DSSS: The Tim Ferriss Method to Quickly Learn Anything

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Those of us always moving up and on to bigger and better things have one thing in common: we’re always learning new things and improving what we already know. Some of us are gifted with a natural “talent” at acquiring new skills in a particular area (languages, math, artistic endeavours, programming, tech, and so forth).

For the vast majority, though, learning something new involves time, effort, and sacrifice (in some form or another). It can take a very, very long time to learn and become good at something (perhaps years depending on what it is). That’s the reality.

But - and this might be open to debate - there are those that argue the main issue is not lack of predisposition, innate talent, or even amount of effort. It’s the way we learn that is incorrect.  

We overwhelm our brains

Take learning a language as an example. Typically, when we first start out, we study everything - absolutely everything - from copious amounts of vocabulary, to grammar rules of all kinds (from usage to the formal names and systems), to sentence order, idioms, alphabet (or equivalent written system, i.e. characters), and on and on and on. We are quickly drowning in the language, often unable to wrap our heads around having a simple conversation with a native speaker because there is too much information to sort and order.  

Sure it works for some people, and probably for most of us over an extended period of time and sample group, but it’s not very efficient. Why? Because we waste time on things we don’t need. Think of your native language...do you know all the vocabulary that exists? Is your grammar flawless is every way? Could you explain the difference between farther and further, or the proper usage of the present vs. the past participle? You might be able to do that...but most people probably couldn’t, and that’s fine. We know how to use it, even if we couldn’t explain why.

And vocabulary? The English language has one of the largest vocabularies in the world, in excess of 700,000 words and growing. Does anyone know them all? Doubtful. In fact, studies suggest that only knowing the 2000 most common (which can be found with a quick Google search) would allow someone over 90% comprehension of a typical conversation or newspaper. That’s only about 0.29% of the English vocabulary that exists! There must be a better way. And there is.

Enter Tim Ferriss.

The DSSS system to learn anything

Tim Ferriss is the best-selling author of the “4-Hour [Blank]” (paid link) books (Workweek, Body, and Chef). He has developed a remarkable system - a plan of attack - to learn and acquire any new skill in as little time as possible, and it goes by the acronym D.S.S.S. Ferriss has successfully used it for cooking, language acquisition, tango dancing, martial arts, and a wide variety of other skills.

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D - Deconstruct

The first step is to look at the skill in action. Watch a master (be it golfer, chef, presenter, or whatever). Analyze what they do. Note what they do not do. Examine best practices. Break down the skill - whatever it is - into its various parts and components. Imagine it like a completed puzzle. Your job is to now break it apart into its 500 pieces. More importantly, you need to identify the KEY elements...what appears to be crucial to the skill? Additionally, Ferriss will imagine his ideal outcome (what is he specifically trying to do), and how he will measure it.

S - Selection

Once the skill has been analyzed in minute detail, the next step is to select those elements that will provide the most bang for the buck. Identify the 20% of causes (of language elements, or dance steps, or karate moves, etc.) that will provide 80% of the desired result. This is known as the Pareto Principle, and it can be applied to virtually anything.

In our language example, you would need only learn the 2000 most common words in English, some basic grammar structure (like the subject-verb-object order), and perhaps a few of the most widely used idioms and expressions to be able to - relatively quickly - carry on a conversation.

Find the 20%. Learn that, and only that. The rest (at least at this point) is only filler. 

S - Sequencing

Once you’ve identified the 20%, the next task involves putting or using it in the most optimized and efficient order. It might not be the most obvious sequence, either. It doesn’t always go from Point A to Point B in a straight line. It might not start at the beginning and work towards the end.

If you’re learning chess, you might focus on endings rather than openings. Something small and innocuous might be the most important part. The trick is finding the best sequence, and to do so, Ferriss suggests brief test periods. Experiment. Measure results (whatever that means). Repeat using a different sequence until you find the one that provides the fastest and most reliable results for you.

S - Stakes

As humans, we need accountability. We need some kind of consequence (usually negative) to motivate us. That’s where the stakes come in. Place a deadline of sorts on your acquisition to keep you motivated. Learning a language? Buy a ticket to an upcoming mixer with native speakers. Learning to play a musical instrument? Sign up for open mic night at a local club. Honing your programming skills? Volunteer to update and refresh the website at work. You need something to get you working, and ideally something that scares you...at least a little bit.

Ferriss has used the system over and over again to great success. Athletics. Music. Business. Language. Anything.

Deconstruct, selection, sequencing, stakes

If you want to go far in the business world, you need to constantly add to your value. You need to make yourself indispensable. Multiple languages (to operate in this global village). Computer and programming skills. Presentation and networking ability. And a host of other specialized skills depending on your particular job and industry.

The D.S.S.S. System allows you to quickly get the basics. No, it won’t make you an expert overnight (that takes time, no matter who you are), but it will give you a working, usable knowledge to start using it. And fast.

Photo by ShashiBellamkonda

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