, I didn’t find this magic theorem. The two hours I spent felt wasted. (Well, not completely wasted, I did learn about the Riemann Zeta function, which turns up way more often than you might expect.)

This experience recommitted me to cracking the code of ultra-learning. Mastering hard knowledge fast, I now accept, requires more than blocking aside time on a schedule; it also demands technique.

The Chair

With this in mind, here was my first stab at cracking ultra-learning:

I bought a traditional leather chair (a longtime dream of mine). My wife and I still need to add some bookcases, a rich rug, and an old brass lamp — but my general  theory here is that this library nook will be make it impossible to avoid mastering new bodies of knowledge, and perhaps also pipe smoking.

Under the assumption that I might need more than the power of The Chair to become an accomplished ultra-learner, I do have one more strategy to deploy — which is what I want to talk about in this post. It’s actually a strategy I’ve known for years (my PhD adviser taught me soon after my arrival at MIT), but have seemed to forgotten recently.

The Textbook Method

This screenshot is from a web page I built as a grad student:

I needed to know about a certain family of combinatorial object sometimes called selectors. I actually needed to know quite a bit about these things because my collaborators and I wanted to prove the existence of a new one. My approach to this learning challenge was to build an annotated bibliography that listed every known result, with citations.

The web page took me a couple (hard) hours to make, which is roughly the same time I wasted this week “studying” power law graphs. I’ve probably used this knowledge on a dozen different occasions since, and I know at least two other scholars that have used it in their own research.

Here we have a nice comparison. In two cases I spent roughly the same amount of time trying to learn new knowledge. In one case, I efficiently mastered a new area, while in another, I ended up frustrated.

The comparison highlights the power of a simple act: describing and organizing information in your own words.

I call this the textbook method as you’re essentially writing your own textbook on a topic. One thing I like about it is that it works nicely with different levels of required detail. Whether you just need to organize what’s known about a subject, or build a deeper understanding of how results are derived, the textbook method seems to extract an optimum amount of learning out of the time spent.

It also leaves a written record that’s easy to reference later when you need to deploy the information.

Over the next week or two I’m going to take this method for a spin by applying it to some tough learning challenges in my queue. I’ll report back what I learn. I invite you to join me in this endeavor. Pick your own challenge, apply the textbook method, keep us updated in the comments below.

In the meantime, if you need me, I’ll be in my chair.


This post is part of my Craftsman in the Cubicle series which explores strategies for building a remarkable working life by mastering a small number of rare and valuable skills. Previous posts include:



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