Letter to Students: Cliffs Notes for A Faster Brain



Dear Kids,

Happy first day of school! I’ve got good news and bad news.

First the bad news: You are about to spend hundreds of hours learning a bunch of small, interconnected facts, most of which you will never, ever, ever use again. (Proof: ask your parents how to calculate the area of a rhombus. I rest my case.)

Now the good news: school is hugely, amazingly, life-changingly worthwhile. Here’s why: learning bunches of interconnected facts makes your brain faster and stronger. School is like a machine for improving your brain. But in order to improve it the most, it helps to know the basic rules of how that sucker works.

(Why don’t more schools spend time — a half-day, say — teaching kids the how their brains work? This state of affairs seems utterly crazy to me. Would you try to teach someone to drive a car without showing them the accelerator and steering wheel?)

So before you get started filling your brains with facts, here is a (very) brief user’s manual for your brain.

Rule 1: Feel the Burn

If you want strong, fast muscles, do you:

  • A)   do nothing and wait for your muscles to get strong
  • B)    Go to the store, buy bags of marshmallows and lift them over and over
  • C)   Go to the gym and work out until your muscles burn

Congratulations for picking C) – because here’s the deal: your brain works exactly like your muscles. To get stronger and faster, you have to push yourself right to the edge of your ability, until you feel the burn — which in this case is that spot where you make mistakes.

This is not easy. It feels uncomfortable – sort of like lifting a heavy weight. But it’s how you’re built. Struggle is not optional – it’s a requirement.

  • Do: Be willing to make mistakes, fix them, reach again. Mistakes aren’t verdicts – they’re navigation points for the next try.
  • Don’t: Sit back and let information flow over you like a warm, comfortable bath.  This feels good, and it’s an absolutely terrible way to learn.

Rule 2: Repetition is Underrated. (Repetition is Underrated.) Also, Repetition is Underrated.

When it comes to learning, there is nothing (repeat: nothing!) you can do that is more powerful than repetition. The reasons are complicated, but boil down to this: intense repetition makes the wires of your brain work faster. A LOT faster.

  • Do: Picture the wires of your brain working faster and faster with each rep.
  • Don’t: Think of repetition as drudgery. It’s not like doing boring chores. It’s a lot closer to installing high-speed broadband.

Rule 3: Steal From the Best

Look, I know your teacher and parents tell you that you are special and unique, but the truth is, you aren’t the first person in the history of the world to do math, music, art, or sports. In short, it’s not about you. When you encounter a problem, look to others. Find the people who do it well, and copy how they study, how they listen, how they take notes. Rip them off. Steal their habits, figure out the way they think, break into their vault. Your brain is built to mimic.

  • Do: Keep a list of useful habits you’d like to steal.
  • Don’t: Take defeat too personally. (Same with success, for that matter.)

In sum, making your brain fast and strong is all about doing the three R’s: Reach, Repeat, and Rob the Banks.

Good luck!

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10 Responses to “Letter to Students: Cliffs Notes for A Faster Brain”

  1. Dale Kirby says:

    Thanks for this article Daniel. I’m not a student any more but I think the advice works for any endeavor. I posted this at Hacker’s News because there was a discussion there not long ago of a student wondering why there was so much memorization in school.

  2. Dale Kirby says:

    The Talent Code gets a mention the Harvard Business Review

    Six Keys to Being Excellent at Anything – Tony Schwartz – The Conversation – Harvard Business Review http://blogs.hbr.org/cs/2010/08/six_keys_to.html

  3. Jorge says:

    …and Rob the Banks

    Gotta love this blog! 🙂

  4. Bob Crumley says:

    Dan… Your talk with teaching staff in Homer Alaska last week was an inspiration for us on multiple levels. Teachers are now planning an increased focus on how our minds work and grow into their lessons. I personally wish I’d have included more of this into my years of lessons. The simple yet common sense connection between muscles and mind is something that will make sense to our youth. Maybe we can begin to leverage the societal value regarding how cool it is to go to they gym to exercise the muscles. Schools can be the cool place to go to exercise the mind? Thanks for taking time to share with our staff. Your time will impact students and teachers for years to come.

  5. Raheel says:

    Dan, I agree with everything but I think you could have elaborated on the repeat part. Because in the first rule you said to “Feel the Burn” (basically to push yourself to your limits). I think repeat and recall would be better, since recalling information is what really causes the firing off of the neurons more than just the “warm bath” of only repeating. Especially when it comes to school because repeating in school is not like trying to shoot a basketball or do a trick on a skateboard, it’s looking at a sheet of paper and reading over the points a thousand times. Reading it over once and then recalling the information from memory the second and subsequent times until you have reached the most that you have learned from that page seems to work a lot better for me and my classmates. Just my thoughts I guess. What do you think about that?

  6. Hengemh says:

    I agree with the “Repeat” idea. Just wanted to add a fine point. I learned, from our violin teacher, that “Practice makes permanent”. In order to get to “Practice make perfect”, first you need to make sure you have leaned something correctly and are practicing (or repeating) it the righ way. For example, if you have learned to pronounce some spanish word incorrectly and keep repeating it, you are sure to learn that incorrect pronounciation perfectly.

  7. Ala'a says:

    Thanks Dan,

    Here is an article with good info on effective learning:

    Plus, a free software (for windows/mac/linux/freebsd) for memorizing knowledge through active learning:

    The software will help optimizing the time needed for reviewing facts – i.e: if i have 2000 facts should i go through them every day? absolutely BIG *NO*. You just need to test the ones which are medium to hard and rarely (in the far future) nag you for the easy ones in case you forgot them. This is done automatically based on your previous tests. In short “keep firing through that wire until it is conductive, and then do maintenance once in a while”

  8. Dale Kirby says:

    Does Your Language Shape How You Think? – NYTimes.com http://www.nytimes.com/2010/08/29/magazine/29language-t.html?pagewanted=3&_r=1&ref=general&src=me

    How does this work? The convention of communicating with geographic coordinates compels speakers from the youngest age to pay attention to the clues from the physical environment (the position of the sun, wind and so on) every second of their lives, and to develop an accurate memory of their own changing orientations at any given moment. So everyday communication in a geographic language provides the most intense imaginable drilling in geographic orientation (it has been estimated that as much as 1 word in 10 in a normal Guugu Yimithirr conversation is “north,” “south,” “west” or “east,” often accompanied by precise hand gestures). This habit of constant awareness to the geographic direction is inculcated almost from infancy: studies have shown that children in such societies start using geographic directions as early as age 2 and fully master the system by 7 or 8. With such an early and intense drilling, the habit soon becomes second nature, effortless and unconscious.

  9. djcoyle says:

    That reminds me of a story I heard from a music teacher at Meadowmount. She was trying out for a symphony, and she did a perfect job — played the piece straight through. And at the end one of the judges complimented her on the performance and asked her about a certain B-flat she’d played.

    It turned out she’d made a mistake while practicing, playing a B-flat where she should have been playing a B. She missed it her first time through, and learned it perfectly — or, as it turned out, imperfectly. That first time through matters more than all the others.

  10. Bud Luepke says:


    Your article reminds me of a quote from Nietzsche: “There is no failure, only answers.”

    Also, the comparison between mind and muscles resonates with my experience as a basketball player. Similar to the belief that letting information flow over you like a warm bath would result in sustained learning, I used to think that just be shooting and shooting on my own, my shot eventually would become second nature, requireing less and less concentration. Wrong. The repitition — whether it be of information or shooting baskets — yields satisfying results only when it occurs with the same or greater level of focus and attention each time. In other words, what needs repeating is not only the information or activity we’re trying to learn but also the amount of concentration and mental focus required to learn it. In a sense, the learning does not get easier with repitition because the same amount of effort should be brought to each attempt. Whatever it is we’re doing doesn’t get easier, it just gets better.

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