Reading List (On Writing): 70 Great Books to Improve Your Writing (+ Summaries)


“People on the outside think there’s something magical about writing, that you go up in the attic at midnight and cast the bones and come down in the morning with a story, but it isn’t like that. You sit in back of the typewriter and you work, and that’s all there is to it.” – Harlan Ellison

What does it take to write well? Be deeply interested in your subject; read voraciously; find, imitate and embody your heroes; write every single day. These are just some of the answers you’ll find in the books listed below.

But you’ll also find answers to many more questions. Like why do we write? What are the rules, tips and tools of the trade? How do you get published? Will writing first drafts always feel “like pushing a very dirty peanut across the floor with your nose“? What should you read to improve your writing? And how?

To answer them, I’ve gathered the best recommendations on writing I could find. The result is an eclectic mix of texts on almost every aspect of the craft: on how to write and on being a writer; on fiction, narrative nonfiction and nonfiction; on poetry, prose and screenwriting; on writing as artistic process and product.

In the coming years, I’ll be reading every book on the list, passing on the best ideas in articles or 3hr notes, and distilling the very best books into crunches. If that sounds like something you’d like to join us for (and you’re not already signed up), use the form below to get free updates delivered right to your inbox:

P.s., To keep things reliable, I’ve excluded any books with less than 100 reviews on Goodreads. I’ve also excluded reference books – though a special mention must go to Rodale’s Synonym Finder and Ackerman and Puglisi’s Emotion Thesaurus (and the rest of the series), whose exceptional ratings would dominate the top 10 spots.

P.p.s., If there’s anything you think I’ve missed that deserves to be here, please do leave a comment. I’ll be updating and improving the list as I go.

But for now, without further ado – here are 70 books guaranteed to improve your writing and unlock your creativity!


Got FOMO (fear of missing out)? Catch up with the crowd by starting with the 10 most-reviewed books on the list:

  1. On Writing, King
    A Memoir of the Craft
    Rated 4.3 over 168,800 reviews on Goodreads
  2. Steal Like an Artist, Kleon
    10 Things Nobody Told You About Being Creative
    Rated 3.9 over 127,200 reviews on Goodreads
  3. The Artist’s Way, Cameron
    Rated 3.9 over 81,500 reviews on Goodreads
  4. Bird by Bird, Lamott
    Some Instructions on Writing and Life
    Rated 4.2 over 62,000 reviews on Goodreads
  5. The Elements of Style, Strunk Jr. (read the crunch)
    Rated 4.2 over 61,200 reviews on Goodreads
  6. The War of Art, Pressfield
    Break Through the Blocks and Win Your Inner Creative Battles
    Rated 4.0 over 46,300 reviews on Goodreads
  7. Writing Down the Bones, Goldberg
    Freeing the Writer Within
    Rated 4.2 over 22,600 reviews on Goodreads
  8. On Writing Well, Zinsser (read the crunch)
    The Classic Guide to Writing Nonfiction
    Rated 4.3 over 17,700 reviews on Goodreads
  9. How to Read a Book, Adler, van Doren (read the crunch)
    The Classic Guide to Intelligent Reading
    Rated 4.0 over 12,000 reviews on Goodreads
  10. Zen in the Art of Writing, Bradbury
    Releasing the Creative Genius Within You
    Rated 4.1 over 11,700 reviews on Goodreads


Otherwise, here’s the full 70 book list on learning how to write, organised by Goodreads rating and number of reviews. Good luck and enjoy!

  1. The Successful Author Mindset, Penn
    A Handbook for Surviving the Writer’s Journey
    Rated 4.5 over 300 reviews on Goodreads
  2. The Writer’s Portable Memoir, Long
    A Guide to Art, Craft, and the Writing Life
    Rated 4.5 over 200 reviews on Goodreads
  3. CA$HVERTISING, Whitman
    How to Use 100+ Secrets of Ad-Agency Psychology to Make Big Money Selling Anything to Anyone
    Rated 4.4 over 800 reviews on Goodreads
  4. On Writing, King
    A Memoir of the Craft
    Rated 4.3 over 168,800 reviews on Goodreads
  5. On Writing Well, Zinsser (read the crunch)
    The Classic Guide to Writing Nonfiction
    Rated 4.3 over 17,700 reviews on Goodreads
  6. The Chicago Manual of Style, Chicago University Press
    Rated 4.3 over 5,500 reviews on Goodreads
  7. Walking on Water, L’Engle
    Reflections on Faith and Art
    Rated 4.3 over 5,200 reviews on Goodreads
  8. Story Genius, Cron
    How to Use Brain Science to Go Beyond Outlining and Write a Riveting Novel
    Rated 4.3 over 800 reviews on Goodreads
  9. Published, Bolt
    The Proven Path From Blank Page To Published Author
    Rated 4.3 over 200 reviews on Goodreads
  10. Bird by Bird, Lamott
    Some Instructions on Writing and Life
    Rated 4.2 over 62,000 reviews on Goodreads
  11. The Elements of Style, Strunk Jr. (read the crunch)
    Rated 4.2 over 61,200 reviews on Goodreads
  12. Writing Down the Bones, Goldberg
    Freeing the Writer Within
    Rated 4.2 over 22,600 reviews on Goodreads
  13. Story, McKee
    Substance, Structure, Style and the Principles of Screenwriting
    Rated 4.2 over 9,100 reviews on Goodreads
  14. Self-Editing for Fiction Writers, Browne, King
    How to Edit Yourself Into Print
    Rated 4.2 over 4,900 reviews on Goodreads
  15. Writing Tools, Clark (read the 3hr Note)
    55 Essential Strategies for Every Writer
    Decades of writing experience condensed into 55 highly practical tools that will help you improve every part of your writing process – by writer, editor and writing teacher, Roy Peter Clark.
    Rated 4.2 over 3,300 reviews on Goodreads
  16. Stein on Writing, Stein
    A Master Editor of Some of the Most Successful Writers of Our Century Shares His Craft
    Rated 4.2 over 3,000 reviews on Goodreads
  17. Still Writing, Shapiro
    The Perils and Pleasures of a Creative Life
    Rated 4.2 over 2,200 reviews on Goodreads
  18. The Associated Press Stylebook, The Associated Press
    and Briefing on Media Law
    Rated 4.2 over 1,800 reviews on Goodreads
  19. Perennial Seller, Ryan Holiday (read the crunch)
    The Art of Making and Marketing Work that Lasts
    Rated 4.2 over 1,100 reviews on Goodreads
  20. 5,000 Words Per Hour, Chris Foz
    Write Faster, Write Smarter
    Rated 4.2 over 1,100 reviews on Goodreads
  21. Nobody Wants To Read Your Sh*t, Pressfield
    Why That Is And What You Can Do About It
    Rated 4.2 over 800 reviews on Goodreads
  22. Plot Perfect, Munier
    How to Build Unforgettable Stories Scene by Scene
    Rated 4.2 over 300 reviews on Goodreads
  23. Zen in the Art of Writing, Bradbury
    Releasing the Creative Genius Within You
    Rated 4.1 over 11,700 reviews on Goodreads
  24. Save the Cat! Snyder
    The Last Book on Screenwriting You’ll Ever Need
    Rated 4.1 over 8,900 reviews on Goodreads
  25. The Writer’s Journey, Vogler
    Mythic Structure for Writers
    Rated 4.1 over 6,800 reviews on Goodreads
  26. Plot & Structure, Bell
    Techniques and Exercises for Crafting a Plot That Grips Readers from Start to Finish
    Rated 4.1 over 4,400 reviews on Goodreads
  27. A Poetry Handbook, Oliver
    Rated 4.1 over 3,900 reviews on Goodreads
  28. The Art of Memoir, Karr
    Rated 4.1 over 3,700 reviews on Goodreads
  29. Writing the Breakout Novel, Maass
    Insider Advice for Taking Your Fiction to the Next Level
    Rated 4.1 over 3,200 reviews on Goodreads
  30. Outlining Your Novel, Welland
    Map Your Way to Success
    Rated 4.1 over 3,000 reviews on Goodreads
  31. Ernest Hemingway on Writing, Phillips
    Rated 4.1 over 2,600 reviews on Goodreads
  32. Story Engineering, Brooks
    Character Development, Story Concept, Scene Construction
    Rated 4.1 over 2,500 reviews on Goodreads
  33. Poemcrazy, Woolridge
    Freeing Your Life with Words
    Rated 4.1 over 2,200 reviews on Goodreads
  34. The Getaway Car, Patchett
    A Practical Memoir About Writing and Life
    Rated 4.1 over 1,700 reviews on Goodreads
  35. Scene and Structure, Bickham
    Rated 4.1 over 1,200 reviews on Goodreads
  36. The Minto Pyramid Principle, Minto
    Logic in Writing, Thinking, & Problem Solving
    Rated 4.1 over 1,200 reviews on Goodreads
  37. Several Short Sentences About Writing, Klinkenborg
    Rated 4.1 over 1,000 reviews on Goodreads
  38. Telling True Stories, Kramer
    A Nonfiction Writers’ Guide from the Nieman Foundation at Harvard University
    Rated 4.1 over 900 reviews on Goodreads
  39. The Miracle Morning for Writers, Elrod
    How to Build a Writing Ritual That Increases Your Impact and Your Income
    Rated 4.1 over 500 reviews on Goodreads
  40. HBR Guide to Better Business Writing, Garner
    Engage Readers, Tighten and Brighten, Make Your Case
    Rated 4.1 over 500 reviews on Goodreads
  41. Getting Into Character, Collins
    Seven Secrets A Novelist Can Learn From Actors
    Rated 4.1 over 300 reviews on Goodreads
  42. Naked, Drunk and Writing, Lara
    Shed Your Inhibitions and Craft a Compelling Memoir or Personal Essay
    Rated 4.1 over 300 reviews on Goodreads
  43. How to Say It, Maggio
    Choice Words, Phrases, Sentences And Paragraphs For Every Situation
    Rated 4.1 over 300 reviews on Goodreads
  44. The War of Art, Pressfield
    Break Through the Blocks and Win Your Inner Creative Battles
    Rated 4.0 over 46,300 reviews on Goodreads
  45. How to Read a Book, Adler, van Doren (read the crunch)
    The Classic Guide to Intelligent Reading
    Rated 4.0 over 12,000 reviews on Goodreads
  46. The Writing Life, Dillard
    Rated 4.0 over 10,800 reviews on Goodreads
  47. The New Kings of Nonfiction, Glass
    Rated 4.0 over 5,200 reviews on Goodreads
  48. Art of Fiction Writing, Gardner
    Notes on Craft for Young Writers
    Rated 4.0 over 4,800 reviews on Goodreads
  49. The Sense of Style, Pinker
    The Thinking Person’s Guide to Writing in the 21st Century
    Rated 4.0 over 4,600 reviews on Goodreads
  50. Hooked, Edgerton
    Write Fiction That Grabs Readers at Page One & Never Lets Them Go
    Rated 4.0 over 1,500 reviews on Goodreads
  51. The Only Grammar Book You’ll Ever Need, Thurman
    A One-Stop Source for Every Writing Assignment
    Rated 4.0 over 700 reviews on Goodreads
  52. Tell It Slant: Writing and Shaping Creative Nonfiction, Miller
    Writing and Shaping Creative Nonfiction
    Rated 4.0 over 700 reviews on Goodreads
  53. The New New Journalism, Boynton
    Conversations with America’s Best Nonfiction Writers on Their Craft
    Rated 4.0 over 600 reviews on Goodreads
  54. You Can’t Make This Stuff Up, Gutkind
    The Complete Guide to Writing Creative Nonfiction
    Rated 4.0 over 600 reviews on Goodreads
  55. Word Painting, McClanahan
    A Guide to Writing More Descriptively
    Rated 4.0 over 500 reviews on Goodreads
  56. Words that Sell, Bayan
    More than 6000 Entries to Help You Promote Your Products, Services, and Ideas
    Rated 4.0 over 500 reviews on Goodreads
  57. 100 Ways to Improve Your Writing, Provost
    Proven Professional Techniques for Writing with Style and Power
    Rated 4.0 over 400 reviews on Goodreads
  58. Writing for Story, Franklin
    Craft Secrets of Dramatic Nonfiction
    Rated 4.0 over 300 reviews on Goodreads
  59. The Art and Craft of Feature Writing, Blundell
    Based on The Wall Street Journal Guide
    Rated 4.0 over 200 reviews on Goodreads
  60. Advice to Writers, Jon Winokur
    A Compendium of Quotes, Anecdotes, and Writerly Wisdom from a Dazzling Array of Literary Lights
    Rated 4.0 over 200 reviews on Goodreads
  61. Weinberg on Writing, Weinberg
    The Fieldstone Method
    Rated 4.0 over 200 reviews on Goodreads
  62. Steal Like an Artist, Kleon
    10 Things Nobody Told You About Being Creative
    Rated 3.9 over 127,200 reviews on Goodreads
  63. The Artist’s Way, Cameron
    Rated 3.9 over 81,500 reviews on Goodreads
  64. The Forest for the Trees, Lerner
    An Editor’s Advice to Writers
    Rated 3.9 over 2,600 reviews on Goodreads
  65. On Directing Film, Mamet
    Rated 3.9 over 2,100 reviews on Goodreads
  66. From Where You Dream, Butler
    The Process of Writing Fiction
    Rated 3.9 over 1,100 reviews on Goodreads
  67. On Writing, Bukowski
    Rated 3.9 over 700 reviews on Goodreads
  68. Writing to Learn, Zinsser
    Rated 3.9 over 600 reviews on Goodreads
  69. How to Write Bestselling Fiction, Koontz
    Rated 3.9 over 200 reviews on Goodreads
  70. Revising Prose, Lanman
    Rated 3.9 over 100 reviews on Goodreads

Book Summary: “Make It Stick”, Peter Brown, Henry Roediger and Mark McDaniel

"Make It Stick", Brown, Roediger, McDaniels

"Make It Stick", Brown, Roediger, McDaniels

“Make It Stick: The Science of Successful Learning”
Peter Brown, Henry Roediger and Mark McDaniel
330 pages – Paperback | eBook

This 3hr Note is part of an ongoing project to read, note and crunch ~70 books on Learning How to Learn - for more, see the full Learning How to Learn reading list.

TYPE: Non-fiction (science, philosophy), practical.

SYNTHESIS: Tools, strategies and stories to help students, teachers and trainers learn more effectively based on 10 years of collaboration between 11 cognitive psychologists – collected and synthesised by author Peter Brown and psychology researchers Henry Roediger and Mark McDaniel.

IN A NUTSHELL: “The responsibility for learning rests with individual [and] the techniques for highly effective learning outlined in this book can be used right now everywhere learners, teachers and trainers are at work. They come at no cost, they require no structural reform, and the benefits they promise are both real and long-lasting.

NOTE: Learning is an acquired skill and innate ability is only a small part of the story. In fact, both learning and learning-how-to-learn change your brain and make you more intelligent. What’s more, both lie entirely in your control (you can make yourself smarter). And though it’s a challenging, life-long journey, we’ve learned much about how that process works.

And yet, myths, outdated theories and ineffective techniques are still common and hold many of us back. Instead, it’s important to realise that:

  • Mindless repetition does not build memory – quality, type and timing of repetition are each as important as quantity;
  • Fluency is not the same as understanding – just because you can repeat something, it doesn’t mean you get it; and
  • Creativity and knowledge are not either/or – creativity requires a foundation of knowledge, and knowledge must be memorised.

Dispelling myths and laying out an alternative, immediately practical path for better learning is Make It Stick‘s purpose.  

First, chapter 1 (Learning is Misunderstood) introduces the book’s key ideas:

  • Rereading and massed practice are popular but ineffective.
  • Instead, good learning is active learning…
  • Active learning means working smart and hard…
  • And working smart and hard is difficult and requires effort

Then, chapters 2 – 7 lay out the evidence and implications of recent discoveries:

  1. To Learn, Retrieve – Effortful retrieval is a highly effective way to learn. See tests as learning tools and find ways to constantly quiz yourself as you go.
  2. Mix Up Your Practice – Mix up topics and problems, vary practice conditions and space your practice over time to improve retention and generalise learning.
  3. Embrace Difficulties – Learning (encoding, consolidation and retrieval) is active and grounded in mistakes; accept that both are difficult and effortful.
  4. Avoid Illusions of Knowing – Don’t mistake fluency for knowledge. Use testing and teaching as tools to keep you honest about what you do and don’t know.
  5. Get Beyond Learning Styles – Use a wide range of active learning strategies. Discover underlying principles by breaking down your topic and combining the two creatively.
  6. Increase Your Abilities – Effortful learning changes the brain, it needs a growth mindset, self-discipline, grit and persistence.

While, chapter 8 (Make it Stick) summarises a practical, new approach to learning:

  • Incorporate the following 3 main strategies into any learning project:
    • Active retrieval
      • Don’t blindly re-read or repeat and hope to learn by osmosis.
      • Instead, self-test as you learn (key ideas, new terms, relation to other ideas).
      • Do the practice questions at the end of each chapter or generate your own.
      • Make time weekly to quiz yourself on the current and prior weeks of work.
      • Check your answers to make sure you’re not fooling yourself.
      • Study and correct your mistakes to fill in areas of weak mastery.
    • Spaced repetition
      • Establish a regular, low-stakes, self-quizzing schedule.
      • Adjust gaps from a few minutes, to a few days, to once a month.
      • Interleave topics in your quizzing to continually refresh your mind.
    • Interleaving
      • Study more than one type of problem within a topic at a time.
      • Scatter new problem types throughout your practice schedule.
  • Additionally, always look for ways to:
    • Elaborate
      • Synthesise ideas in your own words.
      • Teach them to someone else.
      • Make them concrete and personal (e.g., with examples from your own life).
      • Like them to a wider context (e.g., using metaphors).
    • Generate
      • Attempt to solve a problem before being shown the solution.
      • If you don’t know the answer, give your best guess – then correct.
    • Reflect (on your learning experiences)
      • What went well?
      • What could have gone better?
      • What does the experience remind you of?
      • What opportunities can you think of to make next time better?
    • Calibrate
      • Use e.g., tests to objectively and periodically gauge your level and progress.
      • Treat calibrations like actual tests, do them – don’t skate over them.
    • Use mnemonics
      • Find or create mnemonic devices to learn information.
      • Learn mnemonic systems to greatly increase your ability to memorise new things.
  • And finally, adopt a learning mindset – be:
    • Forgive – everyone starts out awkward and clumsy;
    • Be optimistic – learning needs striving, striving leads to setbacks and set-backs lead to learning;
    • Experiment – try new things, take time to reflect on results and then try again; and
    • Persist – learning takes (biological) time, stick with it and trust in the process.

Book Summary: “The Little Book of Talent”, Daniel Coyle

The Little Book of Talent, Daniel Coyle

The Little Book of Talent, Daniel Coyle

“The Little Book of Talent: 52 Tips for Improving Skills”, Daniel Coyle
160 pages – Paperback | eBook

This 3hr Note is part of an ongoing project to read, note and crunch ~70 books on Learning How to Learn - for more, see the full Learning How to Learn reading list.

TYPE: Non-fiction (philosophy), Practical.

SYNOPSIS: 52 short, immediate and practical tips to kick-off your learning, improve your skills and sustain your progress at school, at work, at home and at play – by journalist and author, Daniel Coyle.

IN A NUTSHELL: “Small actions, repeated over time, transform us… It’s about working hard, and working smart.

PERSONAL NOTE: I love books like The Little Book of Talent. Like Templar’s Rules of Work, Life, Wealth etc… they’re short, succinct and crammed with practical ways to make life more effective.

But they come with a risk: “As to methods there may be a million and then some, but principles are few. The man who grasps principles can successfully select his own methods. The man who tries methods, ignoring principles, is sure to have trouble.” – Harrington Emerson.

So, if you’re new to learning about learning, be careful how you use The Little Book of Talent – and be especially wary of the unhelpfully-simplistic neurobiology in the appendix. You will, in short, get the most out of these ideas if you come at them from a wider base of reading (e.g., Coyle’s own Talent Code).

Another risk with books like The Little Book of Talent is being so overwhelmed that it’s hard to know where to start. There’s a tendency to read the book, enjoy a premature sense of improvement and hope that everything will sink in by osmosis.

This never works.

A good, active alternative would be to:

  1. Buy the paperback;
  2. Commit to testing one idea per week (52 ideas = 52 weeks);
  3. Cover the white-space in the book with notes on where and how you can apply the chosen idea in the coming week;
  4. Test out and reflect on your theories and progress during the week; and
  5. Note down your overall verdict on the weekend.

That may seem slow but such a systematic approach and realistic demand on your time will maximise your odds of turning your favourite points into sustainable habits that will transform your learning.

NOTES: The Little Book of Talent contains 52 tips (each from a paragraph to a few pages in length) in 3 sections:

  1. Get Started – Set practice up for success by igniting motivation and launching your mindset and approach on the right foot;
  2. Improve Skills – Practice purposeful and persistently so that you are constantly stretched just beyond your ability; and
  3. Sustain Progress – Combine persistence with creativity to keep pushing yourself and progressing.

Here’s a summary of the contents:


  1. Start with who you want to become – Find heroes and use their stories, photos and videos to guide and motivate you.
  2. Spend 15 minutes a day engraving the skill on your brain – Watch perfect versions intensely and repeatedly until you can feel their execution clearly.
  3. Steal without apology – Identify critical moves – specific details and concrete facts – then incorporate them into your method.
  4. Buy a notebook – Make time daily to introspect on your performance and create plans for your ideas and goals.
  5. Be willing to be stupid – Take at least one risk per week, use failure as feedback for improvement. If you don’t fail, you’re not reaching.
  6. Choose spartan over luxurious – Eliminate distraction by working in a simple and frugal environment.
  7. Before you start, figure out if it’s a hard or soft skill – Hard skills need consistent and precise execution (often involving a coach or teacher in the early stages). Soft skills are reactive, adaptable and creative.
  8. To build hard skills, work like a careful carpenter – Build strong foundations by perfecting each sub-skill slowly and precisely before moving on.
  9. To build soft skills, play like a skateboarder – Combine exploration of many new challenges that force you to stretch and experiment with clear feedback and introspection.
  10. Honour the hard skills – For combinations of hard and soft skills, prioritise training the hard skills – even when you’re an expert – they’re the foundation of your talent.
  11. Don’t fall for the prodigy myth – Success is a combination of luck, hard work, smart work and natural talent – in that order.
  12. Pick a high-quality teacher or coach – Find someone attentive, fundamentals-oriented, action-oriented, precise, unflinchingly honest and experienced.


  1. Find the sweet spot – Craft practice that hits the spot between comfort and survival; characterised by a feeling of flow with a 50 – 80% success rate.
  2. Take off your watch – Measure practice in high-quality reps, not time.
  3. Break every move into chunks – Break skills into their smallest chunks; master them; then link them to new chunks.
  4. Each day, try to build one perfect chunk – Set a daily SAP (smallest achievable perfection) and focus on getting it 100%, consistently correct.
  5. Embrace struggle – Embrace emotional frustration and discomfort – your best-self lies on the other side of it.
  6. Choose five minutes a day over an hour a week – Make practice habitual, efficient and effective by doing less, with more focus, every day.
  7. Don’t do “Drills.” Instead, play small addictive games – “If it can be counted, it can be turned into a game.” – score and track progress, then beat it.
  8. Practise alone – Tune your personal sweet spot and hone your discipline by demanding the best of yourself when no-one else is watching.
  9. Think in images – Practise visualising actions and feelings vividly – it improves performance and creates a model for internal feedback.
  10. Pay attention immediately after you make a mistake – Attend deeply to errors as soon as they happen – take them seriously but not personally.
  11. Visualise the wires of your brain forming new connections – Depersonalise mistakes by framing them as chances for new, better connections in your brain.
  12. Visualise the wires of your brain getting faster – Give reps meaning by visualising them develop your neural country-roads into superhighways.
  13. Shrink the space – Constrain practice space to force precision; use models and miniatures to create birdseye views for strategic thinking.
  14. Slow it down (even slower than you think) – Works like shrinking, particularly for hard skills, by highlighting weakness and forcing precision.
  15. Close your eyes – Embrace blindness to sweep away distraction, nudge yourself to the edge of your ability and train your other senses.
  16. Mime it – Eliminate cues and force yourself to reach by eliminating equipment and training just the purest form of the movement.
  17. When you get it right, mark the spot – Consciously and immediately rewind and internalise the build-up and feeling of your first perfect rep.
  18. Take a nap – A 20 – 90-minute nap in the middle of the day or after training boosts energy, improves creativity and strengthens memory.
  19. To learn a new move, exaggerate it – Push the upper and lower extremes of any activity to help identify and hone in on its sweet spot.
  20. Make positive reaches – Always focus on reaching the positive outcome you want and don’t think about the mistake you want to avoid.
  21. To learn from a book, close the book – Use active recall – learn by challenging yourself to recall and summarise what you’ve just read.
  22. Use the sandwich technique – Sandwich an incorrect move between two correct ones to highlight and learn from the mistake.
  23. Use the 3 x 10 technique – Practice things 3 times with 10-minute breaks in between sets to learn them most effectively.
  24. Invent daily tests – Find ways to turn practice into quick, fun games with measurable outcomes that isolate accuracy and reliability.
  25. Use the REPS gauge to choose the best practice method – Design practice to maximise:
    1. Reaching and repeating – Are you pushed repeatedly into your sweet spot?
    2. Engagement – Are you interested and emotionally immersed?
    3. Purposefulness – Does it target the specific thing you want to improve?
    4. Strong, speedy feedback – Does it clearly tell you how you did and how to improve?
  26. Stop before you’re exhausted – Unless improving toughness or building solidarity – quit before fatigue affects performance.
  27. Practice immediately after performance – Your mistakes will be fresh in your mind and most easily fixable.
  28. Just before sleep, watch a mental movie – Pre-visualising performance improves it (and boosts motivation, toughness and confidence).
  29. End on a positive note – Finish every practice session with an uplifting reward (from a game you enjoy to an actual piece of chocolate).
  30. Six ways to be a better teacher or coach:
    1. Connect emotionally – Build trust and show that you care in the first few seconds of feedback.
    2. Break it down – Favour short, targeted messages over long, team speeches.
    3. Be specific – Use concrete nouns and numbers to deliver feedback, avoid imprecise adjectives and adverbs.
    4. Use scorecards – Track what you want to change and make measures of long-term progress visible to everyone.
    5. Maximise “Reachfulness” – Use small, intense games to keep everyone active and learning. Avoid lines and waiting.
    6. Foster independent learning – Step away whenever possible and create habits that let students guide themselves.


  1. Embrace repetition – It’s not a chore, it’s your most powerful tool.
  2. Have a blue-collar mindset – Get up each morning and go to work honing your craft, whether you feel like it or not.
  3. For every hour of competition, spend five hours practising – Competition is great for testing skills but terrible for improving them.
  4. Don’t waste time breaking bad habits, build new ones – For an excellent approach, see Duhigg’s The Power of Habit (crunch).
  5. To learn it more deeply, teach it – For more, see this post on Learning Through Teaching (article).
  6. Give new skills at least eight weeks – Learning takes time – give your brain the time it needs to grow.
  7. When you hit a plateau, make a shift Change your approach to knock yourself out of autopilot and back into your sweet spot.
  8. Cultivate your grit – “A quitter never wins and a winner never quits” – Napoleon Hill. For more, see Duckworth’s Grit (Amazon).
  9. Keep your big goals secret – Don’t let your mind take the credit before your body goes the distance.
  10. Think like a gardener, work like a carpenter – Talent grows slowly, so work steadily, train strategically and trust in the process.

Book Summary: “Flow”, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi

Flow, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi

Flow, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi

“Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience”, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi
322 pages – Paperback | eBook | Audiobook

This 3hr Note is part of an ongoing project to read, note and crunch ~70 books on Learning How to Learn - for more, see the full Learning How to Learn reading list.

TYPE: Non-fiction (science, philosophy), theory.

SYNOPSIS: A bottom-up guide to finding success, growth and happiness through flow – an optimal experience of being, characterised by total absorption and joy in the present moment – by psychology professor, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi [Me-high Cheek-sent-me-high].

IN A NUTSHELL: “The best moments [in our lives]… occur when a person’s body or mind is stretched to its limits in a voluntary effort to accomplish something difficult or worthwhile.”

NOTE: Happiness isn’t pleasure. Happiness is flow: a state of optimal experience; a state of joy, creativity and total involvement in which problems seem to disappear and there is an exhilarating feeling of self-transcendence and control.

If you’ve felt hours fly by like moments, held a lover in your arms or marvelled at a sunrise you’ve experienced flow. In fact, it’s a state we experience surprisingly often, at work, at home and at play.

But flow isn’t just something that happens to us, it’s something we can engineer. Something we can get better and better at, no matter what we’re doing, who we’re with or what life throws our way.

How? Csikszentmihalyi leads us through his life’s work and thinking over 10 life-altering chapters:

  1. Happiness Revisited – Introducing flow and an overview of the book;
  2. The Anatomy of Consciousness – Examining how consciousness works and is controlled;
  3. Enjoyment and the Quality of Life – Exploring the optimal state of inner experience;
  4. The Conditions of Flow – Examining flow in games, sports, art and hobbies;
  5. The Body in Flow – Developing flow through physical and sensory skills (e.g., sport, music, yoga);
  6. The Flow of Thought – Developing flow through symbolic skills (e.g., poetry, philosophy, math);
  7. Work as Flow – Transforming work into a flow-inducing activity;
  8. Enjoying Solitude and Other People – Flowing on our own and in our relationships;
  9. Cheating Chaos – Mastering our response to stress and turning adversity to our advantage; and
  10. The Making of Meaning – Finding universal flow and finding peace through meaning.

Csikszentmihalyi gets straight to the problem: instead of flowing by default, we mostly fluctuate between two extremes:

  1. Apathy – boredom when things are too easy or not meaningful; and
  2. Anxiety – disquiet when things are too hard, unclear or caused by chronic dissatisfaction.

The secret? You must find the boundary between apathy and anxiety. You must manage your life so challenges are both meaningful and balanced with your capacity to act. You must learn to:

  1. Choose and clearly define your goals – from the smallest task to finding your life’s authentic purpose;
  2. Find ways to measure progress – with clear feedback against an objective or visualised outcome;
  3. Learn to concentrate fully on the task at hand – focus attention on what you want, for as long as needed but no longer;
  4. Develop the skills you need to make progress – connecting and interacting ever more deeply with the world around you; and
  5. Keep raising the stakes live in crescendo and ensure that your goals always stretch and inspire you.

The reward? A joyous absorption in the now; a loss of self-consciousness, a state where time is altered and all but the present falls away. A state, in fact, that sounds suspiciously like traditional accounts of ‘enlightenment’.

Such experiences are autotelic – an end in themselves, without thought of growth or reward. And yet, they create the perfect conditions for both growth and reward. “For success, like happiness, cannot be pursued; it must ensue, and it only does so as the unintended side-effect of one’s personal dedication to a cause greater than oneself or as the by-product of one’s surrender to a person other than oneself. Happiness must happen, and the same holds for success: you have to let it happen by not caring about it.” – Viktor Frankl, Man’s Search for Meaning (crunch).

But creating flow, not just at play, but in every part of your life, isn’t always simple. And it definitely isn’t easy. Yet it’s here that Flow really excels – in its bottom-up approach to a problem that has troubled thinkers for thousands of years.

Because, as Csikszentmihalyi’s reminds us, flow isn’t just a fleeting and foreign sensation. It’s not the exclusive domain of masters, philosophers and yogis. It’s something we can all point to in our lives. And the trick isn’t to try and magically flow everywhere, all at once. It’s to methodically master its workings across each domain of our lives – beginning with the games, sports and hobbies we love, passing through learning, work and our relationships with others and ending in our attitude to life’s inevitable setbacks and challenges.

Happiness, it transpires, isn’t a state or a noun, it’s a verb. And it’s in mastering our attention, our ability to set goals, seek feedback, keep challenging ourselves and find joy in the present moment; it’s in deepening and connecting flow at work, at play, at home and in the face of adversity that we find peace and enlightenment. It’s from the bottom-up that we turn flow from fleeting and random into an ongoing act that saturates the whole of our lives.

Mastering flow allows us to create flow no matter what we are doing. And, when we link all those experiences together, it creates a life of happiness.

It gives us a way to transcend ourselves and flourish no matter what comes our way.

Book Summary: “Mindset”, Carol Dweck

Mindset, Carol Dweck

Mindset, Carol Dweck

“Mindset: The New Psychology of Success”, Carol Dweck
322 pages – Paperback | eBook | Audiobook

This 3hr Note is part of an ongoing project to read, note and crunch ~70 books on Learning How to Learn - for more, see the full Learning How to Learn reading list.

TYPE: Non-fiction (science, philosophy), practical.

SYNTHESIS: A research-grounded dive into the self-fulfilling nature and impact of Fixed- and Growth-Mindset beliefs in personal development, by social and developmental psychology professor, Carol Dweck.

IN A NUTSHELL: “When you enter a mindset, you enter a new world. In one world – the world of fixed traits – success is about proving you’re smart or talented. Validating yourself. In the other – the world of changing qualities – it’s about stretching yourself to learn something new. Developing yourself.

In one world, failure is about having a setback. Getting a bad grade. Losing a tournament. Getting fired. Getting rejected. It means you’re not smart or talented. In the other world, failure is about not growing. Not reaching for things you value. It means you’re not fulfilling your potential.

In one world, effort is a bad thing. It, like failure, means you’re not smart or talented. If you were, you wouldn’t need effort. In the other world, effort is what makes you smart or talented.

You have a choice. Mindsets are just beliefs. They’re powerful beliefs, but they’re just something in your mind, and you can change your mind.”

NOTE: The secret to fulfilling your potential is changing your mindset. Specifically, it’s in moving from a Fixed-Mindset to a Growth-Mindset, where:

  • A Fixed-Mindset is the belief that abilities (from intelligence to creativity and athleticism) are innate and largely fixed; and
  • A Growth-Mindset is the belief that abilities are highly trainable and developed through effort and failure.

In reality, where you stand on the Fixed – Growth Spectrum depends on at least two factors:

  1. The Task – E.g., you may have a Growth-Mindset toward physical strength but a fixed mindset toward musical or mathematical ability; and
  2. The Actor – I.e., you may believe others are more changeable than yourself or be prejudiced by e.g., sex, colour or age.

In Mindset, Dweck argues compellingly that the best outcomes come from assuming a generous Growth-Mindset towards everything and everyone.

And yet, thanks to outdated science and practice, we often assume quite the opposite – with life-altering consequences for ourselves and the people around us.

Why is the shift so important? Because believing abilities are fixed makes every failure a painful reminder of our unconquerable inadequacy. The result? Fixed-Mindsets devastate progress. Not only do people with Fixed-Mindsets avoid taking risks, they also give up more easily on themselves, and on others – at play, at work, at school and at home.

But when we believe that traits and abilities are trainable, that we can always change and improve, we totally change our approach. Defeats become learning opportunities. Set-backs set boundaries we can test, push and improve. A Growth-Mindset doesn’t just make growing possible, it makes failure exciting.

Most critical of all is realising that our mindsets affect everyone around us – in how we learn, how we teach, how we judge and even how we love.

For example, praising children or employees for their intelligence (an innate quality) instead of their persistence and grit (qualities that promote growth) fosters Fixed Mindsets that severely limit their ability to grow. The same goes for praising athletes and musicians for their gift. Or for the expectations we set for ourselves and our loved-ones at home.

In exploring the themes above, Dweck’s Mindset maps out decades of thought-provoking research over 8 chapters where:

  • Chapters 1 – 3 set out the basic theory and supporting evidence;
  • Chapters 4 – 7 tests theory and practice in sports, business, relationships and teaching; and
  • Chapter 8 explores the paths to changing mindsets in yourself and others.

The good news? Your mindset – whatever the task, whoever the actor – is just a belief.

Mindset is a habit you can change.

Book Summary: “Outliers”, Malcolm Gladwell

Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell

Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell

“Outliers: The Story of Success”, Malcolm Gladwell
321 pages – Paperback | eBook | Audiobook

This 3hr Note is part of an ongoing project to read, note and crunch ~70 books on Learning How to Learn - for more, see the full Learning How to Learn reading list.

TYPE: Non-fiction (science), theoretical.

SYNTHESIS: A systematic debunking of the myth that success is mostly determined by talent and hard-work – with quantitative and qualitative evidence from medicine, sport, business, history, music, science and more – by journalist and author, Malcolm Gladwell.

IN A NUTSHELL: We pretend that success is exclusively a matter of individual merit. But there’s nothing in any of the histories we’ve looked at so far to suggest things are that simple. These are stories, instead, about people who were given a special opportunity to work really hard and seized it, and who happened to come of age at a time when that extraordinary effort was rewarded by the rest of society. Their success was not just of their own making. It was a product of the world in which they grew up.

NOTES: When explaining/dissecting why some people achieve more than others, we often overvalue natural-talent and self-determinism, i.e.:

  • Who we are: Innate talent, character; and
  • What we did: Preparation, decisions.

But the idea that the best rise to the top because they are naturally better and brighter is simplistic.

In reality, many, interacting and compounding drivers set the odds of success. Some factors, steps and decisions are within our awareness and control. Many more are beyond them. And coming to terms with this reality is an essential part of increasing equality, opportunities and outcomes for all.

Proving this thesis doesn’t need a full competing theory. It simply needs to disprove the self-deterministic incumbent. This is the task Gladwell takes on in Outliers – drawing on medicine, sport, business, history, music, science and his own life to illustrate the true complexity of success. 

For specific stories, refer to the original (a hallmark of Gladwell’s writing is his wonderful storytelling). Some of the fascinating principles highlighted include:

  • The powerful accumulative biases hidden in the details of supposedly meritocratic systems (e.g., cut-off dates and streaming in schools and sport);
  • The early, vital and unequal opportunities unlocked by parenting and patronage (prodigies aren’t born, they are made);
  • The difficulty of defining talent and failure of intelligence tests in predicting long-term achievement;
  • The role of luck in enabling both quantity and quality of practice needed for success (N.b., Outliers popularised the 10,000-hour rule);
  • The profound impact of cultural legacy and prejudice in distributing opportunities; and
  • The effects of language in making it easier or harder to learn (e.g., Chinese number systems and mathematics).

Gladwell’s conclusion? The self-made-success template fails across many domains. And even factors that we might think of as in our control (e.g., character and practice) are often much more dependent on opportunity and legacy than we realise. 

What truly distinguishes success stories from stories you’ve never heard isn’t extraordinary talent – it’s extraordinary opportunities.

So why does the old myth persist? Because:

  1. Our brains just can’t factor everything in – We aren’t able to visualise compound results of many causes working together, at once or over time.
  2. But simplifying forces narrative fallacy – Story-telling forces us to pick a single, linear line of causality through complex and non-linear systems.
  3. And when we do, we suffer from self-serving bias – Given the choice, we naturally store, recall and overweight factors we control to explain success.

Why does any of this matter? Because realising that success is more than innate talent and preparation allows us to better understand reality. And a better understanding of reality is the first step in:

  1. Navigating it more effectively; and
  2. Improving it for us all. 

So, take the success stories of others with a pinch of salt. Be aware of creating, endorsing or falling on the wrong side of systems that distribute opportunity unfairly. And remember, much more of success than you realise is neither deserved nor earned.

“Your choices are half chance, and so are everybody else’s” – Everybody’s Free, Baz Luhrmann

N.B., Like all of Gladwell’s writing this is wonderfully researched and full of illustrative stories and evidence. Outliers is a book I need and want to come back to for a full crunch – if you haven’t yet, it’s well worth a read. Like the gist of what we’ve covered here? Check out this crunch of Matthew Syed’s Bounce and Gladwell’s fascinating podcast Revisionist History.

Book Summary: “Moonwalking with Einstein”, Josh Foer

Moonwalking With Einstein, Josh Foer

Moonwalking With Einstein, Josh Foer

“Moonwalking with Einstein: The Art and Science of Remembering Everything”, Josh Foer
354 pages – Paperback | eBook | Audiobook

This 3hr Note is part of an ongoing project to read, note and crunch ~70 books on Learning How to Learn - for more, see the full Learning How to Learn reading list.

TYPE: Narrative non-fiction (mixed), theoretical.

SYNTHESIS: An overview of the history, science and philosophy of memory set against journalist Josh Foer‘s year-long sprint from memory virgin to 2006 U.S.A Memory Champion.

NOTE: Almost all of us are born with exactly the same memory machinery. And memory used to be an essential part of all of our lives. But we have increasingly replaced systems for remembering with systems for reminding. And so many of us have forgotten how to use the machinery inside us

Studies of super-memory, brain-damaged and normal people have shed light on how memory works. But they basically confirm what has been known by memory experts for thousands of years:

  1. We can all learn anything with enough repetition (via chunking);
  2. We can all learn to learn anything quickly with enough practice (via encoding); and
  3. We find it easiest to memorise things that are novel and visual.

In short, exceptional memories are made, not born. This has been confused by the romantic and fanciful myth of “Photographic Memory”. Such accounts have always been explained by rare phenomena like synesthesiaeidetic memory or exaggeration.

And even extremely rare “prodigious” savants always also exhibit an equally debilitating and profound disability. Why? Because forgetting is vital in separating the vital from the trivial. Memory is a delicate balance of retaining and recycling.

The key to unlocking exceptional memory is learning to master our powerful visuospatial memory. Techniques like the Method of Loci are simple (though not easy to master) and have been described and used for millennia.

The Method of Loci relies on visualising information as objects. Where information is not immediately visualisable (e.g., numbers, abstract words) it must first be replaced (encoded) with a stand-in, visualisable object. These objects are then linked to places within mental maps of well-known locations using a vivid (and surprising) mental imagery. Revisiting the locations, recalling and decoding an image at a specific location allows retrieval of the original information.

Developing an exceptional memory means perfecting three skills:

  1. Internalising and mentally navigating detailed spatial maps of well-known locations;
  2. Imagining memorable and vivid images that link information to places in those locations; and
  3. Encoding abstract information into visualisable objects for use in the previous skill.

Of the three, developing the third (systems for encoding) requires the most upfront work and practice. Systems like the Major System (to convert digits into words via sounds) or the Peg System (to convert numbers directly to objects) have existed for centuries. A common variant in use today is the Person-Action-Object (PAO) System which encodes e.g., playing cards or numbers as images of specific people acting on objects.

All such encoding systems rely on the same basic principles but precise details and mental images vary between individuals. These take effort to create and internalise but make it easy to quickly learn almost any kind of information.

Meanwhile, high quality, purposeful practice is vital to improving any skill – including memory. To make practice purposeful:

  • Design your environment and practice routines to keep you alert and focused;
  • Control speed and volume to push yourself constantly beyond your comfort zone;
  • Consciously study and try to replicate the performance of more competent masters; and
  • Design immediate feedback mechanisms that tell you what’s wrong, how wrong and what you can do about it.

And remember, “There are no limits. There are plateaus, but you must not stay there, you must go beyond them. If it kills you, it kills you.” – Bruce Lee

As Josh’s year-long journey from memory-virgin to 2006 USA memory champion shows, it’s possible for almost anyone to use the ideas above to develop an exceptional memory.

But why improve it at all? Because understanding, creativity and no small part of intelligence are rooted in knowledge that is grounded in memory. Because “the more we remember, the better we are at processing the world. And the better we are at processing the world, the more we can remember it.” Because “how we perceive the world and how we act in it are products of how and what we remember.”

N.B., Moonwalking With Einstein an enjoyable and accessible read but, for me, a quick three hour skim was enough. If this is your first ever book on memory, or you’re reading for entertainment, then pick up a copy (great adds would be Ericsson’s Peak and Duhigg’s Power of Habit). If you want to improve your memory, read e.g., Lorrayne’s Memory Book or Cicero’s Rhetorica ad Herennium. Then turn to Google.

Book Summary: “Mastery”, Robert Greene

Mastery, Robert Greene

Mastery, Robert Greene

“Mastery”, Robert Greene
354 pages – Paperback | eBook | Audiobook

This 3hr Note is part of an ongoing project to read, note and crunch ~70 books on Learning How to Learn - for more, see the full Learning How to Learn reading list.

TYPE: Non-fiction (philosophy/history), practical.

SYNTHESIS: An exploration of Mastery – its benefits, principles and strategies – enriched with instructive and inspirational biographies of historical and contemporary masters, by modern-day Machiavelli author Robert Green.


N.b., The titles above are as per the book. I’ve used my own short-titles below.

It’s worth noting that every chapter follows the same, well-organised structure:

  • Summary – A brief front note giving an overview of the chapter.
  • Story – A biographical profile that exemplifies the chapter’s message.
  • Keys – Review and analysis of the chapter’s principles.
  • Strategies – Practical methods for applying those principles.
  • Reversal – A study of the implications of the reverse or an alternate principle.

And the same methodical line can be found within each chapter. For example, each bullet in each “Strategies” section begins with a biographical story before moving onto a more general synthesis of the point.

Two more personal notes:

  1. Mastery has one of the most detailed contents section I’ve ever seen in a book. Check it out for a full ten-minute overview (head to Amazon’s Kindle page for the book and click the cover to “Look Inside” for free).
  2. I can’t wait to get back to Mastery and read it in more detail. This 3hr Note is a useful placeholder but totally inadequate to convey the exquisite research and detail that Greene put into this book.


  • Attaining mastery through persistent effort is both necessary and positive,
  • And it’s open to anyone, regardless of background, social class or ethnicity,
  • Because the quality of your mind and brain is determined by your actions in life.
  • But n.b., the pursuit of mastery is not linear, it is constantly changing and shifting.
  • It is the iterative process of bringing your mind closer to reality and to life itself.
  • Intelligence and mastery must be constantly renewed or it will die.


“The first move to mastery is always inwards”

  • Be true to yourself: identify the activities and topics that spark a deep and primal curiosity in you.
  • Then, ignore your weaknesses, direct your energy towards the small things in these areas that you’re good at.
  • Don’t dream big, just focus on the now – on getting proficient at these few things.
  • Use this confidence to explore other pursuits, step by step.
  • Eventually, you will hit upon your Life’s Task.


  1. Identify and be true to what you love.
  2. Pick a niche you can dominate in (i.e., that’s not overly competitive):
    1. EITHER: A specialisation within your field.
    2. OR: A non-related but complimentary field you can combine.
  3. Avoid paths that attract you for the wrong reasons (e.g., money, ego)
  4. Commit to your Life’s Task, not a particular position, company or way of doing things.
  5. Come back to your path when you have strayed from it, even if it entails sacrifice.


  • Prioritise learning a wide-range of skills that relate to your deepest interests.
  • Settle and focus on gaining proficiency on a skill-by-skill basis.
  • As the learning curve flattens, move on – like a bee hunting for nectar.
  • But be patient: there are no shortcuts to deeply embedding complex skills.
  • And doing so is a prerequisite for real creative activity.


  1. Value learning over money.
  2. Keep expanding your horizons.
  3. Stay humble and be allergic to smugness and superiority.
  4. Trust in the compounding power of patient, persistent effort.
  5. Move towards resistance and pain, your best-self is on the other side.
  6. Get used to failure and embrace it as a critical part of learning.
  7. Master the art “what” and the science “how” of everything you do.
  8. Try many new things and embrace trial and error – it’s a numbers game.


  • The mentor-protégé relationship is the most efficient and productive form of learning.
  • Seek a mentor that best fits your needs and connects to your Life Task.
  • As the transfer slows, adjust the dynamic or switch mentors.
  • In the absence of a mentor, develop extreme self-reliance.
    • Look for role-models whose example you can follow.
    • Consciously and relentlessly combine books, experimentation and practical experience.


  1. Seek mentors but choose them carefully based on your inclinations, Life Task and long-term plans.
  2. Welcome tough, honest criticism from your mentor (even if ego-wounding); then act on it quickly and constructively.
  3. Be totally open and receptive to your mentor’s teachings, but leave space to incubate and experiment with your own versions.
  4. Foster a reciprocal dynamic – keep the relationship alive by inspiring learning in both directions.


  • Fools – those who do not value long-term results, achieved as efficiently and creatively as possible – are simply a part of life.
  • Learn to see and know this foolishness in yourself, doing so will let you see, forgive, control for and rise above it in others.
  • This skill will help you avoid being side-tracked in draining distractions on your journey to mastery.


  1. Involve others in your projects and always work with your audience front-of-mind – social agility is a critical ingredient in all fields.
  2. Master and take pleasure in crafting your outward appearance and persona carefully and consciously.
  3. Put yourself in other people’s shoes and take full responsibility for negative social outcomes – however you feel about them.
  4. Suffer fools gladly by recognising your own limitations and the fool inside yourself.


  • Be bold, creative and experiment with your skills as you emerge from apprenticeship.
  • Avoid complacency, examine problems from all angles and continue to expand your knowledge.
  • As you approach mastery, transcend the rules and limiting duality that defines much of reality – embrace originality and chaos.
  • Do so without embracing the romantic cultural myths around creativity – creativity demands mastery, and there are no shortcuts to mastery.


  1. Have the patience to master the basics – they are the foundation of your unique authenticity.
  2. Go after great opportunities instead of fixating on great goals; find them by reading and thinking outside of your field.
  3. Get hands-on with (test and use) anything you create or design; evolve and iterate it slowly, over and over until it is awesome.
  4. Start creative projects with an open mind, feed them knowledge in and beyond your field, tinker constantly and embrace slowness.
  5. Transcend outdated norms by looking inward first, then using your expertise and discipline to express something in an original way.
  6. Break repeatedly free of the detail by making mastery a means to a greater end – a big picture idea or inspiring goal.
  7. Remain open and adaptable to new, unexpected ways of looking at things; creativity and adaptability are inseparable.
  8. Be wary of abstract simplifications; reframe from many angles to get closer to the complex details of reality.
  9. Explore and embrace unconscious and contradictory parts of your personality and in the world at large.


  • The ability to attain mastery isn’t the privilege of a few, it’s what our brains were designed for.
  • Doing so in any field brings us closer to nature, it alters our view of reality and grants us insight into universal truths.
  • But even more powerful is to meld masteries across multiple fields, combining cross-disciplinary concepts in new, transformative ways.
  • So aim for mastery, but don’t stop there – strive to extend your own knowledge always further and further out.


  1. Connect deeply to your environment by eliminating distraction and mastering mindful observation.
  2. Know yourself then identify and focus on your strengths (even if they’re unusual); accept mediocrity in the rest.
  3. Break skills down, master their components, build them back up – the key to mastery is tenacious repetition and practice.
  4. Slow down, absorb and master the details and minutiae – you may produce less, but what you produce will be more.
  5. Broaden your mind and dissect your work by coming frequently reframing it in the context of overall purpose and long-term goals.
  6. Let go of your “self” and have the courage to think from inside others, both mentally and by experiencing their worlds.
  7. Never stop learning – extend you mastery as widely as possible.

Book Summary: “Learning How to Learn”, Idries Shah

Learning How to Learn, Idries Shah

Learning How to Learn, Idries Shah

“Learning How to Learn: Psychology and Spirituality in the Sufi Way”, Idries Shah
322 pages – Paperback | eBook | Audiobook

This 3hr Note is part of an ongoing project to read, note and crunch ~70 books on Learning How to Learn - for more, see the full Learning How to Learn reading list.

TYPE: Non-fiction (philosophy), theoretical.

SYNTHESIS: Collected snippets of wisdom from talks and correspondence with author and spiritual teacher, Idries Shah, on the theme of learning from a Sufi perspective.

NOTE: (N.B., Sufism is a mystical element of Islam that emphasises the internal and personal journey of discovery that each of us makes towards to God and enlightenment.) 

This book was challenging to penetrate with just a high-level 3-hour read – as such, anything written here will almost certainly either (a) be wrong or (b) have totally missed the point. The only thing I’m certain of is that I’d need at least a full week (and probably several readings over a long period of time) to draw a cohesive whole from its many parts.

The writing is dense and the book is set out over 322 pages, spanning hundreds of disparate thoughts, anecdotes, analogies and quotes collected from discussions with Sufi author and teacher, Idries Shah – much in a question and answer format. These have been loosely collected into 133 sub-sections (some as short as a bullet, others as long as several pages) split across 8 chapters.

Shah’s focus is the search for gnosis (supreme wisdom), which he tackles from philosophical, spiritual, social and psychological perspectives. At first glance, there’s a lot here that looks familiar from e.g., Buddhism and Gnostic Christianity. But there’s also some chewy stuff on perception, attention, oneness, consciousness, intention, conditioning, bias and the illusory nature of reality. 

This book isn’t one to prioritise if you’re after immediate and practical tips on learning new things or mastering new skills. Not because there’s nothing relevant here – there is. It’s just that distilling the practical from the esoteric (if that’s even a wise idea) will take you some time. It will also make your brain hurt. With immediate practice in mind – there’s lower-hanging fruit to be found elsewhere.

This book does, however, feel full of insight into the nature of “truth”, the philosophy of learning (why are you learning? what should you learn? how can you learn? who can you trust to teach you?) and a great primer on Sufism. If that sounds exciting, and you’re up for a challenge, grab a copy and let me know what you think. I will definitely be back, at some point, to tuck into Shah’s wisdom with my Philosophy/Comparative Religion hats on.

In the meantime, here’s the full “Thematic Contents” page to colour the writing above:


  1. Sufis And Their Imitators
  2. Attaining Knowledge
  3. Secrets And The Sufis
  4. When To Have Meetings
  5. The Ceiling
  6. Conflicting Texts
  7. Self-Deception
  8. Journeys To The East
  9. What A Sufi Teacher Looks Like
  10. Books And Beyond Books
  11. Saintliness
  12. Secrecy
  13. ‘You Can’t Teach By Correspondence’
  14. Background To ‘Humility’
  15. How Serious Is The Student?
  16. Social And Psychological Elements In Sufi Study


  1. Characteristics Of Attention And Observation
  2. Operation Of The Attention Factor
  3. Motivation Of Transactions
  4. Attention Under Personal Control
  5. Excess And Deprivation Of Attention
  6. Study Of People And Their Ideas Apart From Their Attentional Value
  7. Identification Of Underlying Factors
  8. Raising The Emotional Pitch
  9. Fossil indicators


  1. Assumptions Behind Actions
  2. Exercising Power Through Kindness
  3. Copying Virtue
  4. Finding A Teacher
  5. What Is Gained From Reputation
  6. Robes And The Apparatus Of The Sufi
  7. Why You Are Asked To Help
  8. Laziness


  1. An Eastern Sage And The Newspapers
  2. Basis For People’s Interest
  3. Thinking In Terms Of Supply And Demand
  4. The Effect Of Tales And Narratives
  5. Stories Of The Miraculous
  6. Continuous Versus Effective Activity
  7. Capacity Comes Before Opinion
  8. Sanctified Greed
  9. Psychic Idiots
  10. Where Criticism Can Stop
  11. Information And Experience
  12. The Teaching Is A Matter Of Conduct
  13. Knowing One’s Own Sincerity
  14. The Would-Be And Should-Be People
  15. Satisfactions And Purpose Of Ritual
  16. Real And Ostensible Self-Improvement
  17. Roles Of The Teacher And Student


  1. Real and relative generosity
  2. Why do Sufis excel?
  3. Confusion as a personal problem
  4. Being a ‘Guru’
  5. Systems
  6. The vehicle and the objective
  7. concern and campaign
  8. Use, misuse and disuse of forms of study
  9. Potentiality and function
  10. Conditioning and education
  11. The search for an honest man
  12. How can one method be as good as another?


  1. A Viable Unit
  2. Being Supported
  3. Being Physically Present
  4. Intensely Standardised
  5. Organisations And Greed
  6. Generosity As Greed
  7. What You Do For Yourself
  8. Graduating To A Higher Morality
  9. Concluding That We Are Worthless
  10. That Which Attracts You About Us…
  11. Giving And Withholding – And External Assessment
  12. Standing Between You And Knowledge
  13. Direct Contact With A Source Of Knowledge
  14. Latent Knowledge
  15. Provoking Capacity
  16. Systematic Study
  17. Consistency And System
  18. Illumination And Information
  19. Habit Of Judging
  20. Higher-Level Work
  21. Games And Annoyance
  22. Aspirations And Acquisition
  23. Opinion And Fact


  1. Learning And Non-Learning
  2. Some Characteristics Of Sufi Literature
  3. Impartiality As A Point Of View
  4. Characteristics And Purpose Of A Sufi Group
  5. Prerequisites For A Student Of Sufism
  6. In Step Is Out Of Step
  7. ‘Dye Your Prayer-Rug With Wine’
  8. The Master-Dyer
  9. Method, System And Conditioning
  10. Western Culture
  11. The Western Tradition
  12. How Does The Sufi Teach?
  13. Idiot’s Wisdom
  14. Attacking Fires
  15. A Bridge And Its Use
  16. Deterioration Of Studies
  17. Community And Human Growth
  18. The Value Of Question And Answer Sessions
  19. Dedication, Service, Sincerity
  20. Sufis And Scholars
  21. An Enterprise Is Measure By Intention, Not By Appearance
  22. Sufi Organisations


  1. Coming Together
  2. Concealment Of Shortcomings
  3. Saints And Heroes
  4. The Levels Of Service
  5. Ritual And Practice
  6. To Be Present
  7. The Way To Sufism
  8. The Giving Of Charity
  9. The Number Of Readings Of A Book
  10. Decline In Religious Influence
  11. Why Can’t We Have A British Karakul Lamb?
  12. Teaching Methods And Prerequisites
  13. Sorrow In ‘Spiritual Enterprises’
  14. Shock-Teaching
  15. Emotional Expectations
  16. Jumping To Conclusions
  17. The Rosary And The Robe
  18. Random Exercises
  19. On The Lines Of A School
  20. Conduct-Teaching
  21. The Curriculum Of A School
  22. Knowing All About Someone
  23. Remarks Upon The Matter Of The Dervish Path
  24. Meetings, Groups, Classes
  25. Internal Dimensions
  26. Explanation

Book Summary: “The Neuroscience of Intelligence”, Richard J. Haier


The Neuroscience of Intelligence, Richard J. Haier

“The Neuroscience of Intelligence”, Richard J. Haier
251 pages – Paperback | eBook

This 3hr Note is part of an ongoing project to read, note and crunch ~70 books on Learning How to Learn - for more, see the full Learning How to Learn reading list.

TYPE: Non-fiction (science), theoretical.

SYNTHESIS: A neuroscience-heavy, research-rich review of the evidence, myths and future of our understanding of intelligence – including what it is, why some people have it and what can be done to enhance it – by psychologist and professor, Richard J. Haier.


  • What is intelligence? Intelligence can be split into:
    • Specific Intelligence: The ability to quickly solve specific types of problem (e.g., reasoning, spatial ability, memory, processing speed, vocabulary).
    • General Intelligence (g): A core, general ability to quickly solve many types of novel problems.
  • How can we measure g? Psychometric tests are still the best (/only) way to approximate g (though imperfect and only ever peer-relative). Neuroimaging is not yet practical for predicting intelligence but that could change in the future.
  • Why does g matter?
    • g (as estimated above) correlates with many real-world outcomes like general learning ability, job performance and adult mortality, regardless of socio-economic status.
    • Establishing the primary cause(s) of g and the potential ability to enhance it, therefore, have important implications for educational and social policy.
  • What causes g (nature/nurture)? A controversial topic. Recent evidence suggests roles for genetic and early environmental factors. All we know for sure for now is that the story is complex – made more so by numerous emerging research methods and conflicting findings, not all of which are rigorous or replicable.
    • Anatomical: Neuroimaging studies support theories such as P-FIT (Parieto-frontal Integration Theory) which propose that g depends on the functioning of and coordination between several distributed structures in the brain.
    • Biological: Evidence point to a probabilistic combination of genetic (nature) and epigenetic (nature + nurture) factors (i.e., predispositions + environment => intelligence) though much more research is needed to explore and identify specific factors.

How can we enhance intelligence?

There are currently no proven ways to enhance g with a compelling weight of evidence behind them.

  • Myths that lack evidence but are widely believed include listening to classical music (The Mozart Effect), general memory training and playing computer games.
  • Opportunities: Will depend on further research but psychoactive drugs and genetics are promising.

What does the future look like?

  • Chronometric (neural, speed based testing) assessments may give us an absolute way to measure g.
  • Neural studies of memory and super-memory may shed more light on and give ways to enhance g.
  • Increasingly granular measurement and manipulation (e.g., via opto– and chemogenetics) of neural circuits in animal models may unlock insights that can be extrapolated to humans.
  • Developments in biotech may allow us to bridge human and machine intelligence circuit by circuit, leading to profound advances in our understanding of both.
  • Imaging studies of consciousness and creativity may prove a fruitful avenue for investigating g.
  • The more we learn about intelligence, the more pressingly we must engage morally and practically with issues of Neuro-Poverty (aspects of poverty that result mostly from the genetic aspects of intelligence) and Neuro-Social-Economic-Status in Public Policy.


On the role of time and changing support factors in g: How do we consider g on a day-by-day or even hour-by-hour basis? A “bright” person with poor mood, energy and attention management may perform exceptionally some days but poorly on others. Are they more or less intelligent than someone who scores lower than the first’s top scores but higher than them on average due to more consistent management of these factors?

On the book’s style: A superbly structured and written book that skilfully weaves quantitative data with qualitative reasoning. Thoroughly rooted in and makes good use of current research. In particular, I love the chapter structure:

  • Quotes – Introduces the different sides of the debate
  • Learning objectives – Primes reader with key points
  • Introduction – Sets the scene and outlines the chapter
  • Sections – Clearly presents the debate mixing hard science and clear English.
  • Summary – Recaps the main arguments.
  • Review questions – Tests active recall.
  • Further reading – Points to more of the same.

The layout and contents of the glossary, index and reference sections of the book are also good.



  1. What is Intelligence? Do You Know It When You See It?
  2. Defining Intelligence for Empirical Research
  3. The Structure of Mental Abilities and the g-Factor
  4. Alternative Models
  5. Focus on the g-Factor
  6. Measuring Intelligence and IQ
  7. Some Other Intelligence Tests
  8. Myth: Intelligence Tests are Biased or Meaningless
  9. The Key Problem for “Measuring” Intelligence
  10. Four Kinds of Predictive Validity for Intelligence Tests
  11. Why Do Myths About Intelligence Definitions and Measurement Persist?


  1. The Evolving View of Genetics
  2. Early Failures to Boost IQ
  3. “Fraud” Fails to Stop Genetic Progress
  4. Quantitative Genetic Findings also Support a Role for Environmental Factors
  5. Molecular Genetics and the Hunt for Intelligence Genes
  6. Seven Recent Noteworthy Studies of Molecular Genetic Progress


  1. The First PET Studies
  2. Brain Efficiency
  3. Not All Brains Work in the Same Way
  4. What the Early PET Studies Revealed and What They Did Not
  5. The First MRI Studies
  6. Basic Structural MRI Findings
  7. Improved MRI Analyses Yield Consistent and Inconsistent Results
  8. Imaging White Matter Tracts with Two Methods
  9. Functional MRI (fMRI)
  10. The Parieto-frontal Integration Theory (PFIT)
  11. Einstein’s Brain Chapter


  1. Brain Networks and Intelligence
  2. Functional Brain Efficiency – is Seeing Believing?
  3. Predicting IQ From Brain Images
  4. Are “Intelligence” and “Reasoning” Synonyms?
  5. Common Genes for Brain Structure and Intelligence
  6. Brain Imaging and Molecular Genetics


  1. Case 1: Mozart and the Brain
  2. Case 2: You Must Remember This, and This, and This …
  3. Case 3: Can Computer Games for Children Raise IQ?
  4. Where are the IQ Pills?
  5. Magnetic Fields, Electric Shocks, and Cold Lasers Target Brain Processes
  6. The Missing Weight of Evidence for Enhancement


  1. From Psychometric Testing to Chronometric Testing
  2. Cognitive Neuroscience of Memory and Super-Memory
  3. Bridging Human and Animal Research with New Tools Neuron by Neuron
  4. Bridging Human and Machine Intelligence Circuit by Circuit
  5. Consciousness and Creativity
  6. Neuro-poverty and Neuro-Social– Economic Status (SES): Implications for Public Policy Based on the Neuroscience of
  7. Final Thoughts