A better way to learn and running marathons

The internet was/is one of the most powerful inventions in the history of humanity. It has democratized access to information—the great leveler—such that anyone (or hopefully nearly anyone living in free countries) can find what they need.

The secrets of the world, which used to be trapped in libraries, now made available accessible to the internet. What an amazing promise!

Well that last part is still a work in progress. The internet is a noisy place. People post a lot of junk and it is not always obvious where to search for information. There are lots of scams and it is not clear who to trust.

Thus, we turn to intermediaries—I will call them librarians—to GET WHAT WE NEED from the ALL SO POWERFUL INTERNET.

I have been searching for the right analogy to communicate this idea, so bear with me as it may require some squinting and benefits of the doubt. I have been thinking that the internet needs a better librarian of sorts. ALLOW me to explain (I thank you, greatly).

Google was the original librarian—built on the premise that effectively A) making a list of the world’s information and B) writing an incredibly fast search algorithm to surface relevant URLs would drive tremendous value (and YES IT DID!). This was/is a mainly RE-ACTIVE tool; search a thing, find a thing.

Then came the social medias to the party. They were built on the idea that FOLLOWING YOUR FRIENDS + providing the website with information about you (e.g. birthday, photos, etc.) would allow the machine (e.g. Facebook) to SERVE you content that you _should_ want. This, too, has created tremendous enterprise value. This is mainly a PRO-ACTIVE tool: OPEN THE THING, IT SENDS YOU THINGS TO LOOK AT THAT IT THINKS YOU WOULD LIKE (though you CAN still search using it).

The problem with search engines, today, is that it primarily serves you URLs, not information (note: Google, for instance, does vertically integrate in some capacities but for the most part, you search for things and then you navigate a list of websites from the internet, where you then decide precisely what has the answer you need). It, again, is similar to going to a librarian, you asking for a book, and them bringing you that book. (Simple enough!).

The problem with social media, today, is that they pro-actively serve you information that THEY THINK YOU WILL CONSUME (because they sell advertisements, so they need you to consume content in order to capture your attention in order to sell ads), but this does not mean the information is good for you. It would be like going to a library, and them sending you books based on your basic demographic information/history of books that you read. Chances are, a lot of the books will be a match (i.e. you will consume them), but also, over time, the librarian may optimize for THINGS THAT STIR CONTROVERSY OR ATTENTION rather than books that really help you.

My pitch—or at least my developing pitch—is that we are approaching time for a THIRD LIBRARIAN EVOLUTION. (Now imagine some epic music is playing in the background as you read on).

I start with a related prompt:

What if there was an easier way to learn something?

A few years back, I ran a marathon. It was extremely hard. I felt pain (in every inch of my body) that I had never experienced before. BUT, it was the good type of hard. It was the MERITOCRATIC type of hard. MERITOCRACIES operate, generally speaking, in a rather deterministic function. You do a thing, and you know, with a high degree of confidence, that you will produce a particular output. In the case of running, there are many books and guides and essays on the topic—but there’s a track (both literal and metaphorical) that can help you successfully train and FINISH a marathon (finish being important here). It is not all so uncertain what is required to do the job—you follow the guide, you get the output. The job is running something like 30 miles a week (perhaps experts can debate) for like 8-12 weeks at varying intervals in order to build the cardio, muscular, and mental strength to successfully run a marathon. Again, this was really hard. BUT IT WAS THE GOOD KIND of hard.

The bad kind of hard is the type of hard where you are SPENDING ALL YOUR TIME PURSUING MOTION—doing things that do not directly lead to your output. You often find yourself in situations with the bad kind of hard when you are NOT EXACTLY SURE WHAT YOU SHOULD BE DOING.

And this…this is the opportunity to build a new librarian.

What if LEARNING ANYTHING was as straightforward as running a marathon? Think of how amazing that world would be. You do the work, you get the output.

Today, SO SO MUCH gets in the way (or at least my way). I have to figure out who to trust. And to do that, I have to underwrite all of these ~relevant signals. People probably have unique processes, but mine is a cluster of asking my friends for what they recommend, asking experts (or at least so called experts) (by reading internet they have published on the internet), and building my own guide of sorts through a combination of reading books and watching Youtube videos. If I am feeling extra determined, I will actually turn this into a written guide to follow, such that I wake up and have a list of things I need to execute on. I will say this latter step happens not particularly often.

I would say that my LEARNING MUSCLE (i.e. my ability to learn _anything_) is good, not great. In other words, I probably, surely, rank in the 75th percentile (ugh, is this to say that I am in the top 25% of people in terms of learning -> because that is what I mean to say).

But even so—I feel 10% optimized. I feel that my learning process is not nearly as efficient or productive as it could be. If you told me, right now, to learn about something I have no idea about—let’s say how to speak Russian—I would feel X% (quite low) confident in my ability to not just do it (I think I could do it) but rather to take the OPTIMAL ROUTE TO DO SO (given who I am and the information accessible in the world).

What bugs me is that there is a route out there. It exists. A better trained learner or searcher or guide would help me get there. We do not have to create any new content necessarily—we just have to bring the content together that already exists in the world and put it in a format that maximizes likelihood of success.

So I give you the ultimate question: What if there was a guide to anything? A guide that incorporates ALL OF THE KNOWLEDGE OF THE INTERNET and makes it EASY TO ACCESS AND DIGEST.

Guide is probably not selling it well enough. What if we took all of the world’s information (LEARN FROM GOOGLE)—yes ALL OF IT—and transformed it into DIGESTIBLE CONTENT FORMS (LEARN FROM TIKTOK) to create a SUPER LEARNING APP.

You type in what you want to learn. It crawls the library for all of the best books on the topic, and then, rather than just serve you the topic, it…wait for it…actually STITCHES TOGETHER THE OPTIMAL BOOK FOR YOU. Optimal in this case is defined by you—not just who you are but also how you learn and how you perceive the world. It would take in all of your information, your tastes and preferences, and everything you have ever consumed.

And OPTIMAL BOOK does not necessarily mean physical book in this context—it really means a stitching together of the optimal FORMS AND STYLES AND CHARACTERS OF CONTENT that increase your likelihood of achieving your goal. This can include written information, videos, audio, quizzes—anything that the algorithm believes you can increase your likelihood of ACHIEVING YOUR GOAL. It would create a syllabus of sorts—a blend of all of the above types of information, and put in one place so that you can execute (kind of like the marathon plan).

The only reason you would then fail to achieve your goal is NOT BECAUSE YOU ARE PURSUING MOTION AND ALSO NOT BECAUSE YOU ARE WANDERING AROUND THE LIBRARY LOOKING FOR THE RIGHT INFORMATION. The reason you would fail is simply because you do not follow the syllabus (similar to the only reason someone is incapable of running a marathon, at least from my humble experience, is because they are unwilling to follow the well-documented, well-proven to work training plan).

Now is an interesting time to consider pursuing this idea, as the advance of large language models (and embeddings) has made the idea of COLLECTING LOTS OF DATA, AND TRANSFORMING THE DATA TO BE QUERYABLE/STITCH-ABLE has reached a unique tipping point.

I would like to call the above idea POWER. (Power-FULL, right?)

I would like to distribute POWER to the world. I believe talent is universal, yes, but so is the capacity for hard work. Hard work is the ultimate equalizer.

I would like the world to be MORE a product of hard work. More deterministic. Less a product of where you were born (and what family you were born into). Less a product of if you got lucky. Less a product if you politicked your way to the top. MORE a product of WHAT IS FAIR—which is if I follow the marathon guide, I should get the same result as you, who follows the same marathon guide, PROVIDED I put in the work.

(The most dangerous phenomenon that has occurred over the last few decades is the obfuscation of hard work as the single thing you can do to WIN and get what you want. There has been this rising trend of young and old people blaming external forces for their problems instead of taking, here we go, response-ability. And the easiest/best way to take responsibility, at least in my opinion, is to ask yourself: “did you give something your absolute all?” “Did you put in the hard work?” If the answer to that is yes, great, WE DO GET UNLUCKY AND THE WORLD IS NOT FAIR. But often times, I find myself answering that question knowing I could have done more. I know that to be true—yes—I could work harder)

But I also know that, today, the world is not fair. And that we commit a number of unforced errors. Namely we confuse motion with progress in arenas where there are KNOWABLE better outcomes.

There are some categories today where I do not think we actually know what is best. Psychiatry, I believe, to be one of those areas where 100 years from now (hopefully sooner) we look back on the state of the art of today with a bit of embarrassment (or at least recognize the primitive nature of today’s technology).

But these fields are going to evolve. This is a bet on the future of the sum of the world to create valuable, useful things. I would take that bet 100 times out of 100. I am betting on us to get better and better at our expert things and produce more and more valuable artifacts.

They will all go in the library.

But if our options for librarians are the basic search engine and the endless content feed—are we actually going to succeed in APPLYING THAT INFORMATION TO OUR LIVES?

Are we going to be able to build the BICYCLE FOR THE MIND? Or, will business models incentivizes an ecosystem that looks more like the TREADMILL FOR THE MIND? A treadmill that drives loneliness and tiredness (from the seeking of validation).

I think we can do better. I think we can give the people power. (Or power to the people, I think it is better called).

I am not sure if I will build it—but someone should. I imagine it would be valuable. I believe this for two reasons: 1) I would use it and 2) I think that aggregation theory applies here, where if you can capture the demand of PEOPLE WHO WANT TO ACHIEVE THINGS, you can then commoditize the supply and vertically integrate into selling things you make at various points along your funnel.

It is likely that a generalized tool is too wide a scope to start this project (though not necessarily the wrong thing to do). You could start with learning a language or learning an artistic pursuit—something rather tangible to get things going.


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