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Ultralearning With Scott Young | Starting Strength Radio #40

Mark Rippetoe | January 24, 2020

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Mark Wulfe:
From The Aasgaard Company studio in beautiful Wichita Falls, Texas... From the finest mind in the modern fitness industry... The one true voice in the strength and conditioning profession... The most important podcast on the internet... Ladies and gentlemen! Starting Strength Radio.

Mark Rippetoe:
Welcome back to Starting Strength Radio. Good Friday to you. Every Friday right here, you get to deal with me. And sometimes we have a guest. And today is one of these days that we are going to bring a guest.

Mark Rippetoe:
We're here with our friend Scott Young. Scott is the author of this book Ultralearning. And we're going to get into the sticky details of his book in a little while. But but what caught my eye about Scott...

Mark Rippetoe:
Scott, thank you for being here.

Scott H. Young:
Oh, thank you for having me.

Mark Rippetoe:
Scott wrote an article that was brought to my attention back in July. Or June. I'm sorry, back in June and... It really is. I received this about a month, month and a half ago, and I've been thinking about it quite a bit because those of you that are close followers of Starting Strength understand that we are in the process of building a gym franchise chain. We have seven or eight gyms right now, either open or in construction, and we are rapidly expanding this.

Mark Rippetoe:
And as a part of rapidly expanding this, we need some help. We've got to have coaches. We have to have coaches. Coaches are critical to the gym business model that we've got here because we are unlike globo gyms. We're not like commercial fitness gyms. We don't teach leg extensions. We teach the squat, the press, the deadlift, the bench press and the power clean.

Mark Rippetoe:
Those of you that follow us should should understand that we are therefore movement coaches. We are not machine operators, we are movement coaches. And coaching movement is a different skill set entirely than setting a pin on a leg extension machine.

Mark Rippetoe:
Our coaches that carry the Starting Strength Coach certification are of above average intelligence and they are experienced. They are in command of the theoretical underpinnings of the of the basis of Starting Strength. We screen them for that very heavily at Starting Strength Seminars. Our pass rate is about 15 percent. And as we grow in in size and popularity, we're going to have to have more coaches because we had jobs for more coaches.

Mark Rippetoe:
And let me just take a second to invite those of you who are operating in the fitness industry and are interested in becoming a Starting Strength Coach. We have a Coaching Prep Course that's available to you on the website. And we're going to talk quite a bit more about this prep course later with Scott.

Mark Rippetoe:
We're trying to develop coaches that can operate at the level that we require in a Starting Strength Gym. And if you are interested in becoming a barbell coach, a professional barbell coach, who covers movement, who teaches movement and not muscle groups, who teaches movement pattern expertise and not how to plug in 90 pounds on a leg extension machine. Give some thought to getting prepared for that, coming to a seminar and getting certified as a Starting Strength Coach. Because there will be room for you in our system. We need you.

Mark Rippetoe:
And if you're if you're sharp and you're interested, we're going to talk today about the process by which you can get up to speed as a Starting Strength Coach. Starting Strength Gyms have opportunities for apprenticeships and apprenticeship was the the the topic of the the article that I first read that Scott Young, our friend today,has written.

Mark Rippetoe:
And back in history, apprenticeship was the method by which people learned a trade. Learning a trade is critical in lots and lots of fields of endeavor even to this day and always has been. We are going to make the case that exercise physiology school is not where you learn to be a barbell coach. The gym is where you learn to be a barbell coach.

Mark Rippetoe:
And we need coaches. And we are not going to relax our standards to obtain them. You are going to up your game to obtain the certification. And today we're going to talk about that.

Mark Rippetoe:
Scott, thanks for joining us.

Scott H. Young:
Oh, thanks for having me. Look forward to discussing this.

Mark Rippetoe:
Tell me about the article. This thing appeared in June. And those of you that are interested in reading the article need to google Scott H. Young apprenticeship and it comes right up.

Mark Rippetoe:
I thought this was an excellent piece that did a real good job of examining the issues that we deal with in terms of the production of new coaches. Most of our coaches -- in fact, none of our coaches have walked right in from a college or university background and and passed our examination. Masters degrees ex-phys graduates come to us all the time and fail miserably because college and university pipeline does not prepare them for anything related to barbell training.

Mark Rippetoe:
The word deadlift is normally not even pronounced in the six years that a person spends in a, you know, ex-phys program anywhere in the world. We expect a person coming into our system to be able to coach a squat and a deadlift and a press, and they have to learn that somewhere.

Mark Rippetoe:
Now, why is that important? Because we pay better than everybody else does. Our our coaches are in demand. They make a lot of money because what they teach is valuable. And most of the people watching our podcast today know that quite well. And so they've got to learn how to do this someplace.

Mark Rippetoe:
And typically what we are looking for in a person that comes to the seminar is somebody that is already a Starting Strength Coach, someone who's operating at that level, having brought the experience, the expertise, and the background information with them into the seminar. We don't... you can't come to our seminar and become a coach. You have to come to our seminar as a coach and get recognized as a coach. Which means that takes a couple years before you come to the seminar, before you're qualified to pass the thing.

Mark Rippetoe:
And again, our past rates about 15 percent. Last time I looked the pass rate at the NSCA's precious little CSCS certification was about 70 percent. And really, I don't know how you fail it. You really got to be not plugged in to fail that exam.

Mark Rippetoe:
Ours is a completely different situation. When you come to our seminar, you have to be able to coach on the platform before you can take the test. In other words, the primary test for Starting Strength Coach is being able to coach, being able to coach before you show up. And that requires experience and you have to get the experience from someplace. And I thought was fascinating that your article makes the same argument.

Scott H. Young:
Yeah, well, I would say that the dominant way that we've learned through most of history has been through some form of apprenticeship. You know, that you watch someone who's skilled at what they do. You attempt it yourself. They monitor you and give you feedback. This is sort of how we're hardwired to learn things. And it's only been in the last like hundred, 200 years that education in the sit in a classroom for a long time and take notes and then pass some sort of conceptual test based on that information has become popular.

Scott H. Young:
And it even turns out that a lot of the research that's been done on how well we apply the things we learn in school often show that we don't do a very good job of it. So the kinds of things you're talking about where a situation where people spend multiple years in university and then they go and try to apply in the real world and they're unable to, which is the experience that you've talked about.

Scott H. Young:
Now, there's even a whole scientific study of transfer, which is where you apply... learn something in one place like, let's say a classroom, and then you have to transfer it to another place, let's say in the gym or in real life. And it turns out that there's lots of studies showing we're really bad at this.

Scott H. Young:
So one example that I find really fascinating is people who studied economics in school - so they majored in economics - didn't do better on questions of economic reasoning than people who are non-economics majors. In another example, people who took a high school psychology class did not do better at a later college level psychology class.

Scott H. Young:
And like I mean, these are pretty basic things. If you figured if there's anything that study in an economics class would be good for, it would be economic reasoning. And yet this has been surprisingly hard to find. So I think your experience where people spend years studying, you know, muscles and kinesiology and this kind of stuff, and then they come into a real practical situation, they can't apply. It is is not just true of weightlifting, but true of many, many domains. And I think it represents something very basic about how we learn things.

Mark Rippetoe:
Well, it's interesting that some of the trades have preserved apprenticeship as their basic education model. The electricians, for example, the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers does a pretty damn good job of educating young guys that come in and want to be electricians. They run a tight ship.

Mark Rippetoe:
The plumbers and steamfitters. And a lot of the lot of these trades and professions who have always utilized the apprenticeship model to train new apprentice plumbers and electricians and generating them up to the master level. And so the the experience of apprenticeship is not dead, it's just underutilized. And I think it's been underutilized as a result of colleges and universities trying to horn in on the on the turf.

Scott H. Young:
Yeah. And I think there's also been a general trend in our culture and society to kind of elevate the college experience over these more practical forms of education. So people lean toward them. And I think a lot of this research on showing how kind of the apprentice model - learning by doing - is more effective, that that's often not really... People are really aware of that.

Scott H. Young:
So they imagine, oh, if I'm going to go learn to do this, I should go to some higher institution. Which I mean, maybe if you want to do PhD- level research is not the worst thing in the world, but if you want to be applying in practical skills, it definitely comes with some caveats that maybe you're not going to be able to transfer nearly as much as you'd like to. And doing this kind of real world apprenticeship experience might be more valuable that valuable for hands on skills.

Mark Rippetoe:
Our our personal experience with this here has been our our young friend, Chase Lindley. A lot of people watching the podcast today are familiar with Chase. Chase started with us in the gym when he was twelve and it's now 10 years later. He's a Starting Strength coach, I think is Chase the youngest Starting Strength Coach in the system.

Mark Rippetoe:
He is, in fact, he's 22, is the youngest Starting Strength coach in the system. He's a good kid. We're real proud of what he's done, although we will never tell him that. We can't. But just between me and you, Scott, we're proud of Chase.

Mark Rippetoe:
Chase has come from a little nasty, little skinny, unhealthy little 12 year old stick figure to a fine young man, a big, strong, fine young man who is a good coach. And he is one of the coaches at Starting Strength Houston.

Mark Rippetoe:
And his parents were a problem at one point. They are... they've been taught like lots and lots of parents have been taught that their kid needs a college degree, despite the fact that a college degree at this point in the history of the world, in anything except physics, chemistry, biology, geology, math, engineering or accounting are an utter and complete waste of time and money.

Mark Rippetoe:
But the expectation has been built in that your kid is going to do better than you did. If you didn't go to school your kid's got to go to school. He's got to get a college degree. My parents, you know, were convinced that that's what I had to do.

Mark Rippetoe:
And, you know, my science degree has served me well, but I'm not practicing the science I was trained in. I'm using the science education I was given. But I'm not practicing in petroleum geology.

Mark Rippetoe:
Some college is useful. The most the most useful course I think I've ever had in school is general chemistry. The freshman laboratory, general chemistry course. And it would be hard to get that information in an apprenticeship situation. It would be hard to get that information at home by yourself because you don't have the equipment you need and you've got to be guided through that. So there are some things that the college and university level are still useful, but by and large, matriculation with a degree in sociology, for example, of what use is that to anyone that doesn't want to teach sociology as a terminal degree in the college and university setting?

Scott H. Young:
Yeah, I think that you're absolutely right, and I think it would be one thing if we were having this discussion and, you know. University was like K-12. It was just something everyone did and it was all cheap, but it's not it costs an enormous amount of money.

Scott H. Young:
So we're putting people who are you know, they're in the very early parts of their life. They don't have a lot of work experience. They don't know what is required in the world. They just get these messages that you're supposed to go to college. And certainly it's a good choice for some people. But for other people, they rack up huge amounts of debt, learn skills that are don't apply anywhere, and they get credentials that don't really give them super great opportunities in life.

Scott H. Young:
So I think the... we're in a position right now where not to say that college is useless, but definitely with the price tag that comes with it is something that should have a question mark attached to it, whether it's right for everyone. And I think there's quite a few people like we were talking about electricians. That's a well-paid career that you can have without getting into college. And it's a skilled career. It's not like this is not, you know, doing something that doesn't require any knowledge or brainpower, sophistication. It's quite a skilled career. It just doesn't go through the normal academic path.

Mark Rippetoe:
It's applied physics.

Scott H. Young:
Absolutely.

Mark Rippetoe:
Applied physics. Plumbing is applied physics. Yes. It's the technology version of the science.

Mark Rippetoe:
And there's a demand for that. But I don't think anyone would argue that that electricity and magnetism - the freshman physics course that you take at the university - prepares you to be an electrician, No, that's not what it does. But it's a good course because it teaches you to think, but it doesn't prepare you for the trade. The trade must be prepared for.

Mark Rippetoe:
You know, in the wall of a house. Right. There in the crawl space under the house or, you know, repairing the switch or or any of the other things that the electricians do. And the way the electricians do that is they they have they have coursework in the classroom. They have classroom hours that these guys have to attend. And then they go out in the field with a master or journeyman and they watch and they learn through watching. And you talk about this in the article. And it's an important concept.

Scott H. Young:
Well, I think one of the things that I mentioned in the article, which is particularly relevant to that, is that sort of the the way that a lot of people and I mean, a lot of people I mean academics, but people who are writing books and papers on these topics have conceptualized this in the past, has been that while there's that the people on the top who are doing very basic research, who are talking about applied physics. So there's the physicists at the top and they're kind of sending down from their kind of high ivory tower position that the knowledge and everyone else is merely applying that. So, you know, you take your electromagnetism class and, you know, electrical work is basically just the applied version of that. And then and that's how that knowledge transfer flowed.

Scott H. Young:
So there's actually been a lot of academics who have debated this idea that actually there's this sort of narrow top of the pyramid that represents all these theories and everything else is just an application of those theories that rather it's probably the case that while those theories are helpful, it helps to understand what voltage is if you're going to be an electrician, it's not the case that taking in electromagnetism class is... well now everything is just applying that in practice to be an electrician.

Scott H. Young:
There's a lot of specific knowledge and skills to being electrician that would... you would not be able to just deduce from knowing the electromagnetism class. And similarly, in exercise physiology, there's a lot of principles that would be helpful, but it's not going to allow you to deduce this is the right way to do a squat or a bench press just from first principles. You have to actually experience it and work with it.

[off-camera]:
And there's a point to be made to that. If you go the other direction where you do the application first. In other words, you begin on the electrician first and then you take the electromagnetism course, you will benefit more from that course having had practical experience than the other way around, where if you made every electrician do electromagnetism, a third of them would retain it, a third of them would learn it.

Scott H. Young:
Well you know, and that's one of the reasons that like I like as a course, you know, an MBA versus an undergrad in business, because an MBA is usually taught to people who've been in business for a few years. So they have the practical experience and they're hungry for some theories to give them ideas to try out.

Scott H. Young:
You want to be hungry for theories, you don't want to feel like, oh, I've got a bunch of abstract things to learn. You want to be like, well, what's what's the thing that ties this all together that makes sense of all these experiences I've had? That's when you want to start learning theories, not when you it's just a bunch of concepts in a textbook and diagrams that you're trying to memorize.

Mark Rippetoe:
Well, here's another interesting observation that flows from that. When an experienced person goes in to the classroom. And this happens especially frequently in the exercise sciences. What that experienced person who's actually coaching, who's a clinician, who's a practitioner with years of experience will see in the exercise science classroom is that the academics is wrong.

Mark Rippetoe:
It happens all the time. It happens all the time. These people are wrong. And the reason they're wrong - and our friend Nassim Nicholas Taleb talks about this quite frequently - is that they have an academic bias. They learned it as an academic. They practice it as an academic, therefore, it must be correct. When it's not correct, they ignore it. Because they have no way, as an academic, to understand that if they put their theoretical bullshit into practice that it doesn't work because it's not tested. It is merely taught.

Mark Rippetoe:
And other professions must obviously suffer from this from this same disconnect. I would imagine - I don't know a lot about accounting, but I would imagine that there are there are academic accounting practices that are taught in accounting courses at the college and university level that just do not work in the office. And a a person who's been a bookkeeper for a long time that wants to go back and finish up the CPA with an accounting degree will undoubtedly run into this very thing.

Scott H. Young:
Well, I think this is probably the case when you have a really complicated reality like it is with the human body and then you have some very simplified theories. So there's this you know, the guy who introduced that term, the paradigm shift, Thomas Kuhn, he has this real interesting notion of how we develop theories of things, the kinds of things that are taught in university. That we have some sort of like core problem that someone comes up with a way of thinking about it that allows them to be productive about thinking about it. And then all the edge cases where it doesn't work very well. Those are kind of considered to be not really central to the problem.

Scott H. Young:
So, you know, when you're talking about electricity, that's movements of electrons on idealized wires. But in the real world, you've got well, it's only sort of a conductor and there's insulators and things like this. And similarly, when you're dealing with something as complicated as the human body, there is a situation where the theories are going to be much, much more simple than the reality.

Scott H. Young:
So I was mentioning the Thomas Kuhn, who is this guy who coined the term paradigm or paradigm shift and how when you're working in an academic discipline, you come up with some theory of the world that allows you to solve certain problems really well. And that's why other academics and people gravitate toward it. But there's other situations that the theory just doesn't deal with that well, it's it's not meant for dealing with that. And sometimes those are the situations that you care about in real life.

Scott H. Young:
So physics, for instance, cares a lot about objects moving without friction because friction is messy and it makes things more complicated. But in the real world, there's lots of friction. So it's not as if those theories are necessarily wrong, but if you wanted to understand how a car is going to move, you're going to maybe need a lot of information about friction in these little details, which are more complicated to handle than they might be in some idealized physical theory. And certainly with the human body, that's going to be the case as well, that the simplifications might ignore some of the messy details that really matter in practice.

Mark Rippetoe:
I remember being given sample problems in physics, "assume a frictionless environment and solve for X." Yeah. Okay, that's that's nice. And you know, and that teaches you some stuff about about the logic of the of the algebra, but it's useless here.

Scott H. Young:
And I think you have to think about the situation in applying it in as well because if you're dealing with something as well that's maybe not as finalized as physics... like you're learning management theory, well then that's even more true because it's not like this management theory is like the deep laws of the universe. These were just ideas someone thought were useful for categorizing certain problems, but maybe they're not useful for you.

Scott H. Young:
So I definitely felt in my business classes a lot of the conceptual kind of ideas that people liked to talk about, you know, maybe they're relevant for some of the companies that were being studied, but they're not as relevant for me or the kinds of situations I'm facing.

Mark Rippetoe:
Right in a business class. Assume no shoplifting and no theft. Calculate profits for quarter 3. Right. Yeah. OK. Please assume your employees don't steal from you.

Mark Rippetoe:
I think that I think that things are changing. I think there has in fact, started a paradigm shift as Thomas Kuhn describes. And I think that more and more people are becoming less and less happy with colleges and universities.

Mark Rippetoe:
I think that we are at the beginning of a complete revamp of our ideas about how to prepare people to work. I think that colleges and universities have shot their feet all the way off. They haven't just shot themselves in the foot. They've happily participated in the nationalization, here in this country, of the student loan program.

Mark Rippetoe:
Anybody can now get a student loan for anything because the government is going to lend it them. And if you graduate with one hundred and twenty thousand dollars of debt for your bachelors in sociology. Hey happens. It happens.

Scott H. Young:
It does.

Mark Rippetoe:
And and they'll happily loan it to you. And there's no basis in the real world for that having having occurred. And the the schools are active participators in this. And as more and more people fall for this bullshit and have indebted themselves, have indentured themselves to the federal government for god knows how many years until they pay this off? And you can't bankrupt out of college loans.

Mark Rippetoe:
And you've got a situation where people are being forced to rethink their options. All right. As... what we do in our our Coaching Prep Course in getting people ready for Starting Strength, is we deal with, the way we deal with the basic science underpinnings, the physiology, the physical science. And this is not terribly complicated stuff, but we're we're teaching that to our satisfaction from the standpoint from where it will be used by the end user, by the coach in the gym. All right. We're we're we're we're teaching physiology, but we're teaching it from the perspective of the use of that information, not to pass the midterm, but the use of the information.

Mark Rippetoe:
And you have got this excellent book Ultralearning. And I encourage everybody to invest in this. This is a... there's... I haven't read but a little bit of it yet, but I've I've looked through it enough to know that it's going to be terribly useful and that it will probably have an effect on how we teach our Coaching Prep Course.

Mark Rippetoe:
And let's discuss some things right now that you talk about in the book about how to learn. What is ultralearning?

Scott H. Young:
So the idea behind Ultralearning is kind of to give people more options. We're talking about how college is overpriced and how, you know, really the idea that, OK, well, I'm going to go back and go to school for four years when you're in the middle of your career. Who who has the money or time to do that? No one does.

Scott H. Young:
And so at the same time, we live in a world that's getting more complicated, that the expectation is that you're gonna know a lot of things, not only in your life, but also in your workplace and everything. You're going to have to have higher skills. Things are getting more sophisticated. And so learning is important, but maybe education is not always delivering that.

Scott H. Young:
So the idea is, how do you really teach yourself these skills? How do you teach yourself the hard skills that matter for your career? And I think one of the things that is a real challenge there is even though we spent a lot of time in school, none of us have really been taught how to learn. Maybe we've been kind of we've hobbled our way through knowing how to study, to pass some tests, but to really learn meaningful skills most of us have not ever had to set up a project where we're going to acquire some professional skill. We just kind of fallen into it by chance.

Scott H. Young:
And so this creates a real problem because a lot of people are, like you mentioned, the kid who his parents want him to go to college. They don't know any other way to succeed in life. And any other way to get these skills. And so I think that investing in understanding how learning works, how you actually acquire skills is so important, because if you don't know how to acquire skills yourself, then you're kind of at the mercy of whatever programs are around you and however much they cost because you want to have a good life that requires having skills.

Mark Rippetoe:
In going through the go through table contents of the book, you've got some extremely specific concrete recommendations for how this is done.

Scott H. Young:
Yes. So I break the book into Nine Principles, and these are sort of like the ingredients that you need in order to learn things effectively. And they're pretty universal. These are things are going to apply regardless of whether you're learning again how to do a bench press or whether you're trying to learn physics or poetry or programming or anything, it's going to matter.

Scott H. Young:
And so a couple of them that I think are particularly important that are often underappreciated and one of them is directly related to what we've been talking about is this idea of directness. So directness is sort of the inverse of this problem that I was talking about earlier with transfer. That it's hard to learn something in a context where what you're doing with your mind to learn it is very different from what you have to do in real life. It's a very different situation, very different environment. There's tons of research that shows we're not very good at transferring this.

Scott H. Young:
And so the fix of that is that you want to learn in as direct a situation as possible. So if you are learning something, be in the environment where you want to learn it, be doing this kind of thing that you actually want to learn. And be practicing the actual skill you want to master instead of just reading about it or theorizing about it or studying it as so many people do. So this is one of the, I would say, big, major principles and one of the main deviations from how things are typically taught in schools.

Mark Rippetoe:
Where do you feel colleges and universities might possibly retain relevance? Would you agree with me that science degrees and engineering and the sort of quantitative types of coursework are valuable in the long run?

Scott H. Young:
I think. Well, I do think that there is good stuff the universities are doing with research and science in this kind of thing. But the problem has been that because they're sort of prestigious, because it's prestigious to go to a university and get a four year degree or more a masters or a doctorate, that it's causing a lot of people to flood into programs where maybe that model for learning is not as well suited. And indeed, where the rewards for it are getting lower and lower.

Scott H. Young:
So there's probably central areas that yeah, if you want to be, you know, a physicist or you want to be inventing some new sort of program that requires a deep background in science, then yeah university education is probably not a bad idea. But like you mentioned, there's probably some fringe topics that there's a lot of people who are racking up a lot of debt and it's not very useful for them.

Scott H. Young:
So I think it's important to distinguish it. You know that there's going to be some people that are going right into what university is good at and what it's good for. And they're smart and they're going to get through school and they're not going to fail and they're going to have no problems. And then there's other people who are sort of on the margins of this where it's a question mark whether or not it's useful for them. And I think the more alternatives there are... and really as a society, the more you know and the more status we afford these alternatives that we don't consider them to be inferior. If we consider apprenticeship inferior, a lot of people won't go into it even if it is actually better for them.

Scott H. Young:
So I think we also have to do some work as a society to look at, you know, options like apprenticeship and different training programs and learning through work experience that often get kind of a you know, they get looked down upon by some people who are in a more academic bent.

Mark Rippetoe:
Well, the colleges and universities themselves are going to encourage society to continue to look down upon apprenticeship because they're covering their ass. They've really got no choice. And they're going to have to they're going to have to try to maintain society's perception that your education is not complete until the fourth year of college. Because if they acquiesce to the superiority of apprenticeship in preparing people for what they're going to do the rest of their lives, they're cutting off their funding. And they're not going to do that voluntarily. They're just, you know, they're not suicidal.

Mark Rippetoe:
Where do you think... Well, I tell you what, let's do this. What I'd like to do, I'd like to get you to give us a little overview of the 9 points. And let's go through this and let's talk about how each one of those contributes directly to success in an apprenticeship.

Scott H. Young:
Sure. So the nine points and I'll just go through them briefly. The first one is meta learning, which is really learning how to learn the thing you want to learn, which sounds kind of like a bootstrapping problem, because the problem when you learn a lot of new things is you don't know anything about it. So naturally, you also don't know what's the right way to learn it.

Scott H. Young:
So if you've never studied anything like that before, you don't know where to begin. And so what people who are quite successful at this -and indeed finding apprenticeships - is they spend some time doing some research. So they might identify a program such as yours if they wanted to become a barbell coach. Or if they wanted to do something, they would know what are the different programs? What are the different options? How have people acquired this skill? Maybe they go to their gym and talk to, you know, local trainers that they admire and ask them how did they acquire those skills? What did they do to learn?

Scott H. Young:
So the first point of any kind of learning project that you're taking on your own is to really do your research and evaluate your options and what's out there, because too many of us just gravitate to the first thing that we hear about.

Scott H. Young:
So if you only know about, you know, a college program, then that's the only thing you're going to do because you don't know any other way. Or if you only know about one book or one person, then you're going to have this deficit of knowledge. So that would be the first step.

Scott H. Young:
The second idea of the book is focus. And this is the notion that for a lot of us, when we are kind of engaged in learning, often we're doing it in distracted way. We're not allocating enough time for it. We're not really devoting ourselves to focus and pay attention to doing it.

Scott H. Young:
So it's the person, you know, just casually listening to something. They're only playing with a app on their phone or they're doing something that doesn't require that much time and effort. And to really learn, well, you need to have all of your attention, all of your resources devoted to it. And a big part of that is setting aside time so that you can actually show up and learn the skill that you want to have. Putting it in your calendar.

Mark Rippetoe:
You know, this is a... the focus part of a terrible problem in 2020.

Mark Rippetoe:
Those of the people that are watching this in the far distant future, you know, hundreds of thousands of years from now when the sun is a... hundreds of millions of years from now when the sun is a red giant will be looking at this this video and we'll be going. "Gosh, I'm glad we solved the problem of the internet back in twenty twenty two." Because the whole damn thing is constructed in a way that destroys focus.

Mark Rippetoe:
Our friend Glenn Reynolds has written a book about this and I'd encourage those of you that are interested it's a little short book and it's it details in just a few pages exactly what has happened to our attention span as a direct result of this thing here [holds up a smartphone]. OK, this is a bad deal if allowed to be a bad deal and focus is hard to come by as a result of modern technology. And this is an extremely important point you're making. If you want to learn something, you have to teach yourself to put down your device. Or keep your device focused on the one thing you're using it for, for reading right now, because it will it will destroy focus.

Mark Rippetoe:
The Social Media Upheaval is the title of the book and it's available on Amazon is not much money. You know, those of you that are interested in this and Scott, you really ought to go to get this little book. It's cool. He makes some extremely important observations.

Scott H. Young:
I agree. I think focus is essential and and it's just essential to be deliberate about investing time into learning. If you want to get good at something, it's going to require time and it's going to be something that you don't, you know, just squeeze in, in like a minute or two a day. You're going to have to putting chunks of actually doing it. That's certainly true for the context we're talking about here, if you're not actually in the gym working on these kinds of skills and practicing them with full attention, you're probably not going to get very good at them.

Scott H. Young:
So the other the other principals that we talked to, one that we already talked about was directness. The idea that if you want to learn something, you should be doing it close in context. And in the form that you actually want applied in so many academic subjects, many things that we learn purely through books, they aren't not very direct and therefore they are more likely to have these problems with transfer where you're actually unable to use skills that you've quote unquote learned somewhere else.

Scott H. Young:
And that the fourth principal is drill, which is basically the idea that when you encounter difficulties with what you're learning, so you find that you struggle with things, the way to get past those things is to break it down into simpler parts and work on those parts in isolation so that you can focus on them.

Scott H. Young:
So in many skills, there's going to be some constraints on how you can do that. You don't just get to use one muscle when you're lifting weight. You have to use everything. But you can sometimes adjust your attention so you can focus your attention on a specific aspect that you're trying to pay attention to. Or if you're trying to work on a specific concept, you can practice that in isolation. And so I give different exercises in the book for how you can break down complicated skills into little atomic parts that are easier to master, even if you struggle with dealing with everything at the same time.

Mark Rippetoe:
Right. If you're a coach and you're trying to learn how to coach the squat, there are lots and lots of moving parts. There's several things to observe. Back angle. depth. Bar position on the back. All of these sorts of things. And what we... If you're going to learn how to how to do any one of themwell, you're going to have to focus on that one.

Mark Rippetoe:
So here's a set coming up. Forget everything else and look at the depth. Learn to see the depth, the depth by itself. Don't worry about bar position. Don't worry about anything right now except depth. Drill on watching depth.

Scott H. Young:
Absolutely.

Mark Rippetoe:
And then that part sticks. And now we can move on to the next step right next. Once that drill is internalized, that one thing you tried to focus on.

Scott H. Young:
The next principal is retrieval and the idea behind retrieval.

And I think you mentioned that in your exam there's sort of an oral exam where you're testing the students understanding of the kind of theory of why they have to coach things in certain ways. So this is a perfect example, because when they're standing up there, I'm imagining that they're not flipping through a book frantically to find the answer to give you. When you ask them a question, they have to know it from their heart. They have to understand it deeply.

Scott H. Young:
And so it turns out that many, many students are using a very ineffective way of learning this kind of information, which is that they just read it over and over again. They just look at the information over and over again. They make their notes and then they read it again. And that's how they think they're going to memorize it, how they're going to deeply internalize these ideas.

Scott H. Young:
When really what you need to do is retrieve it, meaning you have to shut the book and practice trying to remember without it in front of you. There's numerous studies that show that this is much more effective for the amount of time you have to be able to remember things.

Scott H. Young:
So if you're practicing for an oral exam like this, you should practice closing all your books and just asking yourself random questions and seeing whether you can give fluid, correct explanations to those things. And that's how you're going to actually internalize it. So many people see tests as the thing to prove you've learned something. But it also turns out it's the way that you learn something as well.

Mark Rippetoe:
That's an interesting that's an interesting point. And we have always basically taken advantage of this phenomenon in the in the Starting Strength Seminars. We break up into groups of five people with one staff person for all five of the lifts. And during that period of time, each one of the people the in the seminar, whether they are testing for the coach certification or not, will not only squat the bar, but they will coach the squat.

Mark Rippetoe:
Now, they don't have anything to read while they're coaching the squat. They're they're asked to remember the the instructions that they were given in the little short teaching method lecture that happens before the squat. And what we have... and we've always the first seminar we did back in 2006 was conducted the same way we show you how we're gonna show everybody how to squat. Now, you coach him, you coach him, you coach him, you coach her and she coaches you. And that that continuity is maintained through all eight sets and people through recall learn by teaching.

Mark Rippetoe:
It's one of the most common phenomena from that... Everyone learns who coaches or teaches anything is that you learn by teaching because it makes you handle the material in a different way, because everyone you're teaching is going to have a different way that they understand things and you are going to have to learn how to adjust your instruction for an individual. And then every time you handle the material a little bit differently, you offer yourself the opportunity to learn from a different perspective on the material. And it's an absolutely it's we we have used that for 14 years. Definitely.

Scott H. Young:
Yeah. And I think that falls nicely into the next principle that I have in the book, which is feedback, which I think is so essential to learning. And it's also relevant that when you are reading a book, for instance, that you're not getting feedback, you're not finding out information about your own performance.

Scott H. Young:
So one of the things many students will say is they, you know, study for a test and then they go there and they're like, well, you know, I studied so hard, I knew it. But then when I went there, they asked all these questions that, you know, it was it was the test, too, is the teacher's fault. I they asked all these weird questions. They know.

Scott H. Young:
And the problem is that very often they're not getting feedback into what they know, what they don't know, what they're good at, what they're not good at. And so feedback is a very interesting case, because while it's not the only thing that matters for learning - we've talked about a lot of other principles - it's certainly a necessary ingredient.

Scott H. Young:
So if you don't have feedback, if you have zero feedback either from an external coach or we're talking about apprenticeship, the master apprentice relationship is a relationship, a feedback. And that's very important. But even internal feedback, the ability to see your own efforts and learn from them is important.

Scott H. Young:
So this idea of teaching, even if you're teaching to someone who isn't even in the room, you're just sort of pretend teaching to someone, that's still going to give you feedback as you're going to see. Okay. What is easy for me to remember? What's hard for me to remember? When you then generate feedback on your own.

Scott H. Young:
So even if you don't have a master or a coach who's going to give you his exact, detailed feedback, even just practicing on your own, you're going to see when you make explanations, which of your explanations makes sense, which don't, which things you remember, which things you forget. You're going to generate that feedback. Whereas passively studying where you just read a book, there's no feedback. So you don't know what you've retained, what you've forgotten.

Mark Rippetoe:
Right. And in our seminars, the platform coach, the person we hire that is an experienced Starting Strength Coach provides that very service. You were coaching a person on the platform and he is standing there whispering in your ear if you're screwing this thing up real bad. He's gonna give you immediate feedback. Now, if you're if you're testing for the credential, you're expected to not need that feedback. But that feedback will then... to that person be be given at the end of the session.

Mark Rippetoe:
And so that we're reinforcing, just as you say, what good things happened and we're making corrections in real time for the mistakes that you made during this process.

Scott H. Young:
Mm hmm. Yes, absolutely. The next principle of the book is retention because learning something is not super valuable if you forget all of it later. And this is a general property of how we learn things that we also forget things. And so it's very interesting, I think in particular with the kinds of learning that we're talking about here, this context of strength training, because there's actually a lot of research that shows that the system for the way that we remember what they called declarative knowledge.

Scott H. Young:
So the facts and ideas and things you can talk about is a different memory system potentially then what they call implicit knowledge, which is the motor knowledge of knowing how to do something which is not necessarily the same as being able to explain how you're able to do it. And it turns out that that latter kind of knowledge might be better preserved or might be more immune to forgetting than the kind of verbal knowledge.

Scott H. Young:
So this is another advantage that apprenticeships often have over school, is that if you are doing something, you're encoding it in a way in like understanding how the movements happen. Understanding through working with them, saying the same things over and over again, that it gets encoded in a different way than if you just knew about it in theory, because the stuff you know, in theory, you're more likely to have fall out and be forgotten. Whereas the stuff you know through practice you're much able.. much more able to remember that. As the old saying goes, it's like riding a bicycle. You don't say it's like trigonometry. You say it like that for motor skills.

Mark Rippetoe:
And this is there's no more specific thing and there's no more specific. An observation that you could possibly, possibly made to what we do on the platform as coaches. This is exactly what we do.

Mark Rippetoe:
Have you... Is there anything in the book? And I again confess I haven't read it yet that deals with the ability to retain as you as you age? Do older people have a hard time with harder time retaining than younger people? I know I do. And I don't know if that's a disease process, but I'd had just one idea if that's if that's something that the other people have observed.

Scott H. Young:
So I didn't write about research on aging in the book. One of the things that is interesting is it seems to be that older memories are sort of more established. Memories are the kind of last things to go. So when you as you and you study patients that have different forms of memory deficits, so they have, you know, alcoholics often get this syndrome where they they become amnesiacs and they can't remember things and they often preserve their older memories.

Scott H. Young:
It's just stuff that's later and later that's harder to remember. And so I think this is also part of the reason that when you're investing in things, as you're getting older, there's probably a slight cognitive decline. You're probably getting a little worse in things. But it isn't the case that your experience and all those things from the past that's that's been accumulating over your lifetime.

Scott H. Young:
So often there's a tradeoff when you are as you're getting older between being able to learn new things, you're maybe a little bit slower at learning new things. But you've accumulated so much life experience and knowledge that that that's, you know, that's the strength.

Scott H. Young:
So when you're a kid, maybe, you know, spend all of your time learning new things. And then when you're as you're getting older, a lot of what you might be wanting to do is focus on coaching other people and translating your existing body of experience to, you know, the next generation.

Mark Rippetoe:
That's been my experience. And I find it more difficult to embed things now than I did at one time. But I have so much in there already. Right. You know that it's that I'm still relatively effective at what I do. Especially if I'm reading something in a noisy environment - that goes back to focus. I find it difficult to to concentrate on editing an article if the radio is on. Whereas thirty years ago it didn't matter what background or environmental noise was going on, I could focus where I wanted to I could do two or three things at one time back then.

Mark Rippetoe:
But now I have I have trouble focusing as well as trouble retaining that I'm sixty. I'll be sixty four in a couple of weeks. And it's just you know, I mean it's just it's probably not going to get any better before it gets worse.

Scott H. Young:
Well that's that's related to this idea of working memory, which is sort of the kind of what you're storing in your mind at the moment. So to have this conversation, you kind of have to keep in mind what we've been talking about and what are we talking about right now? What do I want to talk about? So you you have some ideas right now that's different from all the things that, you know, in your entire life history, which they call long term memory. And so it turns out that this is very sensitive. It's not very big capacity. It's very sensitive to interactions from the environment.

Scott H. Young:
So people who have a slightly higher working memory capacity, they're a little bit more resilient against the radio's playing. They can kind of tune that out because even though their capacity is lower, they didn't mean quite as much. They had some spare capacity.

Scott H. Young:
And so I think that's one of the main lessons, is that if you're doing something verbal, like editing an article, it's very important not to have other verbal noise sources because that uses the same part of your brain. Soon as you hear the radio, it's it's like it's pushing out the words of the article you're trying to edit and then you had a hard time finding your place again.

Mark Rippetoe:
That's exactly what it seems like. Yeah, it really is. That is the process.

Scott H. Young:
And so the principle after retention is intuition. And this is the idea that what we're trying to strive for when we're learning is not just to memorize things, not just to have this rote, you know, I can regurgitate an answer, but to really understand things. And so in this chapter, I wanted to look at how understanding actually works. What's the research on that? And it's interesting because the way that we often feel about understanding something is that it's all or nothing like you either get something or you don't get it. And if you don't get it, then you have to memorize it.

Scott H. Young:
And the research on that is actually more interesting that people who show really sophisticated intuitions, they really they can see a situation and just know exactly what to do. Usually the reason for that is not just that they're so much smarter than you are, but because they've built up huge libraries of patterns that are stored in their head that allow them to see it.

Scott H. Young:
So the initial research on this was done with chess grandmasters. And what they found was that if you give a chess position that comes from an actual game, so you play it a little bit and then you put the chess position, grandmasters are able to remember far more of the board if they have to recreate it just by looking at it than a novice's. However, if you put the pieces down randomly, not in a way that would ever come up from a game, just put them in a random position, this advantage evaporates.

Scott H. Young:
So it shows that it's not that the grandmasters are just better at remembering chess pieces. It's that they have learned to chunk the patterns that they see in the game into oh, this is what's happening in this game and that's how they can remember it. Whereas the person is just starting, has to know where every single piece is, and that's really hard to do.

Scott H. Young:
So similarly, if you're thinking about coaching or you're thinking about learning barbell exercises, there's a lot of stuff going on and you can often feel like maybe it's overwhelming to focus on all these little details. Whereas someone like yourself who's seen this for many, many years, we have to look at maybe like not that's what this person's doing wrong. And we just jump out at you because you have these library of patterns.

Mark Rippetoe:
And that's exactly what exactly what we have observed. I can look out across the gym from the office chair I'm sitting in and make a correction a novice coach can't even see. Yeah, you know.

Mark Rippetoe:
These guys are back here shooting each other the finger for some reason.

Mark Rippetoe:
But yeah, this is a that's also something we've observed. And, you know, it's amazing how much confirmation is going on here as you go through all of these all these principles are all things that we have noticed from our experience with teaching people things.

Scott H. Young:
Absolutely. And I think this is one of the challenges, is that they sound intuitive. I think when you learn them, but a lot of people who are trying to learn something new, so not in the position you're in with, you know, years of experience. But, you know, they're just trying to learn this for the first time. They may make one of these mistakes.

Scott H. Young:
So they may not learning it a particularly direct way. They'll just, you know, memorize their book or they will, you know, just read it over. They won't actually practice teaching it to someone else. Or they won't get any feedback or you won't try to build it into your muscle memory or one of these problems can come up. And then if they come up, you might have difficulty actually implementing it, actually being able to use the skill that you want to learn.

Scott H. Young:
And I think the problem with a lot of people is that they maybe have made one of these mistakes in the past. And because they made one of these mistakes, they've kind of convinced themselves that maybe they weren't good at learning or they weren't good at learning that thing. I've talked to so many people since this book has come out by their experiences in school, because very often they said, you know, I didn't have a good time in school or I didn't have a good time learning this thing. And so they've convinced themselves that they're not really equipped to learn things very well, whereas often what the problem is, is that they weren't doing it in a particularly effective way because no one sat them down and said, OK, if you really want to learn this, you have to do these things.

Scott H. Young:
And so I think really understanding how learning works is so important. So the final principle of the book is experimentation. And the idea here is that a lot of people want the step by step formula for learning things. And the problem is that very often there is no step by step formula. You have to be self-aware and reflective of what's going on in your situation, what's the thing you're struggling with that you need to work around.

Scott H. Young:
So I present these other eight principles as principles, as sort of ingredients that you could put into the kind of recipe that you want to use to learn something, but that it's important that you have this self-awareness to monitor your own progress. What is the thing you're struggling with or is that you're struggling with doing it? Are you struggling with doing the kind of oral explanation or are you struggling with a particular exercise?

Scott H. Young:
You have to have that kind of self-awareness. You have to be willing to try things in order to learn it well. And so I think that's particularly important as well, because very often we get stuck in this idea that, you know, just give me that one, two, three, four, five, six that I can do and do it mindlessly. When you have to be thinking creatures and actually think about what it is you're doing, what are you doing wrong and evaluate yourself that way.

Mark Rippetoe:
Well, this is a valuable little outline you've come up with here. Yeah, a lot of these things are in fact intuitive. But as is of all of the stuff that we do... it's been very, very helpful for lots and lots of people that we have distilled the way we teach the deadlift down into a five step process. Other people might teach the deadlift the same way that the net effect would be that. But we have we have articulated it in a in a memorable way so that it makes that simple little five step process easy to grasp. And you've done the same thing here with the book.

Mark Rippetoe:
And I think this is very valuable, especially for us as we go into this this in this endeavor that we're we're engaged with, we're trying to generate an educated coach corps. And and try to prepare these people to come through a very rigorous certification so that they can function at the level we need them to function in the gym to teach these complicated barbell movements.

Mark Rippetoe:
And I'm glad I stumbled across your your apprenticeship article. And I firmly believe that apprenticeship is the is the future of practical education. I think that we've gotten over the love affair and the romance of a bachelors degree in damn near anything. And I think that we are moving forward into a more practical approach to training people to do valuable and constructive things with the principles that have been around for centuries. And thank you for writing that article and thank you for writing the book.

Scott H. Young:
Oh, thank you so much. Thanks so much. It's been great to discuss it with you.

Mark Rippetoe:
Appreciate your time today. We're here with Scott Young. His book is Ultralearning. Buy it from Amazon and we'll see you guys next time on Starting Strength Radio. Thanks for being with us today.

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Scott Young, author of Ultralearning, and Mark Rippetoe discuss apprenticeships and self-teaching and how strength coaches benefit from this approach as part of the Starting Strength Coach Development process.

  • 00:00 Intro
  • 03:05 An Invitation
  • 04:41 Apprenticeship
  • ---- Learning by doing
  • ---- Transfer
  • ---- Real costs of college
  • 18:29 Academic vs Applied
  • ---- Paradigm shifts
  • ---- Preparing for work
  • 29:08 What is Ultralearning?
  • 35:06 Nine principles - meta-, focus, directness, drill, retrieval, feedback, retention...
  • 49:19 (Learning when older)
  • 53:03 ...intuition, experimentation

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