Superlearner story: Otis the musician

How important is productivity as a part of our training? Recently, I started to feel that my posts went too far from memory and speedreading methodology.  As I was contemplating returning to more basic materials and reframing my approach, I was approached by several students who could not function due to bad productivity training. So I decided to give it some more attention.

True stories

Several years ago I published several posts which you can search on this blog using the keywords “superlearner story”. In these posts, I described real issues and achievement of specific students, taking some poetic license with their names. I will use Otis’s story as a guideline for this article.

Otis is a musician

Otis is an accomplished musician and Anna’s student for a couple of weeks. Any musician who is not a beginner needs to juggle a lot of complex tasks: learning new theories and songs, practicing their instruments to perfection, chasing after new gigs,  appearing on social media, and a teaching job to ensure a steady income. At the same time, their biggest joys and inspiration is creating new music.

Musicians use our techniques to speed up reading books on theory, follow the recent trends in music, remember better the riffs and the words as well as the stories of genesis of various musical pieces. Some brave souls learn synaesthesia as well to acquire an edge in their craft.

Reading speed drops

From all the services we provide for musicians, Otis focused on speedreading first, as he needs to undergo some sort of examination on jazz theory. Speedreading is also something that is easier for us to teach. After all, acquiring synesthesia between colors and music is something we can guide through in emails but effective speedreading requires 1:1 with Anna.  After the first two sessions with Anna which went great, I got the following email:

It’s not going too well. I feel like I’ve lost a lot of mental acuities. I don’t feel as “sharp” as I did when I first started. It is now harder to focus on and retain things. This could be from pure fatigue and a high sugar/high sodium/high caffeine diet for the past few weeks.
It is going slowly. I switched to smaller articles and less dense information but my retention still needs work. Do you ever have students who move so slowly? I took a few days to reset and maybe see if it was just a resting of the mind situation, but it is still the same.

Such a statement coming from a student who shows a lot of motivation and real progress is unfortunately very common.

Digital diet

Why Jonathan Levi decided to generate a full course on a digital diet, I feel this is like fighting fire with fire. Instead, I suggest very simple pieces of advice to follow:

-Sleep is a must. As much as you can.
-If healthy food is not an option, at least use food supplements. Vitamin B, Omega and Magnesium are important for the brain. I have many other pieces of advice on my blog.
-Also, if you are near breakdown, you should probably spend some time in nature. Read paper books. Seeing green and staying away from digital media is good for focus.
-If you know how to meditate, this would be a good time. Otherwise, listen to old music, e.g. preferably something before the 1940s. If you have vinyl, now is a good time to listen to that.
-If your situation is not too bad you will be as good as new within 3 days of this “diet”, maybe a week.
-You know that you fully recovered when you have a creative outburst. In your case, I expect a short musical composition.


The digital diet kind of work. After two weeks I got the following update:

Thanks so much for the advice. I didn’t realize how exhausted I was. I haven’t gotten the supplements yet, but this thing you mentioned called “sleep” has done wonders. It reminded me that one of the reasons I started this super learning journey was so that I can be more efficient and get more sleep.
-30 min outside in the sun helps a lot surprisingly. I’m always trying to milk as much as I can from every day and I thought it was inefficient to spend time outside. It turns out that I can get into more flow after a walk or a run. It has been mostly walking because I hurt myself playing basketball for the first time in 3 years. It was well worth it though!
-Leaving my phone inside was/is tough. I use my phone for a variety of things. Most of them are positive, but it has been an interesting experiment observing my attachment. I picked up a couple of paper books from the library yesterday. I’ll see how my reading is later today.
-I practice transcendental meditation but have been dodging my evening meditations in order to be more efficient. I got it checked by my teacher and the reboot has helped me.
-I can’t say that I have had a creative outburst, but ideas do come to me more easily

This is exactly the kind of answer I was hoping for. Nothing works 100%, but 90% is usually good enough.

Next level

For the next level of progress, I asked Otis to practice synesthesia. This is not what he had in mind, but he was eager to try. It is very strange to tell people to imagine words or music in color.

As a musician, you tend to treat other things like music.
What I ask you to do is a bit strange and experimental even for me:
whenever you create music, try to visualize colors  (round color circles of different size an location on a gray background) that go with the music (synesthesia).
Reds for majors, blues for minors, greens for augmented/diminishing.
There are ways to teach this formally, but I think you personally can handle this intuitively.
People who have this ability reported certain pieces like seeing the different shades of waves and games of light during the ocean sunset or a moon shining through clouds high in mountains on a warm June day.
I think you can find your own visual language. It is important to be consistent in visualization and add progressively finer details.

Being a good student, Otis  exceeded my expectations

I have noticed my imagination start to become more active like when I was a kid. Objects start coming to life in different ways whenever I have a little idle time.  I ended up using moving color vapor streams in my head. When I transitioned to a new chord quality, a new moving color came. Purple is minor-major and orange is dominant. I stuck to basic chords for now. If I can internalize this, it would be very useful in performance when I’m improvising or when I’m hearing a song.  How deeply did you want to go with this? Do you imagine a color spectrum? For example, different shades of red for different major keys or different shades as you add extensions?

Back to memory

For memory training, Otis really struggled with mindmaps. This is not surprising. Mindmaps work very well with engineers and programmers, while creative people prefer mental palaces. This is my immediate advice for most students:

Mental palaces are very rigorous.
a. Draw 5 houses ~5-10 rooms each. Your home, your parents home etc. You should be very intimate with the houses.
b. Within each house draw a constant itinerary, that should be as linear as possible, e.g. without returning, crossing and going through walls. You can basically encode staircases as yet another room to go through.
c. Within each room mark 4 corners, 4 walls, floor, and ceiling. Put your markers there. The idea is putting the PAO visualizations one each at 4 walls and 4 corners of each room in your mental palace. Do not compound them into a story – that’s a different technique.
d. As for markers, try imagining PAO e.g. a person performing an action with an object.  I do not use PAO for numbers, simply take random 3 words  and modify as a person performing an action on an object.

Once again the feedback was very interesting:

That’s awesome! I didn’t realize how much space I had. One thing I did differently this time around was actually sit down and draw it out. As part of my relaxed visualization, I walk through the route. I’m going to do this for dorms I live in for college and apartments. This helps make encoding things easier. Did the 20 random words generator and much easier with the maximized memory palace. I used the gym and noticed and direct correlation between spaces I’m very familiar with vs spaces I’m kind of familiar with. Attempt 1: 1min55sec/17 right, Attempt 2: 1min30sec/20 right

This is a very common issue: people try to learn as much theory as they can but forget to practice accordingly. It does not really matter if a course is 1 hour, 4 hours or 20 hours of video. What matters: how much of what you theoretically learn you really practice in your daily routine. Otis went beyond training into leaving the methodology, which is my ultimate goal as a mentor.

Future uncertain

When Otis started the course he stated his goals:

1-Read 1000 wpm with 80% retention by 8/19/19
2-Be able to read through and connect all of the sources I read for my masters thesis and have enough time to work on my final recital music
3-Be able to get ready for consulting interviews in September (sub goal: improve my numeracy, business acumen and ability to memorize, analyze and synthesize information). Have to get to a point where I can read fast enough to be able to read articles daily
4-(not a necessity but would be really cool): to be able to adapt what I learn to Jazz

We had to remove time and speed limitations. It is very hard to predict success in September vs December. Too many factors may interfere. And who cares if you read 1000wpm or 900wpm, as long as you triple your reading speed. Extra pressure reduces progress and increases the rate of adoption of poor techniques. Otis is progressing towards better productivity and a better understanding of music. I am certain that if he does not lose his way he will reach true mastery several years from now. And from my perspective, this is the thing that really matters.

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