What does Tetris have to do with Learning? [Letter#12]

We all want to learn something. And if you're an entrepreneur (or a software developer) it's your job to learn. We're born with a deep desire and an intuitive ability to learn. But when there are so many topics to learn and an ever expanding source of material to learn from, how should we structure our learning? How can we decide what to consume and in what order and also what we can safely ignore?

I've thought about questions like these for many years. I’ve distilled some insights from 15+ years of self-directed learning as well as teaching  (programming). Sharing here one observation about learning along with a specific technique that you can apply.

I will call this idea your "personal adjacent possible".

"Adjacent Possible" is a term used in the context of scientific discoveries and inventions. The idea is that what's currently known and understood in a  given field almost inevitably leads to the next breakthrough discovery or invention. This is the reason for simultaneous discoveries where two or more different people independently make the same discovery, around the same time in different parts of the world.

Now ask yourself  this: everything that you currently know and understand, what does that enable you to do? What are you already set up to be able to achieve if you use all your strengths and existing skills? All of the connections in your brain. This is what we can think of as your "personal adjacent possible".

Okay but what does this have to do with Tetris? So I  was searching for an analogy to convey this idea. And that’s where a game of "leaky" Tetris comes in. Once you use all your existing skills to build something, you'll eventually hit a wall, get stuck. And this is good, this is where you want to be.

Imagine that all of the pieces of information are organized in your brain like pieces of Tetris. For skills that you have mastered, everything fits together, and you add new information in the appropriately shaped gaps. Identifying these gaps is the entire goal for effective learning. Because once you identify a specific gap, you can learn enough to fill that gap.

Moreover, the pieces (of information) that don't fit an existing gap fall through the cracks. This is equivalent to learning things without having a way to make use them and then subsequently loosing them through the 'leaks'  in our brain.

(The cover image is my attempt to illustrate this point about “leaky learning” using Tetris)

So how can you apply this idea of your personal adjacent possible and the  analogy of a leaky Tetris in practice? First, identify a specific gap and learn just enough to fill that next gap. How can you identify gaps? Ask questions that you want to know the answer to? Pick one question and go figure out the answer then repeat.

Our minds learn best when we have a real stake in the outcome of the learning. If you're learning a new skill, start with a project. Do until you hit a wall, and can identify a clear gap. Then deliberately learn enough to fill that gap.

"There is one way to learn, it's through action. Everything you need to know you learn through your journey."

I thought this 'newsletter' was going to be about learning. But actually it's about action. If something you read here makes you think, great. If it makes you act on something, even better. On that note, here are some questions for you:

  1. What skill do you want to get better at? how can you deliberately practice?
  2. What are you learning, what's the next question that you can research and figure out an answer to?
  3. What is one daily habit that you want to tackle for the next 30 days?

Share your answers by replying to this message!

X-days-of-Y Experiments: January 2021

If you're not into making new year’s resolutions or if you’re not sure which goal to commit to for a whole year, I highly recommend starting with a 30 day habit instead!

I will share my monthly habits here for some external accountability. Here my three January habits.

  1. Implement this writing advice "Read out loud writers that you admire to get their cadence into your ear" For 30 days for 5 minutes daily. Output = add to a file of words/phrases/sentences I like and why.
  2. For 30 days, record 2 minute videos daily. Share once per week.
  3. Draw, doodle, sketch for 5 minutes daily. An excuse to use my new pens and perhaps improve my ability to illustrate concepts.

Side Note: here's a snippet from my 2020 end of year review, listing some of my x-days-of-y experiments. 2020 is the first year I started tracking actions and focusing on daily habits instead of big goals. I also started treating all my projects and initiatives as experiments. I did the following experiments:

  • 30 days of publishing my writing daily, 200 words minimum (Jan 2020)
  • 6 weeks of coding at least 90 minutes every week day (Jan 2020)
  • 30 days of daily meditation of at least 5 minutes (Feb 2020)
  • 30 days of publishing technical posts 3x per week (Feb 2020)
  • 30 days of daily participating in an online community (IndieHackers) (Feb 2020)
  • 100 days of waking up before 6am every weekday for 1 hour of deep work (Aug-Dec 2020)
  • 100+ days of tracking steps, minimum 4000 steps daily (May - Oct 2020)
  • 100+ days of 12 squats daily (May to ongoing)
  • 60+ days of daily drawing (April - May 2020)
  • 30 days of daily tweeting (Nov 2020)
  • 100+ days of daily/weekly time tracking (May - Nov 2020)

All of the above are small things, no great big accomplishments (so it can feel silly to share). But they are steps towards something and consistency compounds.

That's all for this one. If you have any  comments/reaction to anything you read, I'd be happy to hear. Oh and  don’t forget to answer the above questions, you can answer just one  question or all of them.

Until next time,


P.S. There are no hyperlinks in this email. I did have “interesting links  from around the web” to share, I’ll save that for next time. I wanted to  share something ‘self-contained’ that can be read without adding to the  ‘read later’ pile or to the number of open browser tabs.

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